A Niemoller Moment circa 2017 (First They Came)

First they came for athletes calling attention to police brutality and racism. I did not speak out.
Because I was never brutalized for being white.
Then they came for the dreamers, bi-lingual achievers, and immigrant families. I did not speak out.
Because I was handed the American dream.
Then they came for anyone who disagreed with their version of reality, religion, and life. I did not speak out.
Because I could not find something to Tweet.
Then one Sunday morning, they came for me.
The church was empty, the streets were bare,
And there was no one left to speak for me.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

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Richard’s Quick Guide to Mindful Prayer (An Exercise)

1. Find a comfortable, easy, or favorite place to sit.  It shouldn’t be so comfortable you’ll fall asleep.
2. Turn your phone off and place it beyond your reach.
3. Look around. Notice what you see going on around you.  Look for the nouns (people, places, and things) and the verbs (what are the nouns doing).
4. Close your eyes.
5. Take a deep breath and exhale. Do this slowly.
6. Count to five. (1 1000, 2 1000, 3 1000 and so on)
7. Do this two more times.
8. Your eyes are still closed.
9. To this point you’ve been focused on your breathing.
10. Your eyes are still closed. Do you hear what you saw a few moments ago?
11. What do you feel? (Pay close attention to the breeze, sunshine, and where you’re sitting.)
12. Is there one word, feeling, or emotion that keeps popping up in your mind? (Eyes still closed.)  What is this word or feeling?
13. If you could think of one word to describe what you’re feeling, at this moment, to tell God something, what would that word be?
14. Remember, you are still breathing nice, easy, and, slow.
15. After you’ve thought of your two words, (a word of description and a word of communication to God) say “Amen”. Suggested time for this exercise is 5-8 minutes.  When finished, stretch your legs and grab some water.

What Changed My Life

What changed my life?  How was my soul saved?  When did Christianity start to click? Here’s my story:  I wasn’t on drugs, broke, and homeless.  I didn’t stumble into an AA meeting.  Nor did I walk by a man holding a sign reading “Hellfire or Jesus” and feel compelled by my own fear of death to repent on a downtown sidewalk.  I’m not discounting dramatic conversions.  It wasn’t what I knew.  Dramatic conversions get more attention in church.  However, my experience tells me they are the minority.  It’s the gradual, under the radar, one step at a time, journeys toward a deeper faith, which are more common.

I attended church whenever the doors were open.  I joined the youth group.  In the most general way, these activities made sense.  I went on mission trips.  We visited to the homeless shelter to serve meals.  I played the piano in church.  All the Christian dots were in place yet none of them really connected.  That connection came later.  The weekly religious repetition bred familiarity.  In my case, the familiarity didn’t bring contempt.  If anything, I was bored.

The things we did were good.  We talked about issues that seemed holy and historic.  Yet nothing connected my faith to the wider world.  How was what I learned in church supposed to shape my life beyond the church?  I didn’t feel that link was made.  These stories Jesus told, what did they mean for Christians today?  I thought I understood the Good Samaritan story but there were countless other parables I didn’t grasp.  Even in the Samaritan story, there seemed to be more happening beneath the surface.  Then Jesus kept speaking about the “kingdom of God”, what was this kingdom?  The kingdom looked nothing at all like the world I knew or wanted to join.  Jesus’ vision of reality and my idea of right and wrong were not the same.  Here’s where the first test came.  Would I try to find a way to make Jesus’ teachings fit my conceptions of what I had been taught it meant to be a Christian?  Or, would I allow Jesus to reshape my understanding of what it means to be his disciple, from scratch?  If that meant I was called a Methodist or Marxist, I didn’t care.  I wanted, most importantly, to be an authentic follower of Jesus Christ.

To let Jesus work on me, I needed to meet Jesus again for the first time.  There is no better place to encounter Jesus than in his stories.  In scripture, these are the records of Jesus’ encounters with crowds both large and small.  In his parables, Jesus describes his ideal conception of reality.  He called it “the kingdom of God”.  The kingdom is here, embodied in Christ’s mission and ministry.  In another way, it’s still on the way, an unrealized expectation for the future.  Jesus’ stories describe, by way of parabolic illustration, what’s important to Jesus and how his priorities must become ours.  It’s in listening and then acting on what we hear that the kingdom of God becomes a three dimensional reality.

These stories aren’t Jesus’ suggestions for better living.  They are handbooks for a way forward.  For too long, I heard them preached (and saw people treat them) as morality tales.  “Oh wouldn’t be nice if we could all live this way,” I’d hear someone say after church.  “Too bad Jesus doesn’t live in the real world.”

Eventually I realized a couple of important ideas.  Jesus does live in the real world and his words carry weight and value.  Many of the United Methodists I knew were willing to write Jesus off as a Christian version Aesop but took parts of the Old Testament literally.  While Jesus could be easily ignored, they were willing to consider Moses’ word as law.  I saw an even greater disconnect between how the church sees Jesus, God, the role of scripture, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

There’s one parable running perpendicular across the grain of American society.  This story, Matthew 20:1-6, stands in stark opposition to the Protestant work ethic, free market economics, Capitalism, and good old fashioned American ideas about hard work.   If we’re not uncomfortable with the telling of this story, we’re not listening.  It makes me squirm and I credit it with bringing me to salvation.  Jesus is reordering the world and redefining our sense of fairness.  Equality will no longer be measured by the terms we’ve grown accustomed.

This is the parable that saved my soul.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who wanted to hire some help for the day.  So early in the morning, he went to that spot, you know the one, where everybody who wants to be a day laborer hangs out, and picks up some guys.  He says, “I’ll pay one denarii for working in my vineyard for the day.”  They agree.  Into the vineyard they go.

A few hours later, he goes back to the market place and sees more people who need work.  He offers them an opportunity to go into the vineyard but doesn’t agree on a price.  He only says, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.”

The vineyard owner does this two more times.  At lunch and then around mid-afternoon, he goes back into town and hires more workers for the vineyard.  Each time, they agree to go into the vineyard.  On these subsequent occasions a wage is never discussed.  The landowner only questions the men as to why they were never hired earlier in the day.  “Nobody hired us,” they say.  These men were unemployed or unemployable.  This landowner hires everybody.  In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is sending a powerful message about full employment.

When the end of the day came, he called his foreman to pay the workers.  He began with the last ones hired.  Those who showed up at five received one denarii.  The same thing happened with the people who came at three, twelve, and nine.  The morning crowd was certain they’d be paid more since they worked all day.  It didn’t happen.  Everyone was paid one denarii.  The guys who’d worked since dawn were angry.  How could he do this?   Didn’t he know they’d worked in the hot sun all day and the guys who came last did nothing?  What was this, some kind of socialist plot?  You can’t pay everyone the same thing.  Where’s your motivation for getting ahead, incentives, and advancement?

I realized something:  Jesus doesn’t have the same bottom line as Wal-Mart, Walt Disney, or the United States of America.  His priorities are rooted in meeting long term needs.  Short term visions of equality are not consistent with God’s vision of fairness.

The landowner explains, “I paid you what I agreed.  It’s my call to pay what I like and to whom.”   In Jesus’ kingdom, as the landowner explains, the least and last are as important as the first and those guaranteed to be well-paid.

If you didn’t know Jesus said these things, removed this story from the Bible, and heard an aggrieved worker call a radio talk show with this story, what would the response be? The decline of America, socialism infecting small town America, and the workers would probably be immigrants taking American jobs.  You know I’m right.

This is why this story saved my soul.  This parable is everything Jesus wants us to be and still we refuse to listen.  Jesus is hiding in plain sight.  He’s telling this parable right now.  My thoughts about healthcare and immigration are viewed through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not because I read Leviticus 19 nor had a great mission trip experience as a young adult.  My salvation became real when I read Matthew 20:1-16.  Jesus talked about life as it is lived.  I began to take Jesus seriously, at face value, and at his word.  I think Jesus cares about economics and our souls.  This parable proves it. Jesus meddles in politics and religion in ways that many Americans would despise.  I think that’s great.  We’ve taken him for granted for far too long.  He’s not our American Idol.  He’s our Savior.  There is a difference we’d do well to remember.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

A Prayer As We Boarded the Hand-basket

For this hand-basket we’ve boarded between the Mexican Earthquake and Hurricane Maria, we give thanks;

Let us pray:

Yesterday’s earthquake in Mexico was really bad. I understand it was on the anniversary of another large earthquake back in 1985. What’s with the symbolism? I’m not one to be easily spooked but that unnerved me. Did you see the elementary school that collapsed in Mexico City? Of course you did, you’re God. Twenty-five children were crushed to death. Puerto Rico is being battered by a hurricane, people are certain to die there. Who knows where Maria will go next? In the midst of so many hurricanes that I’ve lost count, twenty-five innocent children died in one of the most horrific means imaginable. Where are you God?

You are in the lives of the first responders, those digging through rubble, and others seeking to offer assistance. That’s the official line.  However, at this point, I’m no longer certain.  Are you (God) present or are the rescuers trying to clean up the mess you’ve allowed to be made? Are they instruments of your grace and mercy or are they responding to a world where God is absent, death is on the march, and we’ve been left to care for each other (because we’re all we’ve got)?  Given what the world’s been through in the past few months, I think those are fair questions.

It’s hard to keep saying, “God has a plan and God is good” when the bodies start piling up. You and I have a credibility issue. The good stuff attributed to you looks random at best and like playing favorites at worst. The bad stuff, which is vast and horrific, seems capricious and mean.  You may not intend it that way, but that’s how it feels.

My congregation asks: Why is God doing this?  Like it or not, for good or bad, people of faith see you involved in the world.  They also want to know why evil and suffering exist; especially if God is so good.  They’re not looking to blame homosexuality, crime, Trump, Clinton, or drug addiction on a natural disaster.  Instead, they want to make sense of their faith and the complex world around them.

Your people, the church, those who keep this thing running are exhausted. Their hope is faltering, their lives are in peril, and all we can do is respond.  At this rate, our response isn’t what it once was.  Miracles, grand, sweeping, proactive acts of God used to be your thing.  What happened?  Were those just stories?  I hope not.  Because the body count is already way too high.

Amen

Richard Lowell Bryant

10 Interesting Observations About the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

1. In the year we remember the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the great schism that gave birth to our vision of Christianity, some United Methodists are fighting tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.

2.  As children of the reformation, our reluctance to consider schism (regardless of your theological perspective), seems disingenuous.   Our ancestry.com results are conclusive: we are schismatics.

3. Protestantism is the product of painful division. It’s who we are. We’re not above it, too good for it, or beyond it.  It’s in our DNA.

4. Perhaps, every 500 to 1000 years, it’s time for Reformation. It’s happened before.  It will happen again.  Why should history stop with our own generation? No one now believes Francis Fukyama was correct with the grand pronoucements about the “End of History” following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Why is the church immune from what’s happening to the rest of society?  It’s not.  To believe any different is the height of arrogance.  Instead of saving us, it may mark our downfall.

5. United Methodists are as related to Martin Luther as to John Wesley. Both men were schismatic revolutionaries. Wesley’s writings, while calling for unity, led to the greatest rupture in the Church of England since the English Civil War. Words are one thing; actions are another. You can’t call for unity in print and do everything in practice to start a new movement.

6. Reformation is great; as long as you’re reading about it in church history books. (Or a tourist in Wittenberg or Oxford.)

7. When Reformation becomes a real possibility and sources of ecclesiastical power are threatened, you’d be surprised the lengths the church will go to shut down debate, name so-called heretics, and reclaim its authority.

8. Reformation is not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s a holistic call for systemic denominational change.

9. Neither Martin Luther nor John Wesley sought centrism within Catholicism or Anglicanism. They created their own path.  Europe’s not 100% Roman Catholic.  Methodism is alive in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  Had either man been a centrist, I’d be an Anglican, America would still be British, and Angela Merkel would still be a Communist Chemist in a formerly Catholic country.

10. #Reformation

The Most Difficult Thing In The World (Matthew 18:21-35)

What is the most difficult thing in the world ?  I can think of lots of difficult tasks.  It’s probably pretty difficult to move a comfortable rhinoceros.  Ranking somewhere near the top of “the world’s most difficult things to do” must be forgiveness.

From the dawn of time, forgiveness has been hard for humanity.  Technology hasn’t made forgiveness any easier.  The ability to live longer by conquering disease hasn’t made forgiveness easier to offer or simpler to receive.  Forgiveness is just as hard today as it was when the disciples posed their question to Jesus two thousand years ago. If we’re  hurt, we don’t like to forgive.  If we’ve been hurt, forgiveness is tough to accept.

When it comes to forgiveness, we’re in the same spot as the disciples.  We want to know; how does it work?  When do we know it’s actually taken hold?  When will we feel it?  Will we see the effects in the other person and in ourselves?

This is what Peter’s asking Jesus.  It is what we’re asking Jesus.  When Peter says to Jesus, “Tell me about forgiveness”, I want you to hear your own name.  I’m going to read the 21st verse again.  It says, “Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?  Should I forgive as many as seven times?”  Where Peter’s name is, I’m going to pause and say my name.  I want you to say your name.  We’re all going to talk over each other.  That’s ok.  It will be a Pentecost moment.  Then I’ll finish reading the verse again.  Let’s do it together.  We need to realize:  Jesus is talking to us.

Forgiveness isn’t an ethical conundrum to be explained in flow charts and Venn diagrams.  Forgiveness isn’t a tactic; it is a response to God’s love.  Jesus doesn’t tell us about forgiveness.  Instead, he shows us forgiveness in action.  Forgiveness is best seen and lived, not observed and studied.  Through the art form of the parable, Jesus paints a picture of God at work through acts of forgiveness.  And this is an important point to remember.  As people of faith, we believe forgiveness isn’t an isolated action or event.  Forgiveness begins and ends in God.  Forgiveness (regardless of the side your on) isn’t something we do or receive.  Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to receive the gift of forgiveness and at the right time, we can pass it on.

Parables are not hierarchical lessons about right and wrong.  They are the nitty gritty of life.  You know the stuff you talk about when you get home from work or when you’re sitting around the house; that’s the meat of a Jesus story.

The kingdom of heaven is here, now, coming, and yet to be.  It’s Jesus’ ideal vision for the world.  This story will tell us how forgiveness works in Jesus’ world.

A powerful man wanted to settle up with his employees.  Everyone in the sound of Jesus’ voice had an image in their mind.  Whether it’s a fairytale image of a king in a far off castle (that’s what I picture) or probably King Herod or Caesar (what they pictured), they knew a rich guy who wanted to cash out.

One of the employees (let’s say a sharecropper situation) owed the landowner ten thousand bags of gold.  He was short on the cash.  He didn’t have it.  Jesus doesn’t tell us how much he was short but as you know, when the mortgage is due, they want all of it.  The king calls in all of the servant’s collateral.  This would have been common in that day and time.  His wife and children will be sold into slavery (remember Gladiator) as well as everything else he owned.  At the last minute, the man who owed 10,000 bags of gold begs with the powerful man.  I can pay you back.  I’ll do an installment plan, he says.  He asks only for patience.  This ruler, whoever he is, is moved.  He has compassion on the servant.  The man is released and the loan is forgiven.  So is the kingdom of heaven like a king running a business?  Is it like a man with loans?  Or is it like compassion granted when it is honestly undeserved?  I’m thinking Jesus wants us to latch on to the latter.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky.  You need to pay close attention.  The story evolves quickly.  Jesus is going to show us why forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness never stops with you.  Once you’ve gotten it, you have it forever.  You’re now responsible for sharing the gift you received.  Here’s the irony: you never take full ownership of the forgiveness.  It’s a gift to you, from God, and should shape how you view reality, forever.  Forgiveness is in your possession so it can be given away.

The guy whose massive debt was just forgiven runs into a colleague.  It’s another servant he knows from the area.  This other servant, the new guy, owes the just forgiven servant 100 gold coins.  The just forgiven servant (Mr. Big Debt Guy) loses his temper.  In an instant, he grabs the man who owes him 100 coins by the collar and demands to be paid what he’s owed.  That’s crazy right?

Guess what he does?  Mr. Big Shot, who was just freed from 10,000 bags of gold worth of debt and his wife and children into slavery, throws this guy into jail over 100 coins. He has no patience or compassion.  Big Shot has no time for a payment plan.  He wants his money and he wants it now!

You know what happens next.  The other servants saw this happen.  They knew this wasn’t right.  How could a man who was the recipient of such grace and forgiveness turn around and be so brutal to someone else for such a small amount of money?  Talk about double standards!

Here we see an important point.  Life may not be fair but Jesus is telling us something about the kingdom of God:  it’s based in a fundamental idea of fairness.  Jesus likes fairness.  God likes fairness and people treating each other kindly.  The kingdom of God is a place shaped by fairness; not gross injustice and inhumanity.  Jesus is painfully aware that many of the people listening to him have been thrown into jail and live in cycles of debt slavery to land owners and money lenders.  God’s vision is different from the reality they know.  This is one of the ideas that make Christianity unique.  God came to change the present, not the distant future.

So the colleagues and coworkers go back to the king.  They tell him the whole story.  You won’t believe what Mr. Big Shot did.  He believed it.

Big Shot was sent for and called before the King.  The King asked the question we are asking:  How can you not show mercy and forgiveness to your servant for a small amount of money when I showed you overwhelming forgiveness for such a great debt?  Mr. Big Shot couldn’t answer the question.  He was handed over to the guards and forced to pay his entire debt.  Wouldn’t it have been easier to be nicer to the people around you?  For Mr. Big Shot, forgiveness should have been the easiest thing in the world to do.  I wonder if that thought crossed his mind as they led him away.  I doubt it.

That’s where the story ends.  Jesus, in a moment of parabolic clarity, hammers the point home:  “My heavenly father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister in your heart.”

There’s no splitting hairs on this one.  Forgiveness is a priority with Jesus.  Jesus didn’t have opinions on many of the hot button religious (and culture war) subjects of our day.  You won’t find them in the Bible.  Jesus never talked about gay marriage, abortion, or illegal immigration.   He did, however, come down, pretty definitively on the side of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a gift from God that helps us understand what’s in the Bible and make sense of a confusing world.  It is a blessing we are obligated to use.  Forgiveness, this parable teaches us, is not a choice, an option, or a good idea.  It’s Jesus’ standard operating procedure.  In the kingdom of God, forgiveness is a fact of life.  Forgiveness is only difficult if we are too blind to see ourselves as recipients of Grace and too possessive of blessings that were never ours in the first place.

Richard Lowell Bryant

There Was Violence On Both Sides (Exodus 14:19-31)

Those Egyptians; they were a great, tremendous, and huge civilization.  If all I knew about the Egyptians was from the many documentaries I’ve watched on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and PBS; I’d know quite a bit.  The Egyptians were an inventive people.  They were infrastructure builders on a scale so grand some refuse to believe they did it without help from above.  “It must be aliens,” conspiracy theorists argue.  It wasn’t extraterrestrials.  The Egyptians were master builders, planners, and architects.  They governed large areas of North Africa in an empire when Europe couldn’t find the Bronze Age on a map.  Economically, they were tied in trade with countries and people all over the Mediterranean Sea.  They exported their wealth and brought prosperity to their neighbors.

Their armies, equipped with modern chariots, were nearly invincible on the battlefield.  Grain grew in the Nile deltas and the vast deserts turned green.  The land yielded crops to feed Pharaoh’s people    Out of this cauldron of intellectual fervor and creative ferment, the Egyptians developed a complex series of religious beliefs to understand the world they inhabited and the world yet to come.  A pantheon of gods came to be worshipped.  Priests served these gods in grand temples.  The sun god, Ra, reigned supreme.  The Pharaoh came to be viewed as a living God who dwelt among his people. Out of the need to worship and the desire to tell the stories of their god’s interactions with each other, written forms of human communication evolved.  Culture, writing, and storytelling; they took hold and grew from these early Egyptian endeavors.  You might say the Egyptians were a civilization, the likes of which, the world had never seen before.  Some could argue, the Egyptians were a great and good people who believed, based on their success, their gods had blessed them.  If we were to examine the evidence at hand, they look like “the” success story of the ancient world.  Were we to start to nitpicking their achievements, where would it end; with the pyramids in ruins?

There is another side to the Egyptian story.  It is a story of untold brutality and human suffering on a scale that it nearly impossible for us to imagine.  For every amazing achievement, grand pyramid, and epic tomb; there unknown Hebrew slaves who paid with their lives.  For every harvest that fed an Egyptian, there was famine in an Israelite home.  For every new life brought into an Egyptian house, there was death delivered to an Israelite home.  There is another side to the story.  There are not good people on both sides of this debate.  One side commits genocide.  This side (while the Egyptian people watch) carries out a holocaust.  The other side, they keep on dying.

Someone stands up and says, “But wait, wasn’t there violence on both sides?”  “Wasn’t there this Israelite who was raised as an Egyptian prince?  He was having an identity crisis and goes down to see these slaves, who he thinks he’s related to and sees an Egyptian guard whipping some other Israelite.  Didn’t he get so angry that he beats the real Egyptian to death?  Isn’t this proof of violence on both sides?”  How can I condemn the Egyptians when Moses committed murder?

The Egyptian genocide of the Israelite slaves and Moses’ murder of an Egyptian soldier are not the same.  There’s no moral equivalency between the Egyptians and anyone. Yes, Moses killed someone.  Yes, there was violence on both sides.  However, know this: the Egyptians are wrong.  They will never be right.  They are not good people.  They never will be.

For Moses, killing an Egyptian wasn’t a tactic, it was a response.  It wasn’t the proper response and Moses knew it.  The Egyptians used murder, torture, and beatings as a matter of course.  Moses realized, from that moment forward, liberation from exile meant this:  God’s people don’t stoop to the level of those who kept you in bondage.  Those words keep coming back again and again in the Torah.

In Exodus, justice is left to God.  Thankfully, we don’t get to decide who lives and dies.  Moses works for unity among God’s people.  Moses carries God’s message.  Moses does as God originally promised; he speaks the words God gives him.

The unfinished business between Pharaoh and the Israelites is settled by the Red Sea.  Moses does not part the waters.  You’ve seen the movie; it looks like Moses has the power.  He doesn’t.   The miracle of salvation (the Israelites were saved that day) is not something Moses or any single individual accomplishes alone.  There’s always another side to the story; except for the Egyptians. They were really bad dudes.

Richard Lowell Bryant