Manufactured Belief

There are some arguments that aren’t worth having.  I’m not going to argue with the devil about racism or the appropriate way to protest racism.  Especially now, since the devil has outsourced his own brand of evil to bots and trolls working in Saint Petersburg.  I’m not going to shout down a white supremacist because well funded Russians with an excellent command of English and knowledge of American politics bought enough Facebook ads to anger both liberals and conservatives.  To tell you the truth, I’d prefer not to talk about God with anyone who claims to know God personally.  Anyone who claims to know the intent of the founders when writing the second amendment isn’t someone I want to debate.  In this moment, when America is swimming in fear, bathing in righteous indignation, and distracted by every new Tweet; I’d like to stop talking to everyone.  I don’t know who pushed your buttons.  You don’t know who pushed your buttons.  Even more, you don’t know who flipped their switches before they pushed your buttons.

Your anger, while seemingly well founded to you, was probably manufactured in Moscow.  Why is this so hard to believe?  While it’s not the Manchurian Candidate by any means, there are a group of ill intentioned individuals exploiting vulnerabilities in our broken democracy.  Maybe it’s just a writer whose idea was sent on a whim and the story was picked up in a Facebook news feed.  Once it’s in the feed, the soulless algorithms running the platforms that shape what we see then trigger our basest emotions.  The vicious cycle of wash, rinse, and repeat continues.  Our knowledge, the weak hold we possess on reality is nothing more than someone else’s ideas that we’ve been led to believe are ultimately our own.  If we are angry, it is because we have rightly been offended.   This has been the working assumption in a bipolar America.  This is not the case.

We have been told to be angry, hurt, and disrespected.  If you are not angry, other aspects of your identity as an American are suspect.  These are the orders American’s receive 140 (or 280) characters at a time or in various ads and posts.  When it happens enough, you start to believe the lies you’re being told, even the lies you know are false.  We’re all someone’s puppet if we allow the strings to be pulled or the buttons to be pushed.    As the subjects of constant noise, distraction, interference, and emotional manipulation; it is hard for many of us to determine what we believe apart from what we are told we must believe.

Where does the church fit in?  The clergy and the church have a history (and a present) of telling people what to believe.  Each week, we recite a statement of faith, the Apostles’ Creed.  This is a statement of belief.  In other ways, we tell our congregations what they must believe in to be considered an orthodox, Bible believing, Jesus-loving Christian.  Some would say that’s part of the job.  I want to relinquish this part of my job.  I no longer want to tell people what they must believe.  I don’t want to serve a congregation full of puppets who respond to the emotional strings I pull or buttons I push.  I want to cut the cord.

It’s always scared me to claim to speak on behalf of God or claim that God gave me a message.   I’m not afraid of many things, but that level of presumption frightens me.  So I ask:  Is it possible, in worship or through the Eucharist, to clear out the clutter and let the church listen to a God who’s not telling us what to believe but how to experience the kingdom?  For this to happen, we have to get out of God’s way, stop pretending we have  all of the answers, and start reminding each other of how good it is to be loved.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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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

Unpopular Opinion: Is This How Civilization Collapses?

Between our power outage on the Outer Banks and Hurricane Harvey I’ve been thinking:  How is civilization going to end?  I don’t mean, “How is the world going to end?”  A pandemic or asteroid will answer that question.  My query is more along the line of Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.  How is American Civilization (and Western civilization for that matter) going to collapse?

We saw some civilizational collapse during Hurricane Katrina and we’re seeing it on larger scale with Hurricane Harvey (simply due to the size of the storm).  A window to the future has opened and we’ve received a snapshot of what has yet to be.  This is what it will look like.  Perhaps, this is what it is.  Maybe it’s not a dystopian glimmer of what’s coming.  Is it what it appears to be, the present?

I believe we’ve reached a point of no return.  And from this precipice, no single factor is going to push us over the edge.  The uneven distribution of wealth in society, the environment, and competition for natural resources (just to name a few) are all working together to do us in.  Like ancient Rome, our empire is stretched too thin while fighting unwinnable guerrilla wars in places Alexander the Great couldn’t hold.

The economic stratification in America and throughout Western Europe is unsustainable.  Concentrated wealth in a small percentage of individuals and corporations will eventually lead to more of the present:  unaffordable lives.  Rents will be too high to pay, illnesses unable to be treated, food to expensive to be bought, and children to expensive to be raised.   Work will not be done because no one will be able to afford the basic necessities of life to do any work.

The resources allocated to the poor are not enough to maintain the basic underpinnings of the economy.  Given the impact of a massive economic and environmental disaster, civilization could collapse quickly; especially when the military we depend on to maintain law and order is fighting terrorists in Pakistan, not filtering water or flying missions in Houston.  At some point the legions of volunteers will return to work in their own communities, for their own economic well-being.  In a nation drowning in debt, addicted to a sixteen year war in Afghanistan, and afraid to address health care reform; how are we not on the verge of societal collapse?  The answer to that question is usually, “because neighbors still help neighbors”.  When the food runs low and the guns are drawn, the line between looting and scavenging disappears.  It’s good to see people helping people.  It’s also hard to argue with the math when you can’t pay the bills.

As recovery efforts begins, we are about to witness competition for limited environmental and economic resources.  Land will be inhabitable.  Jobs will be scarce.  Some people will never go back to the homes they once knew.  Refugee populations will be resettled across America.  Germany knows what this is like.  Bosnia’s experienced this. America’s new to the internally displaced people game.

Nothing will ever be the same again.  More hundred year storms will come next year and the following year.  The military guarding our streets will become a permanent fixture in American society.  Let’s pray there’s not another housing crisis akin to the one in 2008.

The death spiral which ended with Rome’s collapse at the hands of the Visigoths didn’t begin in 410 AD.  It was a long, slow ride.  The questions for me are this:  Where are we on our ride?  How much longer?  Is it me, or is it getting faster?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Yes, In World War II Documentaries They Keep Covering the Holocaust

Yesterday,  my wife was at her job in the local public library.  Someone returned a multi-volume DVD set about the history of World War II.  Called “The World at War”, it’s a seminal work in documentary film-making.  The twenty-six episode series looks a bit dated now but it is still one of the best I’ve ever seen.  Recorded in the late 1960’s and early 70’s (when many of the participants were still relatively young men), it was first broadcast in 1973-74 on ITV in the United Kingdom. The narrator was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier.  They interviewed everyone they could find from top to bottom.  From the grunts in the trenches to the scientists who made the first Atomic bombs.  As war documentaries go, it’s the gold standard.  Germans, Japanese, Americans, and Holocaust survivors talked for hours.

The guy who returned it didn’t like it.  Here’s how she recounted the conversation.  She shared this because it was a little unnerving.

He said, “It won’t no good”.  “It won’t about WW2, it was all about Jews! Every other scene they would come back to the Jews!”  It’s as this point he saw the look of horror on her face.  “Now, I have empathy for them but that wasn’t all it was about!”  If you were in Auschwitz or Buchenwald, that was certainly what it was all about.

Jewish communities all over Europe, in the east and the west, were destroyed.  Yes, all encompassing war documentaries do return time and time again to the death of six million Jews in the death camps of Europe.  We were taught in homiletics that every sermon we preach is, in one way or another, delivered in the shadow of Auschwitz.   How is it possible to preach the goodness of God in the face of such horrific evil?  The Holocaust is hard to avoid.

Why do people fear the rise of fascism in America? It is because ordinary people appear so cavalier about the greatest evil in the 20th century.  It happened too easily in a place no one ever predicted; where everyone believed they had empathy for one another.  We have reason to be concerned.  Right now, despite what you’re seeing in Texas, American empathy is in short supply.   Would neighbors love neighbors without a Category 4 hurricane?  That’s the test of Christian love.

I’ve walked through death camps.  I’ve stood in the place where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed.  I’ve been to the Holocaust Museums in Jerusalem and Washington.  We cannot say these two words enough:  never again.  We must never forget.

Now, it’s my job to reach out to this man and invite him to church.  I’d like to introduce him to the Rabbi I keep coming back to week after week.  His name is Jesus and I love him.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Rev Richard on the Relationship Between Science and Religion

1. I believe there’s no contradiction between Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. I love them both.  Blessed are the peacemakers who see creation as evolving.

2. Cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers are unable to identify dark matter. It’s there, it’s doing something. They know it’s there.  But they’re also prepared to be proven wrong because so much of the research on dark matter is built on algorithms and conjecture. Theologians know grace is out there. We know grace is active. We proclaim the reality of grace.   However, our best definitions of grace are limited by the brain’s ability to comprehend the idea we’ve defined as “God”. How prepared to be proven  wrong are we about some of our long held assumptions?  Are we that different?

3. Genesis isn’t a science textbook. Jurassic Park isn’t a documentary.

4. An intelligent designer would have excluded hurricanes. Seriously.

5. No matter how hard I pray, the island where I live will eventually be reclaimed by sea level rise. My church will be underwater. Perhaps it’s time to listen to science.

Jacob Wrestles With Himself (Genesis 32:22-31)

THEY CALL THIS A CHILDREN’S BULLETIN! THIS IS CRAZY…

But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 

I’m tired of fighting God.

The past week was a struggle.   We’ve either been without power or on island wide generators.  The electrical line that powers most of North Carolina’s Outer Banks was severed in a construction accident late last week.  Since that time, our islands were evacuated.  Local restaurants and hotels have lost thousands of dollars.  Other industries and businesses connected to the life on the islands (mechanics, grocery stores, and veterinarians) have all suffered as well.  Neighbors are fighting with neighbors about who really counts as a resident.  Life has been one big fight.  Whether a fight for power, air conditioning, a working cell phone, a plan to compensate workers, food, ice, or countless other items; we are wrestling with reality.

Along comes Jacob.  Jacob the Patriarch of Israel is making the final stages of his journey home.  Our struggle has been nothing compared to Jacob’s.  I feel for him.  After crossing the river with his wives and servants; he is ambushed.  In the text, that is how quickly this struggle begins.  There is no segue, setup, or transition.  This wrestling match comes out of the blue.  He helps his family across.  Jacob stays apart.  The fight begins.  There is no warning or preparation.  God jumps Jacob.

Are you ready for a moment of total honest?  I’m tired of fighting.  I’m worn out.  I certainly don’t want to fight with God.  I don’t know about you but God is the last person I want to wrestle with after the week I’ve had.  Why do we need to fight with God in the first place?   I’m tired of fighting.  Above all, I do not want to fight with the God.

We fight.  We jump people in the dark.  Humanity sinks to the lowest common denominator; just look at our Facebook pages.  God’s supposed to bigger than our petty foibles.  Surely God, in this of all weeks, you can understand our frustration and fatigue with fighting.  Today’s not the day for an all night wrestling match.

As I mentioned earlier, Jacob’s in no mood to struggle.  That’s why he fights back.  He’s hungry, tired, and ready to get home.  Jacob doesn’t have time to stop.  He needs a moment (this is why he steps away, goes apart) for his own piece of mind.  This anonymous wrestler invades his ability to seek a moment of isolation while still moving forward.

If anyone, be they man or God, tries to inhibit his progress; he will treat them as an obstacle.  Whoever this is that’s stopping him is delaying his eventual goal:  reconciling with Esau.

Jacob must have been one hell of a wrestler.  To hold his own (against God) was an amazing accomplishment.  Remember, Jacob didn’t know the identity of this assailant.  I wonder if God was taking it easy on Jacob or was in truly no holds barred.  Was God playing by some heavenly WWE rules?

It turns out God wasn’t playing by any rules.  This is probably the most disturbing aspect of this story.  God cheats.  God can’t beat Jacob outright.  So God cheats.  I’ve never liked or been comfortable with this aspect of Jacob’s encounter.  After the ten days I’ve had, I’m even less thrilled with the notion of God whose sense of fair play seems to be well out of bounds.  I know that opens up a can of worms.  Does God have to play fair, especially by our standards of fairness?  But where do our ideas of fairness originate?

Traditionally, these notions of right and wrong are traced through ethics and philosophy back to theology and the Judeo-Christian tradition; that is to say, Almighty God.  What happens when God violates God’s own rules of fairness?

Here’s what I mean, “When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him.”  Again, the man (who was God) could not beat Jacob outright.  So he cheats by tearing a muscle in Jacob’s thigh.  What would we say if that happened in anyone of our middle or high school sporting events?  It wouldn’t be good.  At the least, the athlete would be disqualified.  We’re holding high school athletes to a higher standard of sportsmanship than God.  Something isn’t right here.  It’s not fair.  God cheats when God cannot win. God injures Jacob through his cheating.  God sets out the terms of morality and alters them in such a strange and capricious manner.  It seems like such a useless struggle and burden to lay on an already wounded soul.

Honestly, it’s hard to answer questions about some of these familiar Old Testament stories because there are no good answers.  Sadly, the picture of God painted in Jacob’s story is a well-known image to many Christians and non-believers alike.  Through our thoughtless actions, compromised theology, and aggressive evangelism techniques; the world has come to see God as a shadowy figure who ambushes, attacks, and harms people for no good reason.  God is the middle school bully who takes your lunch money and demands respect.  There is no love in Genesis 32:22-31.  The absence of love is palpable.  If God isn’t love, God isn’t God.

This is why Jacob isn’t wrestling with God.  We can’t read this story literally.  Despite the writer’s allusions to the attacker’s divine identity, Jacob isn’t wrestling God.  Who then, was Jacob wrestling with, especially if we’re taking this parable at face value?  This is a story about a man at war with his own reality.  It is, in some ways, what has to happen, before we go any further.  Jacob must fight himself.  He is his own worst enemy.

It seems so real.  This appears to be God.  It is not; it the darker version of himself.  The deeper truth of this scripture is about what happens when we meet the worst reflection of our own subconscious. We want this attacker to be God.  Why?  We need someone to blame for the death, delays, and poor decisions accumulating around us.  Who better to blame than an aggressive supernatural deity who exhibits the worst aspects of our own personality?   God has always made a convenient scapegoat for our own moral shortcomings.  If it goes wrong, it must be God’s fault-that’s the easy excuse of the part time agnostic.

Jacob is led by God to confront the realities caused by the rupture in his family after he cheated Esau of his birthright.  The deep truth of God’s involvement with Jacob (and his family) is reconciliation, renewal, and restoration.  Every part of this story has moved the reader (and Jacob) in this direction.  If what you’re reading isn’t part of the forward movement of those three aspects (reconciliation, renewal, and restoration) it’s not God driving the action.  Reality will seem real but it’s not.  We have to learn to tell the difference.  When the focus of the story changes; the meaning of the story does as well.  If Jacob isn’t fighting God, if he’s fighting himself; why would the writer of Genesis want to confuse us about God’s motivations when it comes to wrestling with Jacob? For that very reason:  Jacob’s motivations aren’t God’s, they’re Jacob’s.  Jacob doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Is he after revenge, restitution, forgiveness, or is this a suicide mission?  Does he believe and even hope Esau will kill him and take this lifelong burden from his soul?  If that’s what he believes and there’s plenty of evidence of Jacob’s death wish; that makes him a garden variety nihilist. He believes in nothing beyond himself; certainly not his wives, family, or anything else he’s worked so hard to achieve.  Jacob’s wound is self-inflicted.  It’s an attempt to do what he hopes Esau will finish.

God is there, in the background, giving Jacob the space to work it out.   God isn’t wrestling with Jacob.  God is in the empty space, the void in between the stones.  It’s in that space, an area shaped by God, where we gather this morning.  We are like Jacob, working out our own lives.  Esau’s various shapes, fashions, and forms are out there waiting for our arrival.  Our alienated lives precede us.  The Good News is this:  Grace is ahead of the brokenness.  God is in our story; driving it forward with reconciliation and love past what we deserve towards an embrace we can yet imagine.  We wrestle.  God guides.  Know the difference.