When Humanity Becomes Human

 

On this day after,
We are rightly amazed,
When humanity becomes human,
Random kindness by strangers,
Simple acts of courtesy displayed,
These are not what anyone might do,
But grand deeds of bravery,
Shocking, surprising, astounding,
Utterly beyond our belief,
People standing together,
Against the bigots for all to see,
Surely this is how we are… normally?
Or are we kind of kind,
Only when innocent children die,
Morality appears to survive,
When it seems,
random people offer tea,
Does terror no longer thrive,
When our phones are charged,
And Instagram knows were alive?
Keep calm and carry on being human.
For this we need no special reward,
Though I offer my prayers,
For my faith in ordinary decency,
Is somewhat restored.

–Richard Bryant

We Are So Lucky God Isn’t Fair

I confess.  I am guilty of expecting, wanting, and demanding fairness from God.  I’m lucky I’ve never received it.  A fair God would not be as willing to tolerate some of the things I say and do.  Fairness, when meted out from above, would lead to a capricious sense of unease among those who worshiped such a God.  As much as I want God to be fair; fairness scares me to death.

Fairness is a human construct.  The late political philosopher and theorist John Rawls taught that all members of a society should believe their society is fair.  Fairness is a collective, created belief we hold in common.  Fairness is the basis of our understanding of justice.  Despite the rampant inequalities which lead to injustices, our ideas of fairness should eventually move us toward justice.  For Rawls, justice is fairness, a practical model in which utilitarian principles could be employed to society’s benefit.

Here’s where things get dangerous.  Christians begin using artificial constructions (like Rawls’ notion of fairness) and apply these same criteria to God.  We impose our idea of fairness onto our belief in God.  In the quest to create fair societies, laws, and cultures; we have added God to the list of things which must be deemed “just” and “fair”.   When God becomes one more subject of which fairness is to be demanded, we create a new God.  The new, “fair” God is malicious and erratic.  “Fairness” from this God means a heavenly justification of suffering, a divine imprimatur on every act of cruelty, and explaining every exploitative act as a “fair” blessing.   Does this God look familiar to anyone?

What we see as a desire for “fairness” from God is an ambition to create a “fair” God is our own image.  We want a God that is as arbitrary, inhumane, and as fundamentally flawed as ourselves.  God isn’t fickle, volatile, and unfair; we are.  The fairness we believe God lacks is the unfairness we refuse to recognize in ourselves.

God’s love is not a utilitarian idea.  When looking at the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Grace, the ultimate free gift, excludes no one.  Utilitarian principles always leave someone out; you help lots of people, but not everyone.  Grace isn’t fair.  There will be an unfair perspective or an aggrieved party.   It wasn’t fair that Jesus died.  God’s idea of fairness isn’t like our own.   I’m not saying, “God’s plans are unknowable” or “God’s ways are mysterious”.  No, I’m saying God isn’t fair.  We don’t want God to be fair.  We couldn’t live with that level of fairness.

Among the Tombs

There are over eighty cemeteries on this small island.  On a strip of land fourteen miles long and two miles wide, we are surrounded by the dead.  These ever present reminders of our mortality come into sharper focus in the days leading up to and during Holy Week.  Resurrection isn’t just a theory on Ocracoke, it better be the plan.  Children run past the graves on their way to school, parents work opposite graveyards, and we live with the dead in our back yards.  Sunday morning, (to paraphrase Tony Campolo) in one form or another, can’t arrive fast enough.

I spent part of the morning with a woman from the congregation whose husband died last week.  His funeral will be on Good Friday.  As I prepared to leave, I looked out from her spacious, screened in back porch to the cemetery in her back garden.  There were well over a dozen graves.

“Agnes, I didn’t realize you had that many graves here,” I said.

“Yes,” she replied. “There are more tombs behind the weeds than you realize.”

Tombs, she said tombs.  An old word, a Jesus word.  Hers, not mine.  There were tombs I couldn’t see.  It was here, among the unseen tombs, she would scatter her husband’s ashes.

A tomb. Jesus was laid in an unknown, unseen, tomb.   What was I just saying about resurrection not being a theory but a plan?  I’m still hung up on the word tomb.  God is at work in the tombs.  Sure, the angel says, “he’s not here”.  But what if you’re a people who dwell among tombs, like the United Methodists of Ocracoke?  Isn’t Jesus here somewhere?

On that morning, I want to go to the right empty tomb.  I do not want to encounter someone pretending to be Jesus.  As Agnes said, there are more tombs behind the weeds than we realize.  In grief, it is easy to get lost.  When we grieve the loss of loved ones, a culture, or the way we believe “things ought to be”, we become disorientated and confused.  We’ll listen to anyone who says, “this is how it should be”, especially if they appear from the mists of the early church.  However, things aren’t what they seem.  Among the tombs, there are people roaming around claiming to be Jesus and hijacking the resurrection.  It is important to find the right tomb to find the real Jesus.  The wrong tomb will lead to a counterfeit Jesus.  How do we tell the difference?

  • The real Jesus tells you there is nothing to fear.
  • Counterfeit Jesus will try to scare you by any means necessary.
  • The real Jesus does not look like the white guy on the wall. He looks like all of us.
  • Counterfeit Jesus has a “to do” list written by a group of guys 60-90 years after he died.
  • The real Jesus has a “to love” list which includes people you love and all the people you hate.
  • Counterfeit Jesus is static, never changing, locked in a past that never existed.  He is a myth.
  • The Real Jesus is adapting his life to the challenges you face in your life today.  Real Jesus is Real.

It may not be the gardener you run into on Easter Sunday morning.  You may have just seen “counterfeit Jesus”.  I hope I’ve helped you spot him.   He’s not the one you want.  Real Jesus will be just around the corner.

 

A Prayer for Syria

Christ of the Cross,
Christ of Sarin and VX,
Christ of Nerve Agents,
I am in the multitude,
one of many, indistinguishable from the rest.
I am here.
I do not speak.
I stay silent.
I close my eyes.
My heart wants to stop beating.
I am somewhere beyond your pain.
I am my own guilty mess.
They are crucifying you.
You are dying.
Before me now,
In the faces of Syrian children,
I am compelled to pray,
Unable to go beyond,
The words of a thief,
If you are the Christ,
Save them first,
Before you save anyone else.
Amen

–Richard Bryant

Running Out of Options

Civil war?  What does this mean?  Is there any foreign war?  Is not every war between men, war between brothers?  –Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)

Western Christianity is dying.  The United Methodist Church is dying.  We are aging faster than new members are appearing.  Like Baseball, the average attendance of those who attend our “games” is trending upward.  Those who do attend our churches do not want to be involved in religious life longer than one or two hours a week.  Our children, the “so called” future of the church, are either dumped for brainwashing in recycled versions of the Jesus People meetings called “Youth Groups” where guilt induced sessions of preaching and teaching lead them to the Lord or we encourage them to participate in character building activities which have nothing do with the history of western civilization.  Baseball and basketball may build teamwork but they did not help win the Battle of Marathon.  Even running did not help win the battle of Marathon.  Philosophers and religious men of ethics defeated the Persian hordes in battle.  For some reason, we like to pretend otherwise.

The world has turned against us.  And why should they not?  We worship a Savior whose message of love and tolerance is no longer acceptable to a world in perpetual civil war.  We have turned on each other.  Our quaint ways and simple beliefs are too much for a planet awash in anger fueled orgies of consumption and rage.  We can quote John Wesley to each other, launch trendy podcasts to reinforce our strongly held beliefs, and huddle in small groups while war is waged on us.  We can do those same things while we attack our secular neighbors and religious sisters and brothers.  Christians are great at multitasking.

The United Methodist Church is not in the midst of a schism. We are in a civil war.  Schism is the wrong word for our reality.  It’s a polite religious word.  Our war is a civil war, a reflection of the larger conflict in the wider society.  This is not a culture war.  Culture wars are so yesterday.  Cultures do not fight.  People fight.  When people fight, they and their institutions die.  We’re dying, the institutional church, that is.  United Methodism is dying a slow painful death, a thousand shrapnel wounds on the battlefields of delay, pretentious, and we all should have known better.  That’s just us.  The fatalities and casualties run down the line.

I do not believe a dominant political culture has launched a war against those who express a counter-cultural religious identity.  Conventional wisdom holds the media or government (regardless of the ideological persuasion) as the culprits who undermine American’s religious liberties.  This is not so.  The primary attack on religious life in America comes from within.  We are doing this too ourselves.  Many Americans don’t want to be religious any longer.  We say we do but we’re lying.  Church is not important to our lives.  In the future, if we are to want or need a church, it’s not going to be there. Our apathy killed it.

For others, it’s a death wish. In effect, we are suicide bombers, waging war for ideological purity among those we deem heretical and unfaithful.  This menace doesn’t come from beyond us.  It’s not an existential threat. We are killing each other and anyone who gets in our way.  I am speaking metaphorically, of course.  The churches who are choosing to leave the denomination do so because they pretend they have no other options.  Even Ebola sufferers now have vaccine.  Some options exist.

Why do some United Methodists insist on removing and killing themselves (and entire denomination)? Ask ISIS, they will tell you:  death makes a better headline.  I believe they have become gods unto themselves willing to hurt whomever they choose.  As a perverse corruption of David Bowie’s lyric, instead of heroes, they want to be gods and for more than one day.

Am I being too negative?  Yes, you’re damn right I am.  But it’s pretty negative where the rubber meets what’s left of the religious road; even in the heart of the Bible belt.  What we’re doing, talking about doing, and urging people to do isn’t working.  We’re alienating what few people we have left and making it really hard for average people to find value in associating with us as a church.  The people we really need to reach enjoy the role they’re playing in the decline of western civilization.

Here’s one thing I see:  parents, who were raised in the church, now see no moral or ethical value in rearing their children in a religious environment.  (I do not see parents bringing their children back to church once they marry and/or have children.) A parental decision, yes!  But if we’ve lost that link with a generation of young people we were making no more than twenty years ago in rural Southern communities where secularism was never a threat and God was the biggest thing in town; then the church is already dead.  Even death won’t restore these links. When tragedy strikes a community and people are naturally drawn back toward spirituality and the need to ask deeper questions, the church has been left behind for school gyms and roadside memorials.

So, o great seer of trends, what do we do?  We need a new option.  Rod Dreher has called for the Benedict Option. In the model of the founder of the Benedictine Order, we should gather the faithful and seek to renew our communities in the midst of these new dark ages.  Dreher says there may something to reestablishing common practices and common institutions.  As in the title of the Book of Common Prayer, things we hold in common.  No one knows what we hold in common any longer.  I think our common humanity is also something that’s been forgotten.  We’ve forgotten Shylock.  To paraphrase William Shakespeare:

I am a Human Being. Hath
not a Human Being eyes? Hath not a Human Being hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?

Once we claim our common humanity, we may pursue the greatest monastic option of all:  prayer.  We pray like there is no tomorrow.  Monastic prayer is apocalyptic by design.  Some may gather in Benedictine style relationships.  Others will be drawn to the splendid isolation of the Egyptian desert.  I think there are options charted by John of Gaza, Cyril of Scythopolis, Evagrius Ponticus, and even Simeon the Stylite.  Simeon sat upon a platform for 37 years in the Syrian desert near Aleppo.  These men remind us, though we are neighbors and share a religious connection, there is much we hide from each other.  What we hide, separates us from each other and God. Distance, space, and time are irrelevant, writes Evagrius, if our spirits are not kindred or “kind”.  Does it all come back to kindness?