Oh The Humanity!

We are always poised between the known and unknown.  Whether physical, literal, or metaphorical; something is taking aim at our lives.  It could be that rock on the highway you didn’t see coming.  Who knows?  Our next moment is not promised.   Risk is all around us.

It takes courage to stand up at moments like this, moments like today, when risk feels so distant.  Days when the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and everything seems right with the world but we know, not far away, people are hurting in unimaginable ways.  It takes strength to get up when everything appears right with our world.  Why? Because appearances can be deceiving.  The world, our communities, the body of Christ is interconnected in ways we barely understand.  No one suffers alone.  Our human capacity for empathy drives us to care for people we’ve never met or seen.  We feel the pain and loss of strangers because their stories mirror our own.  It doesn’t matter what color they are, who they voted for, or if they think a wall is something you put in your back yard or along a southern border.  The ability to love and care for those we see injured, abandoned, and bereaved is not an American or even uniquely Christian quality.  It’s part of being human.

Over time, we’ve attached patriotic and religious words to our humanity.  In an effort to allow one to subsume the other, we’ve merged our religiosity with our humanity and our patriotism with our national identity.  That’s not an authentic reflection of who we are as people.  We’re living in a peculiar time and place.  Because of our anxieties, Americans are uncomfortable with the idea that evil cannot exist without a motive.  We’re equally uneasy with the notion that our goodness as Americans wasn’t caused by splicing the DNA of George Washington’s men at Valley Forge, with Ernest Hemingway’s, and Billy Graham’s which every American receives before enrolling in Kindergarten.   In short, evil must have a reason and Protestant American Manly Goodness is simply part of who we are.

We understand the world, morality, right and wrong by putting everything between these two poles.  Sunday night, the poles were removed and Americans responded as humans; not as country fans, Christians, Republicans, Democrats, or gun owners.  No one needs to justify heroism in terms of any allegiance to a type of music, political party, cause, or tribe.  Saving lives is the human thing to do.  Being human, caring for others is the right thing to do.  When the chips are down and we’ve heard this time and time again, it didn’t matter who was hurt, no one deserved to die.

Humanity played the central role in saving lives and redeeming the story which will ultimately be told about the Route 91 Harvest Festival.  Does that make the deaths any easier?  Will it heal the pain?  No.  I do think it shows the possibility of people from different backgrounds seeing beyond the labels and identities they’ve so readily assumed (or been burdened with) and carried for the past three decades.  If we want to live in a country where people aren’t regularly murdered by men with automatic weapons, it’s going to take dealing with our anxieties about evil and realizing our goodness is limited by our egos.  And the person who’s got your back, the person who will drive you to the hospital if you’re ever shot or heart attacked, may be Hispanic, African American, Gay, Laotian, illegal, driving a truck, perhaps a Subaru, loves country music, voted for Trump, does Yoga, line dances, or maybe voted for Jill Stein, hates cats, loves dogs, and that shouldn’t matter at all to you.  You love them no matter what!   We’re in no position, not now, not ever, to be turning down friends.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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New Year’s Resolutions Are Lies We Tell Ourselves

Start on January 1

You can buy into the propaganda machine found on countless websites and self-help books encouraging readers to make life changing New Year’s Resolutions.  If stereotyped formulas are your thing, go right ahead.  January 1st is right around the corner.

There is no such thing as a “New Year’s Resolution”.  They are lies.  Believing that through will power, lists, and simplistic decisions you’ll make better choices for the coming year is a one of the many falsehoods Americans allow themselves to believe.  These particular lies coincide with the arrival of the New Year.  In our minds, this seems like a good time to start something new like a diet or exercise program.  We couldn’t be more wrong.  If we wanted to live better we would have started it yesterday.  Our lives should matter more than an arbitrary date and the conclusion of a night of drunken debauchery.

The New Year’s “resolution” concept, it’s in our heads.  It’s an excuse we create to delay change and ultimately explain our failure.  New Year’s Resolutions are fictions we tell to comfort our inevitable return to the status quo.

Don’t lie to yourself.  If you want to change, change.  Altering your life has no relationship to the mass delusion surrounding the significance of New Year’s Day.  January 1st means nothing more than August 12th.  The lemming train is boarding at the resolution station.  There are cars for chocolate, diet, exercise, time with family, and so on.  You can hop on the cultural bandwagon anytime you like.  It will be boarding over the next four days.  People will talk at length about the lies they’ll willingly begin telling themselves at the start of the New Year.  You’ll notice that people love to talk about their resolutions.  You don’t have to talk about anything.  Bore no one with your weight loss goals or stories of how “this year will be the year you make it”.   No one cares.  No one wants to hear about your resolution.   Why?  Because no one likes being lied to.  Live better, be better-today.

January 1st can go to Hell for all I care.

There Are No More Christians

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Amidst the cultural rot and doctrinal rubble of American Protestantism, Christianity has gone missing.  The once great traditions of the past are difficult to find behind Franklin Graham’s Twitter feed and among those opposed to the results of the recent election.  Many Christians, imbued with unwavering sincerity, believe God (the American Protestant version of God) chose our next president to save America.   Others, with equal measures of devotion, believe God has called them to resist the new president’s proposed policies.  Both groups identify as Christian.  Yet with such a divergence of opinions, Christianity appears as fractured and divided as the country where many believe real Christianity to have been born:  the United States of America.

Christianity and the churches which represent these various brands of religious expression are today little more than organized supporters clubs for rival teams.  I am vaguely reminded of the Iron Dukes of Duke University and the Ram’s Club of the University of North Carolina.  These are donors clubs for wealthy supporters to spend money while watching their respective team battle one another on the athletic field.  While both may take the same field, neither side has little respect for the style of play the other team plays.  The groups despise each others supporters.  However, in football or basketball, there remains agreement as to the basic elements of the game.  The standards and rules rarely change.

Of late, it seems the goal posts have shifted.  Do we know what it means to be “church”?  No, we do not.  New edicts, plans, and directives reset our focus each year.  In my recent appointment, I’ve heard it said there’s nothing “Christian” about what I do.  “Evangelical” is now a hollow word; robbed of any Biblical meaning by a thirty-year culture war and the most recent election.   An “evangelical” can be anyone who prefers pumpkin spiced lattes while they worship to being for or against a series of social issues.  Litmus tests on abortion, your preference for drums in worship, and your feelings about coffee in the sanctuary have nothing to do with the “Good News”.

There are no more “Christians”.  Christianity, it appears, in Advent 2016 can only be defined by these contested adjectives.  A Christian is characterized by the way she or he modifies or describes their Christianity.  This perpetual delineation of adjectives borders on idolatry.  We give the adjective more meaning than the word we’re modifying.   One is either an evangelical Christian or progressive Christian.  Denominational labels only confuse matters further.  In United Methodism, we are Wesleyan Covenant Methodist Christians, Progressive Methodists, and Methodist Christians.  There might even be “Full, Free-Will, Snake Handling, First, Sanctified, Holiness, Brethren” Methodists for all I know.  Yes, these terms describe who we are.  They also make it harder to recognize the Christianity they are intended to modify.

There are no more Christians.  We are the holier than thou adjective people, unable to practice our faith unless it’s diluted through special filters which give us power.   The person modifying the noun gets to set the rules, make the budget, and decide who’s in and who’s out.  Our Christianity is constantly modified by words (i.e. beliefs) bearing little resemblance to the Scripture, witness, and testimony constituting this most simple definition:  a Christian is someone who confesses Jesus as Lord.  It is not about doing a seven part sermon series on money management or being for gay marriage.  A Christian is someone who sees the world through the prism of the Cross.  If we’re looking at the cross and Jesus’ massive redemptive action, I believe our adjective problem will resolve itself.  What you’re for and against become much clearer in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  For example, I think it’s hard to support capital punishment when the innocent man we worship as God was executed by the state.  Call that whatever political position you want, I call it seeing the world through the Cross.

Is it possible not to be an evangelical or so wrapped up in our Methodism that we remember more about who Jesus is?  Yes, I think it is.  Are we able to live with our filtered identities while not diluting Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God?   I hope so.  If not, we’ll stay worshiping our predominately American Methodist Wesleyan God (or you fill in the blank), call ourselves Christians, and wait for the world to keep asking:  how can you call yourself Christian?

© Rev. Richard Bryant, 2016

A God I Do Not Recognize

fence

I’ll be honest; the eighth chapter of Amos is difficult for me to read. I am not inspired, encouraged, or pushed to dream a bigger prophetic vision. Instead, my stomach is turned. My initial indifference quickly gives way to anger. Who thought including this in the Bible and/or the lectionary was a good idea? The God of Amos comes across as bloodthirsty, a malevolent killer, and torturer. Why would we preach a story where God rationalizes a scene from a concentration camp in the name of justice? In Bosnia and Rwanda, men have been charged with war crimes for less.

Read Amos’ words:

“There will be many corpses, thrown about everywhere.” (8:3)

It gets worse, God promises to destroy climate, crops, as well as the emotional and physical welfare of His people.

“On that day, says the Lord God,

I will make the sun go down at noon,

And will darken the earth in broad daylight.

I will turn your feasts into sad affairs

And all you’re singing into funeral songs;

I will make people wear mourning clothes

And shave their heads.

I will make it like the loss of an only child,

And the end of it like a bitter day.

The days are sure coming, says the Lord God,

When I will send hunger and thirst on the land

neither a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water,

but of hearing the Lord’s words. (8:9-11)

What makes this so painful are the funeral songs I’ve heard this week, in places like Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Saint Paul. People are wearing their mourning clothes. I have images of shaven headed inmates at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau burned into my memory. These are real images of real evil done by real people. God, real people lost their only children! Those children aren’t coming back. No amount of scripture will restore a human life or feed an empty stomach. The death of the past week was not a promise.  It was a fact of life on a Tuesday morning and a Thursday night.

Our lives hurt and words like this don’t help. I don’t need to read God’s words as threats, promises, or eight century BC chest thumping. God is not supposed to do these things. You, the creator of the universe, aren’t supposed to speak like a brutal killer. Last week, Micah Johnson did these things. Brutal dictators who use genocide as a means of ethnic cleansing talk like this. The God I learned about in my mother’s Sunday school class didn’t speak this way. I don’t like this at all.

We need to remember what we’ve inherited and how dangerous this book can be. Sometimes the danger is good and at other moments it is hurtful. Right now, the last thing we need is the Bible to bring us pain.  Isn’t that part of America’s problem, we not aware of how much pain we’re bringing in the first place?  If we don’t want to talk about endemic racism of pre-Jim Crow America,  the United Methodist Church is not going to talk about the violence and genocide at the heart of scripture. We have more important things to do.

While the great and the good are praying their way through Episcopal elections at jurisdictional conferences and condemning an onslaught of racial violence, we’ve been given this gem of a passage condoning divinely ordained genocide. So how uncomfortable are we with violence and death in the name of justice? My fear is we’re uncomfortable enough to pray and protest through the week and just comfortable enough to come home, don the prophetic mantle and preach genocide. Sadly, our arms aren’t long enough to pat ourselves on the back for the good job we’ve done. We’ll have to be comfortable telling each other, “congratulations for being so self-aware”.

Between you and me, we have to do better.

 

Food for Thought-Common Prayer for Common Places Number 3

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place: a road sign

Amigo, compadre, my friend from Nazareth; I seem to be seeking direction. Which way do I go? What do these signs actually mean? What’s the best way for us to go in any direction, together? I will go toward you, away from you, forward, and backwards all at the same time. I will believe I’m doing your will. Somewhere along the way, maybe that will happen. Send some Amen my way.

Food for Thought-Don’t Get All Warm and Fuzzy About Ireland, It’s A Hard Place to Live

IRA Graffiti Adjacent to My Former Congregation in Northern Ireland

IRA Graffiti Adjacent to My Former Congregation in Northern Ireland

I lived in Northern Ireland for two years. This was two of the most demanding years of my life. I was challenged theologically, politically, and culturally to rethink many of the stereotypes and images I’d long held. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful place to live. In the North, where I served, sectarian divisions (between Protestant and Catholics) now exacerbated by immigrants and refugees still exist. Violence is a way of life on many housing estates and dissident Irish Republicans are active throughout the region. At one point in my ministry, our church hired body guards to protect our congregations members as they came to church on Sunday morning. I was attacked while walking on the streets only six weeks after my arrival. No amount of Celtic spirituality or lyric prayers from Iona made my heard hurt any less. The real world of Irish Christianity means confronting guns, violence, drugs, unemployment, urban decay and a country still trying to define itself after a civil war.

The first year we were there, my family and I decided to attend our town’s local St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. According to the information in the paper, there was to be a parade, plenty of activities for the kids, and it would be a good time to be had by all. At the end of the parade, much like our local Christmas parades, Saint Patrick would ride down the street on the final float waving greetings to one and all.

Using what we knew of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States, we thought, “why not?” After all, this is post-troubles Ireland, what’s the big deal about Saint Patrick’s Day. In the United States, everyone goes to these celebrations, parades, and parties and no one thinks twice. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Here’s where I need to tell you that I lived in a town that was 95% Roman Catholic. I am a Protestant clergyperson. While on the surface, this shouldn’t be a problem, it was; not with the Roman Catholic community but to the dwindling number of Protestants I served each week. Saint Patrick’s Day was seen as a Roman Catholic holiday. To many in my dying congregation, their Roman Catholic neighbors were viewed as the enemy (i.e. terrorists who opposed a United Kingdom and supported a majority Roman Catholic united Ireland).

To attend Saint Patrick’s Day festivities, no matter how innocuous, child friendly, peace promoting, marching band containing, was to give my implicit support to the agenda of the Irish Republican Army and spit in the face of all the survivors of their terrorist attacks. I simply wanted to take my kids to a parade; something I would have done had I been living in North Carolina. However, I wasn’t living in the United States. I had lost the freedom, as a Christian, to mingle with other Christians without being called a supporter of murderers. My congregation members yelled at me, “you just don’t do this sort of thing, good Christians; do not attend these kinds of events, especially with their families.” I’ve never been so angry or afraid in my life. Protestantism has truly run off the rails in Northern Ireland. I’m not the first person to say this nor will I be the last. You can’t have serious debates about the countering secularization in Northern Ireland when there’ll be no angry people left to argue with in less than a generation.

So go out, drink your green beer, drink some Guinness, and tell stories of Saint Patrick and snakes.  Pray the Celtic prayers and sing the Wild Goose Hymns. However, remember, that’s not Ireland.  It’s some bastardized American version of Ireland and Celtic Spirituality.  We feel warm and fuzzy about a past that was never ours and a country we’ve never known.

If you want to remember Ireland tomorrow, forget Saint Patrick and call upon James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Sean McDermott, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Ceannt, and Thomas McDonagh.  These seven men died for a united Ireland.  They were real people not legends.  Murdered by the crown, so Ireland might be free, they died as martyrs.  This is the Ireland I know, one that deserves a greater memory than the fictitious legends of a slave trading saint.

Food for Thought-I Almost Forgot About the Dead Guy At the Back of the Room (A Sermon on John 12:1-8)

And then it got AWKWARD!

This is a difficult and demanding passage.  Aren’t they all?  We know where it is leading. The symbolism and language are clear.  Mary’s actions with the expensive perfume directly foreshadow Jesus’ impending death.  John says they are one week before the Passover (Palm Sunday).  The inevitability of the moment cannot be lost on anyone.  On one level, these are the events of Mary and Martha’s dinner party.

On another, we have the issue of money.  Burial perfume isn’t cheap.  The treasurer of the group, one Judas Iscariot, knows this.  How could anyone in their party afford to spend so much money on such a wasteful display of extravagance?  Especially, as Judas notes, there are poor people who need this money.  John and others question Judas’ motives.  Most scholars will tell you this is “after the fact” questioning.  Everyone wanted to be able to says, “We knew he was bad” from the beginning.  Regardless of his intentions, Judas made a valid point.  The poor could have used the money far more than Jesus’ still living feet with burial perfume.  (The whole feet anointing is awkward.  It may have made others uncomfortable.  Judas may have been trying to relieve some of the weirdness tension present in the room. Was he voicing what others were afraid to say? ) Isn’t giving to the poor exactly what Jesus has preached for three years?

It is exactly what Jesus has been preaching all over Galilee.  Though now, in the dining room of Mary and Martha his response is different.  He says, “The poor will always be with you but you won’t always have me.”  I hate that answer.  Hate is probably too strong a word.  I really despise that answer.  Not because Jesus said it but how it’s been used, taken out of context, and misconstrued since the moment it came out of his mouth.  For centuries, these words have set up a false dichotomy between meeting your own needs (painting, new carpet, fancier pews, and larger doors) and helping the poor (food banks, mission trips).  So when someone says, “we’ve got all this money and we could probably make do with what we’ve got for a few more years, why don’t we give to the refugees?”

Another person or group (in the church) will reply, “Didn’t Jesus say the poor would always be with us?”  Meaning the poor will still be poor once we finish painting, carpeting, or doing whatever we need doing.  It’s impossible to do both.  Our reflection on Jesus’ words stops there because it fits our own cultural and financial presuppositions.  In the end, the people who control the money win.   The poor get poorer and American churches as a whole are well maintained but largely empty buildings.  We rarely ever try to reconcile both points of view (help the poor and meet our own needs.)

This is where I’ve been this week.  I’ve been trying to unify these uncomfortable ideas:  Judas making a valid point, Jesus reflective at the end of his life and how we as Christians exist within that tension.  Just the other day, I was reading this passage at breakfast.  I’ve been queasy recently.  I don’t recommend reading about washing feet with human hair over a meal.  That’s beside the point.  I’m going over it again and all of a sudden I stopped and said out loud (I might have even yelled), “The dead guy’s there.”  Here’s where I should tell you this happened in the gas station.  Walter, the cook working behind the deli, looked up at me and said, without missing a step, “Yes, the dead guy’s there.”  The crazy gringo is reading his Bible in the corner.

I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.  It was staring at me the whole time.  How did I not see this from the beginning? I’d been so wrapped up in the nard, lard, hair, and Judas thing I missed the dead guy in the room.  I might have missed the point altogether.  What did I miss?  There was a dead guy in the room.  Lazarus was at the party.  It was his celebration.

Have you ever met someone really famous?  Or even someone who you (and perhaps 15 or so of your friends considered famous)?  I once met Justice Scalia while I was changing planes at Logan Airport in Boston.  Maybe you know the person who sewed sequins on Earth, Wind, and Fire’s jump suits.   Fame is much like beauty; in the eye of the beholder.  If you’re in a room with a famous person, or have the opportunity to hold a conversation with this person, you might like to talk with them and ask them questions.  You’ve been presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Now, all I want to do is talk to Lazarus.  This is the real story.  Let me talk to the guy who died and came back.  He’s the main attraction. What was it like?  This guy has been there, done that, and got the T-shirt.  He’s probably wearing a, “I Died and All I Got Was This T-Shirt”.    There’s a man who came back from death, in the room, and we’re worried about nard and money.  If that’s not a parable about priorities, I don’t know what is.

He was their brother; they had to invite him to the party.  They couldn’t exactly say to him, “Laz, the neighbors are still kind of wigged out by your deadness episode last week.  You look like one of those Galilean Meth heads we see on the evening news.  How about you stay in your room tonight?”

Even so, I’m sure some of the guests were less than pleased to walk in and see Lazarus.  We’re told he stank to high heaven when he came out of the tomb a few days earlier.  I wonder how long it took for the funk to wear off.  Did he still look dead, pale, weak, or less than “alive”?  One doesn’t die for a few days and bounce right back.  After complete and total shutdown of your bodily systems, I would assume you don’t immediately go on a regular Middle Eastern diet.  Open minded types, such as those who hung out with Jesus, still had some of those old Jewish hang-ups about coming in contact with a corpse and ritual purity.  Lazarus had been a corpse.  My question is this, would everyone be staring a Lazarus while trying to listen to Jesus?  Is anyone listening to Jesus at all?

If you had a chance to talk to Lazarus, what would you ask?  What do you remember?  Was there a bright light?  Did you see Aunt Lula?  Do you mind if I stare? May I watch you eat? I want to ask him something funny.  I’d like hear someone who came back from the dead laugh.  I believe Lazarus would value laughter.

Is Lazarus’ laughter upstaging Jesus’ mini sermon on the value of money?  I hope so.  Perhaps, this was Jesus’ intention all along. Who knows?  Lazarus’ presence calls the whole absurd spectacle into context.  Lazarus shows us what happens when Jesus calls you, when you’re dead, and you run head long into Jesus.  Lazarus is what happens when death collides with life.  What did Jesus say to Lazarus when he brought him back to life?  He said, “Come out!”  Lazarus stumbles out, smelling like rotting flesh and human decay.  Jesus says, “Get him out of those death clothes and find him something to eat.”

My belief is simple: Jesus does amazing things with what we bury, write off, and place in tombs.  We write off people, ideas, and places.  We condemn ourselves to graves of living mediocrity.

Lazarus isn’t an idea called resurrection or resuscitation.  Lazarus is that guy in the corner of the party who has been transformed, by God, from the inside out.  I know lots of Lazarus’.  Some of them are awkward and smelly.  They have walked headlong, somewhere in their journey, into Jesus.  Lazarus and the people like him remind me, what God did for losers, adulterers, killers, slaves, persecutors, and even a dead man, God will do for us.

Lazarus is a regular person who embodies the inversion of darkness and the subversive nature of hope which affirms this principle:  death is not the end of the road.