58 Words

None of the caveats and explanations used to justify John Chau’s presence among the Sentinelese islanders matter if the premise which led him there is flawed. We can talk about his plans, purpose, preparation, and calling. You can ask if he is a martyr or a fool? However, if the theology that is motivating him, the Christology shaping his understanding of Jesus and the missiology guiding his call to share Jesus with others are wrong; there we must begin.

Why are they wrong? Because they rely on a faulty Biblical justification for Christian missions for the better part of two thousand years found in two verses of Matthew’s gospel, Matthew 28:18-19. Every church that’s planted (successfully or not) and preacher that’s sent is premised on fifty-eight words (as translated in English) from a book written forty to fifty years after Jesus’ death. How many innocent people have died for those fifty-eight words?

Even the United Methodist Church gives a tremendous amount of weight to these scant words in our own mission statement: “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We repeat it at annual conferences, district gatherings, and print it on every conceivable kind of material. Our mission statement is the Cliff Notes version of the Matthew 28. As our own experience shows, even a mainline denomination has trouble letting go of a literal interpretation of Jesus’ marching orders.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28 is a powerful opiate. I understand why bureaucrats, bishops, and missionaries don’t want to let go of Jesus’ command. Reread it. Under the totality of Jesus’ authority on heaven and earth, we are required to make disciples of everyone and baptize them to obey Jesus commands. “Obey” and “command” are strong words. What if they don’t want to obey? Perhaps they don’t follow your leadership? Is it then we use our authority? Sadly, this is the history of the church. In the 21st century, the armies at our disposal aren’t commanded by popes. The church is still a dominant force in that we use our moral authority to shape the world through political and social coercion.

For centuries these verses have been literally interpreted as a Biblical mandate to colonize, evangelize, kill, and conquer – all in the name of God. It worked; large portions of South America and Africa are now Christian, mirror images of the fundamentalist American missionaries who brought them Christianity.
The Great Commission isn’t a carte blanche permission to change cultures or destroy lives. Western Christianity has done too much damage in the name of the so-called “Great Commission” to continue using this dubious scriptural justification as reasoning for planting churches and sharing the Gospel.

We cannot take the Great Commission literally. Matthew puts words into Jesus’ mouth that I’m certain Jesus would have never said. Jesus’ position on divorced people leaves me out of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:31). Matthew loses me there.   Yes, I’m a little skeptical of his sweeping statements.

It’s like watching the President of the United States. You can tell when he’s on the teleprompter and speaking off the cuff. Matthew’s gospel is much the same way. I think you can tell when Matthew’s writing the script and driving the agenda. There’s also no doubt when Jesus is speaking.

Oh, if there’s some unreached people group who hasn’t heard of Jesus or seen the Jesus film there’s this thing called Grace. Jesus will work it out with everyone in their own way in His sweet time.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (nor having met a missionary), will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Four Gift Ideas That Won’t Break The Bank

Are you looking the right Christmas gift for a loved one, family member, or friend?  Allow me to suggest four presents you can offer to anyone and everyone this holiday season.   Affordable and guaranteed to be appreciated by all who receive them, these four gifts will be remembered and shared for years to come.  For those who are “empty when full,” depressed, and are particularly difficult to shop for; these are the perfect stocking stuffers.

Let me be your guide to the beautiful world of theological and philosophical shopping.  There is no outlet so large, no mall so grand as the world of ideas.  Here you’ll find centuries of wisdom and tradition on offer.  The best part is that it’s all free.  Greeks speak, Hindus choose, Christians decide, and when you come to pick your gift, you’ll realize we’re all on the same page when it comes to what matters most.

So what does matter most?  What are your four free gifts from the world of ideas?  Take them now, they are yours, give them to whomever you wish this season.

  1.  The gift of hope.
  2. The gift of perspective.
  3. The gift of time.
  4. The gift of grace.

With these four gifts, you’ll unlock any door you’re behind.  You might even crawl out of the full dumpster that’s left you empty inside.

Richard Lowell Bryant

This Is Now

I am thankful Thanksgiving has ended. It felt like it took forever. We make a one-day orgy of carbohydrates and turn it into one of the most extended shopping weekends of the year. I do, from the bottom of my heart, hope everyone is grateful for the experience.

With that out of the way, I’m ready to move on. No, I’m not putting gratitude or thanksgiving behind me. As I said, those are daily challenges. Whether you’re a Methodist, Quaker, or Shaker; gratitude is an art we practice not an application to download. So what’s next? I would like a more significant challenge.  What?

I’m looking forward to Christmas.

Before you get excited and expect to see lights draped on the fence and reindeer dancing on the parsonage roof, hold on to your Blitzens. I’m not talking about “Christmas” or the “Christmas” you’re picturing. To be honest, I’m ready for Advent. People, even Christians, use the word interchangeably and it’s almost lost all meaning. Even at church, I’ll catch myself saying “Advent/Christmas.” Despite my hardcore, old school liturgical high church upbringing, I actually say “Advent-slash-Christmas.” Sisters and brothers, forgive me for this concession to the War on Advent. I pray you’ll give me strength this year to fight the good fight and sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ for four weeks straight.

I need Advent because I need Jesus. I could do without Santa. Santa is a creepy old man in a red suit. He’s an amalgamation of so many northern European folktales and religious traditions; the only people who really know what Santa means are the marketers who make money from his image. Santa’s story makes us feel good about ourselves and the choices we’ve made. Santa causes us to look inward. Jesus’ story demands we look at the world around us.

We must rehear Jesus’ story. Jesus is an impoverished child from a part of the world most of us think we understand. His mother is a teenager. A local gang leader murdered every male infant in his village because he was threatened by Jesus’ birth. When all is said an done, they are a mother, father, and infant fleeing for their lives. Jesus is born into violence. Jesus seeks sanctuary. Jesus asks for asylum, not only in hearts but in our churches. Why? The incarnation is a present tense reality. This is us. This is now.

If we do not see him, we are ignoring him. I am prepared to deny Santa and all he has come to represent. I cannot reject Jesus, in all his many forms, moving in our midst.

Richard Lowell Bryant

You Are Probably Doing Thanksgiving All Wrong

Do The Same Thing Each Year, You Get The Same Results

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, what is the most important thing to remember? As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “Thou shalt remember to save room for the pumpkin pie sent by the Corinthians.” No, not really. However, there are some important things to recall as we gather for our yearly Thanksgiving dinners.

We could take a look at the mythology of Thanksgiving; the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. Do you remember the stories told in school plays and storybooks? We might recall the annual football games held on Thanksgiving featuring the indefatigable Detroit Lions. Or, it could be gathering your family and friends over a meal and waiting on Uncle Frank to have one too many beers and begin talking about building the wall. But better than all of those, Thanksgiving could be about Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving would have nothing to do with the Pilgrims, Squanto, Football, overcooked Turkey, Uncle Frank’s politics, or anything else. What if Thanksgiving was about Thanksgiving?

In the Bible, Thanksgiving meant Thanksgiving. There were no turkeys, football, Squanto, or Pilgrims. I’m not sure Deviled Eggs were kosher. Can anything called “deviled” be holy? Despite this semantic sin, I’m on board with the Devil’s eggs. In Jesus’ day, people were thankful without all of the extra baggage we’ve attached to the idea of being thankful. Their idea of gratitude derived from an appreciation of being alive. We find it hard to appreciate being alive without first confronting the emotional depths of a cat meme or having a relative with a serious illness. Jesus’ followers were able to find gratitude for their daily bread despite their brother having leprosy or their sister’s calling to be a prostitute by the local well. Gratitude isn’t something picked up from comparing yourself to the misery of others; it is our response to God’s presence in the universe.

What if our Thanksgiving was more than a day to prepare for Black Friday deals, overeat, and remind you of how much you dislike some members your family? I know that’s asking a lot. Stick with me on this leap. Without the baggage we usually associate with Thanksgiving, we might actually see Thanksgiving for what it is and what it was meant to be: an opportunity to be thankful.

Thanksgiving is this Thursday. One day a year we officially give thanks as a nation. It is a holiday with puritanical religious overtones where no one goes to church. It is a family holiday where we ask more and more people to leave their families and work on Thanksgiving to satisfy our desire to buy new stuff so we may adequately celebrate the birth of Christ. It’s a secular holiday where societal convention dictates we overeat, watch football, and nap. We do Thanksgiving once a year because the calendar says so. In short, it’s a moral and ethical mess of our own design. The reason Thanksgiving feels forced, blasé, and awkward is that it is forced, commercialized, manufactured, and has nothing to do with real honest to God gratitude or thankfulness.

If you want Thanksgiving to function, it’s got to happen every day of the year and be permanently disassembled from the cookie cutter, one size fits all image of the perfect American holiday. Thanksgiving doesn’t start and end with one blessing around one dinner table at one lunchtime one on Thursday afternoon.

Happy Thanksgiving

Richard Lowell Bryant

Things To Know When Visiting Our United Methodist Church

My Happy Face

1. You’re probably sitting in someone else’s seat.  Ask them to scoot.

2. We provide Bibles. If you bring your own, I’m guessing you’re a Baptist.

3. Turn your phone off.  I will ask to speak with whomever calls.

4. Today is Sunday. We do this every week about 11:00. Give or take.

5. We pray with our mouths, not with our hands.

6. It’s called a bulletin, not a pamphlet.

7. We have one bathroom. I clean it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

8. Our communion bread is Hawaiian. You will love it.

9. If your ferry departs at 12:30, you can leave before the Benediction.

10. We’re glad you’re here.  This is my happy face.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Methodist’s Confessions

I inherited from my ancestors a story about God.

I accepted this bequeathed God as my God.

Faith is a gift, not a mandate.

On receiving of this faith, I understood that I did not possess God nor did God posses me.  God was not something I needed to prove.  God was an experience to live.

I realized I might have personal experiences with God in places like the ocean, forests, or walks home from school,  at church, and moments of serenity while driving home from work.

Within God’s creation, I exist among all life.

I believe in Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph the Carpenter and his wife, Mary.

Jesus was a carpenter, teacher, preacher, healer, and instigator of change.

Friend to ill-defined sinners, his life and work serve as role models for every Christian community.

Neither at home among his people or welcomed by the Romans who occupied his country, Jesus found his place among the outcasts. His work with the sick, homeless, impoverished, and marginalized of Galilee provides a foundation for the church’s ministry.

Jesus embodies the totality of God’s love for humanity.

I believe God’s spirit is the unseen reality of God’s presence.  To be open to God’s spirit is to be open to God’s presence working in the lives of other people.

I believe the church is a community and a place to proclaim new life and God’s love for all people; regardless of race, sexual orientation, worth in dollars, or any other factor used to discriminate human beings.  

Richard Lowell Bryant

Apocalyptic Mark and The Grass Roots

I don’t like Apocalyptic Mark. I prefer Binding the Strong Man Mark, Healing the Sick Mark, and Causing the Blind to See Mark. What does that mean? It’s another way of saying I prefer my Jesus like I like my coffee, not as dark as gas station coffee.

In Mark 13, Jesus becomes pessimistic. Unlike his usual, “let’s go save the world” cherry self he initiates a conversation with the disciples about the destruction of the temple. For Jesus, his followers, and Mark’s first-century readers, that’s another way of talking about the end of the world. Peter, James, John, and Andrew’s attention is piqued. “Tell us, when will these things happen? What sign will show that all these things are about to come to an end?”

Jesus could have told disciples anything. He might have offered a list of checkpoints and historical benchmarks to look for and expect on their way toward cultural and social annihilation. He might have said I you see these things, buy a bunker and run for the hills:

• the return of nationalism as a political agenda
• devastating natural disasters wiping out a large area of both coasts
• a fact-free, post-truth society
• vilification of the other
• forest fires in California
• the schism of the United Methodist Church (assuming the disciples possessed an incredible degree of foresight and believed Methodism to be as important as some people do)
• wars you can watch on your handheld device, such as the one from Yemen
• hurricanes in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and the Philippines
• the 10th outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1976

He didn’t say any of those things.   But to listen to some people, you think he did.  They would have you believe those are the very signs of Jesus’ immediate arrival on Flight 421 from Tel Aviv.  Jesus didn’t know about Ebola, Hurricanes, or the likelihood of Santa Ana winds causing fires to ravage areas of Southern California. In fact, Jesus had never heard of California. If Jesus had heard of either California or Ocracoke, he might have come here and taken up surfing.

Jesus knew what he’d experienced in the little area of life he’d traveled between Capernaum and Jerusalem. In that small world, violence was common. War was an everyday occurrence. Hearing of war or being in a battle wasn’t the exception, it was the rule. Famine is still a familiar fact of life in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The earthquakes which shook the ancient world are prevalent across Iran, Iraq, and into Central Asia even today. So what’s Jesus saying? In short, be on the lookout for life. The disasters or so-called “signs” aren’t cosmological rarities to be interpreted by divinely ordained prophets. They are life itself. We live among these awful, horrible, tragedies and disasters. They suck the marrow from our souls. As such, everything is the beginning of something related to what we may or may not call the end of the world.

Life is a precursor to death. Whoa, that’s deep Jesus. Maybe Apocalyptic Mark is one big prophetic windup reminding the disciples to do as the Grass Roots once said:

“Sha la la la la la live for today
Sha la la la la la live for today
And don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, hey
Sha la la la la la live for today (live for today)”

Richard Lowell Bryant