Things Ain’t What They Used To Be

1. After almost twenty years of full time ministry, I’ve never really gotten into praying with my hands up. I’m much more comfortable using my words and leaving my hands down.

2. I don’t like phrases from scripture that become Christian jargon. The only hedge of protection I know is in my yard.

3. I also think the word “anointed” is over used. Outside the church, people don’t get how we talk.  We shouldn’t make ourselves hard to understand.  You shouldn’t need classes to “speak Christian”.

4. We need to talk more about Mark 3:20-35. Is Jesus the crazy relative we feel more comfortable trying to contain with our own standards of conformity? I think so.

5. I miss participating Sunday School. Specifically, I mean coloring pictures of Jesus on Sunday morning.  Now I spend my Sunday mornings getting ready for worship.  Coloring was fun.  However, worship pays better than coloring and I have mouths to feed.

6. It’s possible to take the Bible seriously but not literally. I feel like I say this all the time.  Is anyone listening?  Why is this so hard?

7. Intinction is my preferred method of giving and receiving Holy Communion. That being said, I still think it’s a little gross.

8. I think the last good year to be a United Methodist was 1986.

9. A relationship with Jesus is more important than a personal relationship. It’s personal by default.  You don’t define any of the other important relationships in your life (spouse, children, or parents) as personal.  They are simply relationships.  Drop the jargon, focus on the substance.

10. Stop looking for God in the usual, scripted, well-defined, pre-printed places.

11. Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash are dead.  You can’t have a Holy Trinity with only Willie Nelson.  I guess I am a Unitarian Nelsonite.  So be it.

Richard Lowell Bryant


“Stoked”-What Listening to Surfers Taught Me About Psalm 138

The only person I’ve known to use the word “stoked”.

I live on an island.  Situated 25 miles off the coast of mainland North Carolina, Ocracoke is a small place.  Only fourteen miles long and two miles wide, we manage to pack in three hundred years of history with fishing, surfing, and a place to relax.  In the winter, it can get lonely.  The crowds scatter, restaurants close, and the days shorten.  However, this is the high season.  We are open for business.   On the heels of another successful folk music and storytelling festival; bicycles, boats, and people are on every corner.

As a pastor in this island community, one of my jobs is to listen and observe the world around me.  On this note, Wesley’s dictum needs to be taken to heart, “the world is my parish”.  If a visitor or tourist has a spiritual or religious need, I want to be available to assist in any possible way I can.  It’s possible to have bad, lonely, or days go wrong, even on vacation.  Perhaps I can help?  Who knows?  So I listen, observe, smile, and say hello.

I encountered a group of young people, probably in high school or college, talking about their drinking and surfing adventures.  I’m not sure they’d had the inside/outside voice talk from their parents or teachers.  I say this because everyone around them knew where, on Instagram, to find images of their surfing and who was drunk the previous evening.  Run of the mill millennial stuff, right?

Yes.  It was until I realized they were using the word “stoked”.  Let me give you an example.  “I was stoked about that wave.”  Here’s another, “I was stoked about getting drunk last night.”  I thought stoked was a TV word, used in movies, and had died with Keanu Reeves’s career.  Apparently people do talk this way, in context, and in real conversations.  I was stoked to be so well informed.

Have I ever been as “stoked” about something as these young people?  I hope I’m stoked on better relationship with God.  One person, however, who would probably relate to these surfers, is David.  David was stoked on God.  Psalm 138 is a psalm of complete and total stokage:

I give thanks to you with all my heart, Lord.

I sing your praise before all other gods.

I bow toward your holy temple and thank your name

For your loyal love and faithfulness

Because you have made your name and word

Greater than everything else. (Dude, he’s stoked on God’s love and faithfulness, it is totally dripping of the page.)

On the day I cried out, you answered me.

You encourage me with inner strength.  (On the day I wiped out and was trashed, you taught me a lesson and I’ve never touched Vodka again.  I’m stoked for your presence, Lord.)

Look at verse five.  I think David might be the Psalmist of the surfers.  Here’s my translation:  Grab your ukuleles, let everyone sing about the Lord’s awesomeness and how stoked the Lord is. 

People, other than those on television, say “stoked”.  God’s vocabulary is bigger than I can imagine.  I’m glad the Bible is talking back.  David seems as “stoked” as surfers on Ocracoke.  Who’s to say God’s not stoked at being stoked?  I’m so stoked that God makes us live again.  I’m stoked God doesn’t let go of our lives despite our attempts to wrestle free and document our sin on Instagram.  Whether in winter or summer, whether surfing or hanging out.  I’m stoked God is faithful.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Schism and Hurricane Season: Are You Ready?

NC Connectional Celebration Fund Workshop June 2, 2018 First UMC, Washington, NC

“We can do more together than we can apart”.  This was the not so subtle message of the disaster relief training workshop I attended (with five lay persons) last Saturday.  It’s clear; we weren’t only talking about our response to hurricanes and floods.  We were better together, despite any theological differences, as a single denomination.  Maybe.  I’m not so sure anymore. Only a unified denomination with people clad in polo shirts, bearing chain saws, and wearing special identity badges can save churches devastated by natural disasters.  That’s how it sounded to me.  To give you an idea of how much unity matters, we were told that our churches (congregations at risk for obliteration from the hand of God due to hurricanes, floods, and Biblical style destruction) were going to receive free money (is there such a thing as no strings attached cash), learn a litany of fancy acronyms, and be invited to prepare for the unknown.  Have I mentioned how much I despise the “inside baseball” acronym language proliferating press conferences after a disaster?  Churches should avoid it like the plague.  I fear it is too late.

I’ll be honest.  I’m tired.  I’m frustrated that as we prepare to tailspin into ecclesiastical oblivion, no one sees Methodism’s spiritual atrophy as a byproduct of our archaic organizational culture.  I’m tired of going to meetings only to be lectured on common sense.  So too are the laity who are often required to attend such meetings, sacrificing income they would normally earn to feed their families, invest in the community, and tithe to the congregation.   I live on a Barrier Island that will be hit again.  Our church knows this.  It’s good to have any help on offer.  Here’s my question:  I’m wondering is the help really “help” or a band-aid designed to keep one part of an already divided connection from floating away.

Attending a mandatory meeting where congregations receive handouts easily downloaded from UMCOR, the emergency management department, and any insurance company that are then read to the audience, directly from the screen, isn’t helpful.  If anything, it’s disheartening.  Despite the promise of financial support, it feels as if the conference doesn’t believe some churches know how to prepare for storms they’ve dealt with for two centuries.  If the connection doesn’t give local churches this much credit, no wonder we’re struggling to figure out who we are as a denomination.

I’ll say it again:  I’m tired.  Being a United Methodist over the past two years has been spiritually and physically exhausting.  This doesn’t change the reality:  the storm is coming.  Methodism is in full-fledged disaster preparation mode.  We’re talking about hurricanes.  Yet, is anyone from the leadership above the local church preparing their congregations for the denominational hurricane?  As Jesus said, you cannot live by press releases alone.

No one knows what will happen but we know the hurricane is approaching.  We need to be preparing for both storms:  schism and hurricane.  It’s foolish to try to stop either.  Our documents need to be in order, our medical supplies need to be packed, and we need to discuss how to prepare for emergencies.  Where will we go and what will we do?  These questions apply to the next named storm as well to the decisions coming from each annual and the general conference.  Are we going to repeat the same tired mantras, distribute handouts and read them to each other, or plan life in a new religious landscape?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jesus Might Have Been a United Methodist

1) He could pull a covered dish meal together with bread, fish, and all the fixings at a moment’s notice. This is a hallmark of Methodism. (John 6:1-15)

2) Jesus never called meetings in any one central location. He always kept people on the move. (Luke 9:1-6)

3) Jesus never had any problems asking anyone to leave work for a mission trip. (Luke 5:1-11)

4) The women were the backbone of the church. Some we know well, some from the text, and some from context. (Luke 8:3)

5) He had a favorite place to sit in the synagogue. Every United Methodist has their special pew. (Luke 4:16)

6) Jesus believed in a strong camping ministry. (Matthew 4:1-12)

7) Jesus loved to have a BBQ out on the beach.  I know we do! (John 21:4)

8) He knows how to make his bed. This seems, for some reason, a very Methodist thing. (John 20:7)

9) Jesus liked to keep things simple, especially when it comes to church (and money). Wesley simplified complicated, hierarchical religious practices for ordinary people.   In this way, Jesus might be a United Methodist.  (John 2:13-16)

10) Jesus has a great outlook on life. (Matthew 6:25-34) Don’t worry, be happy.  He has this outlook without ever attending an annual conference, general conference, or district training workshop.  On this point, Jesus differs with United Methodists.  Do Methodists still have a great outlook? Are we happy go lucky Jesus people? Only time, conferences, councils, rulings, votes, hearings, more votes, rancorous arguments, and more rulings will tell how happy we really are.

Totally Real Things I Heard People Say on This Memorial Day Saturday

1) I wonder what this place is like in the off season
2) Man, Memorial Day weekend sure is busy, you can’t find a place to park
3) I feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere
4) Next year I want to go to the “Hollering Contest”
5) Do you have to wear a tuxedo to the Fireman’s Ball?
6) Dave, look
7) Where’s the lighthouse?
8) Leave the beer out of the bag
9) Your dog is having separation anxiety
10) Riding a bicycle while smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee is a bad idea. (I said this one.)

Born, Again (John 3:16)

We’ve all been here before.  This isn’t your first John 3:1-17 rodeo.  I know it’s not.  If you tell it me it is, you are lying to be pedantic and difficult. As such, we’re going avoid scriptural foreplay and witty banter which usually leads to the John 3:16 climax I know you’re waiting on.  That’s not how we’re going to do this.  In the famous and unpublished words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “I’m going to invade Waterloo from Sweden”.  What the hell does that mean?  I don’t know.  I think it means I’m going to try something different with this passage we think we all know so well.

Nicodemus wants to know, “How do these circular answers relate to the story of my birth let alone being born for a second time?”  He’s looking for a clear, black and white answer.  I don’t get the feeling Nicodemus was looking to invest much time, energy, and thought into this process.  He’d come to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  A deep philosophical and theological discussion about the nature of life and rebirth wasn’t fitting into his ever diminishing timetable.  Nicodemus needed an answer, “what does any of this have to do with being born again?”

Nicodemus is actively listening.  Contrary to countless sermons and dramatic presentations, he is not a dumb man. Nor is Nicodemus intellectually shallow.  He is a Pharisee. This should count for something.  He is seeking to understand God.  Jesus tries to help him understand by using “birth” as a metaphor.  Metaphors are important.  Jesus uses them often.  A woman creating, carrying, and giving life over a nine month period constitutes his primary image of the idea of “birth”.  Being born “again”, as it has been presented, isn’t within his intellectual wheelhouse.  How is this central to, relate back, and tie into seeing God’s kingdom?  What is it about the act of birth; nurturing life for nine months and then at the right time delivering a human being into the world that reveals something he’s not getting about how God functions?

To really understand what’s happening, we need to be Nicodemus.  We must put ourselves in his shoes.  His limitations are ours. The pressures and constraints he experiences are those we feel:  give me what I need to make me feel whole, happy, and healthy and give it to me now.  Nicodemus doesn’t want to want to work too hard, too long, to reach what the Buddhists call Nirvana and Jesus is going to call eternal life.

There are layers of tension we don’t regularly talk about or acknowledge when we approach John 3:16.  They’re self-evident, staring us in the face, but we ignore them at our own peril.  We talk around them.  You can’t miss obvious tension in that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and Jesus is Jesus.  These two men are from two different sides of the social and economic tracks.  The Pharisees, as a whole, are opposed to Jesus’ message.  That’s why Nicodemus is visiting Jesus under the cover of darkness, seems a little shady, and is ready to ask his questions and get back to his side of town.  He doesn’t want to be caught hanging around Jesus’ house.  Economically and religiously they are as different as they come.  The worlds they inhabit are polarized.  As representatives of their distinct groups, they stand out.  Jesus looks like the forgotten people and Nicodemus stands in for the religious and political bureaucracy who left them behind.   My point is this:  there is a huge gap, full of tension (on multiple levels) between Jesus and Nicodemus.

What does Jesus mean by being “born again”?  Hasn’t it all be said?  Probably, but let’s take one more try.  Birth is a slow, deliberative, creative, and formative process.  Notice I said creative.  It is like creation.  It is creating life, think about Genesis.  Life is coming into world, one more time, just as it has for billions of years.  Being born is a Genesis moment.  Birth is not a big bang moment.  Instead, it is deliberate life giving moment that follows.  Jesus is talking about birth in these grand, Genesis like terms while also thinking about the beauty of birth which keeps the spark of creation alive.  Nicodemus is not on that level.  Jesus wants him to think a little larger.

Let’s go back to the original question.  What does Jesus mean by “born again”?  There’s one fundamental reality about birth; none of us had any choice in the matter. We have nothing to do with the circumstances of our own birth.  Birth isn’t a choice.

Jesus seems to be indicating:  to be born again means arriving at a place where we have no choice but to arrive.  Being born again points to a certain level of inevitability.  We will end up in some kind of positive relationship with God.  Does this happen because we make it happen?  No it doesn’t.  Our efforts are guaranteed to fail. God presence is the only guarantee of life’s success.  If birth works, whether the first time (or the “again” time), it’s because God is moving toward us faster than we can run away.  God has everything to do with being born again.  Since we’re all living testaments to the miracle of birth, being born again is both God’s call and God’s prerogative.  We choose who we marry, live, and work.  We don’t choose life.  Life chose us, again.

Life, birth, whether new or “again” unifies us.  If you’re a carpenter or a Pharisee, Republican or a Democrat, a NRA member or opposed to the Second Amendment, polarized or could care less; life brings people together when they appear to share no commonalities.

Look at Nicodemus’ question in verse 10.  He asks, “How are these things possible?”  How can this one story which seems to be common ground for all Christians work?  How can life and life, again bring polarized people together (people like Nicodemus and Jesus)?  I think it can.  Stories like this, the ones we’ve heard thousands of times before, have resonance though we swear there’s nothing we can learn.

Let’s go back to his original question:  how is it possible to be born, again?  Given, there’s no choice in the matter, someone external to you (mother or God) does all the work, you’re totally dependent on food and safety from this external source, and you have no control over the timetable.  Now, you’re starting to really feel Nicodemus’ confusion and you really do want to know, “how is this possible?”

Do you want the good news or the bad news?  Jesus answers the question.  However, he doesn’t give an answer Nicodemus likes or expects.

We are born, again because our lives our worth saving.  Our birth makes us alive.  Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus that being “born, again” makes us human.  And God, for no better way to put it, is interested in saving and redeeming the worst parts of our humanity.  Everyone’s life has an intrinsic worth, value, and meaning.  As I said a moment ago, life is what we everyone holds in common.  When we stop seeing value in the lives of others, our humanity as our common denominator, we stop seeing God.  Dehumanization is the first step to genocide.  Saving humanity is the first step toward salvation.  The contrast couldn’t be any clearer.

God, in ways we will never imagine or understand, loved us enough give us Jesus.  Through remembering Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Eucharist, we are given a means listening to world, forgiving others, and looking for God at work in the lives of those who surround us.  The Eucharist levels the playing field so we can see each other not as animals or clumps of carbon or groups of atoms.  When we come to the table, we see each other as those who are born, again, alive in Christ, and loved children of God.

Richard Lowell Bryant

There’s No Such Thing As the Trinity (Some Dudes Made It Up)

There is no such thing as the Holy Trinity.  There is a means of referring to the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy the Spirit which Christians call the “Holy Trinity”.  We don’t know if that’s what God calls God’s relationships or if the Trinity exists anything at all as we describe.  My inclination is to believe God functions beyond language terms and classifications.  It’s our word.  No one’s gotten a message back from God as to whether God agrees with our system or choice of terms.  Yet we, the church, live and die by three in one, one in three.

We do love our religious vocabulary.  Everything has to have a term.  If we can label something we can control its use and outcome.  By labeling the Trinity (and other aspects of God’s work and identity) we are trying to control God.  God can only work in the predefined, pre-determined Trinitarian ways.   If you control who has access to God, for most of human history, you were the biggest kid on the playground.

We’ve made up elaborate theologies to help us describe how we think God relates to God’s self.  The truth is this:  our most complex Trinitarian theology and ideas are guesses.  If string theorists, who are searching for a mathematical language to describe the origins for the universe admit that their work is theoretical, why do Christian theologians speak with such confidence when it comes to the presence and work of the Holy Trinity?  There’s faith and then there’s arrogance.  The means in which we’re describing God’s relationships are not real.  Aren’t we the “don’t put God into a box people?”  Current Trinitarian explanations are just another box, limiting how encounter God.  Is it impossible for us to be honest:  We really have no idea how any of this works.

The Trinity is a (semantic, logical, cosmological, theological, psychological, and philosophical) construct, a theological conjecture; created by flawed and fallible Homo sapiens who want to understand something no one really understands:  the way God relates to God’s self.  The word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible.  God, Jesus, nor the silent Holy Spirit refers to themselves as a Trinity.  The readers of scripture are never privy to discussions of substance and form between the members of the Godhead as we’ll later find in minutes of the historic councils of the church.  Matters important to defining Christian orthodoxy seem to be of little matter to the deity, the deity’s son, or the spirit whom we debate or celebrate in art.

We, the Homo sapiens in question, came up with the word, developed something that sounded rational and applied it to God.  For something completely man made, built on a inferences and interpretations of a handful of scripture, we created Orthodoxy from nothing.  From Jesus’ teachings about family, fathers, relationships and the spirit; we made hard and fast rules about heresies that still divide the church.  Trinity Sunday, far from being something to be celebrated, looks to me to me to be a day for caution and prayer.  This is what happens when we make up our own doctrines and start selling a fake news story to the church that God created a rigid hierarchy which really started on our own whiteboard.  The truth is:  God was nowhere to be found when we made up the Trinity and turned it into a tool to isolate, annoy, and explain God’s expansive love in terms of a dysfunctional family.

Let’s be careful with what we’re celebrating and explaining on Trinity Sunday.  Maybe, like Lucy coming home to Ricky, we still have some explaining to do.  My gut tells me it doesn’t involve eggs, clovers, or anything about a doctrine we made up. I think we need to stop making things up, reading stuff into the text, and even qualify the fancy patristic writings we’ve inherited, because it may be not be all it’s cracked up to be.  The Trinity works best when we remember it’s really a theory.  It works because we make it work.  Love, on the other hand, is a doctrine.  That’s something you can prove.  Jesus wouldn’t let go of love.  Nor should we.

Richard Lowell Bryant