Confessions of a Burned Out, Tripped Up, Fence Riding, People Pleasing, Generation X, Emotionally Challenged, Preacher from the Wrong Side of the Theological Tracks

Aloha, Namaste, Howdy, and Ho, Ho, Ho. I bid you glad tidings of great joy.

Let us begin in the beginning! Christmas makes as good a place to start as any. In a perfect world, if there were no guardrails and I could say whatever I wanted from the pulpit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, it might look like this:

I’m tired. I’ll say that from the start. I’m tired of saying things year after year that contradict long-held scholarly consensus, academic convention, and what I was taught in seminary. I do this because I fear offending people and making them angry if I challenge even the slightest aspect of something they’ve always believed to be true about Christmas. I do not want to alienate anyone. I only want to do the job I was trained to do and do it well.

In a world so rife with division, we could use more truth throughout our denomination and the church. I’m not attacking faith. Faith is what I preach, proclaim, and live. However, I believe we can be faithful people without asking each other to ignore history and science and unwittingly embrace the problematic aspects of the Christmas and Epiphany stories year after year.

I know virgin births were a common motif in divinity origin stories among the ancient Near East religions. Jesus’ and Mary’s account of a virgin birth is not unique. What matters is that Jesus is born. The how isn’t important. We’ve created a theological framework linking our salvation to Mary’s virginity. Who came up with that idea? A man. A human man, not a divine being. Men have a history of calling the shots over women, their bodies, religion, and sexuality. I’m a parent of three daughters. I’m a man and a feminist.

The church celebrates the birth of the Christian son of God on a co-opted pagan Roman holiday for worshiping the pagan son of God: myth becomes history then history becomes myth again. This cycle has repeated itself for two thousand years. Why can’t we keep things simple and tell the truth? Jesus was probably born in the spring. Christmas works for our market-driven 21st economy, but it’s not historically accurate. I should be able to say this from the pulpit without fear. What matters is that Jesus was born. I have faith in his birth. That, to me, means more than anything else.

Let’s talk about the Wise Men. Can we believe the Holy Family hung around in Nazareth for months (or years) after Jesus’ birth? No. At the same time, Zoroastrian astrologers chased a wandering comet to somehow end up right on his doorstep. It’s a great story, but it’s not true. It’s a beautiful and colorful invention on Matthew’s part to show Jesus’ appeal beyond the Jewish people, but after two thousand years of nativity plays, we’ve come to believe a falsehood; three guys (we assume three because of three gifts it could have been ten, the text doesn’t say an exact number) showed up to pay homage to Jesus.  It’s a weird story and a little dark when you consider it. This low-income family from Galilee, unable to return to Nazareth, was being used as political pawns between these “unsuspecting” foreign dignitaries and King Herod’s machinations for genocide. How could the wise men not have sensed Herod’s evil intentions? If we take Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the innocents at face value, they were crucial to Herod’s plan to murder hundreds of innocent children. As the story stands, the Wise Men are accessories to genocide. Today, they would be tried as war criminals in an international criminal court. We regard them as side players and bathrobe-wearing extras in our nativity pageants. No, they do not belong.

Historians, for decades, have looked for evidence of a large-scale genocide of children in the region around Bethlehem during the years 4-6 BCE.  None has ever been found. There is no historical or archaeological evidence of Herod’s massacre of the innocents. To fulfill the prophecy that Jesus needed to come “out” of Egypt like a new Moses, Jesus and his family needed a reason to be driven into Egypt. Matthew provided one. Do we need to hinge our faith in a manufactured genocide? The wise men never arrived in Bethlehem because the precipitating event which drove them home “by another route” never occurred.

What does this do to our image of Jesus as a refugee, fleeing Herod’s persecution to live in a foreign land (Egypt)? This, too, rests in the category of Matthew’s embellishments. Perhaps Christians should help refugees because it is the right and moral thing to do, not because Matthew claims that Jesus was a refugee. Do we not have an obligation to aid the poor because it is right to help them above and beyond the fact that Jesus was poor? If we’re only doing the right thing because our stories tell us to do so, then what on earth are we doing?

What’s wrong with letting Jesus, the redeemer of humanity, stand on his own two feet? Isn’t Jesus strong enough to warrant our attention span without these admittedly good yarns? Why do we believe our faith, to survive, needs to be woven through misrepresentations, outright distortions of the truth, and fantasy? If I knew that, I wouldn’t be telling you what I don’t dare preach on Christmas.

–Richard Bryant

Truth Telling on Advent 4

Do you remember when you were born? I don’t mean, “Do you know your birthday?” I mean, “Do you remember the moment when you were born?” I mean the lights, the labor and delivery room, the nurses, the OB-GYN, your mama pushing you out, and so on. If you do, then we need to talk. Someone at PBS, NOVA or the Discovery Channel will want to do a documentary on you. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. We don’t have any memories of the moment we entered planet Earth. So, if Matthew were to write a story of our lives, he’d have to begin it this way, “Now the birth of (Insert your name here) took place in this way,” and then he’d have to talk to people who were there at our birth. Let’s say our mother, father, the doctor, and maybe a nurse. Matthew would have to chat with some first-person eyewitnesses to record how our births took place. Provided they were still alive, he could talk to people who witnessed the event. There might even be video footage of your birth for people born after a specific date. It sounds like an easy thing to do.

Now go with me on this, if Matthew wanted to tell the story of your birth, but he waited until you were dead, your mother was dead, your father was dead, the doctor was dead, the nurses were dead, and not one of the first or even second-hand witnesses remained. On top of waiting until all the witnesses had passed on, he waited sixty years after your birth (30 after your death) to begin his birthday retelling project. Where would he get his details? Would his details be anywhere near accurate? Remember, Matthew is very definite in what he writes, sixty years after Jesus’ birth, thirty years after Jesus’ death, after both Jesus’ parents have died, he knows that the “birth of the Messiah took place in this way.” My parents can’t remember what they had for lunch yesterday. They will reflect a little bit about the day I was born almost 49 years ago yet Matthew has access to a transcript of a conversation between an angel and the now deceased Joseph. You can see where I’m going this this: can we trust Matthew, who wasn’t in Bethlehem, looking back over sixty years, trying to piece together the recollections of people who are long dead? There is no Ancestry.com. What about his story makes sense if we use our common sense? Given what we know of the vagaries of time and memories, what rings true, and what sounds like he’s weaving a yarn?

Let’s do this one more time. There’s another writer. We’ll call him Luke. He tells the story of Jesus’ birth some five to ten years after Matthew tells his story. If you’re keeping track, that would be 65-70 years after the birth of Jesus.  All the same vital people are dead. Even more crucial characters are dead by this time. Peter and Paul have long been executed in Rome. Jesus’ brother James is dead. The original tenuous connections you had to the birth story are not there. Luke writes his versions. Joseph’s role is nearly nonexistent. There are no wise men. There is no King Herod or the massacre of the innocents. Yes, we’ve got shepherds and angels, but they are two different stories. That’s because they are. We like to smash them together every Christmas, but it only makes a liturgical, theological, and Biblical mess. It may be the worst thing the church does at Christmas. After the church Christmas pageant, we’re left with fragments of the truth lying on the floor, and everyone goes home bathing in the warmth of the same old misunderstandings. Could we try telling the truth this year before the Wise Men and the Little Drummer Boy show just after Mary’s birth?

Suppose you were to ask your parents or the people at your birth what happened. In that case, I guarantee you wouldn’t get two vastly different stories with different characters, a different doctor, or a non-existent drummer boy. Time might be compressed, and you might remember the color of the delivery room walls differently than your partner, but your parents would tell the same story because they were both there and witnessed it. It is a shared historical event. No one would tell two drastically different stories. To do so would raise multiple red flags about the health and well-being of one of the two people. Matthew and Luke aren’t crazy. It upsets me that they never intended to tell the same story. Accuracy wasn’t important to them. This bothers me. Why do accuracy, authority, and faith need to be mutually exclusive?

Matthew and Luke were not first-hand witnesses to the birth of Jesus. It is doubtful they knew anyone who was. Most of those persons who knew Jesus personally had died before they began to write their gospels. The differences between the two stories, which illustrate us the different priorities within Matthew’s community and among Luke’s readers, show us that they were telling stories for their audience, not accurately relating history as they knew it. Don’t get me wrong; I like good yarn. I also like the truth. If I’m telling the Good News, the Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I want to get it right, especially today. Our congregations are tired of lies, subterfuge, and alternative facts. If we don’t proclaim the truth at Advent, when can we? I find it harder and harder to live with the contradictions in scripture, to either ignore them or reason them away with the logic I was taught in seminary. We’ve got to be better than the pious platitudes we were given to deal with these silly contradictions.

So what can we say with any historical certainty and not feel like we’re lying to the people in the pews this 4th Sunday of Advent 2022:

Jesus was born.

Jesus had a mother.

She was called Mary

Jesus had a father.

He was called Joseph.

God works in mystery.

Don’t feel you have to make stuff up to sell the story.

Life is a miracle.

The mystery is the miracle.

–Richard Bryant

Putting On Your Loudest Christmas Sweater – A Reflection on Romans 13:11-14

Underlying The Season of Advent is one central idea expressed in three ways:

Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

God’s Love for Humanity

1. The gulf between God and humanity is slightly more comprehensible than ever before in human history. Instead of:

GOD IN THE DISTANCE.

GOD ON A MOUNTAINTOP.

GOD HEARD IN THE ANGER OF THUNDER.

GOD IS HIDDEN AMONG CLOUDS.

We may interact with God directly as we interact with one another. Speak with God as you would speak to a loving parent or friend.

The gulf between humanity and God is permanently bridged. God is present and embodied incarnate in a family and the larger human community.

2. We love each other as we love ourselves. This is our framework for living and relating to other people. It’s how we fine-tune our corner of the universe every day. This is incredibly hard work. It’s easy to see why Jesus distilled 613 commandments into this single idea because it is full-time work.

If we can master this idea, our ability to love more, fight less, make peace, mend the broken fabric of society, feed hungry people, and be as Christlike as possible becomes easier. We have a chance at a kind of love we’ve never had before, making the prophetic ideal a reality.

3. We layer these habits and practices into our lives, one on top of another. (Think of putting on a loud, ugly, colorful Christmas sweater and then another on top of that and then another on top of that one.)

Paul calls this putting on “the armor of light” or putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

If we can put meat on the bone of commandment one by being in a community/relationship, incarnational living with Jesus (internalizing this moral vision), then loving God and loving each other is the natural byproduct.  If we put on and internalize outlandish love (spiritually), we will give away Christ’s love extravagantly (spiritually and physically).

Once you’ve put this one on, it’s never seasonal or out of style. You do not need to take it off. It becomes part of who you are – people see the Jesus in you if it’s on you, like a loud Christmas sweater, a Santa tie, or bright red shoes. It’s who you are all year long.

–Richard Bryant

Advent, Proust, and the Search for Lost Time

Photo by Eugene Shelestov on Pexels.com

Advent is a season of preparation, but it is also about time. We live in what Samuel Beckett called “the Proustian equation…that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation-Time.”** Time is at the heart of the Advent argument. There is not enough of it to go around. What time exists is perpetually eroded by commercialism, secularism, and commitments that pull people away from the church. Instead of preparing for the unexpected and jarring arrival of an infant who redefines the meaning of time itself, we, like Proust, go searching for lost time. We find none.

Where has the time gone? We’ve given it away and done so freely. The world isn’t taking it away. It’s always easier to blame others but we are our greatest foe. We set our schedules and make priorities. The competition between the sacred and the secular is something we create and impose on ourselves. There is only one time, one moment, and it is this season of preparation. Advent remains, in perpetual time, waiting for us to return and to prepare our hearts for this all-important moment in human history.  If we step outside this moment, Advent isn’t diminished, the church isn’t devalued, and Christmas hasn’t lost its meaning. No, we’re allowing sacred time to be determined solely in a chronological, linear fashion. We cannot talk about eternity, the cosmos, and the incarnation in this way. God is beyond time. Advent is about going off the clock and saying no to a world that measures reality in winners, losers, minutes, seconds, hours, and days. Do you want a more meaningful Advent and Christmas? Change how you think about your time.

–Richard Bryant

**Samuel Becket, Proust, Grove Press, 1957.

A Creed for Advent

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

The living God dwells among us!

The word of God made incarnate through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is what we now proclaim:

We believe in God who has never stopped creating.

We believe that we are forever being made new by God

We believe in the promise of the covenant; to be a blessing to our neighbors, families, and friends.

We believe in Jesus Christ, who though he was God, became human, and in his humility died the death of all humankind.

We believe in the Holy Spirit. The spirit is the presence of God is in our midst; creating community and centering our lives.

We believe in the Holy Trinity, the living, loving relationship between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe the Trinity is an example of how we should relate to one another in love.

We believe God will one day redeem humanity in ways beyond our understanding and until this time, we are with God and God is with us in the places we are called to serve.

We believe that God is not through with us yet!

O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

–Richard Bryant

The Reason for the Season (New)

Once we acknowledge Jesus as the “reason for the season,” what comes next? Can we leave such an important piece of information unattended and expect it to explain itself? No, we cannot. To make a confessional statement about the incarnation and the identity of Jesus requires multiple next steps. Once we’ve declared, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” what do we do? What’s expected of someone who accepts “Jesus is the reason for the season”?

Firstly, we are on the hook for living like we believe the statement to be true. We made a truth claim, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” (One of the most important truth claims in human history.) Do our lives reflect this reality? Are we on Christian autopilot, or are we living like Jesus frames our approach to gift-giving, encountering the poor, and helping the oppressed? In short, are we rejecting ideas antithetical to the infant’s reason for being?  It is easy to say a catchy phrase and get on with our lives?

Secondly, Jesus is not an abstract reason. Jesus is not a tool to be used in a culture war/war on Christmas argument. Jesus is the living breathing son of God, made flesh as the child of Joseph and Mary. Those who first came to Jesus were drawn to Bethlehem by scripture, relationships, angels, friends, and family. A quest for reasons didn’t lead the shepherds to Christ. They were driven by the idea of divine prophetic fulfillment, and a realization of God’s work for humanity was being accomplished in Bethlehem. To isolate Jesus as the single rhyming phrase “reason for the season” undercuts and devalues all God was hoping to achieve in and through the incarnation. If we’ll talk about Jesus as a cliche, who’s to say we won’t live like he’s one as well? I can imagine nothing worse than a cliched Jesus.

So who is Jesus? He is everything!  Jesus is more than a single reason representing the intricate beauty of God’s desire to be reconciled with humanity that was first unveiled in Bethlehem.

Richard Lowell Bryant

This Is What Christmas Looks Like

I love the Nativity story not because it is warm and fuzzy, but because of its overall message of perseverance against cruelty. Whether it’s the abject cruelty of Herod’s population policies or the brutality of the innkeepers “no,” at each step of the way, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

That’s the Christmas I know and love. No, this is not the Christmas where you’re worried about perfect food, decorations, or guests. I’m talking about the one where the abject cruelty of the world has attempted to intervene somewhere between God’s love and salvation only to realize that goodness triumphs over evil.

The original Christmas story is an overwhelming experience. To see the forces of light and dark play themselves out can be frightening and exhilarating. Here, before our eyes, the very emotions, ideas, and people in which Jesus spoke come to life. Will we respond in a way consistent with the gospel? Will we do justice amidst the injustice that surrounds us?

The phone rang at my office, mid-morning. The caller id said his name was Eddie. When I answered, he said he was out of gas. Stuck in the parking lot of the Piggy-Wiggly, he might have enough to make it to the gas station down the street. Could I help him? He’d been here for work that fell through, and now he needed to get back home, which was at least a couple of hours down the road.

I met him at the gas station. Eddie was working on checking his oil and power steering fluid. He wanted to take care of this minivan. It was also his home. In the place he parked, he risked the van being broken into at night, damaged, and parts robbed. He needed new windshield wipers.

That would mean a trip to the auto parts store. We drove across the street from the gas station. Eddie was able to find some oil, power steering fluid, and wipers. The men from the shop even helped us install the wipers. If it rained, he could see. His home would be safer on the small, two-lane roads he’d be traveling.

“I’m going to make it,” he said. “I have to keep trying.” I suspect those same words came from Joseph and Mary as they traveled to and from Bethlehem.

Christmas looks like many things. Our sanitized images of mangers, stables, babies, parents, and wise men are one set of pictures. Our love of tradition should not cause us to forget the reality which brings us together in Advent and Christmas. I think Christmas also looks like my encounter with Eddie. It is unpredictable and sometimes tragic. Christmas is good people struggling against poverty, homelessness, and trying to make a place in a hostile world. That’s the essence of the Christmas story found in the Gospels. If we can’t see the modern aspects of the ancient Christmas story, then we’re missing an opportunity to appreciate the Incarnation of Christ. We’ve become a obstacle to the Gospel instead of a means of sharing the message. Nobody wants to be an obstacle, especially at Christmas. Help someone along, past the Christmas barriers we’ve created so that the Incarnation may be the most visible reality in our world.

Richard Lowell Bryant