A Niemoller Moment circa 2017 (First They Came)

First they came for athletes calling attention to police brutality and racism. I did not speak out.
Because I was never brutalized for being white.
Then they came for the dreamers, bi-lingual achievers, and immigrant families. I did not speak out.
Because I was handed the American dream.
Then they came for anyone who disagreed with their version of reality, religion, and life. I did not speak out.
Because I could not find something to Tweet.
Then one Sunday morning, they came for me.
The church was empty, the streets were bare,
And there was no one left to speak for me.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

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What Changed My Life

What changed my life?  How was my soul saved?  When did Christianity start to click? Here’s my story:  I wasn’t on drugs, broke, and homeless.  I didn’t stumble into an AA meeting.  Nor did I walk by a man holding a sign reading “Hellfire or Jesus” and feel compelled by my own fear of death to repent on a downtown sidewalk.  I’m not discounting dramatic conversions.  It wasn’t what I knew.  Dramatic conversions get more attention in church.  However, my experience tells me they are the minority.  It’s the gradual, under the radar, one step at a time, journeys toward a deeper faith, which are more common.

I attended church whenever the doors were open.  I joined the youth group.  In the most general way, these activities made sense.  I went on mission trips.  We visited to the homeless shelter to serve meals.  I played the piano in church.  All the Christian dots were in place yet none of them really connected.  That connection came later.  The weekly religious repetition bred familiarity.  In my case, the familiarity didn’t bring contempt.  If anything, I was bored.

The things we did were good.  We talked about issues that seemed holy and historic.  Yet nothing connected my faith to the wider world.  How was what I learned in church supposed to shape my life beyond the church?  I didn’t feel that link was made.  These stories Jesus told, what did they mean for Christians today?  I thought I understood the Good Samaritan story but there were countless other parables I didn’t grasp.  Even in the Samaritan story, there seemed to be more happening beneath the surface.  Then Jesus kept speaking about the “kingdom of God”, what was this kingdom?  The kingdom looked nothing at all like the world I knew or wanted to join.  Jesus’ vision of reality and my idea of right and wrong were not the same.  Here’s where the first test came.  Would I try to find a way to make Jesus’ teachings fit my conceptions of what I had been taught it meant to be a Christian?  Or, would I allow Jesus to reshape my understanding of what it means to be his disciple, from scratch?  If that meant I was called a Methodist or Marxist, I didn’t care.  I wanted, most importantly, to be an authentic follower of Jesus Christ.

To let Jesus work on me, I needed to meet Jesus again for the first time.  There is no better place to encounter Jesus than in his stories.  In scripture, these are the records of Jesus’ encounters with crowds both large and small.  In his parables, Jesus describes his ideal conception of reality.  He called it “the kingdom of God”.  The kingdom is here, embodied in Christ’s mission and ministry.  In another way, it’s still on the way, an unrealized expectation for the future.  Jesus’ stories describe, by way of parabolic illustration, what’s important to Jesus and how his priorities must become ours.  It’s in listening and then acting on what we hear that the kingdom of God becomes a three dimensional reality.

These stories aren’t Jesus’ suggestions for better living.  They are handbooks for a way forward.  For too long, I heard them preached (and saw people treat them) as morality tales.  “Oh wouldn’t be nice if we could all live this way,” I’d hear someone say after church.  “Too bad Jesus doesn’t live in the real world.”

Eventually I realized a couple of important ideas.  Jesus does live in the real world and his words carry weight and value.  Many of the United Methodists I knew were willing to write Jesus off as a Christian version Aesop but took parts of the Old Testament literally.  While Jesus could be easily ignored, they were willing to consider Moses’ word as law.  I saw an even greater disconnect between how the church sees Jesus, God, the role of scripture, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

There’s one parable running perpendicular across the grain of American society.  This story, Matthew 20:1-6, stands in stark opposition to the Protestant work ethic, free market economics, Capitalism, and good old fashioned American ideas about hard work.   If we’re not uncomfortable with the telling of this story, we’re not listening.  It makes me squirm and I credit it with bringing me to salvation.  Jesus is reordering the world and redefining our sense of fairness.  Equality will no longer be measured by the terms we’ve grown accustomed.

This is the parable that saved my soul.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who wanted to hire some help for the day.  So early in the morning, he went to that spot, you know the one, where everybody who wants to be a day laborer hangs out, and picks up some guys.  He says, “I’ll pay one denarii for working in my vineyard for the day.”  They agree.  Into the vineyard they go.

A few hours later, he goes back to the market place and sees more people who need work.  He offers them an opportunity to go into the vineyard but doesn’t agree on a price.  He only says, “I’ll pay you whatever is right.”

The vineyard owner does this two more times.  At lunch and then around mid-afternoon, he goes back into town and hires more workers for the vineyard.  Each time, they agree to go into the vineyard.  On these subsequent occasions a wage is never discussed.  The landowner only questions the men as to why they were never hired earlier in the day.  “Nobody hired us,” they say.  These men were unemployed or unemployable.  This landowner hires everybody.  In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is sending a powerful message about full employment.

When the end of the day came, he called his foreman to pay the workers.  He began with the last ones hired.  Those who showed up at five received one denarii.  The same thing happened with the people who came at three, twelve, and nine.  The morning crowd was certain they’d be paid more since they worked all day.  It didn’t happen.  Everyone was paid one denarii.  The guys who’d worked since dawn were angry.  How could he do this?   Didn’t he know they’d worked in the hot sun all day and the guys who came last did nothing?  What was this, some kind of socialist plot?  You can’t pay everyone the same thing.  Where’s your motivation for getting ahead, incentives, and advancement?

I realized something:  Jesus doesn’t have the same bottom line as Wal-Mart, Walt Disney, or the United States of America.  His priorities are rooted in meeting long term needs.  Short term visions of equality are not consistent with God’s vision of fairness.

The landowner explains, “I paid you what I agreed.  It’s my call to pay what I like and to whom.”   In Jesus’ kingdom, as the landowner explains, the least and last are as important as the first and those guaranteed to be well-paid.

If you didn’t know Jesus said these things, removed this story from the Bible, and heard an aggrieved worker call a radio talk show with this story, what would the response be? The decline of America, socialism infecting small town America, and the workers would probably be immigrants taking American jobs.  You know I’m right.

This is why this story saved my soul.  This parable is everything Jesus wants us to be and still we refuse to listen.  Jesus is hiding in plain sight.  He’s telling this parable right now.  My thoughts about healthcare and immigration are viewed through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection not because I read Leviticus 19 nor had a great mission trip experience as a young adult.  My salvation became real when I read Matthew 20:1-16.  Jesus talked about life as it is lived.  I began to take Jesus seriously, at face value, and at his word.  I think Jesus cares about economics and our souls.  This parable proves it. Jesus meddles in politics and religion in ways that many Americans would despise.  I think that’s great.  We’ve taken him for granted for far too long.  He’s not our American Idol.  He’s our Savior.  There is a difference we’d do well to remember.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

Unpopular Opinions of the Day

1. I am convinced, after last night, that 1/3 of the country could easily kill another 1/3 of the country while the remaining 1/3 watches silently.

2. I am also persuaded the 1/3 doing the killing would have no moral or ethical problem with genocide if they believed it was sanctioned in the name of the Judeo-Christian God.

3. I am concerned.

4. At this rate, it doesn’t matter what the United Methodist Church does about human sexuality at the special General Conference of the regular General Conference. We won’t have to worry about the church splitting; one third of us might be dead. The remnant, meeting somewhere in secret, will put together a working group on post-genocidal America. We might expect a report in 2024.

5. The silent 1/3 thinks I’m joking.

A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words

America – a pre-existing condition in need of constant reassurance.

Belief – The idea that feelings equate to reality.  (See Truth)

Christ – Jesus’ last name.

Jesus – Itinerant weeper.

God – Head of a US based multinational corporation which invests in social networking applications, web based communications technology, and merit based wish fulfillment.  (See Mark Zuckerberg).

Truth – Any knowledge, information, or ideas yet to be deemed as “fake”.

Zuckerberg, Mark – Senior Pastor, First Church of Facebook (see God).

10 Reasons Jesus Couldn’t Get Elected President By Either Political Party

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1. Jesus never challenged the existing Roman or Jewish system of taxation. He is a free trader with and a regular visitor to Tyre and Samaria. Is he too invested in the status quo? Does he not care about Galilean jobs?

2. His ludicrous views on nonviolence and love would render him unsupportable to national security voters in either party. You cannot love your enemy in a world of multi-level threats from non-state actors and resurgent nuclear states.

3. He rebuked a follower for using a concealed weapon to defend him. Is Jesus weak on the 2nd Amendment?

4. He once called a Samaritan woman a “dog” who wanted his help and assistance. Is Jesus not a feminist? Does he hate women?

5. He undermined local, family fishing businesses (and the equivalent of a 1st century commercial fishing union) of their workforce by recruiting their labor to do non-economic tasks. Does Jesus want to destroy local, family run business?

6. Jesus was fond of name calling. “Foxes” and “fools” (the English word fool is translated from the Greek word “moron”) were a few of his favorite insults. Is Jesus too rude for the public to follow?

7. Jesus wouldn’t recognize the terms “Evangelical” or Christian to describe a subset of religious voters. Jesus speaks of a “kingdom”. Is Jesus against Christians? Does Jesus hate America by his refusal to even say such terms?

8. Jesus provided free health care. Regardless of how Jesus financed his medical practice, giving away freed medicine makes him a European style socialist. The healing ministry must be repealed and replaced. Both parties will be split on this issue.

9. Jesus doesn’t want his movement to grow beyond a certain size. He’s invested in growth by word of mouth. He has no ground game.

10. He talked a great deal about money and seems to have problems with the wealthy. Does Jesus hate the rich? Why all the class warfare and income inequality rhetoric? Blessed are the poor? There are other issues, Jesus.

We Are All Mortal

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Our lives will end.  We are all mortal. This is an immutable fact.  We cannot change the reality that the existence we inhabit, enjoy, and know will one day cease.  Reality may end in a hospice bed surrounded by family and friends.  For some, it will end as their homes are bombed from above.  Others will die from diseases transmitted by the smallest living creatures.   Still some will die when they are executed on the floor of a nightclub.  In the end, we will all be dead.  Death is the great equalizer par excellence.  Each of us hopes, that following our passing, to leave a legacy.  Memories of our lives and work will rest with our family and friends.  And, yet, after a time, these memories too shall die.

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Orlando early Sunday morning; survivors, families, and friends are attempting to support each other in the face of death’s ordinary brutality.  They do this by asking questions, telling stories, and questioning the unnatural arrival of death’s all too natural presence.   In crisis, people sing, light candles, and gather near those whom they love.  These images are strong and powerful.  However, they do not change the underlying reality:  death is real, the songs will fade, the candles will be extinguished, and our mourning becomes one part of the global symphony of grief.

We’re Americans, death isn’t supposed to happen to us.  Jesus didn’t beat death on the cross.  John Wayne beat death on Iwo Jima along with Davy Crocket at the Alamo.  Death is for losers.  This is the “American mythology”. When death does come knocking, it’s supposed to be quiet and private after we’re old and frail, well from the public eye.  Death is messy because we are messy.  Confronting death’s messiness, whether in changing a bedpan or in the last fear filled texts from a night club bathroom, isn’t something we want to do.  Death says, to understand why your loved one died, “you might have to grasp that hate is not a monolithic thing, it might be mental illness and religious fundamentalism wrapped up together”.  Death asks you to think about complex ideas when you’re craving simplicity.  Death is complex.

You’ve got today.  Do something good.  If you want to sing a light a candle; I’ll give you a match and help you find your pitch.  Tomorrow isn’t promised.  You are going to die.  I am going to die.  Life will end and everything we thought was so important won’t have mattered at all.  As painful as the reality of death seems, if you miss the opportunity to live in this moment, you have invited death into the present.  Do not give death a reality it has yet to earn.

Find something that is important and benefits life and denies death the gift of today.  Live life to its fullest and meet the reality of death head on.  Zika doesn’t have to kill today, Malaria doesn’t have to murder now, and hunger doesn’t have to take a life.

Death is a reality but death doesn’t have to win the day.  It’s hard to hold those two ideas in our heads. I know this. That’s why I’m glad for the opportunity to work on it each day.  Life is singing your name.  Find a way to shout death down and answer when you hear life say, “do something now!”.