Playing Fast and Loose with Miracles

On Sunday morning, it was a miracle.  A parishioner’s sister was moved to the top of a transplant list.  They had a donor.  After years of waiting, their prayers were answered.  Soon she would be traveling to help her sister through the surgery and recovery process.  This morning, she shared some tragic news with our church family.  While preparing blood work for the operation, doctors diagnosed her sister with cancer.  There will be no transplant.  It is now on to the oncologists.  The miracle is no more.

The longer I work as a representative for organized religion (Protestant Christianity), the more I am troubled by the language of “miracles”.  I’m supposed to believe in miracles.  At least that’s how I feel.  It would not be unreasonable to suggest that a Protestant pastor believe in miracles.   While no one made me sign a statement requiring me to declare a belief in miracles, I agree a belief in miraculous prayer is something people (both Christian and otherwise) associate with clergy.  This being said, it is difficult for me to use the traditional language of miracles.

The more I witness the uneven distribution of miracles; the more I’ve come to doubt them.  I mean “miracles” in both the loosest and strictest sense of the word.  Christians throw the word around with reckless abandon.  Miracles can be anything unexplainable which benefits our lives and we attribute those blessings to God’s intervention.   Now, I’m referring to medical miracles; such as those I mentioned at the beginning:  going in to remission or receiving an organ donor.  If the medically (or physically) unlikely happens, such an event might be described by people of faith as a miracle, a miraculous response to the church or community’s prayers.

What’s changed my mind?  Some people have better medical care, health insurance, doctors, genetics, and luck working on their side.  If they win their battle against disease, it’s not a miracle; it’s more the result of a successful gamble against overwhelming odds.  If people don’t receive “their” miracle, then what happened?  Was God not listening?  Did God not care about their prayers?  Was it not their time to be healed?  There is never a satisfactory explanation.  I can’t believe God is selective with miracles.  Either some people get lucky or there are no miracles at all.  A God who plays favorites is no God at all.

These are all questions I’m asked by people whose prayers aren’t answered, whose miracle doesn’t happen, and are facing their own mortality.  They’ve done everything right.  They’re praying, getting others to pray for them, following the advice of their doctors, and taking their medical care seriously.  As Christians go, they’re at the top of the class. Yet, there’s no miracle.  Same doctor, same treatments, same church, same group of people praying, and the miracles are nonexistent.

What are miracles?  Most of the time, miracles are coagulated luck.  Medical miracles are the result of the right amount of science mixed with things going in our favor.  Doctors and medical professionals work to save our lives.  Sometimes God gets credit for the work doctors are trained to do.  God works through doctors.  Miracles (or what we call miracles) are part of the randomness of the universe.  Sometimes people live and sometimes they die.  There is no good explanation.  We don’t know why random sickness strikes certain people and why some are arbitrarily healed.  As much as we may want to know or feel we deserve to know, we don’t get that information.  I think it helps us sleep better at night if we attribute what we call miracles (i.e. randomness) to God.  I don’t believe medical miracles (as I’ve described them) have much to do with God.  But, because we’ve evolved into religious people, it helps us keep going if we think God has magic bullet solutions to those things that might kill us, even if it is arbitrary.  Because who knows, like our fixation on all games of chance, many of us treat belief in God like a lottery ticket we hope will eventually pay off.

God loves us.  One way this love is evident is through modern medicine.  What keeps us alive most often is science doing all it can when it can.  Sometimes this will work, sometimes it won’t.  This may have everything and nothing to do with God.  I don’t know.  I do know we’re too willing to attribute every good thing that happens in our life to God and every bad thing to the rampant rise of evil.  This isn’t a healthy theology either.  God isn’t playing chess with our lives.

I don’t believe in a God who manipulates the lives of sick people.  I don’t know what you call a supernatural being, in whom we vested the power of arbitrary life and death, but I don’t call that being God.  I think this idea is a divine relic of our prehistoric past.  It’s not the God of Jesus Christ or the God of creeds.

What do I say to the parishioner who thanked God for the miracle this past Sunday morning?  I will say God is going to walk with her through the pain.  God suffers with her and her sister.  I will say there are no easy answers.  I will remind her that as we wait for test results and news, God waits with us.  We will pray for the doctors, nurses, and professionals who are caring for her sister.  We will pray for each other.  Listening and sharing will help.  When illness pushes our lives to the limits; I will say that God moves with us to the margins, pitches a tent, and shares our days.  If silence is best, I won’t say a word.

I do know this.  I’m through talking about miracles.   From where I stand, it does more harm than good.

Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant

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Unpopular Opinions for August 26th, 2017

1. What good is a 20 minute sermon on loving one’s neighbor (or other specifics of Jesus’ teachings) when many in our congregations have spent Monday to Friday as disciples of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity learning a vocabulary of fear and reasons to despise others?

2. After hours of daily radio broadcasts plus television with Tucker Carlson in the evening, how can the church of Jesus Christ present a different way to look at reality when so many people attend the Church of Fox News (and its offshoots)? Jesus, preachers, and mainline Christianity can’t do it.  We’ve lost this battle.

3. A Christian worldview contrasts from a Sean, Rush, Tucker, Fox News, or Breitbart worldview. A Christian worldview is incompatible with most of the dominant American consumerist culture.

4. Here’s the answer to the first question; it does no good. If our sermons don’t echo sentiments or reinforce ideas in line with what millions of people are hearing from their weekday Sunday School lessons from Rush or Sean, people will leave our churches and take their money.  It’s already happening. It goes by other names (opposition homosexual clergy and gay marriage) but this is what we’re witnessing. Jesus following isn’t a popularity contest.  We can’t argue with people who are convinced they’ll be waving to us from Heaven on our way to Hell.

5. Will those who remain in our churches do the hard work of preaching the Good News or just complain about their neighbors? I’m not certain. Jesus was willing to die. Memes are far easier to post.

6.  Love is hard.  We can love harder.  Be a living sermon.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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).

Giving Up American Christianity for Lent

 

IMG_5247What makes us uniquely Christian?  Is it our practice of Christianity in an American context?  Or is it our Wesleyan expression of Christianity within the American setting?  Perhaps, as many have said, the nation-state now colors everything.  Christianity, as we have come to practice it in 2017 is indistinguishable from its original form.  Diluted in the murky waters of time, money, denominationalism, politics, and well-refined American theologies; Christianity in America appears less and less Christian.  We bear little resemblance to those who first took the name in Antioch, Syria.

We invoke the name of a God (assumed to be the Judeo-Christian deity), we pray, we worship, and we serve those in our communities.  However, the fifty/fifty split which divides America politically separates many congregations.  Evangelical churches refuse to recognize the validity of their liberal colleagues.  I’ve witnessed this in my own community.  Christianity is diffused into hundreds of tiny, easily manipulated definitions of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ.  As such, a new language is created, spoken only by the self-appointed defenders of the faith.  Those who speak these languages exist on the right and the left of the theological and political spectrum.  Neither group has a desire to understand or listen to each other.  Some, on the left, emerged from the evangelical right.  They bemoan their former stupidity and how they were so slow at not “getting” the message.  They regularly implore their fellow evangelicals to jump ship.   Those on the right are comfortable with their positions.  God seems to be on their side.  After all, didn’t God put their guy in the White House?

The man who prayed at the inauguration certainly thought so.  People I’ve met with since then have held the same opinion, God (the Christian one), is invested in the success of America’s government.  Since the Pilgrims arrived, we’ve operated under the idea that God had a special place in God’s heart for the people who lived in this country.  From moment one, our goodness and our God-ness became inseparable.  Our Christianity was part of who we were as a free people.  Pretty soon, given the religious language in the founding documents and the frequency with which the founders quoted the Bible, it became hard to talk about America without also mentioning God or Christianity.  Everything seemed like a natural fit.   That was until people started coming to America, took their words about religious freedom seriously, and began to use their own faith languages.  After all this time, we’re once again at an impasse.  There seems to be only on way to talk about Christianity.

Here’s the thing though:  those guys who were also  big on talking about God, were also huge on using God to justify human bondage.  (Even the so-called “enlightened” ones like Thomas Jefferson.) There were some critical areas where they didn’t see the big picture as it relates to God.  Yet, they were really adept at looking at how God would view and bless their own narrow self interests as landowners.  Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a good idea to bind up America’s identity with Christianity in the first place.  What if, for Lent, we started giving up some of the America in American Christianity? Strip out the America like we’re removing old shag carpet from a room we’re trying to renovate!  What might that look like?  Would it be unrecognizable from the shimmering little white church I’m serving now?  I hope so.  Would it be devoid of racist and anti-Semitic references in scripture, prayer, and theology?  You bet.  Would it allow Jesus’ words to speak for themselves without trying to make them fit every first world problem we encounter?  You know it.

Food for Thought-Letting Go of American Christianity

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When did it happen?

Was it after a meeting?

Was it in the middle of a worship service?

Maybe it was the impact of reading John the Baptizer’s sermon on Isaiah.

Perhaps it was all, none, or some of each. I do know this. It has finally happened.

What is it?

I must let go of the cookie cutter, pre-fabricated, one size fits all, Americanized, deodorized, and sanitized Christianity I’ve been pushing as the Gospel. I live in a denominational culture (and society) which increasingly expects Jesus’ values to be synonymous with those who are outraged at red cups, the placement of nativity scenes, gay marriage, health care, and admitting Syrian refugees. There is an expectation that I will echo those sentiments and mirror the beliefs being placed onto Jesus’ blank conscience. I can no longer meet these expectations. I will not put the words of presidential candidates or cultural commentators into Jesus’ mouth. I will no longer be an American Christian who preaches the American Jesus.

As emphatic as I am, I need to be clear:

I am not a heretic.

I am a Christian. I am also an American. The two are not synonymous. They are not the same. My Christianity doesn’t automatically demand my allegiance to any political movement, party, or cause.

I am obedient to God. I am a radical monotheist.

The Bible is an entire book; not a few flawed scriptures to be exploited for personal or political gain.

I believe in Jesus.

I believe in what neither the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed bother to mention: love.  The love of God is as powerful as it is inexplicable.  

Jesus isn’t uniquely American, one size fits all, clean, Christian, or Methodist. I’m tired of publicly pretending otherwise. Jesus is Jesus.  He may be a Syrian Muslim refugee one day.  He may be a homeless veteran the next day.  He is both things at all times.  You can’t pin Jesus down.

When we try to put God in a box of our own creation, God leaves the box.  Inside, we will find a distorted version of ourselves.  This distortion is man-made god which hates what we hate, loves what we loves, and is not God.  It is an idol, a false God.  

We’ve made Jesus an outsider in his own church. As such, many of the people we need to reach and welcome into the body of Christ have been marginalized by the church and become outsiders by the Americanization of the Gospel. For example, we’ve made discriminating against gay and lesbian Christians a theological and bureaucratic art form. Cloaked in the language of administrative compromise, we’ve convinced ourselves the soft bigotry of fake love is justified because our strangely warmed hearts are in the right place.

I’m letting go of the security of being an insider so I can better embrace the outsiders.

I’m letting go of explaining why God loves, blesses, and anoints some persons and not others.  God loves everyone without condition. 

I’m letting go of trying to make Jesus culturally acceptable for American congregations. He is who he is.  Jesus is  from Roman Palestine. He is Jewish.  He is brown skinned and dirt poor.

I’m letting go of the fear underlying the United Methodist apportionment system, America’s immigration system, our national defense system, and so many areas of our lives.

I’m letting go of the hammers being handed me.  I’m tired of being told I’m only effective if I’m hitting things.  

What I’ve said here will make people angry. They will read my words and see themselves in what I’ve written. Others may feel attacked. I’m not attacking anyone.   If you find my words disturbing, I would ask you to examine your own conscience.  You can join me.   You don’t have to hold on any longer.  Once you’ve let go and your hands are free, imagine what we could pick up. The broken lives and shattered souls, discarded among the ruins of our perpetual Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays wait to be mended.

I am happy to have shared this time with you.

Blessings for Advent

Food for Thought-What the Dress Can Teach the Mainline Church

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People will devote a few moments of their time to consider the most inane and pointless questions. This is the existential reality of social media. This is what I learned from last weekend’s viral epidemic known as “what color is the dress”. In truth, I knew this already. The idea was only reinforced in ways that made our collective fascination with the stupid all too real. To be honest, it has made me angry. Whether a contrived plot by a marketing genius or a bridesmaids gown gone awry, this dress did what most Christian churches have been unable to do for decades; it got people to stop and pay attention to what’s in the background and foreground of the world around them. What are we doing wrong, that people can’t see the contrast between Jesus’ idea of loving our neighbors and how we live so out of touch with that reality? When a badly framed optical illusion can capture the attention of more people in less time than our most well-thought out and well funded publicity campaigns; we’ve missed something. Are we too afraid of the political and social consequences of putting a radical picture of Christ forward; this is who we are and make of it what you will?

What am I suggesting? The method and means in which the mainline Protestant churches are attempting to connect with the wider world are spiritually and theologically bankrupt. We are out of spiritual and theological capital to invest in this enterprise. The shareholders of our corporation, those rank and file members who would front the “funds” to pay for further investment are no longer willing to part with the cash (energy, time, money, effort). In fact, I don’t believe they see any value in the enterprise as it is currently constructed. Throwing good money into theologically bankrupt projects has sewn seeds of mistrust and doubt throughout local congregations in the United Methodist Church. Until we declare bankruptcy, we operate with the illusion of evangelical and missional solvency. Clearly, the money we’re spending and the well meaning programs we introduce don’t resonate in the same way viral videos and internet memes ever will. The façade of contemporary Methodist evangelism doesn’t even want to acknowledge what these seemingly silly trends are getting right and what we might be doing wrong.

Why “Confessing” United Methodists Think Pastors Like Me Are The Problem

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1. You have come to understand what you (or anyone else) believes about the divinity of Christ is immaterial to being a Christian. What matters most is how you give life to the love which was embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. God wants the logos, the word, what Jesus made real to come to life and live in us.

2. You’ve stopped looking for God “up there” and realize that the Kingdom of God is in front of us, right now, down here. God can transform our lives and actions today. When we long for Heaven, we’re condemning the world God created and squandering the opportunity to let God’s love transform the present.

3. You’re OK with not knowing the answers to every question, concern, or problem raised by religious belief. In fact, you thrive on the questions and the tensions they create.

4. A church member or members have visited your house to tell you are wrong and are concerned your salvation may be in jeopardy.

5. You see the “culture war” as a manufactured agenda designed to create division and anger where it doesn’t exist. You’ve also come to view the culture war as an attempt to place all Christian in one theological camp. When you pose questions like, “does (insert controversial supposed Christian issue) really matter in the grand scheme of things?” you are met with blank stares.

6. You have no trouble believing the epic poem which describes God’s hand in creation (Genesis 1) and you are fully onboard with all aspects of evolutionary biology and cosmological physics.

7. You realize that nationalism, xenophobia, and believing America has some kind of special status in God’s divine plan is misguided and wrong.

8. You find yourself explaining to others how, just because you’re a pastor, it doesn’t mean you wear polo shirts when you preach and you’ve never read any of the “Left Behind” books.

9. You find yourself talking more and more about God’s love.

10. You find the idea of Hell is inconsistent with the God described by Paul in Romans 8:35.