MANIFESTO: The Moderately Mad Preacher Liberation Front (with apologizes and gratitude to Wendell Berry)

I came to know God through people,
(How else does one come to know God?
We are not born with a knowledge of the divine.)

Methodist people,
taught me their vision of God,
a God of America, Jesus, and Jesse Helms,
but under the steeple,
where they confirmed,
and a Bible they gave,
I started to read
and my stomach churned.
This was not a God
In whom I
naturally believed.
But this was in the past
And was I told I must,
Keep calm and carry on,
context was everything.

After all,
in whom did I trust?
In Jesus Christ and his righteousness.
We weren’t literalists,
or fundamentalist nuts
.
But it was there,
in the text.
It bothered,
I was scared.
I didn’t know how to answer
For a God who didn’t care
about
Amalekites
chattel slavery
or human rights.
Israel’s God, the Canaanite Sky God,
El, Elohim, El-Shaddai,
The God of Horeb, Sinai
Smoke, Thunder,
Promises and Death,
Restoration and Renewal
,
Silence and questions,
Religion taken for granted,
Accepted at the value
Of God’s unseen face.


Twenty-plus years later,
I can’t keep up the pace.
I’m on running fumes, Maverick.
My answers are contrived,
sometimes nonexistent,
often delayed and hesitant.
My family doesn’t want to go to church,
with those think themselves exempt
who say they love their neighbors but still show contempt.

Who are my neighbors,
that came to know God,
who read single verses,
and became irate?
Who told them this was okay?
Sinners in the hands of angry teachers,
and they came to know,
the same God?
No!
The God I thought I knew?
None of us do.
We are all making it up
as we go along.

Tell no one, or we’re all through.

The Levitical priests in the 8th century BCE
who carved words
for illiterate shepherds who to read
They, too, were wrong:
To ban loving relationships between people of same gender,
To tell me that I can’t order my shrimp extremely tender,
To prevent me from ordering a sweater with a blend of polyester.
But the next chapter tells me to love my neighbor.
The Book of Leviticus says all four,
Why do we pick one to enforce and another to ignore?
Is it just to be mean?
Despite humanity’s many valedictions,
United Methodists have never learned to live
among the Bible’s most common contradictions.
That reality has killed us.
Now I am alone
standing in the pulpit,
staring at the pew,
where my wife and daughters once sat,
wondering how long it will be,
before I, too, will leave?


Will I have a home in a broken UMC?
Will it be worth it to remain?
I know what they say,
just when I’m almost out of pain,
someone offers to top me up.
And here we are again.
Despite any vote,
that goes for or against, up or down, left or right
we’ll all have to pay.
When will I stop preaching sermons that I hope will not offend,
or be misconstrued
but encourage us to face scriptural contradictions with faith, not fear,
and examine the injustices printed in our “perfect” Book,
“condoned” by our God, hiding within?
Will I ever stop feeling like a fraud,
giving weekly lip service to the God
so many of my sisters and brothers came to know and will not shake?
No one wants to hear the other side of the story.
I am fighting a losing battle.
I know when I’m licked.
I’m pretty well close to done.
I’ll call a one-man, one-vote, disaffiliation conference.
Then we’ll see.
Tick-tock, tick-tock.

–Richard Bryant

You Don’t Use A Net To Fish For People (That’s Called Human Trafficking or Slavery, Not Evangelism) (Matthew 4:12-23)

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I never get tired of talking about the Andy Griffith Show. It was one of the most important shows in the history of American television. Think about all the issues Andy addressed in Mayberry in the early 1960s.  Andy dealt with alcoholism, addiction, greed, fair housing, poverty, women’s rights, single parenting, fair play, and how to handle small-town gossip. He didn’t judge people no matter how uncultured or far back up in the woods they came from.  And he did it all without a gun. And that’s when the show first aired when Eisenhower was in the White House. Andy was cutting-edge! That was, Andy might say, a fair piece of years ago!

There’s an episode where Opie and his friends sell something called “Miracle Salve.”  One of Opie’s buddies, Trey, has been threatened with being “blacklisted” for not selling enough of this worthless salve. The boys don’t know what it means to be blacklisted. Opie guesses his dad will know, so they run off to the sheriff’s office to ask Andy. Andy is out on a call, but they find Barney asleep at his desk.

After waking Barney from a dead slumber, they ask him, “What’s a blacklist?” As he always does, Barney tries to sound more intelligent than he is: “It’s when the party of the first part does something to keep the party of the second part from being able to get a job.” Now the boys are confused. Trey needs this job. Who’s the party of the first part? Some fly-by-night salesmen are taking advantage of the kids, who need summer jobs, to get them to sell their salve.

Barney comes up with this bright idea. He’ll write a letter to the salespeople in Mount Pilot, pretending to be a lawyer, telling them to cease and desist from threatening his clients Opie and Trey. Why is Barney going to do this? He’ll meet one official letter with another. Barney poses his strategy in the form of a question: How do you fight fire? The boys answer with a hose! No! Barney exclaims, “with fire!”  Andy eventually returns, and they run the whole plan by him.  Barney asks him the same question. How do you fight fire? Andy, too says,” with a hose!” Barney, even more frustrated, says, “with fire.”

That’s where we are this morning.  Are we like Andy and Barney having a debate? How do you fish for people? Do we do it with a hose or with fire? Those are not exactly our options, but you get the point. There is the practical answer, which is time-tested, genuine, and makes sense. There’s also the idiomatic, colloquial expression that sounds good when you’re sitting on a bench whittling with your buddies.  We want to find those two answers, specifically those regarding being a follower of Jesus.

Last week we talked about being and becoming excited about Jesus. How long has it been since you were eager to tell someone else about Jesus? What would it take for you to invite someone to church to say, “Come and see Jesus with me.”  Have you ever been as excited about Jesus as you’ve ever been about the things that most excite you in your life? That was last week.

This week we’re taking that one step further. What does it mean to be called to be a disciple? And what are the best ways to reach more disciples? Do we fish for people the same way we fish for fish (i.e., fight fire with fire or with a hose)? Those are the two big questions raised by Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ calling of his first four disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Embedded in those questions, others ought to come to mind as we look for more profound answers. What does Matthew mean when he says, “immediately?”  I know what I mean when I think of “immediate” or “Immediately.”  Does Matthew mean the same thing? Did these guys literally drop their tools, abandon their families, and walk away like zombies to follow Jesus without so much of a goodbye to their families and friends?

Popular movies about the Bible like to leave people with that impression. However, suppose you read a little further in the text. In that case, you see Matthew’s definition of immediacy means something closer to this: Peter, Andrew, James, and John started a lifelong conversation on that day, at that time and that place, with their families and friends, that led to their becoming full-time followers (who asked others to come and see) of Jesus Christ. Read four more chapters and you see that Jesus’ definition of immediate doesn’t mean what you think it means.

The essential words Jesus utters in this passage involve Peter’s (and the other’s) transition from fishermen to disciples. We have to understand the nature of that transition to understand Matthew’s definition of immediacy and how Jesus will immediately (pun intended) show them his fishing methods can yield large catches of people.

Let’s talk about fishing methods on the Sea of Galilee for just a moment. I know a little about this because the fishermen on Ocracoke also used net fishing methods like Peter, James, and John. The fisherman who lived directly across from our church on the island would string his nets across his front yard and mend them, just as Matthew described Peter mending his nets in this passage. I’d walk out my office door and see the Bible happening right before my eyes. I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, and these methods came alive when we lived on the Outer Banks. Nets require constant mending and upkeep. It takes skill and stamina to stay up all night, throw them out, and bring them back into rickety boats.

I’m going to do an Andy/Barney thing for a moment. What’s the goal of the fishing net? It’s to capture and ensnare as many dumb and unsuspecting fish as possible in your net and hoist them onto the deck of your boat, so deprived of oxygen that they quickly die. Once dead, they can be sold to fish merchants, and people can buy the fish and eat them.  This is what net fishermen do. They aren’t like Bill Dance in a bass boat with a depth finder. 1st century fishing methods are still in use in many places around the world today. Throw out the net and hope to God it lands over a school of fish or shrimp dumb enough to swim into your net. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Being a good fishermen is not something that happens to you because of good luck, weather, and years of experience. Fishing is arbitrary. Use your common sense here: When Jesus said to them, from now on, you will stop being fishers of fish and be fishers of people do you think Jesus wanted them to substitute what they usually did in their quest for fish except literally do that now for people?

Was Jesus asking them (and by extension us) to use nets to capture unsuspecting people, lure them into our communities, suck the life from them, throw them onto our decks, gut them of their hearts and souls, and tell them not to be whom God created to be? Once in our net, you’re not a fish; you’re money, a number, and anything other than whom God created you to be. Do you honestly think that’s what Jesus meant when he said you’ll be fishing for people, as it was when you were fishing for fish? Because if you do that, you are going to run everybody off. That’s like saying you fight fire with more fire, not a hose!

You fish for people by bringing people together and not by cutting people off from their families but by bringing their families in.  Here’s how I know Peter, Andrew, James, and John, didn’t drop their tools and walk off like zombies.  The Bible tells me so.  I keep reading—just four chapters over in Matthew 8.  Peter had a Jewish mother-in-law.  You don’t just leave your wife to follow a charismatic even if his Jesus of Nazareth.  He’s got a mother-in-law.  That means he’s got a wife and a reasonable guess that a married Jewish man in the first century will probably have a couple of kids. Is Jesus of Nazareth, the most remarkable man in the world, going to ask a married man to abandon his wife, kids, and sick mother-in-law? Is that the kind of thing Jesus would do? Or, as in Matthew 8, he would heal Peter’s mother-in-law and invite the whole family to the Jesus movement.

Suddenly, now stay with me, he’s caught Peter, Peter’s wife, Peter’s Mother-in-Law, and Peter’s children. If the same pattern is repeated for Andrew, James, and John, Jesus has caught approximately 20 people. Talk about fishing for people. He’s gone from one person (himself) to, most likely, 20 or more, by healing and being gracious to Peter’s mother-in-law. He wanted to meet Peter’s entire family. It wasn’t a one and done operation. When Jesus opens up a space for conversation, the idea of immediacy takes on a whole new dimension. It’s more like, “Let’s immediately go home for dinner.” 

No one is captured in a net and forcibly brought into the fishermen’s boat. We don’t have any nets. I didn’t see any when we were putting out or putting away the Christmas decorations. We have a few fishermen in the church, and they use poles. There aren’t any net fishermen, as on Ocracoke, regularly mending nets, going out each night to catch shrimp to sell to local restaurants.

Though shame, guilt, and the church can cast modern-day nets, we must be careful. We can quickly revert to fishing for fish instead of people. We want to grow through warmth, charm, love, and invitation. So often, though, churches find it easier to get people on the boat through shame and guilt. You know what I mean: you better get here, get in the net, or you’re going to hell. Change your ways or else. You’re a dirty rotten, low-down sinner; God hates you, you don’t come to church, and you’re bound for damnation. Do you know why you got COVID, cancer, or other diseases?  It’s because you don’t come to church or didn’t pray hard enough.  The list could go on and on. People say those things. Let’s try not to. That’s not how you fish for people. People aren’t fish. People deserve our best. Jesus gave us his best. He gave us his life. Let us expand by reaching out to anyone and everyone who wants to be in our boat.  We don’t have to capture people. Evangelism isn’t warfare. As the Love Boat theme song says, “Come Aboard, we’ve been expecting you.”

–Richard Bryant

An Open Letter: “God’s Word” – Inerrant, Inspired, In Error, and Sometimes Just Plain Wrong

Dear Friends:

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As my church and others discern their way through the disaffiliation process, one phrase keeps bubbling to the surface, “God’s word.” I hear this question, “Don’t you take God’s word seriously?” or the statement, “God’s word says…”. These definitive proclamations about what the Bible does and doesn’t say are often followed by things that aren’t in the Bible. As a trained pastor, I’m met with open hostility, anger, and disbelief when I say, “Actually, the Bible says…” Why would I lie? Do I look like George Santos? Double-check me; here’s the Bible! To acknowledge the Bible has many levels of meaning and competing genres doesn’t change my understanding of Jesus’ salvific work.

Some respond to this assertion as if I’m trying to twist God’s words to fit a specific theological or political agenda. That’s what I’ve been told. Actually, I’m explaining how words are translated, how the meaning of words has changed over time, and how translators bring cultural biases to translations. You’d be surprised how angry people get when they’re told these fundamental realities. Humans don’t like having their assumptions challenged. I’m writing this letter because I’m tired of trying to make God’s word come alive in ways beyond the fundamentalist-literalist echo chamber. I bid this task farewell. I’m done. I’m tired.

The Bible is one attempt to tell humanity who (a collection of authors, writing in different languages, lands, and over centuries) its authors believe God to be. I wish it were as simple as some in my congregation understand “God’s word” as something delivered from upon high, without explanation, in English, ready to be implemented, without context or nuance in the 21st century. The Bible is not God’s word. The Bible is comprised of our words about someone (or something) we call God. In some places, the words are inspired. In others, they are in error. Nowhere are they inerrant.

The major and minor prophets were often the first to recognize the magnitude of trying to “speak God’s words.” Mistakes, they realized, would lead to deadly consequences. Not only would they place their own lives in peril, but the fate of nations rested upon their clarity and purpose of understanding and communicating “God’s words.” God’s words were not to be taken lightly or for granted. So, as we read God’s words, it is natural to see those who speak and hear them and how they are understood change and evolve. Our response to God’s first words will not be the same as God’s words in Egypt, Babylon, or after the return from captivity. The context will matter. We will hear incorrectly. Something will be lost in transmission and translation. This is not about simple inconsistencies. At times, the words will be just plain wrong. Here is where we must have the courage to acknowledge where the text is not inerrant but in error.

For example, in 1st Samuel 15, God commands Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, noting he should not spare the women and children. This is genocide. Saul (at God’s prompting) is a war criminal on par with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Vladimir Putin. This text of terror is inconsistent with Jesus’ ethic of peace in the New Testament, but this is about far more than the textual inconsistencies throughout the Bible. This is about right and wrong. 1 Samuel 15 is a text in error; God’s command is wrong, and Saul’s actions are evil. God’s words can never be justified because of the inherent brutality it asks the reader to accept at face value if we are to treat God’s word as inerrant.

The idea of “God’s word” as an easily defensible, moral reality when even a single instance of genocide stands at the heart of the Old Testament (out of many) is one reason people like me have a hard time identifying as believers in an inerrant Bible. This is not because we’re twisting God’s word to fit a specific political agenda but because “God’s word” as an inerrant, morally defensible concept is a morally indefensible position to hold in the early 21st century.  God’s word still inspires me. I follow Jesus’ word. For me, it’s not about consistency. Christians will never be able to reconcile all the Bible’s inconsistencies. However, I do not have to accept that God condones the death of innocent children or that it is a permissible or good thing. I won’t do it. I can’t live with seeing God’s name attached to mass murder and genocide and being expected to be okay with the brutality running through the heart of Christian tradition. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll repeat it. The Bible, in so many places, is not inerrant. It’s in error. Murder, death, and slavery are wrong whether it is condoned by the God of Israel and recorded in the Bible or done by human beings and reported on the news.

As we divide ourselves into denominational oblivion, maybe it’s time to make one more division. Biblical Christianity, where we worship a book written by human beings, one full of flaws, too much death, and four books about a Jesus that most Christians are happy to ignore. Then there’s Christ Christianity, where we worship Christ, go toward Christ, and stop pretending God’s words are God.

Yours truly,

–Richard Bryant

Stop This Crazy Thing: A Disaffiliation Prayer-Poem and Statement of Faith

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God is (somewhere)

Jesus is (love)

Jesus is not (the guy in your stained-glass window)

Faith is (hard)

Belief is (harder than faith)

God is not (a problem to be solved)

Faith is not (an either/or proposition)

Belief is not (perfect)

Scripture is (words)

Prayer is (more listening, less speaking)

Scripture is not (words taken out of context)

Prayer is not (a list of demands)

We are on our religious high horses.

We are not who we think we are.

Christianity is flawed.

Christianity is not what Jesus intended.

The Bible is a collection of history, poetry, myths, stories, and songs.

The Bible is not one book.

Fundamentalism is alienating those seeking Christian communities.

Fundamentalism is not what Jesus intended.

Selective Biblical literalism has been used to justify slavery, the oppression of women, and genocide.

Selective Biblical literalism is not Biblical.

Scriptural authority is a phrase most often used by authoritarians.

Scriptural authority is not a phrase that fosters honest dialogue.

These polarities ARE tearing us, me, and congregations APART.

Before, I am LAID upon the ALTAR of DENOMINATIONAL DISARRAY

Before I DISAFFILIATE from my SOUL, I ask,

I paraphrase the words of George Jetson,

“Stop THIS CRAZY thing.”

–Richard Bryant

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

Paradise Falls By A Dashboard Light (or how I heard Genesis 2 and 3 in Randolph County, NC)

Start at the beginning,
the third page of the book,
two people left behind,
Ready to make a go,
A human start,
When the dinosaurs said no,
Adam and his manly chest,
Eve and her… all the rest,
Out of the mud they came,
country people,
from lower Mesopotamia,
Adam ate with elbows on the table,
A cap on his head,
Outside and in,
Cause he had no Mama,
to name this sin,
“Boy, your manners just ain’t right,
I hope you don’t meet a reptile with a mandolin,
or a girl with an apple who offers a bite.”
Life didn’t get real until it got wrong,
When it got wrong,
it was past making it right.
Two people alone,
Leaving paradise,
Navigating creation
by a dashboard light.

–Richard Bryant