An Open Letter to Roy Moore

Dear Roy,

I’m against the death penalty.  I like to say, “God loves people on death row”.  I’ve said this about people who’ve committed some horrific crimes.  If I can make such a pronouncement about them, I can do it about you.  Here goes:  “Roy Moore, God still loves you!”

In various ways, shapes, and forms we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.  Some (like you and Louis CK) have fallen in far creepier ways than others.  Whatever happened is between you and the Lord to work out.  It is also an issue for the criminal justice system if any laws were broken.  But I’m not a lawyer.  I’m a pastor.  I can see that you’re in trouble.  If you had come into my office here’s what I would tell you:  I believe that while we’re all working our way toward our perfection, perhaps the best place for you to work out God’s plan for the rest of your life is not in the United States Senate.  Roy, you need help.  You’ll not get the love, care, and support you need from your friend Steve.  He’s using you.  It won’t end well.

I believe in both individual and collective sin.  We, as people, can miss the mark.  It’s also possible that as a people, even as the body of Christ, we can commit sins as a group.  The Old Testament is replete with examples of Israel, as a nation, falling away from God.  The individual sins of leaders and priests could collectively taint the faith and morality of a whole people; even when those leaders were convinced they were acting with the best of intentions.  The Senate, as they struggle with issues of health care and immigration reform, is wrestling with policy issues that also reflect deeply on the morality of our nation.  Roy, this is not the place for you.  You need to be at home, in prayer, working on you.

Clearly, there are people in Alabama who love and care about you.  Many in your home state believe in you.  They have voiced a willingness to forgive you.  Let them do this from a place of prayer, humility, and grace.  Step back and read the words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  How is it with your soul today Roy?  I don’t think things are well at all.  Is a Senate seat worth all of you’ve already lost?  It’s not, Roy.  Please stay home.

Peace,

Richard Bryant

 

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My Proud, Beloved Infidel

I saw a man wearing a shirt identical to this earlier today.

We’re all unfaithful,
To one thing or another,
God, women, whiskey,
cigarettes brands and two bit songs,
Or beer to cheap to pour in glasses to dirty to wash,
But I’ve never been proud to be unfaithful,
To somebody else’s God,
My hands are full,
Disappointing my own.

–Richard Bryant

Kind Atheists vs. Mean Christians

Christians intentionally use the word “sanctuary”. In our congregation, we regularly sing a hymn which asks the Lord to prepare us, the body of Christ, to be a “sanctuary”.  It’s a place, people, and an idea.   One reason the room where worship occurs is called a “sanctuary” is because that’s what it offers.  Church, as a whole, is a place of sanctuary, refuge, and safety.  Whether you’re in a worship service or a Sunday School classroom on a Sunday morning or a Thursday afternoon; the church is supposed to a place love is unconditional, grace is offered, and safety is guaranteed.

When this sense of safety is shattered, it sometimes makes the news.  If clergy or church members take advantage of the vulnerable or weak and the idea of the church as a place of sanctuary is destroyed; we’ve seen the toll it can take on victims, families, and churches as they regain their moral bearings.  Sensational headlines and scandals are all too familiar in Christianity and other religious traditions.  The unspeakable pain caused by such abuse has done more damage to the idea of institutional religion than statistics can adequately measure or believers readily admit.

While these stories attract deserved attention and shape how denominations train clergy, there are other unreported assaults on the idea of sanctuary that can be as destructive to the health of congregation or individual believers.  These attacks happen across churches, often undetected and unreported.  Some go on every Sunday morning and simply part of the culture of being a church.  As a result, the idea of “sanctuary” is eroded, church is seen less safe, faith is eroded, and the body of Christ is diminished.

What are these unacknowledged assaults?  There is a kindness deficit in our churches and society.  Where does it originate? It would be easy to blame the “comment in the name of dialogue” culture fostered by Facebook and other social media platforms.  I think that’s a factor.  I also believe some people have a mean streak, are tone deaf, and oblivious to the realities of Christian living no matter how long they’ve been in church.

The world is a harsh place.  The church should not be.  When it is, we fail.  I’m not a fool.  I know people do things inconsistent with Christian teaching.  However, is it possible to make the church consistent with a Christ centered ethic of love, for the time we share pews and space at the Communion table?  Gossip should be left at the front door; it certainly shouldn’t be repeated within earshot of person you’re talking about.  This seems like common sense.  The truth is it’s not.   Harsh words, pessimism, and passive aggressive fueled negativity do more damage than we see and are willing to admit.  As such, the church is less safe than it should be.

One of the most depressing and disturbing aspects of ministry is dealing with grief.  It is part of my job to work with families and individuals at their lowest moments.  If a loved one dies or someone receives the diagnosis of a serious illness, I am there to listen.  I am prepared and “trained” (for lack of a better word) for this part of my job.  What I’m not prepared for or adequately trained to deal with is the grief that originates from hurt feelings, tears, and sadness originating from within the church.  What do I say to the person who’s heard hurtful words while standing three feet away?  What do I say to this person, who heard such words, while standing in the “sanctuary”, the place of safety?  What do I say to a believer in Christ who’s ready to cry because of something another believer in Christ said to them, in the sanctuary?  I say I’m hurt.  I say I’m sorry.  I say to myself, “we don’t have to worry about schism or anything else, we’ll kill ourselves off.”

The biggest threat to United Methodism isn’t from liberals, progressives, conservatives, uniting, or covenant groups.  We, as currently constituted, are our own worst enemies.  Our inability to recognize and offer grace about the most mundane aspects of life, on the micro level, will prevent us from ever coming to an agreement on the macro issue human sexuality.

This reminds me of that old saying, “God prefers a kind atheist to a mean Christian”.  I agree.  The longer I’m in ministry the truer it rings.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Richard’s Quick Guide to Mindful Prayer (An Exercise)

1. Find a comfortable, easy, or favorite place to sit.  It shouldn’t be so comfortable you’ll fall asleep.
2. Turn your phone off and place it beyond your reach.
3. Look around. Notice what you see going on around you.  Look for the nouns (people, places, and things) and the verbs (what are the nouns doing).
4. Close your eyes.
5. Take a deep breath and exhale. Do this slowly.
6. Count to five. (1 1000, 2 1000, 3 1000 and so on)
7. Do this two more times.
8. Your eyes are still closed.
9. To this point you’ve been focused on your breathing.
10. Your eyes are still closed. Do you hear what you saw a few moments ago?
11. What do you feel? (Pay close attention to the breeze, sunshine, and where you’re sitting.)
12. Is there one word, feeling, or emotion that keeps popping up in your mind? (Eyes still closed.)  What is this word or feeling?
13. If you could think of one word to describe what you’re feeling, at this moment, to tell God something, what would that word be?
14. Remember, you are still breathing nice, easy, and, slow.
15. After you’ve thought of your two words, (a word of description and a word of communication to God) say “Amen”. Suggested time for this exercise is 5-8 minutes.  When finished, stretch your legs and grab some water.

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

 

What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – Those impoverished in body and soul are welcome in the dramatic reordering of world Jesus is undertaking.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” – The endemic sadness which defines our lives will no longer have dominion over our days.  We will not be alone in our brokenness.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” – Those called weak, without a voice, who live and exist on the whims of the powerful will receive safety and sanctuary.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” – Those who see what others do not, they who fast for a vision of the kingdom’s realities made known for all God’s children; they will receive God’s abundance.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” – The merciful are those whose mercy isn’t limited by time, money, geography, denomination, immigration status, race, color, sexual orientation, or creed. They will know mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” – We see with our hearts. If our hearts are blind we cannot see God working around us. God works through our hearts.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” – Make peace with yourself and others. Do this and you will make peace with God. God is a peacemaking God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – No one is going to like you for doing these things. These ideas will make people uncomfortable.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account” – When people accuse you of virtue signaling because you’re saying and doing these things, it’s going to be OK. In fact, be happy about it. It means you’re doing things right.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Have You Thought About “The Old Rugged Cross” Lately?

I love the old hymns. In fact, I first played the “old ones” in a United Methodist Church when I was seven. I’m 43 and the pastor of a congregation. When we don’t have a musician, which happens more often than not in the off season; I play the piano and preach. Thank you mom and dad for making me go to those lessons.

The old hymns, the ones we love to sing, are comforting. You know them without me having to list them. In the United Methodist Hymnal, you’ll find them throughout the book. They’re all of a certain age. Everyone, no matter how old they are, remembers them from childhood. Like the Gregorian Chan of the Middle Ages, “Standing on the Promises” and “Victory in Jesus” feel like they’ve been part of shared religious vocabulary for centuries.

I wonder, however, when was the last time we read some of the lyrics we sing. What happens we strip back the organ, the familiar chords, and consider the words? In this case, I’m thinking about “The Old Rugged Cross”. As I re-read these stanzas in musical isolation, I wondered: does our devotion to a personalized, decaying relic all in the hope of receiving a crown match to anything Jesus said, taught, or ultimately died for? To be honest, I’m thinking no.

Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have noted the irony of the Cross. What was a symbol of death and execution became a symbol life triumphant over death. Yet, as we all acknowledge, Good Friday and the Crucifixion are only part of the Resurrection equation. The cross is meaningless without the empty tomb. The cross points to the tomb. It is both a sign and a symbol. This isn’t a new or controversial observation.

The “Old Rugged Cross” presents a traditional message about the cross but it is as troubling as it is inspirational. In the second verse, where George Bennard writes, that the cross, “so despised by the world has a wondrous attraction for me.” What is a wondrous attraction to the cross? Jesus himself only spent three hours on the cross. It is not a place to linger. Salvation doesn’t begin on the cross; it’s merely one piece in the larger Christological puzzle. When we linger in the shadow of death and glorify mortality longer than we have to; we are doing a disservice to the reality of the resurrection. Why should we be fixated on an old rugged cross when Jesus has already moved on?  Jesus is out of the tomb and we’re holding on to a dead piece of wood.  We are obsessed with a tiny piece of real estate which Jesus long ago abandoned.  Doesn’t this describe how we run most of our churches?  Yes.  We hold on to the wrong things while Jesus slips away.

From what I know of Jesus, he didn’t appear to be a “crown” guy. Herod, Pilate, and Caesar were into crowns. The magi were into royalty. Jesus was not into crowns. Yet, in the last line of the chorus, we’re clinging to the old rugged cross, laying down our trophies, so exchange them for a crown.   That can’t be right.  In fact, it’s wrong.  Are we paying close attention to what we’re singing?

In the early 20th century, American Protestants believed that heaven was going to be a literal kingdom and we, God’s faithful servants, would be mini-monarchs. That’s a dumb idea not supported by anything Jesus said.   Mr. “Blessed are the Poor” wasn’t handing out loaves fishes and crowns.  If you’re holding onto the idea of Christian salvation because you think you’ll get fancy headwear (or political authority), you’ve got the wrong idea about Christianity.

Next time you sing one of the “old ones”, take a moment, and ask a question or two. Do these lyrics make theological sense? Does this match up with what Jesus said? And ask, why am I singing it? Are there other hymns that accurately describe what the church, as a whole, believes?  If you’re singing the “Old Rugged Cross”, the answer is a definite yes.

Richard Lowell Bryant