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 let Jesus 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

 

Advertisements

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

Unpopular Observations on Blessings

1. The word “blessing” has lost all meaning. Watching the coverage of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding in Houston, I’ve seen a further deterioration of an already overused word.

2. For example, “We are so blessed. My Street isn’t flooded but the cross streets all around me are.” Or, “I am blessed that I made it out alive. There are still hundreds of people back there who are stranded, hungry, and needing to be saved.” Neither of these statements (both of which I heard) indicates a blessing or being blessed. They are observations of sheer luck.

3. Statements like this (and countless others) carry with it one flawed implication: God blessed you and you alone. The people around you were left out of the blessing.  How do you account for that?  How does that make God look? It makes God look petty, mean, and like God plays favorites. Why did you deserve the blessing of the dry street? Why did you warrant the blessing of survival while others wait on their roofs for boats yet to arrive? Where is their blessing? You got yours. You were blessed.

4. We confuse blessings with luck. We confuse blessings with most anything that goes our way.  We are just confused.

What People of Faith Should NOT Do After Charlottesville

 

nottodo

1) Exclaim that Love Wins. Love does not always win. People died on Saturday. Hate took the field and won. To say that love always wins denies the reality of human suffering and minimizes the pain of three families and countless others who were wounded. Love wins is a vapid platitude.   It actually hurts.  Don’t say it.

2) Pray for unity. We’ve been praying for unity since General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Even the most progressive of Civil Rights leaders now admit that the idea of a post-racial America was a myth. It’s time to stop praying for unity from the comfort of our largely white congregations and start working for unity with others who do not look like us. Praying for unity sounds good and it feels good. Then we go home. We post memes of solidarity. We weep at the violence. Our prayers lead us back to church and the vicious cycle of racism continues. It’s time to stop praying and start acting. Our vigils are poignant and our words are eloquent but the Nazis still came. We can do more and we can do better.

3) Fail to confront and confess the racism we aid, abet, and enable. I was trained in a divinity school that won’t come to terms that Robert E. Lee guards the front steps to Duke University’s chapel. That’s a racist legacy.  The Divinity School is worried about diversity training among its faculty but won’t address the Civil War history engraved on its flagship church.  I’ve inherited racism from family members who died for the Confederacy. I drive by the Confederate flag on my way to lead Christian worship because I’ve given up on a battle to see it removed from local shelves. I don’t want make to make waves in the community.   Being a pastor means being uncomfortable and unpopular;  sometimes with others and sometimes with yourself.  I could go on and on. We’re all implicated to one degree or another. I’m confessing. It’s 2017 and I’m part of the problem. It’s me. It’s us.

4) Give hate groups any credit for sparking the next great American Reformation. If it takes Neo-Nazis and the Klan to motivate a new American church to form, count me out. That’s not a church, that’s a  counter-fascist movement with religious roots.  We may need that but don’t call it a church.  We lose something of our own identity in trying to out Christian radical the Nazi radicals.

A Poem About Robert Jeffress and His Recent Chat With God

Robert Jeffress
Southern Baptist Imam
Who does his fatwa address?
The God Bob claims
Made him so blessed
Is listening to
this heretical mess.
A Baptist preacher,
Impeccably dressed,
Heard God say,
Kim Jong-un is an abscess,
Rip him out, it’s ok,
Don,
I’ll tell the press,
We’ll lay hands and pray,
You’ll kill millions as we profess,
And hope none of the soldiers are, well, you know, that way.

–Richard Bryant