Calling Myself Christian

It is hard to imagine being a Christian in the wake of a great tragedy, such as the massacre in Pittsburgh.  On one level, the suffering and violence are a challenge to my faith.  When people die violently, whether by accident or malicious intent, I question the goodness and benevolence of God. After years of reflection on suffering and the nature of God, I ask why and my faith compels me to question God.  That’s one way I respond.

It’s also tricky to claim the name of Christian when I see the muted and sometimes tone-deaf responses of those in the Christian community.  Everyone seems to know an appropriate level of compassion, regardless of your stance on the 2nd Amendment, after a school shooting.  I do not see it.  I’m observing a fair amount of “what is he talking about” when I bring up anti-Semitism and mention how our grandfathers (veterans) went to Europe to defeat fascism.   Instead, the deaths of innocent Jewish senior citizens have morphed into insidious talking points for the fear-driven ideologies driving the final days of the political campaign.  I’m not sure many Christians, self-defined and self-selected in the age of Trump, are moved by the same human suffering which inspired Jesus to teach and preach.

I have always called myself a Christian.  I self-identify as a Christian.  Were there Christian pronouns available, I might use them on my Twitter biography.  This is the primary way I understand who I am, how I live, and what I do.  However, I’m no longer sure it’s worth struggling over an identity that is being diluted to the point of nonexistence by people who see no problem in booing a United Methodist pastor, at an event about religious freedom, who is quoting scripture.  What does it mean to be a Christian if Jesus can’t get a fair hearing?  I don’t think it means anything other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s era of “Religionless Christianity” has definitively arrived.  The old symbols, words, and means of identifying Christendom are dead.  My black shirts are going to the thrift store.  I think I’ll turn my collars into bookmarks.  I’ll call myself Richard, a follower of Jesus.  That, in and of itself, is a dangerous statement to make.

The world is changing fast.  When the General Conference finally meets to decide what it means to be a United Methodist, will any of it matter?  By that time I’m afraid many American Christians will think “Lock Him Up” should be applied to Jesus.  Anybody who is that loving, forgiving, and travels among caravans of migrants cannot be trusted.  I can hear it now. You know it is coming.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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When You Mock Victims, You Mock Jesus

When you mock a victim of abuse, you mock Jesus.
When you laugh at the victim of oppression, you laugh at Jesus.
When you whip up a crowd to howl at a victim, you recreate the pain of Good Friday.
When you intentionally hurt someone who is already harmed, you hurt Jesus.
Harnassed evil is ugly and mean,
Jesus weeps.

And I bet all of them standing there,
every last one,
goes to a church,
maybe three times a week,
they call themselves Christian,
and while they laughed,
hoot’d and holler’d
Jesus still weeps.

–Richard Bryant

Following the Jesus Code

The man in question was discovered sleeping under the trees in the upper left, above the brick sign.

Here’s the problem.  I’m bound, even obligated, to follow the Jesus code.  What’s the Jesus code?  It’s this idea of loving strangers, showing hospitality to all, and extending care to visitors who enter my world; especially my life at church.  I signed on to live by the code years ago both in its Old and New Testament forms.  In fact, I’m a big proponent of the code.  I love the code.  On a regular basis, I’ll stand up in church and urge others to adopt the code for themselves.  Living by Jesus’ rules of graciousness and hospitality can be challenging.  Jesus, unlike our world, went out of his way to embrace those who many of us might willingly ignore or reject.  This is what makes following Jesus fun.  We are asked to push ourselves into areas where our comfort matters less than sharing God’s love.  That’s exciting, especially when you’re preaching on a Sunday morning or on in the controlled setting of mission trip with people who look just like you.  On the other hand, following the Jesus code can be unsettling on a Thursday morning in late July, particularly when you find a stoned homeless man sleeping in a hammock in the front yard of the church.

We’ve had a tremendous amount of rain over the past three days.  Localized flash flooding has inundated the island.  Ankle to knee deep water is everywhere.  Crickets, mosquitoes, and standing water have made our summer vacation island a swamp.  It’s humid, hot, and nasty.  The severity of the thunderstorms has limited the number of outdoor campers in the National Park Service and private campgrounds.  No one, if they had a choice, wanted to ride those out.

Hence my surprise this morning at seeing a hammock strung among a few of our only trees.  Someone was camping at the church.  No one told me about this.  I saw a few plastic bags and a man with dread locks, a beard, a knit camp, and well-worn beach wear.  He reeked of pot.

I brought him water.  Water is part of the Jesus code.  Without moving from the hammock, he thanked me for my compassion.  It was just water.  He wanted to know if I was a vegetarian.  I am not.  I eat meat.  This, in his mind, was not good.  Humans, he tells me, are mushroom based life forms.  If we were all vegetarians, wars would cease.  Fish would live in peace with chickens.  Pastors, he says, are all about money and power.  I tell him I’m broke and have no power.  In fact, I’m on the way to the dump.  If I had real power, someone would take my trash for me.  The “Christian/vegetarian humans are mushrooms” diatribe goes on for fifteen minutes.

I keep insisting I need to get to the dump before they close.  He laughs, “I ended up preaching you a sermon, how about that?”  Yes, that he did.  I  heard his sermon.  It was loopy and a little frightening.  However, I hope he felt heard and valued.

“What’s your sermon on this week”, he asked?

“I don’t know”, I said.  I didn’t want to prolong the conversation.  It will probably be about something I call the “Jesus Code” and how it’s been getting me into some blessed and strange encounters for more years that I care to count.  One way or another, Jesus is always asking me to practice what I preach.  It’s easy to tell other people what to do.  It’s another matter altogether to be that person you’re telling other people to be.  Church bigwigs will tell you that church involves a lot fancy things.  This morning, here on Ocracoke, church was offering space, water, and an ear to a stoned homeless guy sheltering from a flood.  I was out of my comfort zone.  That’s OK.  Because it doesn’t get more Jesus like than that.

If this was today, can you imagine tomorrow?

Richard Lowell Bryant

The New Rules for Summer 2018

1. Jesus turning over the tables in the temple isn’t a catch-all excuse for Christian rudeness or violence. Stop blaming your mental health issues on the writers of the New Testament. Get help with your anger.

2. Engage the world. It’s easy to build our own utopias, ignore suffering, avoid evil, and live in our well manicured bubbles. That is not living; it’s existing. Life is found in engaging reality, authentically, one moment at a time.

3. If we keep track of the sins of others, we’ve made a serious decision to take life in an unhealthy direction. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically this will eventually ruin everything we cherish.  Keep track of good things.

4.  What does it mean to live a good life?  Ask hard questions that push your beyond your comfort zone.

5. Remember, you don’t know what other people are going through.  Cut people some slack.  There’s probably more going on in their lives than you realize.

6. Before writing or speaking , ask, “Will any good come from this?” If we can’t say “yes”, something is wrong.  Don’t be that person.  

7. Can the world see behind our sunglasses? Have we carefully constructed an image (not with clothing, cars, houses, or boats), emotionally speaking, to tell the world who we are? Do we deploy that image selectively? Are we able to be ourselves, all day, every day? What stops us?  Be authentic.

8. Everyone falls behind at some point. Because we’re disciples of Jesus, we can’t be selective about who we help. Christians don’t have the luxury of choosing who to assist, raise funds for, and who is deserving of God’s blessings.  Be generous.  

9. Fill up your tank with gas. You never know you when might need to take a trip to the hospital.

10. Don’t limit yourself to 280 characters. Spoken language is also an effective means of communication. Talk (with real words) to (real) people more often, even those with whom you disagree.  

Richard Bryant

We Took The Word Unclean Out of Our Vocabulary Years Ago

The fifth book of the New Testament is commonly called “The Acts of the Apostles”.  I appreciate the editor’s attempt at inclusivity.  However, if we wanted to be more accurate (I’m not trying to go Dan Brown here), we’d probably call it the Acts of Peter and Paul.  They’re the apostles who seem to do the most talking.  Peter and Paul drive the story.

In the 10th chapter, Peter is speaking.  He seems be preaching sermon after sermon since the resurrection. It’s hard to find a place where Peter isn’t talking about what Jesus did or will do.  Here’s the catch, Peter rarely gets time to wrap up his message with a witty conclusion.  Sometimes he finishes his sermons and at other times he’s arrested.  In this instance, Peter is interrupted; not by an unruly crowd, temple guards, or a know-it-all with questions.  Instead, the Holy Spirit breaks in, much like Pentecost, and descends upon those listening to his message.  As with Pentecost, Peter’s message is redirected (by the Spirit) toward Gentiles who hear the message in their own language.  For a second time now, Peter realizes that the gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t reserved for people like him, those who talk like him, or people who claim to have known Jesus personally.  The Holy Spirit is for anyone and everyone.  Whether you’re consider clean or unclean, you get the gift of the Spirit.  You’re in the church.  There is no litmus test.

If we need to be convinced of this idea, that inclusion is a divinely inspired mandate, it’s probably too late for the United Methodist Church.  If this is the first time you’ve read Acts 10 and realized full inclusion in the body of Christ is not a limit to be set by the writers of the Book of Discipline, it’s probably too late for the United Methodist Church.  If Acts 10 doesn’t remind you that scripture’s ideas about inclusions are more powerful than its limited definitions of marriage, it’s probably too late for the United Methodist Church.  If we’re afraid welcoming difference will compromise our Biblical, historical, and theological witness, the moment we asked that question, we stopped being church (United, Methodist, or otherwise). We can talk about anniversaries all we want but the day we asked that question, that’s the day we died.

I’ll tell you the truth.  I’m not into practicing a zombie Christianity no matter how doctrinally pure it claims to be.

Richard Lowell Bryant

There’s Only One Loyalty

Former FBI Director James Comey’s new book, “A Higher Loyalty” frames the question of loyalty in the singular, as if there is only one loyalty.  We may live in a world of multiple (lesser) loyalties which demand our fealty but there is singular “higher” loyalty.  What is the source of such loyalty? It is clear from his early interviews and book excerpts that Comey’s idea of loyalty is hierarchical.  Loyalty to country precedes loyalty to a particular person, office of state, or political party.  While this may be true or is his version of the truth; his description of a higher loyalty should ring hollow for disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians have no other loyalty than to God.  Competing secular loyalties, those which launch cruise missile strikes and live behind the partisan double standards of fear rarely acknowledge God as a being to whom they offer loyalty.  Lip service, yes.  Loyalty, never.  Yet, despite the media driven competitions for our loyalty, even those who come bearing such anxious phrases such as “the future of the republic” and the “inevitability of impeachment” must be reminded that our loyalty remains with God, not the metaphysical idea of the United States of America.

Christians, because of their higher loyalty to God, are empowered to call into question the assumptions underlying every other loyalty struggling to be heard in the marketplace of philosophical and intellectual ideas.  These ideas are the infrastructure of modernity and like the bridges, roads, and highways that link our nation; the loyalties that once tied us together are also crumbling at the seams.  Because our loyalty lies beyond the public spectacle, we can see when something’s wrong.  This is our witness:  find common ground to preach the Gospel in the world’s wrongness, even when everyone’s singing “Happy Days are Here Again”.

The Body of Christ doesn’t simply call the world’s loyalties into question.  Antagonism isn’t our mission.  We offer alternatives to misplaced loyalties.  Our lives become witnesses to the higher loyalty.  This is accomplished through unapologetic, confessional worship and witness grounded in the historic Christian expression of loyalty to God, community, family, and neighbors.  The people around us and the word they inhabit become divine space, the yet to be immanetized kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.  This is who we are and what we do.

The former director is known to be a student of the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  James Comey views himself, to paraphrase Niebuhr, as THE moral man in a immoral society.  Aren’t we all, Jim?

As Mr. Comey knows, there’s more to Niebuhr than rational critiques of society, social order, economics, and power.  I’m reminded of one of Niebuhr’s sermons on Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew’s gospel.  In it Niebuhr says, “Because we are both small and great, we have discerned a mystery and a meaning beyond our smallness and our greatness, and a justice and a love which completes our incompletion, which corrects our judgments, and which brings the whole story to a fulfillment beyond our power to fulfill any story.”  Mr. Comey, there’s only one loyalty tying everything together.  Everything else is just fancy rhetoric.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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