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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I Don’t Want To

I think it’s time to do one of those periodic religious gut checks.  These are helpful for me as I follow the news (and discussions) in the wake of contentious issues like the government shutdown and immigration reform.  It is helpful for me to take a deep breath, pray, and reflect on a few fundamental ideas.  Given the nature of the political dialogue, religious diatribes, and theological soap boxing over the past few weeks, I want to tell you who I don’t want to be and what I don’t want to do.

  1. I don’t want to preach a Jesus who is simply a reflection of my prejudices and dislikes.  If we’re echo chambers telling ourselves what we want to hear, why call ourselves churches?
  2. I don’t want to pray to a God who hates everything I hate and justifies my hate.  I’m a Methodist not a member of ISIS.
  3. I don’t want to worship a God who can be reduced to catchy one liners, quotes from people I’ve never heard, of or clichés. I don’t want  to follow a God who is reducible to memes.  No one’s ever come to me and said, “Pastor, I want to join the church because I saw the cleverest meme on Facebook.”  It’s never happened.  It never will.
  4. I don’t want to confuse the Good News of the Bible the bad news of television.   How do you avoid that trap?  Read scripture responsibly.
  5. I don’t want to use my belief in Jesus Christ to hurt anyone’s relationship with God, their family, other Christians, or other people of faiths.  When we weaponize Christianity everyone loses.
  6. I don’t want a God who is forced to comment on everything.  Just because we feel the need to leave no issue unobserved, doesn’t mean that God is ready to speak.  Silence is okay, it’s God’s original default setting.  Be OK with being quiet.

Richard Lowell Bryant

On Blessings

When you think of a “blessing” what do you imagine?  Is it a not so subtle sneeze and someone turning to say, “God bless you”?  Perhaps your idea of a blessing is something more tangible.  You see blessings as palpable things you’ve received from God in response to your prayers.  On the other hand, a blessing may not be a discernible thing yet it’s still a visible response to God’s invisible presence.  We have blessings for homes and babies.  We bless those who coming and going.  We are taught to see food as a blessing which is then blessed by those who eat the meal. There are blessings for living and those who are dying.  The idea of blessing is interwoven in the very nature of our religious language.  We speak in “blessing”.  I wonder, do we know of what we speak and say?  Do we understand what we’re talking about?  I ask because it seems our ideas about blessings are all over the map.

What is a blessing?  A blessing is more than a collection of inanimate words stitched together to invoke and animate God’s presence as in a magical spell.  Blessings, whether between the sneezer and the responder or the diner and pork chops, are relationships.  When we offer a blessing for ourselves or anyone else, regardless of the situation, we are expanding our existing relationship with God to include whomever or whatever we would like blessed.  In effect, we are also creating a new relationship.  Blessings expand our ability to share God’s presence with the world around us.  Secondly, where nothing exists, our words carve space for God to create something from nothing.

A blessing is a “Big Bang moment”; where God’s goodness can expand (between strangers or friends) at light speed in a fraction of a second and alter the course a moment, hour, day, or even a life.  Blessings are daily opportunities, simple verbal frameworks we help build.  Within those outlines, God works with our relationships.  This is why our language, our words, and the simplest, “God Bless You” isn’t solely about common courtesy.  Blessings are the common theology which fuels the kingdom of God when government shuts down, spirits run low, cold weather goes long, and life feels too heavy to bear.

The greatest barrier to our ability to bless is our own imagination.  God is our blessing partner.  In the grand relationship we’ve built with God, the opportunities to bless our friends, neighbors, and communities are endless.  Is there a place where God’s relationship circle can be enlarged to include someone else, either in word or deed?  Yes! This is the basic blessing question.  If you can tell someone they’re blessed, you’re also reminding them both you and God love them.  Blessings are the visible signs of God’s love embodied in Christian community.   Whether it’s clothing, food, or words; those signs are ours to carry.

Blessings can never be measured on a spreadsheet.  While visible and real, they are not tangible items to be owned or displayed.  Our blessings bring us together as a Christian community.  They do not set us apart as individuals.  Blessings lead to deeper relationships with God and each other.  It’s not a blessing if what you perceive as being a blessing doesn’t draw you closer to God and other people.  It’s not a blessing if, whatever “it” is; you can’t give “it” away.  Blessings aren’t meant to be retained.  Remember, there are no U-Hauls attached to the hearse.

Bless you!  God Bless You!  Be a blessing!  May you be blessed!  Share your blessings, a blessing, this blessing, with someone else.  Expand your relationship with God by inviting someone else to share God’s blessings.   Listen to those sneezing.  Look for those crying.  Notice the beauty around your feet.  Bless them all! Go out with an open heart and a watchful reverence.  See what blessings you encounter.

Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

Death Is The Ultimate Deportation

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m growing weary of s-holes and s-houses.   I need a break.  After nearly a week of righteous indignation, I’m worn out.  If my street credibility as an activist is measured by my perpetual anger at the latest verbal (or policy) assault the oppressed are suffering on behalf of the United States government; I’d be kicked out of the progressive club.  Why?  My anger is spent.  At some point, my frustration has to get up and go to work.  I can’t sit around and be angry all day.   I need to go love someone who is hurting.  Their hurt is mine.  In reality, we’re all in the same s-hole.

I don’t get to put on my clergy collar, Guatemalan stole, and take photos of angry ICE officers, and make eloquent statements about the failed policies of a corrupt regime.  Instead, while Rome burns, I need to sit with people who’ve lost their wives, husbands, daughters, and sons.  If you haven’t noticed, it’s winter.  Winter is hard on the frail, elderly, the lonely, the mentally ill, and the sick.  People are dying faster than the government is negotiating a budget resolution.   Death is the ultimate deportation.  There’s no deal we can reach to keep anyone here or bring anyone back.

No one from the news media would interview me were I to protest the great “Deportation Agent in the Sky”.  It’s true; people who’ve been here for decades and raised their children in my church are being taken away to a “better place”.  Only the local paper prints obituaries. Despite some people describing the life deportation process as a journey to “glory”, the family members who remain seem to find little comfort in knowing their relatives are in a well-cared for in location from which they will never return.  It’s easy to ignore the permanent “deportations” happening each day.  They are real, painful, and go on whether or not anyone is looking.  Young, old, black, white, Hispanic, men, and women all fall victim to these deportations.  You see my point.  There’s a great deal of pain just beneath the radar which we can’t ignore.  Yet, might framing a discussion of death as “deportation” inform how we help those who are facing the threat of actual deportations in our community?

How do we help the families of those who’ve been “deported” to eternity,  persons who are facing death, and people who fear deportation in a literal sense?  I believe our best plan is to be honest.  Would I want to be lied to?  No.  What are the words that might bring me hope?  What do I try to say?

  1. God does not give us pain. God embraces our pain.  We do pain together.
  2. Death is not a transfer of church membership from earth to Heaven. Please, let there be no church in Heaven.  Let’s just hang out with God.
  3. No one has permanent resident status. Life is temporary.  You are dreamer too.  Your life, your future, is fragile too.  Live like a dreamer.  Value lives and dreams of others.
  4. To picture where we might be going (i.e. Heaven) is to limit God. Try not to place boundaries on God’s bigness or smallness.  Heaven is not a country.  The Kingdom of God isn’t a nation state.
  5. Invite God into your personal s-hole. God wants to be there.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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

 

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