Lay Waste to the Lie of the Liberal Evangelical

I think I’ve an inkling of how many Muslims feel after a terrorist attack.  I’ve heard Islamic scholars and faith leaders say, “We’re not all like those who pervert our religious teachings.”  They are right.  Those who commit heinous acts of terror against innocent civilians are not representative of a whole religion possessing various forms of expression and practice.  It is wrong to paint an entire faith with a broad brush of hate and discrimination.  Yet, time and again, this pattern has repeated itself since the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  We see the evidence in violence against mosques and hate crimes.  Our Muslim sisters and brothers must be tired of disavowing and condemning those who’ve hijacked their faith.

Now, the tables have turned.  It is mainstream and mainline Christianity on the defensive.  Mainline Protestantism is under assault from Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians, sometimes from within our own denominations.  After a season of faith based conferences where Jesus is hardly mentioned and the nomination of candidates with religious views the Puritans would have rejected; I find myself regularly disavowing those who have hijacked Christianity.  Even with all of the semantic yoga and fancy hair splitting I can muster, I will never again refer to myself as an “evangelical”.  Some days, after I’ve heard senate candidate Roy Moore and listened to calls for a return to “Judeo-Christian” values, it takes everything I have to identify myself as a “Christian”.  Although I have served congregations for nearly twenty years and in three countries, I do not want to be described with the same words used to categorize a faith which, when presented as the dominant strain of Protestant Christianity, is unrecognizable from anything I’ve ever encountered.  In short, I’m embarrassed and ashamed.

I’m not the first person to feel that something central to the idea of being Christian has changed.  Our common moral currency was devalued.  Spiritual inflation set in and what we thought possessed of worth will no longer meet what we’ve been told are our new needs.  The Gospel, the Kingdom of God, and Jesus’ ministry are being displaced by other emotive and manipulative ideologies.  More than requiring believers assent to a historic creed, America’s dominant strain of Protestant Christianity is now a “litmus test” faith.  Are you pro-life (with no exceptions), pro-death penalty, favor no limits on any form of gun ownership, and pro-government to the extent you believe the Judeo-Christian deity foreordained America’s dominance in the world?  Do you believe that anything in American society which threatens your view of scripture is a threat to the fabric of society as well as the practice of Christianity?  Are selected laws laid down over two thousand years ago to determine the communal life of post-exilic Israelites crucial to understanding Christianity in 21st America?

You know the answers as well as I do.  Evangelicals, as the most visible and politically active brand of American Christianity, answer yes to these questions.  There are exceptions who would love to be painted as the rule but we’re too far gone to believe the lie of the liberal evangelical.  I’m identifying a core set of beliefs which I’ve encountered in evangelicals across nearly twenty years of ministry.  These are our neighbors, friends, and relatives.  Their gospel isn’t the same as the Good News I was ordained to spread.  In their eyes, most United Methodists aren’t Christian.  For me, calling out commonalities isn’t painting with a broad brush.  I’m speaking from my own life experiences.

These basic evangelical ideas are the building blocks of other varieties of fundamentalism.  This is where the divergence occurs.  Not every evangelical believes, like Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, that Minnesota representative Keith Ellison should be excluded from sitting in the US House of Representatives because he is a Muslim.  What’s disconcerting is this: the distance of the theological fine line separating the basic “litmus” test evangelical and a “Roy Moore” evangelical is growing shorter by the hour.  The waters are so muddied it’s harder for anyone to hear United Methodists and other mainline groups asking, “Why have you lost sight of Jesus, grace, and love?”

Because the current evangelical distortion is more prevalent throughout the culture, it impacts the ability of the local church to evangelize and witness.  “Aren’t you all like the gun toting man on television who says the Muslims are going to hell?” someone recently asked.  No, I said, we’re not.  It’s hard for the unchurched, those who are looking for a place of safety and sanctuary in a violence soaked world to ferret out the difference between churches like ours and the evangelicals they see praying before a presidential rally.  After all, we use the same language, well-worn clichés, pray to the same God, and generally appear to be indistinguishable from one another.  The world perceives us very differently than how we see ourselves.  Surely, they know we’re not all like “that”.  That’s what 1.8 billion Muslims have been saying to no avail for sixteen years.  Unless the world meets people of faith who practice radical hospitality and Christ centered compassion; we are entrusting the essence of Christianity to people who appear to have missed the point about Jesus’ ministry.

When public Christianity, in the most general sense of the term, advances the idea of unchecked moral decay, imagined systematic persecution by the government, and weaponizes scripture; it ceases to be Christian.  When God’s grace is an afterthought, love is a dividend, and forgiveness unheard of; those following “God” are not followers of Christ.  Like a white dwarf tearing itself apart, Christianity collapses inward.  The survivors of this supernova’s destruction are then left to decide:  when the name of Christ is sufficiently damaged beyond repair, does the label mean what it once meant?  No, it does not.  If Christianity is a zero sum game; only what the culture, media, government, and the evangelical church itself deems to be Christian, what am I?

I am not an evangelical.  I no longer want to argue etymologies and debate what someone who spreads the Good News should be called.  We know how the word is used and by whom.  This isn’t a fight worth having.  There are bigger fish to fry.  The longer we spend trying to convince others we’re the “good” evangelicals; we’ve given away the farm.  We’ve allowed form priority over substance.  In other words, the hand basket is well on it’s way to Hell.  While others argue about language, I’m for turning the thing around.

So by these evangelical standards, I am not a Christian.  I do, however, remain a follower of Jesus Christ.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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There Are No More Christians

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Amidst the cultural rot and doctrinal rubble of American Protestantism, Christianity has gone missing.  The once great traditions of the past are difficult to find behind Franklin Graham’s Twitter feed and among those opposed to the results of the recent election.  Many Christians, imbued with unwavering sincerity, believe God (the American Protestant version of God) chose our next president to save America.   Others, with equal measures of devotion, believe God has called them to resist the new president’s proposed policies.  Both groups identify as Christian.  Yet with such a divergence of opinions, Christianity appears as fractured and divided as the country where many believe real Christianity to have been born:  the United States of America.

Christianity and the churches which represent these various brands of religious expression are today little more than organized supporters clubs for rival teams.  I am vaguely reminded of the Iron Dukes of Duke University and the Ram’s Club of the University of North Carolina.  These are donors clubs for wealthy supporters to spend money while watching their respective team battle one another on the athletic field.  While both may take the same field, neither side has little respect for the style of play the other team plays.  The groups despise each others supporters.  However, in football or basketball, there remains agreement as to the basic elements of the game.  The standards and rules rarely change.

Of late, it seems the goal posts have shifted.  Do we know what it means to be “church”?  No, we do not.  New edicts, plans, and directives reset our focus each year.  In my recent appointment, I’ve heard it said there’s nothing “Christian” about what I do.  “Evangelical” is now a hollow word; robbed of any Biblical meaning by a thirty-year culture war and the most recent election.   An “evangelical” can be anyone who prefers pumpkin spiced lattes while they worship to being for or against a series of social issues.  Litmus tests on abortion, your preference for drums in worship, and your feelings about coffee in the sanctuary have nothing to do with the “Good News”.

There are no more “Christians”.  Christianity, it appears, in Advent 2016 can only be defined by these contested adjectives.  A Christian is characterized by the way she or he modifies or describes their Christianity.  This perpetual delineation of adjectives borders on idolatry.  We give the adjective more meaning than the word we’re modifying.   One is either an evangelical Christian or progressive Christian.  Denominational labels only confuse matters further.  In United Methodism, we are Wesleyan Covenant Methodist Christians, Progressive Methodists, and Methodist Christians.  There might even be “Full, Free-Will, Snake Handling, First, Sanctified, Holiness, Brethren” Methodists for all I know.  Yes, these terms describe who we are.  They also make it harder to recognize the Christianity they are intended to modify.

There are no more Christians.  We are the holier than thou adjective people, unable to practice our faith unless it’s diluted through special filters which give us power.   The person modifying the noun gets to set the rules, make the budget, and decide who’s in and who’s out.  Our Christianity is constantly modified by words (i.e. beliefs) bearing little resemblance to the Scripture, witness, and testimony constituting this most simple definition:  a Christian is someone who confesses Jesus as Lord.  It is not about doing a seven part sermon series on money management or being for gay marriage.  A Christian is someone who sees the world through the prism of the Cross.  If we’re looking at the cross and Jesus’ massive redemptive action, I believe our adjective problem will resolve itself.  What you’re for and against become much clearer in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  For example, I think it’s hard to support capital punishment when the innocent man we worship as God was executed by the state.  Call that whatever political position you want, I call it seeing the world through the Cross.

Is it possible not to be an evangelical or so wrapped up in our Methodism that we remember more about who Jesus is?  Yes, I think it is.  Are we able to live with our filtered identities while not diluting Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God?   I hope so.  If not, we’ll stay worshiping our predominately American Methodist Wesleyan God (or you fill in the blank), call ourselves Christians, and wait for the world to keep asking:  how can you call yourself Christian?

© Rev. Richard Bryant, 2016

I’m Not A Big Fan of These Clichés

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Christians use some pretty lame clichés. We use them over and over again. That’s why they’re clichés . In certain church circles, it’s hard for people to put together a coherent sentence that’s not a series of clichés strung together. There are churches (and church meetings) where speaking “cliché” language is the defining mark of one’s Christianity. If you don’t speak this way, something might be wrong with you. What if we took these clichés and placed them into a slightly different context? Perhaps we’d realize how ridiculous some of them sound?

Krispy Kreme has a “heart for” doughnuts.

They are really doing some “good work” over there at the Waffle House.

We put the lawn mowers behind a “hedge of protection” just to the right of weed eaters.

Since my car died three weeks ago, “my walk with God”, has involved taking two buses and a cab to work.

The Holy Spirit has “laid upon my soul” a calling to evangelize the virtues of bacon to vegetarians.

After the bounty hunter arrested my contractor, his last words to me were, “if you need to close the bathroom door, open the window first.”

Common Misconceptions About Christianity, Churches, and the Bible

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Here are 10 misconceptions held by Christians and non-Christians about the Church and Christianity. Let me try to clear them up.

1. The Bible is inerrant. In reality: It’s full of mistakes, contradictions, and historical errors. In that way, the Bible mirrors life itself.

2. God wrote the Bible. In reality: ordinary people wrote the Bible.   They made “typos” and spelling mistakes, some of which have led to people believing in weird things which have nothing to do with God.

3. In most of the churches I’ve served there is a painting in which Jesus looks as if he’s a northern European man wearing a bed sheet.  Is this true?  In reality: He was a dark skinned Palestinian Jew.  I cannot speak to Jesus wearing a bathrobe or bed sheet.

4. Jesus spoke English. In reality: He knew only Aramaic.  As far as I understand, Jesus never met King James, William Shakespeare, or studied their English.

5. Jesus was a Christian. In reality: The term “Christian” came into use well after his death.  Jesus never heard or used the word.  Jesus was Jewish; like Mel Brooks, The Apostle Paul, and Jerry Seinfeld.

6. Post-resurrection Jesus was a zombie.  In reality: Jesus was not a zombie.

7. The Christians you see on television are just like your Christian neighbors. In reality: your neighbors aren’t the narrow minded doofuses seen on television. Yes, we can be a little strange at times but we do try to love our neighbors.

8. Being a pastor means years of schooling and substantial student loan debt. In reality: For $35.00 anyone can get ordained. However, online ordinations do not offer a pension.

9. In little churches all across the South, Christians handle snakes in worship. In reality: I have never touched a snake in church.  I did kill a spider once.

10. Church people have favorite pews and seats which they prefer and will rarely move from for newcomers and visitors.  In reality: This is not a misconception.  Take that pew, expect a fight.

Food for Thought-People Who Don’t Come To Church

 

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1. Most people who don’t come to church aren’t atheist or agnostic. They have an indifference or apathy toward organized religion. Church is simply not important to their lives. They treat church as a restaurant which they expect to have open tables at least twice year.  We are a franchise they admire but expect others to patronize in their absence.

2. While many will not self identify as Christians, people who don’t come to church expect those who are Christian to live up to the title of “Christian”. No one understands this and while they don’t come to church or define themselves as Christian, people who don’t come to church are good at spotting inauthentic Christianity.

3. Most people who don’t come to church define themselves as “spiritual”.  Many things can be spiritual.  Jesus is a religious figure not a “spiritual” ideal for most people who don’t come to church.

4. People who don’t come to church are generous when it comes to charity and specific stewardship issues; if these are highlighted properly.

5. People who don’t come to church are not church illiterate. Most have been to church at some point in their lives. A few have never been. Even those who’ve never been to church have read classics of literature about churches, seen films, pictures, or traveled. No one is unchurched.

6. I do not like the word unchurched.  Something about the word has always struck me as presumptuous and rude.

7. “People who don’t come to church” is wordy. I realize this. However, this seems a more accurate and humane way to describe the world around us.

8. People who do not go to church do not like to be talked down to or reduced to evangelical marketing terminology. They need people who won’t judge them, a pastoral presence, and Christian community like the rest of us.  If we do that, we bring church to them.  

9. Most people who don’t go to church have never heard anyone talk honestly about who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he taught.

10. People who don’t come to church will have a hard time committing to an every week commitment. Occasional IS the new regular. Yes, this plays havoc with nursery schedules, acolytes, flowers, and other time honored routines.  Is it time we re-evaluated our holy habits?  What’s truly important to Sunday morning and the integrity of worship?  We do not seek a commitments for the sake of commitment.  Churches are fellowships woven together by starts and stops.  

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Letting Go of American Christianity

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When did it happen?

Was it after a meeting?

Was it in the middle of a worship service?

Maybe it was the impact of reading John the Baptizer’s sermon on Isaiah.

Perhaps it was all, none, or some of each. I do know this. It has finally happened.

What is it?

I must let go of the cookie cutter, pre-fabricated, one size fits all, Americanized, deodorized, and sanitized Christianity I’ve been pushing as the Gospel. I live in a denominational culture (and society) which increasingly expects Jesus’ values to be synonymous with those who are outraged at red cups, the placement of nativity scenes, gay marriage, health care, and admitting Syrian refugees. There is an expectation that I will echo those sentiments and mirror the beliefs being placed onto Jesus’ blank conscience. I can no longer meet these expectations. I will not put the words of presidential candidates or cultural commentators into Jesus’ mouth. I will no longer be an American Christian who preaches the American Jesus.

As emphatic as I am, I need to be clear:

I am not a heretic.

I am a Christian. I am also an American. The two are not synonymous. They are not the same. My Christianity doesn’t automatically demand my allegiance to any political movement, party, or cause.

I am obedient to God. I am a radical monotheist.

The Bible is an entire book; not a few flawed scriptures to be exploited for personal or political gain.

I believe in Jesus.

I believe in what neither the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed bother to mention: love.  The love of God is as powerful as it is inexplicable.  

Jesus isn’t uniquely American, one size fits all, clean, Christian, or Methodist. I’m tired of publicly pretending otherwise. Jesus is Jesus.  He may be a Syrian Muslim refugee one day.  He may be a homeless veteran the next day.  He is both things at all times.  You can’t pin Jesus down.

When we try to put God in a box of our own creation, God leaves the box.  Inside, we will find a distorted version of ourselves.  This distortion is man-made god which hates what we hate, loves what we loves, and is not God.  It is an idol, a false God.  

We’ve made Jesus an outsider in his own church. As such, many of the people we need to reach and welcome into the body of Christ have been marginalized by the church and become outsiders by the Americanization of the Gospel. For example, we’ve made discriminating against gay and lesbian Christians a theological and bureaucratic art form. Cloaked in the language of administrative compromise, we’ve convinced ourselves the soft bigotry of fake love is justified because our strangely warmed hearts are in the right place.

I’m letting go of the security of being an insider so I can better embrace the outsiders.

I’m letting go of explaining why God loves, blesses, and anoints some persons and not others.  God loves everyone without condition. 

I’m letting go of trying to make Jesus culturally acceptable for American congregations. He is who he is.  Jesus is  from Roman Palestine. He is Jewish.  He is brown skinned and dirt poor.

I’m letting go of the fear underlying the United Methodist apportionment system, America’s immigration system, our national defense system, and so many areas of our lives.

I’m letting go of the hammers being handed me.  I’m tired of being told I’m only effective if I’m hitting things.  

What I’ve said here will make people angry. They will read my words and see themselves in what I’ve written. Others may feel attacked. I’m not attacking anyone.   If you find my words disturbing, I would ask you to examine your own conscience.  You can join me.   You don’t have to hold on any longer.  Once you’ve let go and your hands are free, imagine what we could pick up. The broken lives and shattered souls, discarded among the ruins of our perpetual Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays wait to be mended.

I am happy to have shared this time with you.

Blessings for Advent

Food for Thought-Jacob, God, and Fight Club Shattering the Middle Class Middle Eastern Dream-A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

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I don’t know how many of you may have seen the movie “Fight Club”.  The novel was written in 1996 and the movie came out three years later starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.  It’s a complex story with a plot that works on many levels.  I don’t have the time to go into it nor do I want to spoil anything for anyone who may not have seen it.

What I did want to share with you this morning was the basic premise of the movie.  This is because I think it speaks directly to where we are.  And where is that?  That’s somewhere in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the night, with a frightened dude named Jacob.

In the movie, we have this unnamed everyman, working in anonymous obscurity for an automotive company.

  • He’s a cog in the machine.
  • He’s the picture of khaki wearing, Starbucks drinking, Ikea buying conformity. And he’s miserable.

Until one evening, in the darkness of an overnight flight, he meets this guy; someone unlike anyone else he’s ever met before.  His name is Tyler Durden and he is a soap salesman.

Tyler has an idea.  (He has lots of ideas we’ll eventually discover.)   He realizes there are lots of guys like our anti-hero; people just floating around who are getting and going nowhere with life. Tyler believes that he can bring purpose and direction back to the lives of these aimless men.  He has a plan.  The first step of his grand plan is to fight.  He will let (or allow) people to redefine themselves through violence.

He creates something called “Fight Club”.

It’s an underground club; literally in the dark and held at night where men come to bare knuckle fight each other.

But it’s not without structure.  There are rules.  The first rule of fight club is this:  You don’t talk about fight club. It’s a secret.  No one can know you do this.  Why?  Because people wouldn’t be able to handle men fighting for reasons other than those normally present in our society which are these: to give the wealthy a chance to bet their pocket change and the poor the chance to gamble away their rent.  Who fights to change themselves and change society for the better?

People wouldn’t be able to process the idea of men fighting in order to define themselves and bring meaning into the monotony of their lives.

You just don’t do that!

This brings me back to where we are this morning.

Jacob and God are fighting.

Jacob has spent the better part of the past twenty years pursuing the Middle Eastern Middle Class dream.  He is a cog in Laban’s agricultural and familial machine.

His personal and family lives are in disarray.  He believes his brother is going to kill him.

He has absolutely no idea that God is involved in his life at all or could, would, and should play any role in his affairs.

His problems are his problems.  Jacob is a model of self-sufficiency and it is slowly killing him.

Again, he is oblivious to God’s presence in his life and then out of the darkness someone comes to him and says, “Do you want to fight?”

That’s not how we like to talk about God working in our lives, is it?

In fact, when we talk about God, we don’t talk at all like that.  People who tell stories like Jacob’s usually get shuffled off to the margins.

We don’t talk about Jacob’s fight club.  It makes us uncomfortable.  It’s so fundamentally different from how we in our western Christian culture talk about meeting with and coming to know God.  This is not how God comes to people.  This is not how people seek God.  This is how distant Old Testament characters you learn about at Vacation Bible School do it.  But not us, right?

It is about us and we may have a few things backwards.

If this passage does anything it tells us with no uncertainty that our relationship with God can be both painful and elusive. Once we encounter God, we will be physically and emotionally different people. And yet we still may never be able to put into words what happened.

God is never something or someone we can “pin” down. As much as we try, as close as God may get to us, God remains both near and far at the same time. God is like a parent, a shepherd, but also a king and creator. God is so close and distant. These images are sometimes side by side in the Bible, in creative tension with one another, and reveal the central aspect of Jacob’s encounter with the Divine; God is with us at the most crucial moments in our lives. How this occurs and the form which this occurs, are questions that Jacob and we will never have answered. Yet the reality of these moments (and this moment) is undeniable.

Our relationship with God is something that happens on God’s terms. This is a story about God coming to us, not us coming to God. For me, this is where this story touches our lives most directly. The way Jacob encounters God is fundamentally alien to the manner to the way in which western Christian culture has come to describe their own relationships of redemption and salvation.  This is not the way we like to tell our personal religious stories. Face it, we’re narcissists when it comes to relating our own conversions and encounters with God.  Our stories are about all about us.  We sinned, we messed up, we knew we need to change, we met Jesus, then somewhere near the end He became our Lord and personal savior and changed our lives. Jesus, God, (however you want to term who you feel most comfortable with) works his way in near the conclusion and does his divine salvation magic. Up to that point, it’s been all about us and our drama.   Again, my point is, we made the call.   It reminds of a person with very dirty carpets.  We called in a cleaner to work on our carpet after realizing that no matter how much stain remover we applied it could ever do the trick. We only needed the carpet cleaner, the hard working service professional, for a specific task (to come in at the end), then he could leave. He wasn’t crucial to the emotional crux of our story; how we slaved over those stains, how we almost became comfortable with the filth and grime in our homes, until we saw the light during a carpet cleaning program on television or someone took us to a carpet cleaning seminar across town. My point is this: the focus is always on us and our lives. The action centers on us and decision we took in our own salvation. Jacob’s story and scripture really doesn’t want us think that way. Jacob is completely unaware he needs God.  He is physically, literally, spiritually, emotionally in the dark.  He never gets to the “Prodigal Son” point where he realizes that his father’s pigs have it better than him.  He’s simply, out there in the desert, trying to figure out on his own, how he’s going to get out of the mess he’s made of his own life.  In fact, Americans should identify with Jacob.   He’s the ultimate pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of guy.  He has a work ethic if he has no other kind of ethic.  He has no idea he needs God at all.   Yes, we may know and realize we need God. But the understanding here is that God is moving toward us. God is calling the shots. God is determining the time and place. We have very little, if anything to do with the meeting and encounter that eventually occurs.  If anything is going to occur, if redemption is going to go down, it’s not going to be due to anything we’ve done or said, it’s going to ultimately rest with God.  Jacob is in the dark and God ambushes him.  This should either scare the hell out of you or feel incredibly liberating. As for me, I’m not quite sure where I come down.

God cannot be defined, categorize, or quantified by human means. It simply won’t work. God will only be defined and determined on God’s terms and in God’s time.

My question is this:  are we willing to wait on God?  Even if it means sitting in the dark, clueless about what’s coming next?  Are we willing to let God meet us even if we’re not trying to meet God?