5 Stupid Things I’ve Heard In Church (AKA Things That Still Don’t Make Sense To Me)

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The Lamb’s Book of Life – That’s got to be one big book. Indeed, we must be talking about a library of books; I mean volumes upon volumes of books by this stage in human history. Has heaven switched over to the Lamb’s terabyte hard drives? One would think so, given the number of people who died in the 20th century alone. It’s a strange metaphor. If there’s only one book, books can only be so large to be practical for reference uses. I write this as an owner of the two-volume edition of the Oxford English dictionary. It is unwieldy and requires a magnifying glass to read the entries. Are we sending the message that eternity (“Heaven”) is limited to those whose names can be written in something the size of a single book? Why would God use books anyway? Doesn’t this strike anyone else as odd and outdated? God is omniscient and omnipotent, or so we say; I wouldn’t think God would need as much as a post-it note. We’re dealing with God, after all. Sometimes I don’t think we realize how strange we sound-especially to the unchurched and people with no religious background.

It’s all in God’s plan – I’ll never believe that random acts of suffering, violence, illness, and death are somehow part of God’s master plan for the universe. So, do not say these words. If we repeat this distorted version of a vengeful God who plays bets with our lives like a poker player, God comes off as a real jerk. It would be easy for people to think God is testing them with each sickness, tragedy, and catastrophe that struck their lives. But listen: God loves you unconditionally. Sometimes life sucks.

That’s my seat – (That’s my pew.) There are no assigned seats in the kingdom of heaven. I hope Rosa Parks is in charge of seating in Heaven. As such, if a visitor or someone new happens to find their way to where you usually sit on Sunday mornings, be gracious and keep your mouth shut. Welcome the visitor, introduce yourself, and sit somewhere else. Be cool. Hospitality is the greatest gift you have to give.

I can’t sing – No one else can either, man.  None of us are winning American Idol. That’s not the point. Talent is not the issue. Joy and gusto are what matters.  No one cares that you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Sing like your life depends on it. Watch an English football match one weekend. Sing as they sing. We should sing like English soccer fans in church, off-key and loud.

I’m going to withhold my tithe – To do what? Go to the Olive Garden? Do you want the church to be unable to pay the light, water, and power bills? Or are you opposed to the pastor having health insurance? How do you want to hurt “your” church most by hurting its ability to function, your pastor’s health, or the congregation’s ability to serve others in mission? Each time you say, “I want to withhold my tithe,” also say, “I want to hurt people.” You need to be clear as to what you’re doing. They are one and the same.

–Richard Bryant

An Open Letter: “God’s Word” – Inerrant, Inspired, In Error, and Sometimes Just Plain Wrong

Dear Friends:

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As my church and others discern their way through the disaffiliation process, one phrase keeps bubbling to the surface, “God’s word.” I hear this question, “Don’t you take God’s word seriously?” or the statement, “God’s word says…”. These definitive proclamations about what the Bible does and doesn’t say are often followed by things that aren’t in the Bible. As a trained pastor, I’m met with open hostility, anger, and disbelief when I say, “Actually, the Bible says…” Why would I lie? Do I look like George Santos? Double-check me; here’s the Bible! To acknowledge the Bible has many levels of meaning and competing genres doesn’t change my understanding of Jesus’ salvific work.

Some respond to this assertion as if I’m trying to twist God’s words to fit a specific theological or political agenda. That’s what I’ve been told. Actually, I’m explaining how words are translated, how the meaning of words has changed over time, and how translators bring cultural biases to translations. You’d be surprised how angry people get when they’re told these fundamental realities. Humans don’t like having their assumptions challenged. I’m writing this letter because I’m tired of trying to make God’s word come alive in ways beyond the fundamentalist-literalist echo chamber. I bid this task farewell. I’m done. I’m tired.

The Bible is one attempt to tell humanity who (a collection of authors, writing in different languages, lands, and over centuries) its authors believe God to be. I wish it were as simple as some in my congregation understand “God’s word” as something delivered from upon high, without explanation, in English, ready to be implemented, without context or nuance in the 21st century. The Bible is not God’s word. The Bible is comprised of our words about someone (or something) we call God. In some places, the words are inspired. In others, they are in error. Nowhere are they inerrant.

The major and minor prophets were often the first to recognize the magnitude of trying to “speak God’s words.” Mistakes, they realized, would lead to deadly consequences. Not only would they place their own lives in peril, but the fate of nations rested upon their clarity and purpose of understanding and communicating “God’s words.” God’s words were not to be taken lightly or for granted. So, as we read God’s words, it is natural to see those who speak and hear them and how they are understood change and evolve. Our response to God’s first words will not be the same as God’s words in Egypt, Babylon, or after the return from captivity. The context will matter. We will hear incorrectly. Something will be lost in transmission and translation. This is not about simple inconsistencies. At times, the words will be just plain wrong. Here is where we must have the courage to acknowledge where the text is not inerrant but in error.

For example, in 1st Samuel 15, God commands Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, noting he should not spare the women and children. This is genocide. Saul (at God’s prompting) is a war criminal on par with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Vladimir Putin. This text of terror is inconsistent with Jesus’ ethic of peace in the New Testament, but this is about far more than the textual inconsistencies throughout the Bible. This is about right and wrong. 1 Samuel 15 is a text in error; God’s command is wrong, and Saul’s actions are evil. God’s words can never be justified because of the inherent brutality it asks the reader to accept at face value if we are to treat God’s word as inerrant.

The idea of “God’s word” as an easily defensible, moral reality when even a single instance of genocide stands at the heart of the Old Testament (out of many) is one reason people like me have a hard time identifying as believers in an inerrant Bible. This is not because we’re twisting God’s word to fit a specific political agenda but because “God’s word” as an inerrant, morally defensible concept is a morally indefensible position to hold in the early 21st century.  God’s word still inspires me. I follow Jesus’ word. For me, it’s not about consistency. Christians will never be able to reconcile all the Bible’s inconsistencies. However, I do not have to accept that God condones the death of innocent children or that it is a permissible or good thing. I won’t do it. I can’t live with seeing God’s name attached to mass murder and genocide and being expected to be okay with the brutality running through the heart of Christian tradition. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll repeat it. The Bible, in so many places, is not inerrant. It’s in error. Murder, death, and slavery are wrong whether it is condoned by the God of Israel and recorded in the Bible or done by human beings and reported on the news.

As we divide ourselves into denominational oblivion, maybe it’s time to make one more division. Biblical Christianity, where we worship a book written by human beings, one full of flaws, too much death, and four books about a Jesus that most Christians are happy to ignore. Then there’s Christ Christianity, where we worship Christ, go toward Christ, and stop pretending God’s words are God.

Yours truly,

–Richard Bryant

Sinners United!

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When our concept of the church becomes more about memories of “place,” that is, memories tied to a building, events that occurred in a building, our family’s relationship with a building, and our sense of identity is intertwined with that place; we are in a relationship with a building not Jesus of Nazareth. I understand this when I have conversations with persons on both sides of the current debate within United Methodism who feel they are losing their church and believe they have already lost their church. Somewhere along the way, we stopped regularly emphasizing (to both adults and children) that the church wasn’t a building. Instead, the church was the people. The building, our property, our cemeteries, and our classrooms held no spiritual value other than the value given to them by the people who used them to share the Gospel. The instant we forget this reality, our churches become no different than the Lion’s Club, the Grange Hall, the VFW, or any other socially conscious community organization. Methodists have a short memory. We like our buildings and the control they’ve given us over who can and cannot come into God’s kingdom. But now that our facilities are up for grabs, many people aren’t sure of their place in God’s kingdom. That happens when you tie your idea of salvation to a plot of land, bricks, mortar, and faded photographs, even one with stained glass windows and a baptismal font your great-granddaddy carved.

Granted, some good times and moral moments may occur in these buildings. So do tedious and contentious committee meetings. Weddings, funerals, confirmations, and the like all happen under the roofs of our facilities. Yet even these holiest of services are about us and the Kodak moments of our lives. So, we squeeze a few scripture readings into weddings and funerals. Eulogies are about the deceased, and we offer a few words about resurrection, while the hymns point to us toward eternity. If either service lasts close to an hour, people will look at their watches. They want to get to the food. Wedding congregations don’t want to hear me explain what Paul meant about love or reflect seriously on the meaning of eternal life. In what should be our most sacred moments, some seek only a veneer of faith. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told to keep the wedding to under twenty minutes, cut the scripture, and leave out the Bible verses because all ten cousins will give a eulogy for Uncle Earl. We wouldn’t want a wedding or funeral to be confused with a church service.

Now, as that veneer feels threatened, those who’ve wanted to use the church only in good and bad times and occasionally asked for prayer requests for distant relatives they have never seen are often the most threatened, angry, and ready to divide the United Methodist Church. Have they no shame?

The church is made up of flawed, sinful, and redeemed people. Therefore, we need everyone we can get, especially sinners. Sinners united, that’s what I say! We also need places to live, love, work, and welcome other sinners into our fellowships. However, the buildings are not a means to an end. They were never intended to be. You and I are on a journey. When we slow down, the moment we get comfortable, the church becomes more about our wants and less about Jesus. So, stop thinking about the building. We’ll find somewhere to gather.  What’s best for you, your memories, and your sense of place? What’s best for the legacy of the carpenter from Nazareth? There will be two fundamentally different answers. You’re going to want to go with the last one. If I’m sure of anything, I’m certain of that. 

–Richard Bryant

You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

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Traditionalists think United Methodists like me are the problem. But unfortunately, I think the people who self-identify as traditionalists don’t understand what it means to be a “traditionalist.” For many in our denomination, being a “traditionalist” is holding to one position on human sexuality and marriage. For me, being a traditionalist means many different things. It’s never been about the conflict between my vision of God and the rest of the world. Here’s what I envision when I hear the words “traditionalist” and “traditional”:

  • I eat the same thing for breakfast most mornings.
  • I watch the Andy Griffith show every day. Mayberry wasn’t perfect. Andy dealt with bigots, addiction, sexism, the place of technology in society, people set in their old-fashioned ways, greed, and hate. And he did it without a gun. I embrace that vision of traditional America.
  • I miss my grandmother every day. She died in August 2005. She made great biscuits.
  • I read the Bible every day.
  • Nutmeg.
  • I want “Softly and Tenderly” sung at my funeral. The words “come home” are powerful.
  • I believe love is the best tradition of all.
  • I believe people are afraid of God’s new plans because they prefer the traditions of slavery in Egypt.
  • I believe there are hurtful traditions.
  • I believe in the traditions of the Sermon on the Mount.
  • I believe Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, is largely absent from our debate on tradition.
  • I’m so traditional that I still believe that the Gospel is a Love Story, not a Sin Story.
  • I come from a tradition where people didn’t weaponize the phrase “The Word of God.”
  • It took guts for the Apostle Paul to walk away from his tradition. I love him for that.
  • I’m so traditional and rooted in the past; I remember when going to church was fun and not perpetually teetering on the edge of destruction. I miss that tradition.
  • I believe traditions, in their best sense, should give meaning to our lives.
  • Traditions should not be used to demean people from being whom God created them to be.
  • I say no to the idolatry and false God of manufactured human traditions.
  • Our task is not to protect tradition. We are to proclaim the Good News.
  • Tradition can quickly become a form of institutionalized violence.
  • The divine is bigger than any of us or our ideas for creating new Methodist traditions.

–Richard Bryant

There Has To Be A Better Way To Pray

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This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.

I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.

Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.

The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.

–Richard Bryant

I’m Giving Up on Wearing Clerical Robes

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I have decided to give up on robes, vestments, and the like. This isn’t because I’ve been thrust into an ultra-contemporary setting that doesn’t do liturgical-style worship where these are out of place. This is entirely my decision. I don’t feel comfortable wearing them any longer. I have a closet full of cassocks, robes, albs, beautiful stoles, and even a chasuble or two. As a Methodist, I have a well-stocked religious wardrobe that I wore during the four years I served in the British Isles. I lived among Anglicans and dressed similarly. Back home, I wore a cassock, stole, and collar tabs on most Sundays. I’ve always considered myself a High-Church kind of guy. However, my attitude toward vestments (and worship in general) began to change during the pandemic.

I wondered, is this what Jesus intended? If Jesus were to walk into my congregation (wherever I happen to be serving at the time) and see me standing up front in a fancy black cassock or white alb, a stole over my shoulders, and maybe a pectoral cross around my neck, what would he say? Given what I know of Jesus, I started to think he might say, “Dude, what are you wearing? This is not at all what I intended.” Of course, I worked hard to earn the right to wear a robe and stole on Sunday morning, wear a clerical collar, and dress like a Roman Catholic priest, but that doesn’t make much sense to me anymore.

I could hear Jesus saying, “I was hanging out with my friends in my simple robes, sandals, and such, teaching, eating, and learning about the kingdom of God. Where did you get the idea that I wanted you to dress like a late 18th Puritan cleric once a week? Be honest, did you make this up or did a friend tell you this was cool?”

I know where the idea came from; I took church history, theology, and liturgy. After serving for two years in Russia, I know the vestments unique to Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and my own tradition. I also understand that my beliefs have evolved. The “uniform” no longer makes sense to me. If Jesus walked into our churches, so much of what we say and do would look foreign, out of whack, and contrary to his vision of the kingdom of God. I’m reasonably sure Jesus never intended me to dress like a wannabe Dumbledore once a week. If you think about it, it’s a little weird.

I’m not sure the people we need to reach in 2023 will come back to churches led by women and men who dress like they stepped out of the Middle Ages. We just survived the medieval style plague; why dress the part too? Instead of wasting valuable catechetical time on why we dress the way we do or expecting people to simply accept our historical eccentricities, we could be talking about loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I’m all for removing any surplus weirdness from our church services. Don’t get me wrong; I will not dress like a slob or preach with my shirt untucked. My shoes will be shined, my shirt pressed, my pants ironed, and my blazer will be dry cleaned. But, we can still be relatable and present the gospel without looking like a disheveled character on a 90’s sitcom. 

Whatever clothes we’re issued in the afterlife, I sure hope it’s not the white robes described in the Book of Revelation. If I’m going to be there for eternity, I want to be comfortable. So count me out on the forever robe. I’m asking God for a hoodie, sweatpants, and crocs.

Besides, Sheriff Andy Taylor never wore a gun (or a necktie), yet everyone knew who he was. He was just Andy. From here on out, I’m just Richard, and I’m going to let my reputation speak for me.

–Richard Bryant

Talking, Doing, and Making a Difference

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It’s hard to go through life feeling like your hands are tied. You see global problems and significant issues and want to act. But you can’t do anything. Your hands and feet are bound. If you could, you’d run to aid those who are suffering. You’d shout at the top of your lungs to draw attention to the cause of those you’re trying to help. That doesn’t work, either. When you open your mouth, you have no voice. The voice you do have is shouted down. No one can hear you or pays attention to your words. This is what I experience and feel when I watch the news. I see reports from Ukraine or the US/Mexico border and want to do something tangible to end the war and alleviate the rampant human suffering on display.

My first inclination is to pray. I have to admit I don’t know what to pray for, so I pray for an open-ended end to suffering, pain, and violence. Almost a year into Europe’s most significant land war since 1945 and after watching thousands of impoverished migrants who’ve walked for months across jungles to come to the United States, this seems like a paltry response, given the gravity of the respective situations. Here I sit, in my warm and comfortable home (office, church, etc.), muttering a few words after observing the misery of others and expecting the God of the cosmos to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering strangers half a world away. I’m so tired of watching nothing happen, the evidence of war crimes becoming more apparent, and refugees not being welcomed into the United States of America. Recently, I’ve thought about my need to involve God in praying for the Ukrainian war or the migrants. I want the war to end and migrants to be welcomed not simply because I am a Christian or pastor but because it is the right and moral thing to do. People deserve to be treated well because of our shared humanity, not solely because a religious text instructs us to do so.

I guess, in some way, through my prayers, I’m trying to make myself feel better. At least I’ve done something, I’ll say to myself. I’m aware, I care, and I’m informed. I know God’s not unaware of the needs of the Ukrainians or the migrants, but somewhere deep down inside, I think my “seconding the motion” helps. Then again, who am I to tell God what God obviously already knows? Shouldn’t I be doing something rather than just talking about the problem?

Once I’ve said it, I feel like I’ve done something; I can check it off my list and then move on to the next item on my agenda. The thing is, here recently, I don’t feel better. I feel worse. I feel like I should be doing more. I feel like the more I pray, the worse the situation becomes. I see how overwhelmed the people trying to aid the migrants are with each passing day. I want to do something besides close my eyes and talk to God. I ask myself, “Where’s the middle ground between going to the Polish border or El Paso and sitting in Hillsborough and waiting for God to move on Vladimir Putin’s non-existent heart?” I don’t have an answer to that question. We’ve sent money to UMCOR. I’ve raised money and tried to help people on the border. If there is a blank, I’ve filled it in. All I know is this: our words aren’t cutting it.

What happens when Christmas is over and the willingness to be charitable fades? To borrow a phrase that’s popular at the moment, none of our altruism seems effective. The good we (collectively as Christians and as a denomination) do is all short-term, motivated by the emotions brought up by the Christmas holiday. We’ll keep praying and waiting on Vladimir Putin to do what Dr. Seuss allowed the Grinch to do-experience a change of heart. That’s the only way this stupid, vicious war will ever end.

–Richard Bryant

What Wile E. Coyote Teaches Me About Evangelism

I do love “Looney Tunes”. After watching a few episodes the other night, I realized there were some religious lessons to be learned in the ongoing battle between the Coyote and Roadrunner.

1.      Wile E. Coyote knew his community. The Coyote understood his neighborhood and surroundings intimately. From the desert valleys, mountain tops, train tracks, highways, and every possible spot to place birdseed; the Coyote understand the demographics, people, and animals in his desert.  This kind of awareness is crucial for evangelism. Where are the people, as a church, do we want to meet and invite to our community?

2.     The Coyote did the research. Before the Coyote made a new attempt to catch the Roadrunner, he tried to find the most effective means of doing so. He ordered books, plans, and developed ideas to adapt to his new situation. While not always successful, the Coyote always prepared, learned, studied, and equipped himself before trying to meet the Roadrunner. Evangelism is a ministry for which we develop. (Unlike the Coyote, we’re not out to “capture” anyone.)  We do want to know the gospel, the community, and how best to share the message of the Good News. Our plan: order something from ACME and start learning today.

3.     The Coyote never gave up. The Coyote’s failures are numerous. Despite his best efforts, he never gave up. The Coyote keep working, reading, and going back out into the community. The Coyote, if he’s anything, is a model of perseverance. To quote John Newton, “through many dangers, toils, and snares,” you’d think he’s describing the Coyote’s encounters with the Roadrunner.   The Coyote is, despite our pro-Roadrunner cultural blinders, a recipient of God’s grace, just like the rest of us. He’s been beaten up and beat down. Thanks be to God, he’s never out. I think there’s something we can all learn from the Coyote as we share God’s Good News.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Staying Behind Jesus in An Era of Outrage

Yes, we should be walking in the dust of our rabbi. How do we do this when its easy to be distracted by our era of outrage?

1. Pray up. Extraordinary circumstances require more prayer. Pray for your friends, enemies, neighbors, courage, hope, and those who are living with or in fear.

2. Look for opportunities to be a calming presence. Where has God placed to you, what are the moments where you’ve been called to talk, listen, and service those around you? Where are you called to diffuse situations like Jesus in John 7:52-8:11? (The woman caught in adultery)

3. Check in with the church community. In times like this we need our worshiping family, people who pray with us, corporate study of the scriptures, and praise.

4. Read Jesus’ words, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. When so many are overtaken by outrage, it’s good to remind ourselves that we are called to see the world through Jesus’ eyes.

5. Invite or ask people, people whom you have the opportunity to “simmer down”, to join you in church. (Again, this could be a family or friend. It doesn’t have to be a stranger. Who have you interacted with?) A key part of our faith is following up on our beliefs. Think of it in medical terms: someone goes to the doctor, then to the hospital, and the to an outpatient rehab. Coming to church should make people less angry.

6. Live less outraged. Make a choice to be happier. You have control over your own emotions. Unplug and moderate from those things in our culture that thrive on anger, negativity, and outrage.

7. Check you friends. Are you hanging out with people who bring out your best or only recycled negativity?

Richard Bryant