On the Death of the Good, Great, and those In Between

I am finding it harder to pray for my enemies.  It’s difficult enough to watch good people die from evil diseases.  Death is made all that much harder when the frailties of human nature fail us at the point which defines our humanity.  Death is the common denominator.  We are all going to die, one way or another.

It seems that in one way or another our petty grudges and animosities might be laid aside when we die.  Nice things might be said, courtesies extended, hands shook, and hugs offered.  Yet in 2018 even that is too much to ask.  Humanity, kindness, and decency are deemed signs of weakness and political compromise.  I should qualify that last sentence.  Humanity, kindness, and basic decency have evaporated for about half of the voting age population.  While that’s not everyone, it’s enough to see, feel, and notice the change in our society.  It’s painful to watch.  It hurts to see good people experience the back hand of ill intended remarks and self-righteous comments.  Civic death, for what it’s worth, is no longer sacred.

Hence, I’m back to my dilemma.  With life loosing value and death becoming another event to be manipulated (like elections and press conferences), I’m finding it hard to pray for the manipulators.  Yes, I pray for the families of the deceased.  I pray for those wounded by hate and the rhetoric of violence.  Above all, I am finding it difficult to pray for those whose souls are not moved by death and loss in the most human sense.  The words I need and I’m called to find for those who have placed themselves beyond decency and self-respect, are not there.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

 

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What Will They Think of Next? Churches For People of Different Political Persuasions

So what’s going to happen next?  We’ll have restaurants which serve only Democrats and those which serve only Trump leaning Republicans.  You know what comes then?  Soon, you’ll find churches which cater to one particular political persuasion over another.  Wouldn’t that be grand, to sit for an hour or so each Sunday morning with a group of people who look, think, talk, feel, and even vote identical to me!  Wait, a minute, we’ve got that already.  Welcome to America.

There is a place where this pseudo-dystopian reality already exists.  I lived in Northern Ireland for two years.  And like it or not, I found out the hard way:  there are Protestant restaurants, Catholic pubs, Protestant grocery stores, and Catholic schools.  I’ve lived in a place divided along ancient religious, political, and sectarian lines.  Manufactured fear was the currency of the realm.  I stood in the middle of those lines as Protestant pastor.  Let me tell you the God’s honest truth about that world:  it sucked.  You don’t want to go there.  You don’t want to raise children in a place where the first thing they’re asked in school is this:  are you Catholic or Protestant?  We don’t want to live in a place where tribalism becomes so predominant that declaring such a loyalty is the first step toward an education, a meal, or worshiping God.

I am not naïve.  I sat with former Sinn Fein prisoners and Ulster Unionists.  I listened to those, first hand, who languished in British jails.  I prayed with my congregation members whose family and friends assassinated by Irish Republican terrorists.  I’ve sat through modern day bomb scares.  I was beaten and robbed in the street just yards from the front door of the Irish Methodist church I served.  A tribalized society, fueled by self-righteous anger and socially sanctioned mistrust leads to more bullets, bombs, and killing.  If you play this tape out, it doesn’t end with snarky tweets.  Instead, people die.

What some Americans are talking about (kicking people out of restaurants as civil disobedience) is not the answer to closing camps on the border. I know this because it’s the failed dysfunctional reality in modern day Northern Ireland.  Protestants live in East Belfast.  West Belfast is majority Catholic.  The British Army is still in Northern Ireland and the province is governed from London.  Civil Disobedience died on Bloody Sunday.

Our blindness has descended swiftly and surely.  America’s supreme moral arrogance is to believe we are going to reinvent the wheel when it comes to religion, society and politics.  We are a self-aggrandizing and arrogant lot.  Anything is on the table and everything is game because the past eighteen months have been so evil.  We are wrong.   We’ve convinced ourselves we are right.  If we start down this road,  it requires a toll, I can assure you, few are willing to pay.

There is much wrong with the present.  Violence in Latin America is evil.  Internment camps are evil whether opened by Wilson,  Roosevelt, Clinton,  either Bush, Obama, or Donald J. Trump.  Asylum is good and joyful thing with a rich Biblical tradition.  I do not believe it is too late, in eschatological terms, to condemn all that is evil and embrace all that is good.  Our ability to be polarized depends on how much power we give to the polarization surrounding us.

Is it possible to make space at the grand Eucharistic table for those seeking asylum while we are fighting our own struggles of who carries the greater degree of moral clarity?  That’s the question we face.

Tribalism, self-righteousness, and misdirected indignation only make the work of reconciliation harder.

We are all Syro-Phoenician women asking to be seen and heard.  We have followed Jesus into a strange land.  Refugees, asylum seekers for Grace, we seek only the crumbs from the table.  None of us have permanent status.  Whether it is the gift of race, birth, education; or presence here is fragile and based on sheer dumb luck.  Some may call it privilege.  Others may call it grace or the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Whatever you term it, remember where to direct our outrage, how to direct our emotions, so that we can make the Kingdom bigger, not smaller.  (Please go read Matthew 15-21-28.)

I want a bigger Kingdom and a bigger church that excludes no one.  I mean everybody.  Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Gays, African-Americans, Latinos, Asylum seekers, Trans-gendered people, North Koreans, South Koreans, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and even University of North Carolina fans and alumni.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Moses Changes God’s Mind

Moses Listens to God’s Plans to Destroy The Israelites Following the Creation of the Golden Calf

As strange as it seems, the story of the Golden Calf is one of those Sunday School stories we all know.  Whether in the movies or in the lesson, it comes right on the heels of the 10 Commandments.  It sticks out for any number of reasons.  In my mind, I’ve never seen the attraction of worshiping a cow; golden or otherwise.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a confirmed carnivore.  I love steak, hamburger, meatballs, and most anything you can do with a cow.  I’ve even eaten tongue.  When you’re on a mission trip, to seem polite and gracious, you’ll eat most anything.  However, and with no disrespect to my Hindu sisters and brothers who consider cows sacred, I’ve never once pictured a cow as God.

When I was a child in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, I had no idea that the other dominant religious tradition of the day, Baal worship, often worshiped cows.  Baal, the great multipurpose storm god of the ancient near east, was often portrayed as a cow. That information would have helped.  Not that it would have seemed any less weird but at least it would have made a little more sense as to why they went for the cow statue.  Baal the Cow just happened to be next on the “what can we worship” list.  And my word, weren’t they an impatient group of worshippers?

Where was Moses?  Moses goes up the mountain to meet with the God who led them out of Egypt, saved them from death (repeatedly), fed them, protected them, and has now disappeared for longer than they’ve expected him to be gone.  What do you do in such a situation?  You freak out!  You lose your mind, totally forget everything that’s happened the recent past, ignore common sense, disregard conventional wisdom, decide there’s only one possible explanation for an none other, and decide to act out ignorance against your best interests.  That’s what we do and it’s what the Israelites did.  If God doesn’t meet our timetable, expectations, plans, desires, and options we proclaim ourselves as free agents and make ourselves Gods.

They are lost, marching in the desert in route to the Promised Land, totally dependent on God for everything.  Somehow, they’ve managed to make stops by Jared’s and other jewelry stores on their trip across Sinai.  What do I mean by this?  Notice what the text says about the gold.  Look again at verse 3, “So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron.”  How fashion conscious should you be when you’re a refugee in the desert on the run from the Egyptians and in search of a new country?  How much gold jewelry do you need and who are you trying to impress with your Bronze Age sense of fashion?  The fact they’ve got that much gold on hand and it’s decorative, jewelry even, has always troubled me.  It says something about misplaced priorities and taking advantage of the blessings God’s giving to you.  Would we know anything at all about putting emphasis on things that don’t matter and squandering God’s resources on matters that matter a hill of beans?  I think we do.  The Israelites went from “God’s chosen people” being led by Moses to a group of cow worshiping drunks in the blink of an eye.  Witnesses to greatest miracles God had ever done; splitting of the Red Sea, the plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt, the gifts of food in the wilderness were forgotten in an instant because Moses’ meeting ran over.  They were offended that Moses would leave them.  How dare God do this to them (whatever “this” is); despite doing all of “that” for them (in the past)?

As I reread the Golden Calf, I’ve come to see it less as story about idolatry.  It’s more a commentary on what happens when we let our priorities and expectations become so unrealistic and narrowly focused, not only do we leave God out of our lives but we ruin relationships with other people.  In other words, things have to be the way we’ve decided, there can be no alternatives, this person is acting this way and because of motivations we’ve already decided have to be the case.  There are no other factors that might impact this situation, decision, or this person.  It has to be as I have determined it.  It’s not gone according to my plan.  Moses has not arrived.  I don’t care that he’s been with God, if that’s really true.  Has anyone seen is Facebook status lately?  Did he really check-in on the top of Mount Sinai?  As a result I’ll do what I have to do. I’m going to make my metaphorical Golden Calf.  What’s so frightening about this story is how quick and how often that change in God’s people can occur.

The second half of this passage turns darker and makes me uncomfortable.  What do you do about this?  I’m asking an open-ended rhetorical question.  I don’t know.  What does God do about his people, those in whom he has heavily invested, that are now ungrateful, drunk, impatient, cow worshipers?  This is not an easy question to answer.  Think of everything God’s done to get them to this point.  Consider the cost in human lives alone.  Does God go all Toby Keith on the chosen people and put a boot up their ass?  Should God order up a Predator Drone armed with Hellfire Missiles and wipe every last one of them off the face the Earth?

The short answer is yes.  The text is clear; murder is God’s first instinct.  When we act like short sighted, self interested, impatient, narcissists God’s initial impulse (as recorded here in Exodus) is to kill us all.  I told you it turned darker.  To paraphrase John Donne, “death, be not proud” but it will be quick and easy.  God says to Moses, “I’ll start from scratch with you”.

Here’s where I imagine Moses feels like General John Kelly trying to keep the President’s Twitter machine under control.  Moses says, “God you can’t send that Tweet”.

This is what troubles me:  God makes argument for murdering the people he has professed to love and already saved from certain death.  “They’ve already abandoned the path that I have commanded.  They’ve made a metal bull calf for themselves.  They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it.  I’ve seen how stubborn they are.  Now leave me alone!  Let my fury burn and devour them.”

Nothing God said is inaccurate or wrong.  The Israelites have done all these things.  Two points I’ll raise:  they’ve not killed anybody and you could have seen this coming a mile away.  This should have surprised no one, least of all God.  The Israelites had been moaning, murmuring, and complaining since they left Cairo.  However, these aren’t reasons to kill everyone you love.  He’s simply restating the facts.  Yes, God is angry.  We’re all angry and disappointed.  Since September 6th when we watched the tiny island of Barbuda leveled by Irma or on September 20th when Maria hit Puerto Rico and on October 1st when 58 people died on a Sunday night in Las Vegas; we’ve been angry and disappointed.  Tragic and brutal deaths are all too common both here and around the world.

Moses knows that more death isn’t the answer.  Scripture says, “Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, ‘Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?’  Calm down your fierce anger.  Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people.”

Calm down your fierce anger and change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people.  Moses doesn’t hold his tongue.  It’s nice to think about someone who will speak truth to power.  Moses is speaking truth the ultimate power.  We like to talk about the fear of the Lord.  We forget that what that really means is “respect”.  Fear doesn’t mean to be afraid of God.  If Moses had been “afraid” of God, he would have been an accessory to the murder of innocent people who didn’t deserve to die.  Had Moses been unwilling to tell the Emperor that he had no clothes, where would we be today?  Let the utter profundity of the passage sink in for a moment: Moses (a man) told God (the God) that God was wrong.  God admitted God was wrong.  God changed God’s mind.  That last verse is the most crucial verse in this entire story, it’s the one you need to remember:  “Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he would do to his people.”

If God can be wrong, we can be wrong.  If God can learn a lesson and relent so can we. If God can err on the side of life, grace, and inclusion; how about us?  What are some of the things we think we’re so invested in, things that we become fighting mad over, that are black and white for us, and matters of which we’re so certain we’ll never change our minds?   God changed God’s mind.  What would happen if you changed yours?  How would the church look different?

Would Jesus Go To the Inauguration?

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To ask the question presumes much.  What would a 2000 year old Galilean rabbi, make of a presidential inauguration in a part of the world no one believed existed until a thousand years after his death?  Would the rabbi understand the idea of democracy?  Had the Athenian ideal made it to the mean streets of Nazareth and through the lower Galilee?

I’m not even sure the founders of our republic would know what to do with our current inaugural spectacle.  The Constitution was written before the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, and in a time when slavery was accepted.  I doubt whether they could have ever imagined much of what’s going to transpire over the next few days when they laid the foundations of the United States of America.

I do believe that Jesus can shed some light on the events of recent days.  Over forty democratic members of Congress have announced their intention not to attend the inauguration of President-elect Trump.  More may follow suit.  Some like Congressman John Lewis have called his nascent presidency “Illegitimate”.   Where is Jesus in the midst of the never ending partisan rancor?  Is he on the sidelines, like the angry middle school basketball coach, yelling to his kids, “Suck it up, you lost this one, now go over there and shake their hands like real men. Humiliation after painful losses builds character.”    In other words, it’s just how it’s done.  The “peaceful transition of power” is how grown-ups talk about being a good sport.

Or. is Jesus telling us some other simplistic answer?  Jesus said unto those unhappy millions, “Take your ball and go home.”  “No,” Jesus continued, “thou doth not have to play with those who thou deemest to be meaneth, lying, and overly amicable to the Slavic King.”  No, I’m not sure that’s Jesus’ light on the moment.

When Jesus speaks to power, it is stark, complex, and subtle.  Here’s what I do know, if you’re ready to take Jesus’ side in a political and social argument don’t bring a tuxedo or ball gown.  Prepare to be crucified.  If you stand with Jesus, before political power, you should be prepared to face death.  Jesus’ inauguration moment comes at the end of his natural life.  As he’s ending his “work”, from our perspective, he’s “inaugurating” the kingdom of God with his death and resurrection.

The high point of the inauguration comes when Jesus is brought into palace of the Roman Governor.  He tells Pilate in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world”.   Jesus comes to his own inauguration inside the palace of the man representing the Roman Emperor.  The Kingdom of God is inaugurated in a Roman Palace and the only guest is the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  In his inaugural address, Jesus explains the contrast between a violent and nonviolent kingdom.

The governor sees it the other way round.  He is the solider, hero of the legions, veteran of the German wars, governor of a province of Rome, and this man is his prisoner.  This is not the case.  Pontius Pilate has a front row seat for the inauguration of the kingdom of God.

From the first moment, as Jesus refuses to answer Pilate’s questions, the governor realizes the tables are turned.  When the most powerful man in the country feels the need to remind Jesus, “Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and to crucify you?” he’s lost control.  Jesus tells him, “You wouldn’t have any power unless it too had come from above.”  Power doesn’t frighten life.  Truth listens to my voice.  Who placed who here?  What fate, something the Roman would have trusted, led him to this moment?  Standing before Jesus, the moral certainties of the maddening crowd were nothing like questions in Pilate’s mind.  Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”

Jesus turned the tables at his inauguration.  In what appeared to be defeat, the kingdom of God took hold in the least likely place before the most unlikely person.  The Good News is that we have crosses to bare, scripts to flip, tables to turn, and truth to reflect.  How best do we do this?  Pray, stand with Jesus, stop following the crowd, and if Pilate asks you a question, you don’t have to take the bait.

Food for Thought-I Will Not Condemn Donald Trump

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I do not agree with Donald Trump’s recent statements regarding Muslims coming to the United States. I am opposed to this idea. As a clergyperson, what should I do about my disagreement? One of the ideas repeatedly hitting my inbox is an “Open Letter from Clergy to Donald Trump”. The letter raises important concerns about dividing America along religious lines. I hold these same concerns. Despite my sympathies, I’m bothered by this letter. If religious leaders started sending such petitions, in their role as defenders of the moral and ethical status quo, to everyone who said something stupid, racist, bigoted or xenophobic; we would spend all day writing letters. The immense volume of correspondence would bring the work of ministry to a halt. Inevitably, we’d have to start sending letters to each other (pastors to pastors and church members to church members or church member to pastors and vice versa) asking our neighbors and friends to repudiate positions we find morally repulsive and religiously offensive. We would be perpetually offended, pissed off at the world and angry at something all the time. Sound familiar?

Welcome to reality, religion, and life in America. In essence, this is the platform Facebook and other social media outlets provide. In an instant, we can alienate our family and friends with instant calls to attack them, they way I’m being asked to condemn Donald Trump. Petitions and open letters aren’t new; we now do them quicker and in 140 characters or less. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was written in response to an open letter signed by several pastors. Which one do we remember today? Is it the open letter of moral indignation or one man’s thoughtful reply and call to action? Online petitions lack the eloquence of Dr. King’s call to tangible action.

Doesn’t this come back to the essence of the issues raised by Trump and others in world dominated by war and religiously motivated terrorism? How does one remain faithful to their religious tradition without telling someone else their faith sucks and they’re going to hell? How do you condemn others without implicating your own sinfulness? You can’t do it.

One place to start would be universal declaration of non-religious suckiness: Thou shalt not say that anyone’s religion sucks.  I could sign that letter. I am also more than willing to sign a letter which bans Hell out of existence and states no one is going there for not believing the way I do. When and if I see such letters, I’ll let you know.

I would love to condemn Donald Trump. I’m not a fan. Although I agree with the premise, “America isn’t America if it’s divided along religious lines”;  I can’t sign such a letter.   Yes, people of faith shouldn’t remain silent.  But this isn’t the way to be heard.  I cannot sign the letter because of the log in my eye, the sin in my life, and the grace I’ve received which tells me the best means to reject Trump’s ideas is to love in ways I don’t think I’m capable of loving.  I wouldn’t be signing such a letter out of love.  It would be out of fear and hate.  I can’t change Donald Trump’s mind or heart. Online petitions merely feed his publicity machine. Trump needs to be hated as much as he is loved by his most ardent supporters. This is the fuel on which his campaign runs.

I can take away my hate.  At some point, I need to be comfortable in praying for Donald and letting the Holy Spirit do her thing. I can, however, feed every refugee I meet, house those I encounter, clothe the needy, comfort the sick, and visit those in jail. Our positive actions can stand in stark contrast to his dark words. Or people of faith can condemn Trump, with a host of others, online. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, “Let’s see how that’s works out for you.”

Food for Thought-5 Good Ideas for August 11th, 2015

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1. Burps and farts should be acknowledged and celebrated when shared.
2. Don’t radically alter your appearance with a new haircut.
3. Keep your thoughts about how Donald Trump’s ideas resonate with average people to yourself.
4. Before you buy that new bumper sticker, remember no one reads the ones you have.
5. Embrace the infinitely deep amidst the profoundly simple.

Food for Thought-10 More Beloved Figures Donald Trump MIGHT Want to Offend This Week

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1. God – “I like people who can get things done in less than a week”
2. Jesus – “I like people who don’t turn the other cheek”
3. The Dalai Lama – “Honestly, I like the people who take a harder line with China”
4. Mother Teresa – “I like people who cure disease, not treat the sick forever”
5. Ronald Reagan – “I like people who know how to make better movies”
6. Thomas Jefferson – “I like people who can tell the difference between a lower case “f” and an “s”
7. John F. Kennedy – “I like people who don’t get shot in moving cars”
8. The crew of Apollo 13 – “They’re only famous because their ship blew up, I like people when their spaceships don’t blow up.”
9. Vladimir Putin – “He’s only president because Yeltsin gave him the job.”
10. The Pope – “Who put him in charge? God? He’s only Pope because a bunch of guys in dresses voted him in. My houses are much nicer than his palace”