April 1st, 2019

Dear Friends:

After much deliberation and talking with a proof texter,  I have decided to become a Biblical literalist. If the Bible says it, it must be true. Here’s a brief summary of some of the literal truths I now accept: the earth is 6,000 years old,  Adam and Eve lived with Dinosaurs, two of every animal boarded and lived aboard a single boat for forty days and nights, mass murder in the name of God to conquer any piece of land is OK, slavery is divinely ordained, and much more. All of these ideas, I’ve gleaned from my new King James Bible which I read and accept as the literal word of God, much like the Quran is the word of Allah dictated to Muhammad. Hopefully, my new position will make it easier for me and my evangelical sisters and brothers to be friends with our Islamic sisters and brothers. The benefits of being literalists are too numerous to count.   We have so much in common!

I also believe God is as much like me as I’m like him. God confirms all my biases, suppositions, and ideas. As a literalist, I know that God loves who I love and hates everything I hate. I never get challenged. God never challenges me.  This is the best religious experience of my life. Everything fits with what I already believe. Why did it take me so long to end up here? I know why. Those stupid progressives are messing it up for everybody, encouraging people to think for themselves, making people uncomfortable with rational thought and common sense. What would the church look like if we all applied ration and reason to our faith? Who knows, we might look more like Jesus. Can you believe that guy, boiling down the entire Old Testament (613 commandants) down to one? Love your neighbor as you love yourself. That’s a prescription for societal rot and communal decay. No sir, that’s not a religion I want to be part of anymore. I want that old time, washed in the blood, word for word religion. That’s why I’m now a literalist. If the Bible says it, it’s good enough for me.

Happy April 1, 2019,

Richard Lowell Bryant


Things To Know When Visiting Our United Methodist Church

My Happy Face

1. You’re probably sitting in someone else’s seat.  Ask them to scoot.

2. We provide Bibles. If you bring your own, I’m guessing you’re a Baptist.

3. Turn your phone off.  I will ask to speak with whomever calls.

4. Today is Sunday. We do this every week about 11:00. Give or take.

5. We pray with our mouths, not with our hands.

6. It’s called a bulletin, not a pamphlet.

7. We have one bathroom. I clean it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

8. Our communion bread is Hawaiian. You will love it.

9. If your ferry departs at 12:30, you can leave before the Benediction.

10. We’re glad you’re here.  This is my happy face.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Things To Think About This Week

Our minds bend toward worry.  How do we use our anxiety productively? Can we direct our fear toward something we can control?  Yes. If we worry about those in need following Hurricane in Florence, we can help those who are suffering in tangible ways.

The new technology that connects and improves our lives is destroying the privacy, security, and safety of real communities.  Our virtual lives make us vulnerable.  How can you take control of your vulnerability?

Outrage is necessary when confronting evil.  Some things in this world are outrageous.  When you see it, call it out.

It can happen here.  It is happening here.

Better isn’t only a goal for politicians and priests.  Better is for each of us, today.  We need to hold ourselves to higher standards.

There are too many places on the planet in political, social, and environmental peril.  It is important those of us touched by hurricanes and erosion talk with those impacted by typhoons and earthquakes.  Our lives are intertwined.   All is not well in this world. None of us is ready for Bishop Elon Musk to establish the Martian Missionary Annual Conference.  We are needed here.

The irrelevance we (as individuals or churches) sometimes feel is not the relevance we experience.  Our lives mean more than we realize or are willing to admit.   Go read your Baptismal vows.

The church is an old idea, an ancient model, trying to survive in challenging times.  We need to talk about Reformation; not as a catchphrase or cliché.  It is time for systemic change.  Every five hundred years or so, the church seems to demand an overhaul, from the bottom up.  Now is the time for Reformation.  However, Reformation is not synonymous with regression.

To resist ecclesial change is to ignore the political, economic, and social upheavals occurring all over the world. The church, beyond the international level, pretends it is too inconsequential to influence the global movements demanding change from governments and entrenched bureaucracies all over the world.  This is not true.  Our conversations in local churches are also reflective of more substantial shifts occurring at the global level.  If we limit one, we impede the other.

The world is not a place we remember one Sunday a year, one Sunday a quarter, or after we receive a particular e-mail from the conference or a general board.  Engagement is our full-time job.  In most cases, our global commitment is a part-time position.    We all suffer as we wait for the next headline from Syria, hurricane, or earthquake. Is something more significant happening, something more disconcerting than we realize?

An echo chamber never lies.  I will prove that I am not an echo chamber.  The world is a painful, sometimes crummy place where the good guys often lose.  If I were an echo chamber, I’d have painted a much rosier picture about the Holy Spirit making all things right. Beware of echo chambers.

What if the way we think of church, Bishops, the Bible, Annual Conferences, committees on ways forward, FBI investigations, the United States Senate,  the Judiciary Committee, and the Supreme Court is part of the problem?

We are the problem we’re trying to solve.

Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant

10 Reasons Why People Leave Church

1) They were never really “there” in the first place. The church was a way station between soccer practice, scouts, and the other stops in our over-scheduled lives. Church seems, for a time, like the right thing to do. After a while, the incessant moralizing and demands to volunteer grow difficult for many people to manage. Other parts of their lives, like volunteering (at school) comes without the tinges of guilt and people talking about (however occasionally) heaven and hell.

2) Ritualized singing is awkward. The only other places on earth where people sing together, en masse, the same songs, are English football games. Church shares this unique commonality with football hooligans from Leeds and Liverpool. The strangeness of singing either repetitive praise choruses or 18th-century hymnody, in public, may rub the modern person the wrong way. If someone is hurt, broken, and seeking purpose in their life; enter our building and sing with strangers! That’s a big ask.

3) Have you seen what I wear on Sunday morning? I dress like Dumbledore. That may strike folks not used to traditional liturgical worship as odd. This could run a few people off. Harry Potter fans love it! My Ordinary Time stole is a Slytherin scarf.

4) We fight like cats and dogs in meetings over really inane stuff. Have you been to a church meeting lately? If people want to fight, they’ll eat dinner at home with their kids.

5) People find new churches. We have to compete with the gym church, the football game church, the golf church, the fishing church, the boat church, and any number of things people worship. These other churches provide community, potlucks, and they don’t ask you to sing.

6) Some people are fickle and mean. When their meanness gets exposed, people leave.  I think this works both ways.  People leave when they encounter meanness and hostility.  Some also leave when they realize their meanness won’t be tolerated in a Christian community.

7) People join political parties, fishing teams, alumni associations, golf clubs, and social groups; yet they don’t like the idea of traditional denominations having a larger institutional identity.  When the church becomes more than a bland, generic, or cookie cutter version of every other church, they leave.

8) It takes a boatload of money to keep us going.  Even the smallest church is expensive to run.  People decide to spend their money elsewhere.  It’s the economy, stupid.

9) People leave the church because you didn’t cast their child in the Christmas play.  Most times it is not unanswered existential questions about suffering, the preacher’s politics, or anything so grand.  It’s the little things.

10) People leave the church because they read too many Dan Brown novels.  They believe the worst about Christianity and we don’t give them any reason to think any differently.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Following the Jesus Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If this was today, can you imagine tomorrow?

Richard Lowell Bryant

We Are All Unchurched

Last week, the clergy in our district and church lay leaders were invited to attend a meeting on the evening of Pentecost.  I’ve been preparing all week to speak in tongues.

It’s not that I’m opposed to meetings.  Sometimes important discussions are to be had.  This isn’t one of them.  Gatherings about topics we’ve addressed unsuccessfully for years (anyone remember Catch the Fire?), held only one day after I made the same 10 hour (round trip) journey (for another district meeting), show how little the dominant power structure understands about the stewardship of time and resources.

While presented as such, these meetings are not an honest exchange of ideas. Submit your reflections on note cards that we’ll promptly throw away.  Go get in a small group and write some thoughts on these sheets of newsprint which we’ll never read again.  We’re supposed to do what they believe is right.  Isn’t this how Methodism ended up in its current mess; one cookie cutter meeting at a time?  Band meetings are a great idea.  No one has ever willing to lead that way.    Small groups, yes.  But leadership, never.  They are far too communal, consensus based, Wesleyan, and Socialist.

What are the Methodists of the Beacon District called to discuss on Pentecost?  It would appear to be the perfect topic:  bringing the unchurched back to church.   It is 2018, Donald Trump is in the White House and Roy Moore may run for Governor in Alabama.  May we stop using the word “unchurched”?  The most “unchurched” people are the self-proclaimed Christians who are also accused pedophiles and serial adulterers with a penchant for porn stars.  The term “unchurched” much like the word “evangelical” has lost all meaning in early 21st century America.  It’s time to stop using this word.  We look ridiculous using words we pretend to understand in order to describe a world which doesn’t exist.

United Methodism, in general, has no idea what it means to be a church.  Look around at the mess in our own house!  Evangelicalism has polarized the idea of what it means to be a Christian in America.  In Robert Jeffress’ and Roy Moore’s eyes, I am “unchurched”.   If someone is unchurched, have they (or have they not) been exposed to the right wing Jesus, the left wing Jesus, the Apostles’ Creed, Christian Zionism, or how to dip Hawaiian bread into Welch’s grape juice?  What does it mean to be unchurched?  “Unchurched” is a term laced with such vagueness and ambiguity it is useless in contemporary evangelism.  I believe it creates an insulting stereotype of those who might find love, grace, and mercy in our congregations.

United Methodists don’t know who is “unchurched” and we have no right to judge the value of someone’s religious life experience when they enter the doors of a United Methodist congregation.  In this sense, we are all unchurched.  None of us are getting church right.  We are decoupled from the messy heart of the Good News.  Nobody knows what they’re doing.  We are unhooked, unhinged, and about to come undone.  Just look at our inability to treat women and gay people fairly.  By the missional standards we’re still using, it sounds like our denomination is unchurched.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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