Manufactured Belief

There are some arguments that aren’t worth having.  I’m not going to argue with the devil about racism or the appropriate way to protest racism.  Especially now, since the devil has outsourced his own brand of evil to bots and trolls working in Saint Petersburg.  I’m not going to shout down a white supremacist because well funded Russians with an excellent command of English and knowledge of American politics bought enough Facebook ads to anger both liberals and conservatives.  To tell you the truth, I’d prefer not to talk about God with anyone who claims to know God personally.  Anyone who claims to know the intent of the founders when writing the second amendment isn’t someone I want to debate.  In this moment, when America is swimming in fear, bathing in righteous indignation, and distracted by every new Tweet; I’d like to stop talking to everyone.  I don’t know who pushed your buttons.  You don’t know who pushed your buttons.  Even more, you don’t know who flipped their switches before they pushed your buttons.

Your anger, while seemingly well founded to you, was probably manufactured in Moscow.  Why is this so hard to believe?  While it’s not the Manchurian Candidate by any means, there are a group of ill intentioned individuals exploiting vulnerabilities in our broken democracy.  Maybe it’s just a writer whose idea was sent on a whim and the story was picked up in a Facebook news feed.  Once it’s in the feed, the soulless algorithms running the platforms that shape what we see then trigger our basest emotions.  The vicious cycle of wash, rinse, and repeat continues.  Our knowledge, the weak hold we possess on reality is nothing more than someone else’s ideas that we’ve been led to believe are ultimately our own.  If we are angry, it is because we have rightly been offended.   This has been the working assumption in a bipolar America.  This is not the case.

We have been told to be angry, hurt, and disrespected.  If you are not angry, other aspects of your identity as an American are suspect.  These are the orders American’s receive 140 (or 280) characters at a time or in various ads and posts.  When it happens enough, you start to believe the lies you’re being told, even the lies you know are false.  We’re all someone’s puppet if we allow the strings to be pulled or the buttons to be pushed.    As the subjects of constant noise, distraction, interference, and emotional manipulation; it is hard for many of us to determine what we believe apart from what we are told we must believe.

Where does the church fit in?  The clergy and the church have a history (and a present) of telling people what to believe.  Each week, we recite a statement of faith, the Apostles’ Creed.  This is a statement of belief.  In other ways, we tell our congregations what they must believe in to be considered an orthodox, Bible believing, Jesus-loving Christian.  Some would say that’s part of the job.  I want to relinquish this part of my job.  I no longer want to tell people what they must believe.  I don’t want to serve a congregation full of puppets who respond to the emotional strings I pull or buttons I push.  I want to cut the cord.

It’s always scared me to claim to speak on behalf of God or claim that God gave me a message.   I’m not afraid of many things, but that level of presumption frightens me.  So I ask:  Is it possible, in worship or through the Eucharist, to clear out the clutter and let the church listen to a God who’s not telling us what to believe but how to experience the kingdom?  For this to happen, we have to get out of God’s way, stop pretending we have  all of the answers, and start reminding each other of how good it is to be loved.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Do Facebook Debates Alienate People and Make More Atheists?

I learned long ago that Facebook isn’t the place for serious political, religious, or philosophical debate.  In our culture, Facebook debates are usually platforms for personal opinions and preferences.  The existence of this platform (and our 1st Amendment right to free speech) doesn’t mean we must become evangelical about every idea we hold dear.  Ideas rarely, if ever, are changed in over wrought, profanity laden Facebook posts.  Thankfully, those I followed this week were both civil and profanity free; a rarity on Facebook.  However, they were indicative of the former.

When we select a topic (seemingly at random) and invite others to a conversation where we tell others how right we are and wrong they are (under the pretext of open discussion), nothing good occurs.  At best, you’ve got hurt feelings, confusion, and misunderstandings.  At worst, people are alienated and friendships are destroyed.

Perhaps the greatest mistake other than having a debate on Facebook is having a religious debate on Facebook.  God and Facebook do not mix.  Take this week’s discussion on intelligent design vs. evolution.  Is a guiding hand “God” or is it just some intelligent force?  Are we talking about God or not?  I didn’t bring up God you did.  And so it went.

God is a touchy subject on Facebook.  Each time God is invoked in a Facebook argument, even obliquely, my job (as a pastor) becomes harder.  Let me tell you why.  Ordinary folk (our non church going neighbors) read these debates about God, evolution, creation, science, war, peace, immigration, homosexuality, and other hot button culture war topics.  They see different opinions being expressed by self-professed and self-identified persons of faith.  For the non-believer, the person not too familiar with religion, or the person who might be willing to give church a chance, this confuses them.  Do you have to believe these ideas, as expressed by the people who are debating in order to be a Christian?  Is this what all Christians are like, squabbling over the minutiae of creation and scripture to prove points that have nothing to do with our daily lives?  Many people walk away and say yes!  The stereotypes I see on television and read on the internet are true.  It’s being played out on Facebook right before me.  Why would I go to church if this is the kind of junk they’re going to talk about?   If I was looking for a church and this is what I saw, it would turn me away.

Christians make more atheists and turn more people away from Christianity with our desire to be right about things that have no bearing on anything related to Jesus Christ.  Proving God’s role in creation was never central to Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus never preached about human sexuality.  Jesus preached about loving our neighbors.

Our desire to win the culture wars is killing the church.   We’re committing suicide by Facebook.  With each attempt we make to stir the pot and have a discussion disguised as a diatribe, we’re doing more harm than good.  Each time I have one of those “no we’re not really like that” conversations it gets harder to do it with a straight face.  Why?  Because I wonder, am I lying?  Are we really like that?  Maybe we are.

A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words

America – a pre-existing condition in need of constant reassurance.

Belief – The idea that feelings equate to reality.  (See Truth)

Christ – Jesus’ last name.

Jesus – Itinerant weeper.

God – Head of a US based multinational corporation which invests in social networking applications, web based communications technology, and merit based wish fulfillment.  (See Mark Zuckerberg).

Truth – Any knowledge, information, or ideas yet to be deemed as “fake”.

Zuckerberg, Mark – Senior Pastor, First Church of Facebook (see God).

You Can’t Hear Jesus For The Shouting

Ours is a world of distractions built upon diversions.  Each new aberration is sold to us as a life affirming addiction distilling reality’s most vexatious qualities through filters, screens, and digitized emotions.  The moment we connect, log in, sign on, and open our eyes, we are detached from those things we are hoping to find.  The signal is lost in the noise.  From deep within the brain’s dopamine receptors, we hear these words:  keep scrolling, if you go a little further you might laugh, cry, or be enraged by something vitally important to an ongoing political issue.

Yet, no matter how many comment threads we read, filtered photographs we see, the world, our world looks the same.  Regardless of the social media platform you visit most; suggestions are made on who you should follow.  Those invitations are invitations to follow people or organizations that look, think, believe, vote, complain, and buy clothes like you.  We were looking for a nameless something, found nothing, saw everything, and still feel empty.  Nothing has changed.

We cannot log out as we forgot our passwords years ago.  The filter and its window onto the chimera of nothingness can never be closed.  Filters demand effortless access, long battery life, and easy to read screens.  Personalized tones, a choice we made to make our filter reflect the unique nature of our tastes, summon us like test mice preparing to dine on cancer laced cheese.  The filter is opened, the cycle resumes, and what we read is never what we expected.

Hope is never delivered in 140 characters or less.  Our dopamine receptors remain empty and starving.  The words we might have shared with loved ones remain unsaid.  When we do speak, we shout.  It’s the only way we feel we can be heard.  The background noise engendered by the restlessness in our souls and the rambling search for meaning in life by looking through artificial filters pushes the volume to deafening levels.   If we wanted to hear God, whether as individuals or as a denomination, how would the message get through or be noticed?

Filters provide humanity with the illusion of control. With our filters, we can make life more livable.  With more control over our lives, life will be better.  Something’s gone wrong.  We’re being inhibited by the very filters which should give us freedom.  Instead of giving life, we search for a better life, as defined by the filters; a life we’ll never find.

*Lord, we think we are in control of our own lives.  We truly believe our decisions will impact your choices in eternity.  Help us to see that we are powerless over so many things.  We ask for the grace to be able to hand over our lives to you, so that we may see the world, and you, without a filter.  Amen.

The signal does get lost in the noise, until it doesn’t.   If the power of the filter is broken; what comes next?  With the background noise diminished (or removed) how do we listen to God?  How do we talk to God and each other without shouting?

In the 10th Chapter of John, Jesus speaks about his “sheep” and how they hear his voice.  “They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the strangers voice.”  Then John adds, “Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.”

Jesus acknowledges the existence of competing and confusing voices.  In this cacophony of sound, it’s hard for Jesus’ message of hope, encouragement, and growth to be heard.  It is also difficult to know whom to trust.  Filters, the social media platforms, and the presence of so many competing voices make confusion and distrust a reality in modern United Methodism.  We are far more concerned about our identity as Methodists, who speaks for the denomination than hearing an authentic voice from Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus knows where we are at this moment.  It is hard to hear over the shouting and firmly established cultural filters.

John says that Jesus is speaking from the gate.  That’s how we know this is Jesus talking.  Jesus is speaking from the gate, knows all of his sheep by name so that each sheep may live their life to the fullest. This sounds like the Jesus I know.  Jesus wants to let everyone in and allow them to be who God created them to be, whether they be straight, gay, black, white, bald, skinny, fat, or whatever.  You cannot live life to the fullest if you check part of yourself at the door.

However, if you’re looking at the world through Snapchat filters, Facebook memes, and 140 characters of Twitter snark; that’s the first and easiest thing to do.  In that world, there is no room for Jesus.  You can’t hear a word he says.  But that’s ok.  You don’t have to listen to Jesus.  You listen to people talk about Jesus.  The world you want to see looks just like the one you’ve created.  Pull their ill informed opinions around you like a warm blanket and keep scrolling down.

*May I listen and speak to Jesus.
 May I learn to be still and listen.
 May I hear and know His words.
 May I mark my days in gratitude.
 May I abandon myself to our God.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

Good Thoughts versus Prayers

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Facebook is once again reminding me that today it is a friend’s birthday.  I’m told by the machine, “Send Him Good Thoughts”.  Recently, a community member went through a difficult brain surgery.  On the day of the operation, people sent “good thoughts” to the family and doctors via social media.  What does it mean to send someone good thoughts?  I’m a spiritual person, called and even paid to lead a religious community.  I have a graduate degree in theology from a well-known university.  I’ve studied religion with people from all over the world.  I’ve prayed on holy mountains and in sacred valleys.  I’m telling you:  I have no idea what it means to send someone good thoughts.  It’s a meaningless phrase of vapid nonsense which accomplishes nothing whatsoever.

Let’s break this down.  The sender sends good thoughts.  Don’t put yourself out, sender of benign greetings!  It’s nice of you to remember my birthday with your thoughts.  I appreciate your thinking.  I didn’t want a card or a phone call.  Thoughts, good ones, sent throughout the vast soulless medium of the internet will suffice.  Yes, good thoughts, that’s what I wanted in this age dripping with hate, negativity, and rage.  My day is infinitely better because you thought toward me.

Do you remember when you were a kid and your mom and dad’s birthday rolled around?  You might ask, “Mom, what do you want for your birthday?”  She might pause for a second and say something like this, “I don’t really want anything at all.  You know the best gift you could give me would be for you to go and clean your room or do the dishes after supper tonight.”  That’s not what you wanted to hear.  Because in your mind, you know best, you know that Mom doesn’t really want what she’s just said.  She wants something spectacular.  So what do you do?  You go outside.  Maybe you learn a new trick on your bike.  You practice all afternoon jumping off the end of the driveway and landing in the grass.  This trick was for her!  Or you go back to the kitchen table with crayons and draw a picture which you believe shows how much you love her.  In the end, you do some really cool things, but they are the things you wanted to give her and they bear no resemblance to what she really wanted.

At the end of the day, you take mom outside to the front yard and say, “Look, mom, let me show you this trick I learned for you.”  Perhaps you rush inside and hand her your drawing in hopes it will go up on the refrigerator.  What does mom say?  Of course she says thank you, she loves it, but is it what she hoped for?  No, it’s not.  Is she a little disappointed because no one listened to her?  Yes, she is. She wanted a clean kitchen or you to clean your room.   You did what you wanted to do.  It was ok, but it didn’t really meet mom’s need.

To me, this is the difference between “good thoughts” and “prayers”.  Sending “good thoughts” enables us to forget the real needs at hand.  If all you’re sending is good thoughts, you give people what you want to give them (which may indeed be nothing) instead of stepping back and allowing God to do God’s thing.  No one ever gave their life over ambiguous good thoughts.  Good thoughts are worthless because they are rarely matched with good actions.

Good thought people are rarely disappointed because they never take the risk of praying and having those prayers not answered.  They live in their well-protected good thought bubbles; where everything seemingly balances out in 140 characters, with the right recycled memes, and an endless supply of others addicted to sharing nothing.

 

Food for Thought-7 Habits of Highly Annoying United Methodists on Social Media

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We all do these to some degree (regardless of faith tradition).  However, some seem to pop up worse than others.

1. Anne Lamott is like Marmite. You either love her or dislike her. Stop forcing her “wisdom” on everyone. Most of us have made up our minds by now.

2. We’ve all been on mission trips. We all have the same photographs of smiling United Methodists holding shovels or serving soup. I don’t need to see your pictures. I have my own.  I’m sure they are virtually identical.

3. Twitter debates about the minutiae in the Book of Discipline attract seekers to the United Methodist Church like tax cheats to IRS offices.

4. Don’t call yourself a monk unless you’re in a religious tradition that has monks and you take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

5. The joy, joy, joy I’ve got down in my heart today comes from a Vacation Bible School I attended 30 years ago, not the recycled quote from John Wesley (George Whitfield, CS Lewis, Charles Wesley, Mike Slaughter, or Leonard Sweet) you just shared.

6. Tweets and Facebook posts which mock our brothers and sisters in Christ (other mainline denominations) and act as if we’re the first denomination to ever face monumental social issues show how out of touch some of us really are.

7. The holiday season is approaching.  Advent is busy, Christmas is crazy, and life can get out of control. We know this. Find theologically appropriate ways to deal with it beyond acknowledging this shared and understood reality.

Food for Thought-How Often Would Jesus Have…

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1. Checked his email…he didn’t have email. If so, maybe once or twice a day.  I can’t see him chained to his desktop, laptop, or mobile device.  Can you?
2. Prioritized his day…Jesus didn’t know the meaning of triage; he removed obvious distractions and met with everyone.
3. Checked his Facebook page…again no Facebook in first century Galilee. Maybe of a couple of times of day at most. Jesus liked to rely on word of mouth information. His core audience wouldn’t be likely to be able to check their phones or computers for updates on a regular basis.
4. Spent time alone…at least once or twice a day. Jesus knew when he needed to step back, be alone, recharge, and regroup.
5. Eaten with other people…Jesus never ate alone. Community wasn’t a buzz word. It was a reality. Meals were events, people sharing, preparing, eating, and being together. There is spiritual value in the act of eating a meal together.
6. Have taken pictures…all the time. I can see Jesus with a small digital camera taking pictures of everyone he meets. Would these go on Facebook or Instagram, I don’t know?  I think they’re more likely on the divine hard drive we call creation.