A Better Way To Pray Part 3

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This is the third in a series of posts on prayer. In the previous two articles, I’ve explored my challenges with traditional models of prayer (in light of my father’s cancer diagnosis, the rising tide of global violence and war, and illnesses within my community and congregation) and my search for a “better way to pray.” Here, I want to explore the transactional nature of prayer practiced in most congregations and how addressing this long-ingrained perspective might be a first step toward a more authentic prayer life. These thoughts are intensely personal and do not reflect the views of the United Methodist Church or any congregation of the United Methodist Church. This is me, Richard, reflecting on God, prayer, and our need to be heard when we’re hurting, seen when we’re celebrating, comforted when we’re crying, and companionship when we’re alone.

When we pray, are we talking to a person? I’m not thinking about Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Instead, I’m thinking about God. We use the language of “divine personhood” when we delve deep into the weeds of Trinitarian theology. Yet, should we refer to God as a person in the same way you and I are people? Let’s take the word “person” off the table. It’s become more challenging for me to envision God as a person. It’s much easier for me to talk about God as a concept, idea, or something more extensive than the universe itself, the idea of God as a person no longer rings true. I also see a difference between “personal Gods” and the notion of “God as a person.” 

Humanity, Homo sapiens, has always wanted something to worship. However, this doesn’t mean God is a person. We do not have to borrow the language of psychology or philosophy to explain Trinitarian theology. Here we proceed cautiously; as Wittgenstein taught us, words matter.

Persons are limited beings, physically and intellectually speaking. God must be more than the total of our idea of all the traits of personhood. God must be more than we can imagine. To call God a person is to identify God as something less than God, an imitation deity, the “I can’t believe it’s Not God, God.” I do not believe in this traditional notion of a personal God any longer. Why? A personal God is not a real God. A personal God is a toy. A personal God is a reflection of us, our personhood, our self-interests, our limitations, our priorities, and our fears. A personal God is an idol. A personal God is a wholly owned subsidiary of the person you see staring back at you in the mirror. God is not a person. God is God. God belongs to no one. God may lay claim to our lives but we do not own God.

If God is not a person (in the traditional sense), then to whom are we praying? If God is not a person, how do we have a personal relationship (not my phrase, one I inherited from generations of church-going evangelicals who came before me) with an entity that is not a person but something that exists outside the idea of personhood? How do I ask something of, request, and insinuate that I need a favor from a non-personal cosmic entity operating on a scale grander than the number of stars visible to the naked eye? Maybe I don’t.

Is prayer just another transaction, albeit a spiritual one? Am I placing a call, sending an email, hoping that the person on the other end of the line receives the call or reads my message and decides to respond to my request? Yes, and yes. That’s how we approach prayer. In most of our congregations, this is how we do it. Think about the questions I asked last week concerning the Holocaust. Did the “person” on the other end of the line take the phone off the hook or refuse to answer their email for over ten years while 6 million people died? Persons said thousands of prayers in the gas chambers. Who was listening? What happened to those transactions? How can we even talk about the transactional nature of prayer when the answers (to those in particular) seem so haphazard and random? If God is a person choosing whom to listen to and whom to ignore, prayer certainly appears to be a gamble. How much time do we spend gambling, each week, in worship? If God is a person, we must either pray for everything or nothing. Suppose you intensely subscribe to the “God is personal” model. In that case, God appears to pick and choose who to listen to, and frankly, that’s depressing as hell. I’m starting to take that on-again-off-again approach to being a divinity, personally. I didn’t ask to be created but I sure would like to be listened to. I think the transactions I seek are worthy of God’s attention. What must I do to transact God’s blessings for my father’s health? I’d like more than word salad about free will, God’s plans, and how we don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.

What if prayer is not a transaction, a quid pro quo? What if prayer is not a “you say a name, hope God is listening, is in a good mood, and you’re in the spiritual black, so something positive might go your way kind of operation? What if prayer is a spiritual discipline, a holy habit, and a sacred conversation between persons on the faith journey? Now that might be a new way to pray. What if, instead of waiting on answers from God, we became the answers to our own prayers?

What if, in a spirit of vulnerability, we gathered to share our deepest concerns and our greatest joys with each other? What if we became comfortable with sitting in silence with one another? What if, in humility, we could express our fears and hear other members of the body of Christ? Would this not be a new way to pray? What if we read the words of those walked the journey before us, poets and mystics, the psalmist, and wisdom teachers? In listening to each other, are we not creating sacred personhood for those who dare to come to a holy place to know that their prayers are heard with a vital, emphatic, and loud AMEN?

–Richard Bryant

How Do You Talk About God After Auschwitz?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

How do we talk about God after Auschwitz? How is it possible to discuss God’s goodness after witnessing the brutality of the Holocaust? It’s a question our Jewish sisters and brothers ask more than Christians ever have. In the light of six million people systematically executed because of their religious identity; how is it possible to talk about God? It’s the ultimate modern expression of the theodicy question first posed by the writer of the Book of Job. Why do good people suffer?

If you’ve visited a concentration camp, toured the gas chambers, seen the mass graves, and stood where victims were hung and shot, you realize “How do you talk about God after Auschwitz?” isn’t a theoretical question. You’re not engaged in an ivory tower debate between academics, theologians, and philosophers, on something that may never happen without real-world implications. Standing under the gate which reads, “Work Will Make You Free,” on ground permanently contaminated by the evil that occurred in the buildings only feet before you, you realize this is a question that demands an answer, not just on International Holocaust Remembrance Day but every day of our lives.

I’ll ask again, “How do we talk about God after Auschwitz (or any camp)?” I’m not sure there is an answer. Concentration camps have the power to rob visitors of words. Over seventy years later, the silent bricks, mortar, windows, and sidewalks are fully functioning thieves, and standing there, looking at the showers where the cyanide-based Zyklon B was used to kill thousands of unsuspecting men, women, and children, I was robbed of my ability to talk about God. I looked for words and found none. It was all I could do to breathe. Have you ever felt punched in the stomach by gazing out at a sprawling complex brick buildings and manicured grounds? That’s Auschwitz. It’s almost like the opposite of the Holy Spirit descending at Baptism. It’s as if, with each step, you can feel God finding it harder and harder to breathe. God wasn’t in this place. These were rooms devoid of all goodness, mercy, and hope. In these rooms and the ovens beyond, God was dead. How do you talk about God after Auschwitz? Maybe you don’t. Perhaps, we say nothing at all. There’s nothing to say.

Do we default to discussing Jesus and his death on the cross? Do we try to Christianize and co-opt the Holocaust to explain the tremendous suffering of the Jewish people even though the Holocaust’s roots are in a perverted form of Christian theology? No. We remain silent.

I’m not sure it’s possible to talk about God using any of our traditional religious language following the horrors of the Holocaust. We do an injustice to the survivors. We show how little we understand of the God we claim to worship. We cheapen ourselves and show our ignorance of history. Even the hint that the SS was somehow part of God’s will (or God’s larger plan) is grotesque, offensive, and evil.

Our concept of God, whether we choose to admit it or not, was forever altered by the concentration camps. Our struggle to comprehend the brutality in the Ukraine is a fight between the God we knew before Auschwitz (the God with whom we are more comfortable and can easily rely on and believe) and the absent God, still fully on display in places like Dachau, the Donbas and Mariupol.

There are no religious words to make this wrong right. The last chapters of Job are out of time and place. Some of Elie Wiesel’s works provide a degree of closure and allow his readers to glimpse the experience of living in such conditions. I’ve stood on the spot where Bonhoeffer died. His ideas on religionless Christianity are good words but even they fall short. Other than that, there is nothing to say but “never again.” We must say those two words to each other over and over again. I pray God is listening.

–Richard Bryant

Stop This Crazy Thing: A Disaffiliation Prayer-Poem and Statement of Faith

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

God is (somewhere)

Jesus is (love)

Jesus is not (the guy in your stained-glass window)

Faith is (hard)

Belief is (harder than faith)

God is not (a problem to be solved)

Faith is not (an either/or proposition)

Belief is not (perfect)

Scripture is (words)

Prayer is (more listening, less speaking)

Scripture is not (words taken out of context)

Prayer is not (a list of demands)

We are on our religious high horses.

We are not who we think we are.

Christianity is flawed.

Christianity is not what Jesus intended.

The Bible is a collection of history, poetry, myths, stories, and songs.

The Bible is not one book.

Fundamentalism is alienating those seeking Christian communities.

Fundamentalism is not what Jesus intended.

Selective Biblical literalism has been used to justify slavery, the oppression of women, and genocide.

Selective Biblical literalism is not Biblical.

Scriptural authority is a phrase most often used by authoritarians.

Scriptural authority is not a phrase that fosters honest dialogue.

These polarities ARE tearing us, me, and congregations APART.

Before, I am LAID upon the ALTAR of DENOMINATIONAL DISARRAY

Before I DISAFFILIATE from my SOUL, I ask,

I paraphrase the words of George Jetson,

“Stop THIS CRAZY thing.”

–Richard Bryant

Sinners United!

Photo by Maruxa Lomoljo Koren on Pexels.com

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

There Has To Be A Better Way To Pray

Photo by Ric Rodrigues on Pexels.com

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

On the Passing of Pope Benedict XVI

Photo by Efrem Efre on Pexels.com

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and now Ratzinger are dead. Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Prince of the Roman Church, former Archbishop of Munich, also known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, died on Saturday morning. It’s less of a shock to the global system when one pope dies when there’s another in office. It’s not like Pope Francis was the backup pope. He’s had the job full-time since 2013. Benedict retired gracefully to write and be the theologian he’d always been. Pope Francis made moves interpreted as centrist (in comparison to Benedict), and Benedict was held up as a guardian of the magisterium (the fancy word for the church’s authority on teaching and doctrine). Benedict represented the frontline in the battle against growing secularism in Europe. He dialed back some of the reforms made by the Second Vatican Council he’d once embraced. He made those accommodations for traditionalists who wanted to use Latin in the mass. Benedict said the quiet part out loud: male clergy would never marry, women would never be ordained, and Protestants remained outside God’s plan for salvation.

I’m afraid I must disagree. I don’t subscribe to the doctrine of Papal infallibility. I believe heaven is big enough and will contain both Protestants and Catholics. I said this all the time when I served in Northern Ireland. It got me into trouble with both Protestants and Catholics. On one occasion, I was jumped and beaten in the street. Protestants screamed at me for going to a Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Catholics bullied our Protestant American children in school.

Jesus was neither a Protestant nor a Catholic. I wondered why Christians would kill each other over doctrinal interpretations for nearly 600 years. This division wasn’t found in the gospels or in Paul. Yet Irish cemeteries were full of people who killed each other over the certainty of whom they believed God was letting past Saint Peter.   

I mourn the death of Pope Benedict. I pray for Pope Francis and those who will gather for his funeral. I never judged his commitment to Jesus Christ. He never met me, but he judged me. To him, people like me (Protestants) were spiritually deficient and lacking in our theology, little more than atheists. We were close but not quite where we needed to be.

I love and respect my Catholic sisters and brothers. I welcome them to our church at any time. Our door is always open. I pray we will one day find a way to worship together that begins from the point of inclusion instead of exclusion. Let us leave our assumptions about who will be in eternity to one side.

Jesus loves me this I know.

Whether any Pope tells me so.

Red and yellow, black and white,

We’re all (Christian, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Shinto, Confucian, Daoist, Fill in the Blank) precious in God’s sight.

–Richard Bryant

Grounding Our Faith in the World Caused By This New Realty

  1. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Disease is disease.  It knows no ideology or strategy other than the mathematical reproduction of itself.
  2. Faith asks us to look beyond fault. That’s different from ignoring responsibility (personal or otherwise).  The spring breakers come to mind.
  3. We have narrow definitions of fellowship. Biblical discipleship probably included more social distancing that we like to admit.  Fellowship with God and with each other is two different things.  God is present in our absence.
  4. This is hard and may get much harder. At the present, for the most of us, the virus is an inconvenience. We need to be better at having schedules moved, life cancelled, and our world rearranged.  Are we being asked to live under pressure or live better quality lives that we might normally experience?  That’s a matter of perspective.
  5. Jokes about toilet paper scarcity are stupid.
  6. Things feel out of control.  We can’t control everything.  Stop.
  7. When, we need to be prepared for dealing with death at a distance. We’re used to bodies and death rituals. We may not have this in many cases.
  8. Life will outweigh death but the death see will be hard.
  9. Pray and talk.
  10. Listen and ponder.
  11. Take it seriously.   More seriously than schism, conferences, or anything related to the church.  There will be time for our personal chaos on down the road.  It’s life and death time.

Richard Bryant