A Hard Week To Call Yourself a United Methodist Christian

We are facing a momentous few days in United Methodism. In just over a week, delegates from all over the world will gather in St. Louis, Missouri to make a decision on the “Way Forward.” What does this mean? Methodists, like other mainline denominations such as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, are coming to terms with what it means to welcome LGBTQ persons into our congregations and ordained ministry. This is has been a very heated discussion in Methodism for many years. Now, the church is in a place to make a decision, one way or the other, or seek a compromise. Emotions are running high because both sides in this debate feel strongly about their positions. When this process is over, some people may decide they can no longer remain in the United Methodist Church. Others may look to create new versions of Methodism which reflect their theological priorities and understanding of scripture.

Like much in our country, what’s happening in the church feels disconcerting and confusing. Our church is polarized. The state of our religious discourse is tribal and toxic. It’s hard to find common ground amid the clichés and church jargon. Fear drives our responses to the world around us. Despite our differences, most people share one premise: We don’t want our church, country, or life to change into something that feels less comfortable and less holy. We like our routines and habits. We also prefer our interpretations of scripture.

In one moment, I find myself asking, “Why can’t we all get along?” In the next, I will seek every opportunity to proclaim God’s love for each of those God made. I don’t want to get along.  It is a confusing time. I have found that when the world feels this uncertain, it is an excellent time to reflect. How did we get here? What brought us to the moment? Why do we think this way about a specific issue? If we have a good idea about what brought us to this point, we might find a way forward.

My reflection begins with today, this time in history. After following the debates over the future of the United Methodist Church for many years, attending countless meetings and conferences, it’s hard to know what to think about United Methodism. I really don’t know. The anger on display, the self-righteous strutting of those seeking to gain power over others, and our love of the institutional church itself lead me to believe that our current incarnation has little to do with Christianity. In many ways, we’re like a spiritually active civic club with chapters across America. That’s not who we set out to be, but it’s who we’ve become.

We don’t feel Christian. Methodism, on a bad day, pulls me away from Christianity. I’m lured into the trap of caring more about what means to be a United Methodist with a pension and a home to live in than I am someone who is identified as a Christian. I don’t like to believe my Methodist identity trumps my Christianity.  It shouldn’t.  Methodism doesn’t have a monopoly on following Jesus.  At best, they should co-exist. These past few years, even that’s been a challenge.

Not that being a Christian is any more comfortable than clinging on to Methodism. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ make it next to impossible to call oneself a Christian. Sex scandals in every denomination, the co-opting of faithful people as pawns for partisan politics, and Christianity’s slowness to meet the needs of a hurting world make hard to say, “I’m a Christian.” I want to say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not like those people who do these hurtful things.” Then, despite my best intentions, I realize that anytime I say, “Those people” I’ve already tossed vital elements of my faith out the door. So yes, in 2019 it’s hard to identify as “Christian.” Given all the caveats placed on what one must believe (by believers on all sides of the spectrum), I don’t know if I match anyone else’s definition of being a Christian other than my own.

If I feel out of place and unable to identify with either Methodism or Christianity, what do I do? If the ideas and attitudes have become so polluted by politics, fear, and the vagaries of human emotion; where do I look?  If I don’t know what to do with the institution of United Methodism and Christianity looks nothing at all like I remember in Vacation Bible School; I can go find Jesus. Jesus isn’t an institution or idea. (We’ve tried to make him one.) At a point in history, there he stood. His words, recorded by his followers, are an undeniable testament to God’s priorities. Those words remain mine to read and then to share. They are a call to engage with God beyond our institutional priorities, tribal politics, and justifications. I may not know where I relate to United Methodism. At times, I am uncertain about labeling myself Christian in 2019. However, I can always return to Jesus.

Where do I go? I gather with the crowds who’ve come to hear him speak. These listeners and onlookers are my people. I can feel their energy and enthusiasm. By the seashore, people came from all directions. They could see, hear, and explore the impact of his words in ways we’ve lost. Jesus was unfiltered. There were no attempts to make him more understandable or applicable to the lives of the listeners. When Jesus speaks, life makes more sense. I get what he says. He moves me in ways Saint Augustine or John Wesley never has. Listen to his words:

“Blessed are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.” Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

Jesus sees the poor and hungry. We love to talk about the poor. We fly to visit the poor in other countries while neglecting the poor on our doorstep.  By acknowledging what is difficult for us to see, Jesus draws us closer to serving others.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” I can always return to Jesus. Jesus knows the broad sweep of human emotions. He accepts that there is a joy to be lived and sorrow to be embraced. I recognize there is room for me and my baggage in Jesus’ life.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors to did to the prophets.”

Jesus knows it’s hard to walk the line between religious expectations, tradition, and a world in need. If you come back home to Jesus and rely on his words, some people are going to hate what you say and do. Some people will hate what I’m writing. A strong response, according to Jesus, is a measure of success. Keeping our identity formed by our interactions with Jesus, despite the reactions we receive, is part of building the kingdom.

We can take Jesus’ words, package them as our own, and offer it to the world as Methodism or some other variety of Christianity. Or, we can mingle with the crowds and listen to Jesus.

Despite the structures, systems, and commissions which define our way of life as United Methodists (and Christians); it is still possible to associate ourselves with Jesus. Everything else is window dressing. This is us, who we are; the poor, hungry, troubled, joyful, and alive.

Richard Lowell Bryant


Did Jesus Ask Peter What He Believed Before He Invited Him To Follow?

When Jesus joined the crew of Simon Peter’s fishing boat after a long night catching nothing, I learned one thing: commercial fishing is hard work. I didn’t realize the level of work until I moved to a fishing village along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Many of our 800 or so residents are fishermen. Like Peter, James, and John; they fish with large nets, all night long.  They do this to support their families. They work incredibly hard for sometimes very little return.

It was in the midst of this kind of fatigue and exasperation that Jesus met Simon Peter. After borrowing Simon’s boat to serve as a floating pulpit, Jesus instructed Simon to go a little further and deeper into the water. You know the story of Simon’s incredulity. “These waters are empty. We fished here all night.” He thought further efforts were pointless. Whether out of a sense of hospitality to his guest or because he was simply out of options, Peter acquiesced. “Yes, Jesus, we’ll do it.”

He did it and the fish came. They were all rightly amazed. I’m less astonished by the fish, Peter taking advice from a part-time carpenter, and economic windfall soon to grace their families. Something else grabs my attention. I have read this passage countless times, and I’ve yet to find Jesus posing a question about doctrine, theology, worship, or religious law to Peter or his crew. It’s not there.

While racked with doubt and amazement at second guessing Jesus’ internal fish radar, Peter is never put on the religious spot. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to repeat a creed. Peter isn’t questioned about his beliefs on the Trinity, same-sex marriage, same-sex ordination, third-trimester abortion, or a wall across southern Gaza. Why didn’t Jesus ask these questions? Doesn’t Jesus know he’s leading the battle in the culture war for the heart and soul of everything that has ever been good, right, and holy? Does Jesus not realize that God-fearing people like him are supposed to be aggressive when making new disciples? No, Jesus seems heaven-bent on welcoming everyone despite the Orthodox standards we insist Jesus follow, especially if he wants to feel welcome in United Methodist circles.

Jesus didn’t have a litmus test for Peter, James, or John. He doesn’t have one for us either. There are a variety of litmus tests for contemporary United Methodists, and some treat these codes as if they were created by Jesus. This isn’t reflective of Jesus’ priorities. It’s more about Methodism and our need to be in control and determine those we believe worthy of entrance into God’s kingdom.

At the end of the story, Jesus says to Simon, “Don’t be afraid.” As we head into the General Conference Methodists are fearful. Is it possible to “not be afraid”? I believe the background noise concerning one plan or the other is too great for us to hear Jesus’ words. We’re confident of our ability to save ourselves and that God is on our side. We’ve jumped through our own hoops. We want the world to see how holy we are. The Methodists are in charge of their own destiny.  What’s there to be afraid of?

I’ll save that list for another day.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Have You Heard of the Isaiah 61 Plan?


People tend to make things more complicated than they need to be.  If you don’t believe me, reach in your pocket or purse and pull out your phone.  Remember, that overpriced piece of plastic in your pocket, the one built with rare Earth elements that are nearly impossible to extract from Africa and Latin America, and assembled by underpaid workers in China, it is supposed to be a phone.  It’s not a game console.  Your phone isn’t a music player.  Your phone isn’t a weather machine.  Nor is your phone a purveyor of gossip, passive-aggressive memes, your thoughts about coffee, or ideas about the government of the United States.  Yet, it is.

Your simple, beautiful, cellular phone purchased to stay in touch with your family and friends is a web of interrelated ideas and a complex network of lifestyle applications with nothing to do with the first reason you bought a cell phone:  you wanted to reach out and touch someone.   So now, we text, we never talk.  We type, we never talk.  We send distorted artistic renderings of smiley faces and other animals.  We never speak.  Who talks on the phone?  No one talks.  Yet for nearly 40 days, we’ve excoriated our politicians for avoiding the one thing we rarely do ourselves:  put down our phones and talk.  I’ll ask again:  why don’t we?

Why do I bring up the complicated lives we lead and the phones we carry as a metaphor for how things have gone wrong in the United Methodist Church?  Our phones remind me of the faith we profess and the building in which we sit, the church.  I’m not talking about local churches but also the church in general.  The church, throughout its history, has been good at taking beautiful, life-changing ideas designed to connect people and places and making them more complicated than they need to be.  The church can become a dot-connecting, hoop jumping, and saying the right words exercise.  This model of the church teaches that if we do all the approved steps, in the right order, we’re being Christian.  Actually, that’s not the church.  It’s a form of secular religion (complete with liturgical devotion), divorced from the Christian tradition.  This is the “best” “worst” thing the church does.

In our journey toward complexity, that is, creating an application for everything; we’ve lost touch with the original idea (our equivalent of the phone) which should have guided our efforts and innovation.  Instead, we let the constant need for innovation guide the movement.  As a result, we forget why we’re here, what we believe, and what we originally intended to do (and why those things still need to be done.)

So why are we here?  What is our “original” phone?  What brought us together in the first place?  If we were to remove all of the applications and garbage from our phones/devices what would be left over?  What would it look like?  Is it the Apostles’ Creed?  No.  In my mind, the Apostles’ Creed is an application.  It’s something we download.  It doesn’t come with being a Christian.  The Creed was written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus and his disciples.  Others, after decades of early innovation, decided what was important for Christians to believe about Jesus, the person.  The creed can augment our information about Jesus, but it’s not the last word.  Scripture is our primary point of entry when encountering Jesus.

Here’s the difference between the creed and what we’re looking for:  we want simplicity.  The Creed tells us what to believe.  Belief is a layer of complexity Jesus rarely broached.  I want to know what Jesus said about himself and how that points to things Jesus did.  Do you see the distinction?  What do others say about Jesus vs. what Jesus says about himself?  Then, in revealing anything about himself, do we learn anything thing about the primary path of discipleship?

If the church wants to make things a little less complicated, we need to go back to the 1st generation “Jesus” phone.  What can we learn from Jesus not just what others say about Jesus?  How can we make the church look more like Jesus and less like ourselves?

Jesus is invited to read scripture in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  This is at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.  He’s on the cusp of becoming a well-known teacher.  People like what he has to say.  Naturally, Nazareth is proud of the home town boy made good.  They want in on the Jesus movement.  It’s a great honor to be invited back to your home pulpit to speak, even for a United Methodist.  I don’t need to tell you that family and friends were in the congregation.  This is a big deal on multiple levels.

Sabbath morning, Jesus arrives, full of the Spirit and ready to worship.  When the time comes, the prophetic scroll is presented to Jesus (Isaiah 61:1-2, 58:6).   (The guest always received the prophetic reading.)  Luke says that Jesus read the following:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

“And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Jesus says, “This is me.  I have come to do these things.  If you want to get on board, now is this time.”  Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus gives his mission statement. In other words, if it doesn’t fall into the broad categories as I’ve outlined above, it’s not me or my thing.  What has the Church done with Jesus’ plan for proclaiming the Good News?  Do we still think Jesus’ news is good?  What have we turned the Good News into?  Is it a series of litmus tests to determine how best to navigate the complex, hoop jumping Christianity we’ve created in 21st America?  Yes.

You see Jesus’ priorities.  You know what the church values as priorities.  When given the opportunity to quote from Old Testament he chooses to highlight the poor, captives, the blind, and the oppressed.   He quotes Isaiah, not Leviticus.  Jesus doesn’t reference marriage or human sexuality; the two issues many United Methodists believe should frame the church’s entire response to the secular world.

If we want to make the church look less like us and return it to the priorities Jesus outlined, we know what we need to do.  It’s not like poverty, captivity, health care, and oppression aren’t global crises that manifest themselves in our own back yard. Some oppression even originates in our own theology and from parts of United Methodism.

We follow Jesus by doing Jesus’ actions.  Being a Christian is more than repeating a creed or mouthing a prayer.  It ought to be about putting belief into practice.  We should become the answer to our own prayers.  If your belief keeps someone oppressed, in darkness, or denies their fundamental humanity; it’s not Christian.  Go back and re-read today’s lesson.

To talk about bringing “Good News” to the poor can lead to being branded a socialist.

To talk about proclaiming release to the captives can lead to being called soft on crime.

To talk about the recovery of sight to the blind in body and mind can lead to being called a supporter of Medicare for all.

To talk about letting the oppressed go free can lead to being called a revolutionary.

Let people call us any name they choose.  What matters is that we’re following Christ in ways that it is difficult for anyone to contest.

Jesus calls us to do these words he read in Nazareth.  This is his plan.  This isn’t about repeating a creed and telling the story of man’s life.  Jesus isn’t trying to keep an 18th-century denomination alive in 21st America.  Jesus shows how to do the Good News. Good News that accepts everyone as God made them, on face value, from day one.   If we make it any harder, that’s on us.  I don’t want to be the guy who makes it any harder for someone to know, hear, or understand a liberating Jesus.

Richard Lowell Bryant

How Did Jesus Get Baptized if John Was Already In the Slammer? Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Unlike the presence of the Wise men or the other hair-splitting details surrounding the birth of Jesus, Christians can agree on one thing: Jesus had a baptismal experience. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell the story of Jesus going to down the Jordan River to encounter his cousin John. In fact, that’s where each book really begins because they share this singular point in common. But, there’s always a “but.” There are notable differences in the way each of the four gospel writers tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. Luke’s account is different from the others. The pieces are there, the words you know, but Luke puts them together like Picasso. When you step back and see what he’s created, it doesn’t look like the Baptism you were expecting to encounter. Oh, it’s a baptism alright, but something happened on the way to the water.

Why are we baptized? That seems like a simple question. Since we’re Methodist, it ought to be an even easier question to answer. When you were a baby, your parents (and extended) family took you to church, presented you to the preacher, a few pronouncements were said over your bald head, water was produced and poured over the head mentioned above, and you were baptized. If you’re like me, you have no memory of the event because it occurred when you were less than one year old. For example, I was nine months old, and the minister’s name was Earl Black. I know this is because my parents saved the bulletin.

Other churches do Baptisms differently. Some Baptist churches have baptistery’s that resemble small swimming pools built into the chancel area of their churches. Other churches won’t baptize infants. Some dunk in swimming pools or the nearest body of open water. However, I haven’t answered the question. I’m only talking about the mechanics of Baptism. The engineering of the moment: getting dressed, finding the right clothes, bring the family to the front pew, filling up the font, and handing the baby to the preacher doesn’t answer the “why” question.

Why are we baptized? Do we need to be baptized? Is baptism some magic formula? As a preacher, I’m not waving a magic wand to make original sin disappear. That’s not what this is about. Baptism is a rite of initiation. That’s a big word that means less in today’s world because people don’t join things the way they did in years past. It’s a step Christians take to join the church formally. Whether we’re nine months old and someone makes the decision on our behalf, or we’re 19, and we decide “this is a group of people I want to join.” Baptism is a public pronouncement. In front of our friends and family, we acknowledge our desire and willingness to merge our story with God’s story. The water, a symbol of creation and life, is a reminder of how God permeates how lives and promises.

Just before Thanksgiving, an American missionary named John Chau was killed on a small island in the southern Indian Ocean. His tragic death highlighted some of the efforts that missionary groups make to evangelize unreached peoples. In an article published at the time, I wrote about his journals, notes which revealed theology expressing  concern for the salvation for the islanders he hoped to meet. If they could not be reached with the gospel and baptized, they would face eternal damnation. This is what John Chau believed. This belief cost John his life. John’s worldview had no space for God’s grace operating beyond his narrowly defined theology.  I believe Christ died for these islanders, whether they were baptized or if they’d never received communion. Grace isn’t conditional. That’s the problem with our world, too many people believe grace is hit and miss, applied only to those brought up to our Christian standards. We take God out of the equation. So do we need to be baptized? No. Are we condemned to hell if we’re not sprinkled, dunked, or poured with water? No. Baptism is something we’ve made more human than divine. Baptism is meaningful, but ultimately God grace can override the promises we keep or decide to ignore. The liturgical formalities of our baptisms bear little resemblance to the encounter of Jesus and John by the Jordan.  What does happen when Jesus meets John in Luke’s gospel?

John was always in his element. Preaching by the banks of the Jordan, calling for people to be ritually cleansed in the water, and sharing a prophetic message; this was John’s good news. John was probably never happier than he was at the time in his life. However, there was one glitch. People were confused. John was doing all the things, saying all the right words which they expected the Messiah to say. Their question was this, “Was John the Messiah?”

This is why Luke says it was a period of high expectation. I want you to imagine the expectations placed on two different people. John is well versed in the subtle art of meeting people’s expectations. Jesus is not so much and not yet. As we approach the time when Jesus is about to be revealed, the moment when expectations get higher; who do you think it is harder to be? Is it tougher to be the actual Messiah or someone everyone expects to be the Messiah? I vote for the latter. John is in between a rock and a hard place. He has to move all of his expectations on to Jesus whether Jesus is ready or not.

Here’s a common question in all of the Baptismal stories: How will the crowd know when their expectations are met? They want John to tell them how to identify the Messiah? John gives them what has become, by now, the standard answer, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and unquenchable fire.” Again, that bears no resemblance to any baptismal service I’ve conducted. But John is John. He is over the top with the self-effacing rhetoric, “I’m not worthy, and I’m not worthy.” He makes the transition from something harmless, cleansing, and purifying to something destructive; “Fire.” Instead of giving new birth through the water and the spirit, as our Baptismal service says, John makes it sound like Jesus’ baptism will be destructive.

It’s then John talks about the separating of the wheat from the chaff and burning the husks in a fire that cannot be put out. Very quickly, we’ve gone from enthusiasm to fire and destruction and all because people wanted to know how to spot Jesus.

Then it all goes horribly wrong. John gets arrested. John, preaching against Herod and his wife, is thrown into Jail. And it would appear from the text, just after Jesus was baptized. What a mess!

What was John doing? John was making plans on behalf of Jesus. He’s telling people what he wants Jesus to do. The problem is Jesus never says any of this stuff. Other people try to put these fiery words into his mouth, but it never works. Jesus never has and will never say such nonsense. John places expectations on Jesus that Jesus never wanted.

It’s amazing how quickly the Baptism becomes an afterthought. (In fact, Luke has John in jail before he mentions Jesus’ baptism occurring. Kind of, “Oh yeah, that happened!”) We pick up our story in Luke 3:20, “added to them all by shutting up John in prison. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”

John’s has been jailed, and his public ministry is over. Jesus was baptized and is praying. Luke doesn’t tell us when or where he was praying. Jesus isn’t immediately coming up out of the water, and the dove isn’t descending from heaven. This is a different kind of baptismal story. This could be a day, week, hour, or month later. Jesus has been baptized, John is in jail, and at some point afterward, Jesus is praying. Baptism brought him to prayer. Scripture doesn’t say anything about onlookers, crowds, or water. This moment, where God confirms that Jesus is the beloved son, seems incredibly private. This story is about a personal encounter between Jesus and God.

This is what I learn from the story of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s Gospel: It all comes down to being acknowledged. We are part of something bigger than John’s expectations. The script is not yet written. No matter what the expectations are, one can expect to be loved, just as you are, by the God who calls us by name.

Richard Lowell Bryant

At Some Point Christmas Becomes About Discipleship

Imagine a well-worn path. We’ve walked this path hundreds, if not thousands of times. The trail leads you to the edge of a precipice. One step beyond the way we know so well and all bets are off. We have no idea where we’ll end up. Will we fall? Is the darkness beyond the final step perpetual? Is there a new path with more significant opportunities and challenges? We do not know. Instead of making the last move we take all that we have gathered on our journey and return the way we came.

It is easier to go home. The fear of stepping forward is too frightening. The comfort of returning home is too enticing. Perhaps next year, when the seasons change, you can take to the well-worn path once again. Maybe then you can follow the faded footprints to the edge and finally decide to step forward, past the path holding you so tightly.

We walk the Christmas path each year. We shop, we sing, go to church, gather as families, and celebrate. These are secular rituals which define our lives. Christmas is so ingrained in our culture and psyche; we could “do Christmas” with our eyes shut. That’s why I call it a well-worn path. We enjoy the stress to a certain point. We know which lights will go on specific houses. Someone always has everything. These events define our journeys. Along we go until we reach the end. It’s somewhere near Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It happens when the ride is over, the familiar road signs are in the rearview mirror, and Christmas becomes more of an intangible idea with real-world expectations. Suddenly, The Virgin Mary’s asking questions about how we might live different lives. Suddenly, she’s holding the world to account for sins that we find ourselves having committed on the way to Christmas.

At this point, it’s easier to go home. Christmas has left us exhausted and broke. It’s been going on since Halloween, and we’re worn out. We need to go back to work. We take your gifts, warm feelings, and step back from the edge of being asked to commit to something bigger than our enjoyment of an end of the year holiday.

There is another option. We could go forward and step beyond the idea of Christmas as we know it and into the Christmas of uncertainty, expectation, and doubt. That’s Jesus’ Christmas. We call that discipleship. As disciples, we remember: the manger becomes cross, the joyous crowds turn angry, and the questions get harder. That’s OK.

Here’s the thing: God wouldn’t have brought us this far if we weren’t ready. Christmas is about hitting a pause button and starting the cycle over in 10 months. We keep going forward. Because that’s we do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Lucky To Be Alive


It’s not Christmas unless an ambulance comes to the house.

How do I put this?  Sunday night, the evening of the third Sunday of Advent, my wife nearly had a stroke. Neither she nor I am the type you’d peg as typical “stroke victims.” She just turned fifty, and I’m not quite 45. Though it is stressful to be a pastor (or married to one) in a denomination currently in the midst of an identity crisis.

Our three daughters stood watching the paramedics attach leads to their mother’s chest. We were all helpless. I answered questions, brought them her medicine, and waited for the next step. I had no time to pray. I didn’t know what to pray for. My mind was a jumbled mess of emotions. I wanted the girls to remain calm. I wanted their mother to survive whatever was happening. At this point, we didn’t know what brought her to this point. We were all frightened. The EKG gave us an answer. That being said, blood pressure spikes, especially when they roar past certain well-established norms, specific ratios are indicative of one thing: an imminent stroke or worse. I’d never seen numbers so high. I was terrified.

Bring those numbers down. I found a prayer. It wasn’t elaborate or related to Advent. In fact, it was a personal and selfish prayer. I do not apologize. The prayer was in the imperative. I wanted an answer now. Waiting, patience, and all those things I teach on Sunday mornings; at this instance, they equated to death. I wasn’t in the mood for listening and longing. Please God, show me life now, in color returning to my wife’s face.

The numbers came down. Numbers our doctor said she had rarely seen before. The numbers still scare me. This is how I know that my wife is fortunate to be alive. Today we live like there is a tomorrow. We live like our numbers matter.  That’s all we know to do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What if Joseph and Mary Were Separated at the Border and Jesus Died as an Infant?


Matthew 2:13-15

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

What if, as recorded in Matthew 2, when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus arrived in Egypt as refugees, they were separated by the Egyptian Border Patrol? Then because he was young and prone to the illnesses of infants, exhausted from his journey, dehydrated, and denied medical care by the Border Patrol; Jesus died. What if Jesus died? Where would we be today?

The decorations must come down. The purple and blues of Advent are no more. The bright greens and reds of our poinsettias and trees must be dispersed to the four winds. White is our color now. This is the color of grief, mourning, and death; for we are about to bury a child. An innocent child has died. Where the manger stood days before; the wood is being repurposed to build a tiny coffin.

The mother and father can only watch from a distance. They can offer nothing but their overwhelming sadness and grief. Their child is dead. Jesus, the name chosen and the word given, is no more.

Those who witnessed the miracle of birth are gone. In fear of their lives and unable to make the border crossing, the shepherds returned to their villages in the hills.

In the frenzy of the dark, among the whispered threats from death squads and gangs, the beauty ended, and the killing began. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled through the wilderness to a place of safety. Egypt was guarded, grand, and beyond the reach of those who killed children. This they believed.

They traveled at night. Darkness was the desert’s only blanket. Wrapped in the safety of its blank anonymity, they moved toward Egypt with other migrants. The rhythm of sleeping and moving was a delicate dance to preserve their limited supplies of food and water. On occasion, they met others eating east or south. Out of charity, they would offer them water and fruit. These days were rare.  However, every day was frightening. Only when they reached Egypt would they know they were safe. The Egyptians, Joseph thought, would treat them fairly and honestly. He knew he was wrong.

Safety is such a meaningless word. Joseph is locked in a cage with other men. His wife is sitting in chains. This is for their safety. The Border Patrol cares about their safety yet they didn’t care about the safety of their son Jesus, who they watched die.

Jesus, the refugee child, died in their care. Christmas is over. It ended before it ever really began. Christmas funerals are hard. This one may be the toughest yet.

Richard Lowell Bryant