Waiting for The Next Great Leap Forward

Mao encouraged Zeng to experiment with the so-called “responsibility fields.” “Give it a try,” he reportedly said. “If it doesn’t work, carry out self-criticism. If it works well . . . that will be splendid!”

–Pankaj Mishra

I am uncomfortable with the word “accountability”.  That’s not because I don’t want to be accountable.  I love being accountable.  That’s why I sign my full name to everything I write.  I take ownership for what I do.  It’s more about the implications raised by the word.  For example, am I able to trust those to whom I am accountable?  What will my brothers and sisters do with my accountability and I with theirs?

Though required to attend accountability groups, no one ever seems to know why we’re there or what we’re supposed to do.  Despite the varied structure accountability groups adopt, they often devolve into sessions where pastors complain about their work and those they are called to shepherd.

I’ve never been in a group where any serious issues emerged.  Whether out of fear, a lack of trust, or some other reason; these “accountability” groups didn’t lead to the depth they were intended to create.  Given the proliferation of scandals and calls for more accountability, I’m starting to wonder if “accountability” is the problem.  Perhaps, we need a new word, concept, or idea.  Something’s not working.

The first time I encountered an “accountability group” I immediately thought of the self-criticism sessions in Maoist China’s reeducation camps.  Doesn’t an “accountability group” sound a little like Mao’s “responsibility fields”?  Who defines the standard to which pastors will be held to account?  Is it the United Methodist Party? Is it Chairman Jesus?  Is that the ideology of the group’s local commissar? Is it some general sense of right and wrong?

Perhaps I’m pro-choice and my colleagues are pro-life and their idea of accountability is different than mine?  The action of holding each other to “account” can become an exercise in wielding power, guilt, and shame if not done properly.  Again, I ask, is “accountability” the word we want to use?  (Perhaps “mutuality” or “mutual” are options.)  As currently construed, many “accountability groups” allow pastors to do for each other what they should never do with their own parishioners:  act in a mental health/therapeutic capacity for more than two sessions.

Early in my ministry I asked a colleague, “What’s an accountability group?”  I was told (in all seriousness) that it’s a time for pastors to, “sit around, pray together, to confess your porn addictions, talk about problems with your wife, and things like that.”  First of all, that sounded like a group therapy session.  Secondly, I wasn’t a porn addict and was recently divorced.  I was paying for therapy with counselor.  I didn’t want to sit around with people I knew professionally and talk about my personal problems.  I could sue my doctor if he broke my confidentiality but I didn’t know what I to do if the preachers down the street started talking to the Bishop about my divorce.  The whole idea sounded awkward, clichéd, and ripe for misunderstandings.

Most people get accountability right and a few get it horribly wrong.  When it goes off the rails, it’s spectacular; like the slow motion car wreck you can’t avoid watching. Frankly, I’m tired of all the rubbernecking and ready for the next great leap forward.  We need a new word, “mutuality” or “trust”, anything other than something that sounds like it emerged from the Cultural Revolution.

Granted, it’s hard to do when we’re fighting a Civil War.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

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The New Rules for Summer 2018

1. Jesus turning over the tables in the temple isn’t a catch-all excuse for Christian rudeness or violence. Stop blaming your mental health issues on the writers of the New Testament. Get help with your anger.

2. Engage the world. It’s easy to build our own utopias, ignore suffering, avoid evil, and live in our well manicured bubbles. That is not living; it’s existing. Life is found in engaging reality, authentically, one moment at a time.

3. If we keep track of the sins of others, we’ve made a serious decision to take life in an unhealthy direction. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically this will eventually ruin everything we cherish.  Keep track of good things.

4.  What does it mean to live a good life?  Ask hard questions that push your beyond your comfort zone.

5. Remember, you don’t know what other people are going through.  Cut people some slack.  There’s probably more going on in their lives than you realize.

6. Before writing or speaking , ask, “Will any good come from this?” If we can’t say “yes”, something is wrong.  Don’t be that person.  

7. Can the world see behind our sunglasses? Have we carefully constructed an image (not with clothing, cars, houses, or boats), emotionally speaking, to tell the world who we are? Do we deploy that image selectively? Are we able to be ourselves, all day, every day? What stops us?  Be authentic.

8. Everyone falls behind at some point. Because we’re disciples of Jesus, we can’t be selective about who we help. Christians don’t have the luxury of choosing who to assist, raise funds for, and who is deserving of God’s blessings.  Be generous.  

9. Fill up your tank with gas. You never know you when might need to take a trip to the hospital.

10. Don’t limit yourself to 280 characters. Spoken language is also an effective means of communication. Talk (with real words) to (real) people more often, even those with whom you disagree.  

Richard Bryant

Some Pastoral Reflections on Grief

1) Grief is an intensely personal experience. No matter how much we try to make it a communal experience; grief remains a personal journey. There are moments where we will travel with others. Yet, we will still be alone. Respect the person and the journey.  If someone asks for privacy, respect their wishes.   Love and grace aren’t pushy.  They are ready.

2) Grief is not bounded by the concepts of linear space and time with which we measure our lives. Grief knows no day or night, hour or minute, or physical boundaries.

3) Unchecked, grief may live forever. Yet those who grieve may learn to create limits around their grief. No one else can do this for them.

4) Sadness, depression, and loneliness are not grief. These may be symptoms of grief. Grief, especially after the death of someone you love, is an emptiness that is too hard to define in clinical terms.

5) Love is not the antidote to grief. Instead, love is a way to respond to those who are grieving.  The church accompanies the grieving on their journey in love.  Love should be offered with kindness and respect. Grief does not need an antidote.  At the right time, grace needs to be ready.  Whether in the form of meals, hugs, notes, or a ministry of presence; be there when needed.  Re-read number 1 if needed.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Status Quo Gratitude

Gratitude should come easy.  Yet, it’s sometimes hard to put our thankfulness into words.  Most of us, when asked to list the things we’re grateful for, have to pause.  We think for a moment, take a deep breath, and then consider the things we should be thankful for.  When compiling our gratitude list, we want to include the “must haves” of health, family, friends, and the like.  This is because it’s important not to seem ungrateful or forget something (or someone important).  It’s a little like winning an Oscar.  When the recipient is called up to give their acceptance speech, the winners sometimes choose not to thank specific people.  This is because they don’t want to leave anyone out.  We don’t want leave anything off our lists either.

If I were to survey one hundred people, many would express thankfulness and gratitude for similar feelings and ideas.  Home, family, health, and friends would come up time and again.  Why is this?  Sometimes we say we are grateful because we feel compelled to express certain emotions.  You may be thankful for your fancy new boat (iPad, phone, car, gun, or house) but social convention forces you to look a little deeper at the world around you.  We don’t want to be the person who expresses thanks for things that are superficial or lack any long-term value.

For most people, gratitude rises out of our shared human experiences.  Being in community with others causes us to reflect on the benefits of food, shelter, love, and health.  Either way one approaches gratitude, we end up in the same place.  Most of us are grateful for the basics of life.  Whether we’re forced to reflect on it or not, gratitude is really an acknowledgement that relationships matter, stuff is only stuff, and living is about more than finding your next meal.  If our basic needs are being met, we ought to be grateful.  However, to paraphrase the Bard, “there’s the rub”.  I think our greatest spiritual and moral challenge is to be grateful for the status quo.

Our most profound expressions of gratitude are usually reserved for moments of intense celebration.  When someone gets married, has a child, graduates from high school, we will hear speeches and expressions of thankfulness and gratitude.  Listen to the people who win sports championships.  The thanksgiving is effusive.  Status quo gratitude is hard.  We don’t win, marry, and celebrate achievement each day.  In fact, most days blend into the next.  Life is both hard and unfair.  Diseases are diagnosed and people die.  How are we to be grateful for the status quo?

I wish I had an answer.  The first step is to name the problem.  I do know that being grateful is more than saying a prayer over a turkey once a year.  Thanksgiving is bigger than an annual Facebook post where you rattle off a few names and pictures.  Gratitude ought to be a head on confrontation with the status quo.  The mundane moments of today need to be examined for traces of thanksgiving.  Gratitude is there, waiting for each of us, like an undiscovered country.  It may be under the car seat, between the couch cushions, washing dishes, or paying a bill.  Seek Gratitude.  You never know when you may be found.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Paul Meant: Romans 13:8-10

“Don’t be in debt to anyone; except for the obligation to love another” – Debt, in cultural terms, is corrosive. It erodes the fabric of society, our quality of life, and the ability to recognize kingdom of God. We are spiritually indebted to love each other. Our greatest obligation is to love those we know and don’t know; those we see and don’t see.

“The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have and any other commandment are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself” – Love puts everything into perspective. The other commandments are responses to fear. Love removes the fear which drives the need for “don’ts”.

“Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the law” – The Christian ethic of love is self-correcting. Christian love always adjusts for the other, the neighbor, the friend, the outsider, and the voiceless; before anyone else. Christian love is selfless. If it is not, it is not Christian. Love is the “what next” of the Resurrection.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – Those impoverished in body and soul are welcome in the dramatic reordering of world Jesus is undertaking.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” – The endemic sadness which defines our lives will no longer have dominion over our days.  We will not be alone in our brokenness.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” – Those called weak, without a voice, who live and exist on the whims of the powerful will receive safety and sanctuary.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” – Those who see what others do not, they who fast for a vision of the kingdom’s realities made known for all God’s children; they will receive God’s abundance.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” – The merciful are those whose mercy isn’t limited by time, money, geography, denomination, immigration status, race, color, sexual orientation, or creed. They will know mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” – We see with our hearts. If our hearts are blind we cannot see God working around us. God works through our hearts.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” – Make peace with yourself and others. Do this and you will make peace with God. God is a peacemaking God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – No one is going to like you for doing these things. These ideas will make people uncomfortable.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account” – When people accuse you of virtue signaling because you’re saying and doing these things, it’s going to be OK. In fact, be happy about it. It means you’re doing things right.

Richard Lowell Bryant