Is It Time To Be Holy? Losing the Distinction Between The Personal and Social

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Quoting Leviticus seems to be all the rage these days, so I thought I’d give it a go. Leviticus 19:1-2 says something like the following, “The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’” Now at the risk of sounding like a cross between a Methodist Andy Rooney and Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with our continued forced dichotomy between personal and social holiness?” Isn’t it time we stopped beating this dead horse? Is this not one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in, because we’ve lived in this under this bipolar, schizophrenic definition of holiness within the Wesleyan tradition for so long such that the two can no longer co-exist in the same body, the body of Christ, in the psyches of the people called Methodist. The quest to be holy in two different ways has literally (and figuratively) driven us insane and pushed us into some dissociative personality disorder-clinically speaking. As religious groups go, United Methodists are not the best example of a denomination with good mental health. Or, as my grandmother, who never went past the eighth grade, would have said, “we have lost our ever-loving minds.”

All through the Torah, especially Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we hear this same injunction repeated: you be holy because I (God) am holy. God doesn’t make the distinctions between social and personal holiness. A human being created these artificial divisions. Some of us feel more comfortable emphasizing one form of holiness over another. I think it’s clear from reading the text that God is a God of the community. We discover our personal and individual identities within the community and the society created by the larger community. Our communities, tribes, and clans tell us who we are. That’s what the Old Testament says. I am a United Methodist by accident of birth and geography and no other reason alone. My community and family determined my religious affiliation. Had I been born in Pakistan in March of 1974, I would be a Muslim. Society forms our beliefs long before we develop a sense of individual identity. Creating a sense of social holiness is the first step toward teaching and achieving personal holiness. We are defined and shaped by our cultures.

Ultimately, I am encouraged that the God of Israel shows no distinctions between personal and social holiness. God sets a goal and enables us to follow along, knowing we will fail at our tasks. We will never be as holy as God. It is impossible. We can never match God’s holiness. Does this mean we should stop trying? No. I think it means we should go about our quest for holiness with greater humility, kindness, and justice, realizing we will never figure it out. Just when we think we’ve got holiness locked down, we’re probably in as unholy a state as we’ve ever been. It’s time to hop off our high holy horses, find someone else, and tell them how sorry we are for getting our unholy cart before the Lord’s holy horse.

–Richard Bryant

How Do You Talk About God After Auschwitz?

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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

Sinners United!

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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

On the Passing of Pope Benedict XVI

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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

Talking, Doing, and Making a Difference

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It’s hard to go through life feeling like your hands are tied. You see global problems and significant issues and want to act. But you can’t do anything. Your hands and feet are bound. If you could, you’d run to aid those who are suffering. You’d shout at the top of your lungs to draw attention to the cause of those you’re trying to help. That doesn’t work, either. When you open your mouth, you have no voice. The voice you do have is shouted down. No one can hear you or pays attention to your words. This is what I experience and feel when I watch the news. I see reports from Ukraine or the US/Mexico border and want to do something tangible to end the war and alleviate the rampant human suffering on display.

My first inclination is to pray. I have to admit I don’t know what to pray for, so I pray for an open-ended end to suffering, pain, and violence. Almost a year into Europe’s most significant land war since 1945 and after watching thousands of impoverished migrants who’ve walked for months across jungles to come to the United States, this seems like a paltry response, given the gravity of the respective situations. Here I sit, in my warm and comfortable home (office, church, etc.), muttering a few words after observing the misery of others and expecting the God of the cosmos to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering strangers half a world away. I’m so tired of watching nothing happen, the evidence of war crimes becoming more apparent, and refugees not being welcomed into the United States of America. Recently, I’ve thought about my need to involve God in praying for the Ukrainian war or the migrants. I want the war to end and migrants to be welcomed not simply because I am a Christian or pastor but because it is the right and moral thing to do. People deserve to be treated well because of our shared humanity, not solely because a religious text instructs us to do so.

I guess, in some way, through my prayers, I’m trying to make myself feel better. At least I’ve done something, I’ll say to myself. I’m aware, I care, and I’m informed. I know God’s not unaware of the needs of the Ukrainians or the migrants, but somewhere deep down inside, I think my “seconding the motion” helps. Then again, who am I to tell God what God obviously already knows? Shouldn’t I be doing something rather than just talking about the problem?

Once I’ve said it, I feel like I’ve done something; I can check it off my list and then move on to the next item on my agenda. The thing is, here recently, I don’t feel better. I feel worse. I feel like I should be doing more. I feel like the more I pray, the worse the situation becomes. I see how overwhelmed the people trying to aid the migrants are with each passing day. I want to do something besides close my eyes and talk to God. I ask myself, “Where’s the middle ground between going to the Polish border or El Paso and sitting in Hillsborough and waiting for God to move on Vladimir Putin’s non-existent heart?” I don’t have an answer to that question. We’ve sent money to UMCOR. I’ve raised money and tried to help people on the border. If there is a blank, I’ve filled it in. All I know is this: our words aren’t cutting it.

What happens when Christmas is over and the willingness to be charitable fades? To borrow a phrase that’s popular at the moment, none of our altruism seems effective. The good we (collectively as Christians and as a denomination) do is all short-term, motivated by the emotions brought up by the Christmas holiday. We’ll keep praying and waiting on Vladimir Putin to do what Dr. Seuss allowed the Grinch to do-experience a change of heart. That’s the only way this stupid, vicious war will ever end.

–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

10 Tips for Better Living

A Pet I Love

1. Change the windshield washer fluid in your car. Yes, this is both a metaphor and a practical admonition. Work on clearing obstacles, smudges, and other icky things blocking your vision. You will be happier and safer.

2. Make all of your expressions of thanks, from the drive-in window to the condolence line, equally sincere.  Gratitude needs to multidimensional and felt for the person hearing the words “thank you” to know you mean what you say.

3. Learn to love a pet.  Love is hard.  A dog or cat (for example) will work with you as you learn.

4. Become a better conversationalist. This means work on your listening skills. Learn how to ask better questions.

5. Don’t let healthy admiration become idolatry.

6. Take care of your body, mind, and spirit.  We need you.  You matter.

7. Wear comfortable shoes.  The journey is long.

8. Keep a record of your days. Whether you call it a journal or notebook doesn’t matter. Leave a record of your time on Earth.

9. Find a way to give joy back to the other people. How can you serve others, give back, and enrich the lives of others in unexpected ways?

10. Take fewer selfies. Share more pictures of the world around you.

–Richard Lowell Bryant

Important Ideas to Remember

1. Listen to the people around you. Honor their journeys. Your life will be better for it.
2. Pass on the kindness you’ve received.
3. Let your Thank You really mean, “I am grateful”.
4. Take fewer selfies. Take more pictures of leaves, trees, and clouds.
5. Stay hydrated.

–Richard Bryant

What Wile E. Coyote Teaches Me About Evangelism

I do love “Looney Tunes”. After watching a few episodes the other night, I realized there were some religious lessons to be learned in the ongoing battle between the Coyote and Roadrunner.

1.      Wile E. Coyote knew his community. The Coyote understood his neighborhood and surroundings intimately. From the desert valleys, mountain tops, train tracks, highways, and every possible spot to place birdseed; the Coyote understand the demographics, people, and animals in his desert.  This kind of awareness is crucial for evangelism. Where are the people, as a church, do we want to meet and invite to our community?

2.     The Coyote did the research. Before the Coyote made a new attempt to catch the Roadrunner, he tried to find the most effective means of doing so. He ordered books, plans, and developed ideas to adapt to his new situation. While not always successful, the Coyote always prepared, learned, studied, and equipped himself before trying to meet the Roadrunner. Evangelism is a ministry for which we develop. (Unlike the Coyote, we’re not out to “capture” anyone.)  We do want to know the gospel, the community, and how best to share the message of the Good News. Our plan: order something from ACME and start learning today.

3.     The Coyote never gave up. The Coyote’s failures are numerous. Despite his best efforts, he never gave up. The Coyote keep working, reading, and going back out into the community. The Coyote, if he’s anything, is a model of perseverance. To quote John Newton, “through many dangers, toils, and snares,” you’d think he’s describing the Coyote’s encounters with the Roadrunner.   The Coyote is, despite our pro-Roadrunner cultural blinders, a recipient of God’s grace, just like the rest of us. He’s been beaten up and beat down. Thanks be to God, he’s never out. I think there’s something we can all learn from the Coyote as we share God’s Good News.

Richard Lowell Bryant