When It Tolls For You, Someone Else Should Be Listening

Three people on our isolated island community died over the long Labor Day weekend.  In a place like this, where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else, that’s a tremendous amount of tragedy. What do you do when one person dies?  You do what you usually do; visits, funerals, songs, eulogies, food, memories, and lots of grief.  What happens when death meets death?  Americans aren’t used to this.  Now we’re getting into refugee country, natural disaster land, or war zones.  We need time to deal with our grief before we move on to dealing with the pain of someone else.  Middle-class Americans don’t deal well with multiple deaths.

I’m not a big fan of euphemisms, especially the ones we use for death.  No one just “passes away.”  Life is too precious a thing to only let go and cease to exist.  No, at the very least, we stop fighting.  Life is a struggle.  When the battle ends, we die.  Eventually, fatigue takes over.  Death, with its sting, find us when we least expect to be found.  When that happens, we die.  The medicine stops working, the chemo fails, the drugs go too far, and the alcohol is more than any of our organs can handle.  Death calls the last shot.  Whether alone in a nursing home or on a bathroom floor where your corpse will be found in a few hours, God seems absent.  Where in these moments of hopelessness and abandonment can we insert a few memorable lines about hope and resurrection?

Eventually, that’s going to fall to me.  I’ll be asked to give a degree of structure to what Christians believe, God’s role in the afterlife, and the resurrection itself.  I should do this as quickly as possible.  We’ll need to sing, pray, and do a few other things too.  No pressure, no rush.  Of course, by the time I stand up, the initial shock is almost gone.  The scene will have moved from the nursing room or bathroom to the local church sanctuary.  We will all look our best.  Gone are the signs, smells, sounds, and language of death.  Instead, at a funeral or memorial service, we see the indications of life draped in black.  We confuse life with death.  Death is the one word we are reluctant to speak at funerals.  How many times do we hear someone other than clergy use the word “dead” or “death in a memorial service?  It doesn’t happen.  Death is absent as we talk about the dead.  If we leave death out is it because we believe we make room for God?  Even in the presence of the most powerful language the church can muster to talk about the reality of the resurrection, we’re still afraid to acknowledge this reality:  we’re all going to die.

God becomes present in the opening words of the Service of Death and Resurrection.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read these words.  I know, within the next week, I’ll read them at least twice.  It gets harder to say them each time.  It is hard to utter them without weeping.  This is because I wonder if we have any idea what we’re saying. Has the meaning become entirely lost?

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.  (Death looks very alive.  Have you seen what alcohol and opiates are doing to communities?  Death destroys people.)

Rising, Christ restored our life.  (Resurrection is life, it is all around us, in every sunrise, sunset, and newborn.  None of us have a handle on resurrection because none of us can come to terms with death. Resurrection is, to paraphrase Michael Crichton, life finding away.)

Christ will come again in glory. (I don’t care how you come.  Just do it.)

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Don’t Check Your Brain When You Sign the Rental Agreement

NOT the Entrance to Howard Street, Ocracoke Island

Where I live,
The place I sleep,
You need to know,
It’s a one way street,
I don’t care what the DOT states,
It’s a path,
A road,
And not on a map,
That being said,
It’s narrow and scary,
Unpaved,
And man on the golf cart,
It goes THAT WAY!

–Richard Bryant

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

It’s a Kingdom Parable about Sheep (Psalm 23)

The Utopian image of the 23rd Psalm is comforting.  When we read of God’s constant provision for our physical and emotional needs; we are reassured in ways that other Psalms fall short.  These words have a power that other verses and poetry will never possess.  However, there is an important contrast.  The 23rd Psalm presents an idealized view of humanity’s relationship to God it seems hard to picture this level of peace and security occurring within the bounds of physical space and time.  Where but eternity could God guarantee total protection from one’s enemies, unlimited food and water, and perpetual rest? Heaven seems like a natural conclusion.

The Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.

He lets me rest in grassy meadows;

He leads me to restful waters;

He keeps me alive.

He guides me in proper paths

For the sake of his good name.

Is this the reason this Psalm is so often called upon to provide comfort to those near the end of their lives?  It could be.  Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We’ve read this Psalm in funeral services for centuries.  Here’s the irony:  Psalm 23 doesn’t offer a sign, marker, or directions pointing toward the afterlife.  Instead, it’s a simple declarative statement about the poet’s relationship with God.  He compares his nearness to God as being similar to the manner a shepherd relates to a sheep.  The agricultural metaphor is the basis for the emotional comparisons that follow.  Once the poet has made the initial declaration, “the Lord is my shepherd”, we’re no longer talking about a sheep and its shepherd.   As the first verse ends, “I lack nothing,” that’s you talking, me speaking, all of us mumbling about how God loves us.  The 23rd Psalm is one person going on the record about what God has done and is doing in this world.

If the church treats these words as a travel guide, describing the afterlife, we’ve forgotten that God is at work in the present tense, building tables in the wilderness, feeding people, and reconciling those who were once enemies.  The 23rd Psalm is happening right now in our communities and around the world.  There has never been a better time to be a people who live the 23rd Psalm on a daily basis.  Putting this Psalm on the “wait until I’m on my death bed shelf and read it at my funeral” is the equivalent of saying, “that part in the Lord’s Prayer  about thy will be done on Earth as is it Heaven is a dumb idea.”  If we ignore the 23rd Psalm and use it as solely as a comfort blanket, we’ve missed the point about bringing the kingdom of God to Earth.

Richard Lowell 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

Some Basic Tips on Evangelism from Richard

Looking for better ways to share your faith?

1) Leave people with a positive view of their life. It never hurts to remind someone they are loved.  The intangibles linger.  Paper tracts and trinkets will be thrown away.  People will forget what you say, they will remember how you make them feel.  Make them feel loved.  That’s Biblical.

2) Share your faith by living. Integrate what you believe about Jesus into how you live your life.

3) Believe humbly. Model Jesus. Not Paul, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Moses, or anyone else. Jesus.

4) Discipleship is unrehearsed and occurs in unlikely places; like fishing boats and deer stands.

5) Allow space for Jesus. You are not his agent. Let the Holy Spirit work.