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

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Ash Wednesday is On Valentine’s Day: What Oh What Will We Do?

According to scripture, God’s love life is complicated.  God is always getting God’s heart broke.  God falls in love with all the wrong people.  His choice in partners is horrible.  You should see some of the people God brings home.  I’m all for loving who you want to love.  However, God knows how to pick real losers.

Granted, the relationships begin for the right reasons.  At the beginning there’s always hope, ecstasy, the promise of a future, and delight in one another’s company.  Eventually, the people God loves fall out of love; often as quickly and as easily as they fell into love.  God puts everything on the line for people who never appreciate how God loves them.  Valentine’s Day, this season of mushy love and Romantic self-interest, is hard on God.

First there was Adam and Eve, Abraham, and Moses.  Three relationships that sputtered through the desert until one appeared to work.  I really thought the thing with Moses was going to click.  God loved Moses and Moses loved God.  God even called Moses’ tribe “my people”.  God adopted, claimed, and cared for Moses and his extended family.  You know the story of Moses and their suffering.  It broke God’s heart.  God hated to see the people he loved brutalized and destroyed by Pharaoh’s inhuman actions.  Before Moses could ask, God acted; not because God hated Pharaoh but because God loved Moses’ people.  “Love is a powerful thing”, said Huey Lewis.  “It makes another man weep and another man sing.”  Moses did both.  With God, Moses led the people from Egypt to a new home.

Egypt was barely in the distance when God got the call from the Israelites.  “It’s not you, it’s us.  This thing we have is not really working out.  We want a cow god who feeds us.  You’re not really as hot as we thought.”   They broke up.  God was devastated.  “What did I do wrong?” he asked Moses.

Moses said, “You know them, they’re fickle.”

“Should I kill them?” asked God.

God was very angry.

It went on like this for years.  On again, off again, we love God, we don’t love God.  Each time, God would take them back.  The people would say, “This time we promise, we’ve learned our lesson.  We love you and we’ll never leave.”  It’s one of the most dysfunctional love relationships in human history.  In fact, it’s so bad, people called prophets (the therapists of that time) documented the back and forth love affair between God and the people.  Yes, God knows all about love; flawed, ugly, well beyond the honeymoon love.

Here’s what hasn’t changed: God keeps picking the wrong people.

Eventually God fell in love with me.  I am the wrong kind of person.   I’m a sinner.  Despite my protestations, he loved me anyway.  I’ve broken God’s heart on numerous occasions.  God keeps taking me back.  I don’t know why.  I’ve stopped asking.  We’re happy in our dysfunction.  God loves me.  I love God.  I’ve never found my suitcase on the curb of the church and a restraining order from heaven delivered by the deputy.  We fight like cats and dogs.  I yell and scream Biblical inconsistencies, sometimes I curse, and then we make up.  There’s not much else to it.  What can I say, I’m in love!

What are we doing for Valentine’s Day?  God and I are going to church.  I’m going to preach something really deep about mortality.  What did you think I was going to do, talk about love?  Please, I’m no cultural holiday sell-out.

Richard Bryant

A Eulogy (John 14)

Moments like this are not for empty promises or clichés.  I have not seen a many roomed mansion over the hilltop.  Nor have I traveled to the far side of the Jordan to witness the gathering of the “church triumphant”.  I do not know if Heaven is paved with streets of Gold or guarded by gates of pearl.  Instead, I speak to you this morning from my own experience.  I am not here to describe to you where Betsy is or what she’s now experiencing.  However, I am here to tell you these truths:  God is with us in our pain.  God grieves with us in our loss.  Betsy is with God.  Her journey in life is over.  In eternity, the pain she knew in life is finished.  She has been healed.  In this moment, as our pain is real and tangible, God asks to share in our suffering and grief.  God invites us to heal together as family, friends, and a community.  We give thanks for all that Betsy meant to each person gathered here this morning.

The human body is a fragile yet wonderful creation.  Despite our persistent denials, weakness is woven into the fabric of our lives.  Our bodies are not designed for eternity.  Even when our hearts stop, our souls beat with a vitality that extends beyond physical death.  This is because there is more than one way to measure life, a good life, and a life well-lived.  In seeds sown among the hearts of people gathered here today Betsy’s life present.  The distance between the living and the dead is breached by the love a human body cannot contain.  Are we prepared to be witnesses to that love?  This is the difference is remembering someone and living out your love.  Death could not contain the love Christ’s love for humanity.  Betsy loved each one of you.  Will today be the end of Betsy’s story?  Shall no more be said?

Our challenge is simple.  Do we merely remember, consigning “love” to a memory, like a scrapbook we occasionally pull of the shelf and recall nostalgically?  Or do we do something with the love we received and pass that love and those stories we’ve heard on to others?

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

If Your God Is…

If Your God Is:

For A Pre-Emptive Nuclear Strike, when diplomatic options still exist

More concerned about transgendered soldiers than collateral damage in Seoul

Speaking the same words about America as Babylonian, Egyptian, and Roman gods said about their rulers

Silent while the world stumbles toward unimaginable suffering

Always looking for someone to blame or kill

Your God isn’t the Judeo-Christian God.  You worship power. At the end of the day, you believe in doing whatever it takes to maintain the chaotic status quo. 

Your god (by your own reasoning):

Would have taken Jesus off the cross

Massacred Pilate and the Roman soldiers

Led a rebellion and revolution against Herod

Stoned the woman caught in adultery

Called down fire against Jesus’ enemies

 Looks nothing like Jesus Christ and the God we meet in the New Testament

1 John 3:18-20
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 

A Wedding Homily for Later This Afternoon

Saint Paul makes a valiant attempt to compare love to the other spiritual gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit.  By means of contrast, love is the greatest gift of all, out pacing prophecy, speaking in tongues, and even faith.  We kind of get that, don’t we?  Love is a big deal.  However, if you’re not readily familiar with prophets, tongue speakers, and really faithful things; love only seems kind of important.  To really get how important love ought to be, we need our own equivalents to prophecy, tongues, and first century ideas of faith.  I think this would help clarify this passage we’ve all heard hundreds of times.

Let me tell you what I love.  I love tomato sandwiches made from fresh tomatoes grown out of my parent’s garden.  I love those sandwiches to be made with Duke’s Mayonnaise.  I love grits.  I love bacon prepared in my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan.  I love the understand genius of Conway Twitty.  I love driving by little country churches between here and where I grew up and thinking, “I bet there’s some good preaching going on in there Sunday mornings.”  I love looking off into the distance where a corn field meets the tree line.  I love going to the Waffle House on Friday afternoons when people get off work and listen to them talk about their week so I can shape my prayers.  I love all these things.

However, if I don’t have love for my wife or my family, my grits are tasteless and bland, no matter how much salt and butter I add.  If my love for my wife and family are absent, I won’t hear a word that Bible thumping preacher says.  Without the love of my wife, the frying pan will never be seasoned and the bacon won’t be crispy.  The love for my wife is what makes the flavor of the tomatoes come alive once they’re off the vine.  Kevin and April, love is the greatest gift of all.  It is a big deal.  As you become husband and wife today, I challenge you to think of the most important things in your life.  Ask yourselves, what do you love?   Whatever they are, they’ll never be as meaningful without the others loving presence.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Big “If” (John 14:15-21)

If you’ve had Chemistry or you’re headed toward a college level Chemistry class you’ll know this already:  an equation has to balance.  Some equations are harder to balance than others but it comes down to two basic steps: count the atoms of each element in the reactants and the products and use coefficients in front of the compounds if you need them.  You have to balance chemical equations to adhere to something called the law of conservation of mass.  It’s really a process of trial and error.

As I’ve read through this passage, I’ve felt like I was trying to make an equation balance.  Each time I read it, put it on paper, and tried to balance it; nothing came out right.  It is as if something is missing.  I don’t have all the information I need to make it work.  I’m staring into a two thousand year old silence and thinking about making an educated guess.  Guesses like this scare me. There are hushes between the verses which make it almost impossible to balance the beginning with the ending.  Sometimes you will find life to be like that; incomplete and lacking wholeness you feel you rightly deserve.  Instead of something, you see nothing.  You will be afraid and overwhelmed at times.  Where you should find balance, your footing will be precarious.  With a limited set of options, you will have the opportunity to use the resources at hand to find balance.  As with chemistry equations, life is trial and error.  Even your relationship with God is trial and error; it’s something you work on for the rest of your life.

What about this gap?  What’s missing?  It seems complete at first glance.  It’s not.  The first verse throws the next six out of kilter, whack, and balance.  I’m absolutely certain something was said between what we read as verse 15 and 16.  I’m convinced there was more, at one time, linking those two verses.  The subject changes too abruptly.  The flow is interrupted and no explanation is given.  The jump between verses 15 and 16 doesn’t make sense because Jesus, and I think I know Jesus, doesn’t walk us through the implications of what he says.  He doesn’t balance his own equation.  Jesus doesn’t unpack one verse full of religious dynamite.  That’s not like Jesus.  In a flash, we are on to something completely different.  He tells us of the coming gift of the Holy Spirit.  But verse 15 is still hanging out there saying “Do something with me”.

What’s the significance of verse 15?  Everything; Christian belief itself hangs on the implications of how we read and understand verse 15.  For it to be sitting there by itself, with no solid connection to what comes before or after it, I start to ask the only possible question:  what’s missing?  Given the little bit of time we have remaining, will you join me on this mystery?

Verse 15 says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  That seems straight forward.  If you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments.  OK, we’ve got it!  If I love Jesus I will keep his commandments.  Do you know what his commandments are?  Are they the 10 you memorized in Sunday School?  Are they “Refrain from drinking at frat parties (especially if you are underage), call home once a week when you’re at college, and eat a balanced diet?”  I don’t think Jesus would object to any of those but I’m not certain those are the specific commandments he had in mind.

A while back, a snarky know it all wanted to trap Jesus with a fancy theological question.  This smarty pants happened to be a lawyer.  He asked Jesus, “What’s the greatest commandment?” knowing full well Jesus couldn’t pick only one.  Jesus said all of the law, all 613 commandments in the Old Testament (including the parts in Leviticus about JELLO shots at frat parties) hung on these two greatest commandments:  love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind.  Then love you neighbor as yourself.  Those are Jesus’ commandments.  Those two love commandments.  This is what Jesus is talking about.  I’ll boil it down:  if you love me, you will love others.  You will not pick and choose who you will love.  A relationship with me is built on unconditional love.  I love you unconditionally therefore I expect you to love unconditionally.

Here’s what Jesus does not say; this is the gap, what might have been left out.  Is it possible to read this backwards?  What do I mean by read it backward?  Make verse 15 a negative, rather than a positive statement:  If you don’t keep my commandments, you don’t love.”  In its printed form, verse 15 balances, like a chemistry equation.  Loving Jesus equals keeping his commandments.  Would it not balance the other way; not loving Jesus means not keeping his commandments?  Is it not written, is it left out, and because it is easily inferred, “if you don’t love your neighbor as yourself” then you don’t love Jesus?  It sounds like it’s a blank left for us to fill in.  Who knows?

There’s one more consequence which might stem from our basic lack of participation in Jesus’ equation for neighborly love.  Jesus is arguing, “I’ve made it simple.  To love me, love others.”  Who wouldn’t want to be loved by Jesus?  Jesus seems to have a great deal happening when it comes to finding fulfillment now, a great retirement plan, and everyone loved Jesus’ health care benefits.  What scares me and I don’t frighten all that easily is the tiny two word preposition at the beginning of the sentence, “if”.

Jesus realizes our love is conditional.  “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments”.  Keeping his commandments is conditional on falling in love with Jesus, being in love with God.  Do you know how many other things we’re in love with?  You’re in love with cars, fishing, boats, phones, money, jobs, and God may or may not even be on the list.  How fickle are we about love in general?  Jesus realizes we might not get there.  If we do get there, loving God with all we’ve got and our neighbors will fall into place.  Falling in love with God is not a guarantee.   A relationship with Jesus is a love affair but not like any you’ve known before.   The usual rules of romantic comedies and island relationships do not apply.

Here’s the Good News: our love for God is conditional, fickle, and often pathetic.  This scripture is an acknowledgement of how deplorable we are at loving God with all of our heart, soul, and minds.  Jesus is admitting how feeble we are at loving our neighbors ourselves.  On the other hand, God’s love for us unconditional, constant, and stronger than the Roman Army’s most brutal form of torture.  God is everything we are not.

God’s love for us is never preceded by an “if”.  There are millions of reasons not to love humanity, “ifs” a plenty, but God stopped counting “ifs” the night Jesus was born.

Saint Paul, a writer and preacher, says nothing will separate us from the love of God.  Nothing we can do, think of, or have inflicted upon us will disconnect us from God’s love.  He says, “For I am convinced, that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things, present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Death, that’s a no.  Angels, that’s also a no.  Rulers, that’s a huge no.  Things you fear down the road, that’s a big fat no.  Nothing cuts us off from God but us.  We are the big “if”.

Uncertainties and possibilities will remain in our lives.  The “ifs” aren’t going away anytime soon, especially for our graduates.  This morning, I want to help take one “if” off the table.  God’s love isn’t in doubt.  You are loved.  We are loved.  Nothing will change this reality.  Now, how will we respond to God’s love?  It’s too big and wonderful of a gift to leave on display.  It’s not the kind of thing you show your relatives admiringly and say, “Look what I got for graduation!”  Open the box, do something with it, share what you’ve received.

We’ve been invited to participate in God’s ongoing work by loving our neighbors and responding to God’s call in our lives.