If The Same Thing Happened Here, We’d Lose Our Minds

The scene of this morning’s suicide bombing in Suiweda, Syria

This morning’s news seemed worse than usual.  Forest fires in Yosemite National Park are putting lives and vacations at risk.  While on the other side of the world, apocalyptic blazes are raging throughout northern Greece.  As of this morning, at least 80 people have died fleeing the Greek fires.  In Quetta, Pakistan 31 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a polling station.  It’s Election Day for the entire nation and over two dozen people lose their lives exercising their democratic prerogative.  Then reports came from the government held areas of Syria.  Over 200 people were murdered in multiple ISIS attributed suicide bombings in the city of Suiweda.

These events are horrific tragedies.  In isolation, each one is a defining moment, forever changing the lives and countries of the people involved.  Combined, these tragedies represent the ill defined nature of chaos dominant across the world.  Yet, unless you’re in Syria, Pakistan, or Greece (or listening to NPR’s Morning Edition’s second hour), no one seems to notice.

If any one of these events occurred in the United States; forest fires that kill 80 people, the destruction of a polling station on the first Tuesday in November leaving 30 dead, or a wave of suicide bombings, these would be the biggest stories in America since the September 11th attacks.  There would be non-stop, wall to wall coverage, press conferences, memorials, and tributes broadcast for weeks.  Yet, when it happens somewhere else, we could care less.

It’s not that we don’t care.  If natural disasters hit our hemisphere (or country), we’re quick to mobilize and respond to earthquakes, floods, and fires that impact adjacent time zones.  When summer vacations and second homes are threatened with destruction, America will stop at nothing to help.  We pat ourselves on the back each time this occurs an applaud our community spirit.  On the other hand, tragedies marked by an epic loss of life in parts of the world where it’s easier to send projectiles than prayers, don’t register in our collective psyche.  Though, if similar events were to occur on our election day or devastate an equal number of lives, by God the world better pray, support, and love us because we’re, you know, America.  We take names and remember those who don’t support us with their thoughts and prayers.  Yes, something is wrong with our national sense of narcissism and entitlement.  How can we expect the world to care about us when we know so little about the needs of the countries we’ve invaded, impoverished, and isolated?  We can’t but we do.

Yes, it’s easier to stay wrapped up in our blankets of fear and division.  Who cares if people die in Pakistan or Syria?  Isn’t our ambivalence toward Syrians and the Pakistanis just another means of supporting the troops and signaling our support for never ending war in the Middle East?  It’s ironic, the President and Tucker Carlson debated the hypothetical need for Americans to defend Montenegro but neither man thought to consider why anyone else should be sent to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria.

Shouldn’t we be more worried about the President’s next tweet and who the media says we should hate today?  If we care about Syrians and Pakistanis, from where in our souls will we mine our most precious resource:  righteous indignation?

We’re not moved to outpourings of grief, sympathy, or prayers for Greece, Pakistan or Syria because we’ve been conditioned not to care.  If events are not moving between the axis of Moscow’s meddling, Washington’s swamp, or Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs; we are told that empathy is treasonous.  We’ve signed on to Faustian bargain:  either care about America’s descent in to Fascist tyranny or be counted among the enemies of the republic.  Both sides of the political spectrum make versions of this same draconian argument.  One cannot care about the dead in Greece, Pakistan, or Syria (or anywhere else) and listen to Michael Cohen’s tapes.  This is the lie we’ve allowed ourselves to believe.  It’s a falsehood we tell ourselves.

In the third chapter of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that everyone precious to God.  “Every ethnic group in heaven or on earth is recognized by him.  I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith.  As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together will all believers.”

God’s empathy is boundless.  God’s love is wider, longer, taller, and deeper than we can imagine.  It’s big enough to comfort those who lost family in Greece, Pakistan, and Syria.  Paul’s prayer is that we know and embrace this idea of God’s “big love”.  When Paul says, “every ethnic group” he means that God doesn’t have an isolationist foreign policy.  God weeps for the dead in Pakistan, Syria, and Greece.  God comforts the grieving, be they Orthodox Christian or Sunni Muslim.  God’s expansive love is something to be practiced and embodied.  Accepting God’s love is an act of faith.  God is meeting us in the world we call home.  Are we able to see our way to God?   Who knows who we might need to embrace?

Someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

Someone’s praying Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s praying Lord, kumbaya
Someone’s praying Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

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This Carpenter Seems To Know A Lot About Love (John 15:9-17)

Most people don’t re-read books.  If you’ve read a book once, you rarely go and do it again.  Unless it’s a classic, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or something of that quality, we rarely tread the same ground.  On the other hand, we’ll see the same movie countless times.  The books that changed our lives, even the good ones, are usually a one-time encounter.  It’s not as if the endings change.  If you read Moby Dick for a second time Captain Ahab and the whale don’t suddenly become friends.  However, I do know Russians that are continually reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  They are plowing through, a page or two a night, of some of the longest novels ever written.  They do this year after year.  Do you know why they do this?  It snows a lot over there.

Here’s my point:  I never re-read John Grisham.  I re-read the Bible.  I come back to these words day in and day out.  If I’ve read them hundreds of times before, it doesn’t matter.  I will read them again.  All the rules of re-reading books are null and void when it comes to the Bible.  The ending may not change.  We change.  How we hear and receive the stories evolve over time.  No two encounters with the Bible are ever the same.  So yes, when you read the Bible, it’s as if the whale and Captain Ahab can become friends.  Some days you’re Ahab and other days you’re the whale.  That’s how life works.  That’s how the Bible works.

One of the passages I’ve returned to, whether by assignment or curiosity, is John 15.  This is the IKEA furniture assembly instructions of the Gospels.  On the surface, it appears so simple.  The words look easy to understand and follow.  I should be able to get this and reproduce the instructions exactly as follows.  Do this, say this, stand here, and the finished product should be Christ like excellence.  I’m here to tell you it’s hard.  It’s never as easy as it looks.

My first observation is this:  how does a carpenter know so much about love?  Each time I return to this passage, I marvel at the depth of his knowledge and wisdom.  How should I put this?  He uses words sparingly, meaningfully, like a carpenter choosing from a small supply of wood.  The finished product is designed somewhere in his mind.  We only witness the individual pieces of being cut, formed, and shaped.  Each new piece, in and of itself, is a work of art.  Each begins to connect to the other in such a way that it quickly becomes impossible to imagine a time when these two pieces of wood were not united to form part of the larger whole.

Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, says “I too have loved you”.  Jesus loves us, this we know.  Do we?  Is it possible that we can understand the depth of love the carpenter from Nazareth hold for us?  Even as it on display and crafted by hands; do we see and understand what we claim to know?

What keeps us from knowing Jesus’ love?  Why do we say “this we know” but actually don’t believe him?

We live in a sometimes depressing world that pushes our self-esteem in the gutter.  Whether we realize it or not, our self worth is attached to the way others respond to our existence on social media.  Jesus’ love doesn’t equate to money in the bank.  We’re condition to think that real love is somehow tied to real money.  We, like countless country songs tell us, look for love in all the wrong places.  The list could go on and on.  The point is this:  we don’t believe that Jesus loves us because we allow the world to make a convincing case for not believing Jesus.  Once the joy’s been removed from your life, the cynicism creeps in and you’ll believe anything but the simple truth of the Gospel:  Jesus loves you.

Jesus goes on to say, “I love you” because he wants us know joy.  He links knowledge of his love to a realization of joy.  The two dovetail together like the corners of a cabinet.  Jesus wants us to be joyful.  Joy is the antidote to the cynicism which works destroys the simple craftsmanship of Jesus’ love.

Jesus loves us and we are to love each other.  Jesus’ love is a reflective experience.  Love leads to a joy that doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Jesus’ love is lived and shared with others.  When we go to an art museum, we stand before a great work of art.  Looking at a painting is an intensely personal experience.  What’s happening, at that moment, is between you and the artist.  It’s not that way with the carpenter.

Jesus’ love fosters a sense of joy that is simultaneously personal and communal.  We cannot be in relationship with Jesus without also being joyfully engaged in the lives of others.  If both aren’t present, we’re not in loving relationships, either with Jesus or those around us.  Isolationism, narcissism, and artistic dead ends will not be found in his craftsmanship.   If you can only see yourself in Jesus’ work then something is wrong.  This is my commandment, he says, “Love each other as I have loved you”.

Richard Lowell Bryant

No One Has Ever Seen God (1 John 4:12)

I wish someone would write a book about not seeing God in scripture.  Perhaps someone’s already done it.  I’m not talking about blindness or feeling the absence of God.  There are plenty of those reflections, stories, and sermons.  There are blind beggars, blind preachers like Saul, and leaders blind to God’s purposes (like Pharaoh or King David).  At other times we encounter people who can’t see God they also feel God is absent.  I am thinking of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his execution, Job, or Jonah in the belly of the whale.  The God they believe they know and should be able to find or reach has vanished.  As outside observers, we know this isn’t the case.

God is still there.  God hasn’t changed.  Perhaps, they’re looking for the wrong kind of God or worse yet, a God who doesn’t exist.  They are worshipping a God who’s not there.  As such, they’re not seeing the real God.  We can call it idolatry or create your own God.  The point is, we’re looking for something meaningful and this supposed God-like other thing isn’t delivering, even though we’ve attached all sorts of God-like powers, qualities, and ideas to its being.  Yet this thing we think is God or God like isn’t God.  God remains unseen and hidden, waiting to be acknowledged in other ways.

This is why I think we need to think about the places in the Bible where we don’t see God.  Yes, I mean not seeing God.  I’m thinking of passages like Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”  God was not seen.  In Acts 9:4, Saul was riding with his companion to Damascus.  Intent on arresting and bringing some early Christians back to Jerusalem for trial, he was knocked from his horse.  “He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?’”  He fell to the ground and heard a voice.  He did not see a soul nor did the people with him hear the voice.  Saul did not see Jesus or God.  God was unseen.  In fact, after this encounter, Paul was physically blinded.  There is something about going onward with God, totally sight unseen, that we regularly miss, when reading our Bibles.  In our visual, image driven culture, we are not hearing God.

I’m also thinking about today’s verse from the epistle reading in 1 John.  1 John 4:12 states, “No one has ever seen God”.  John, the beloved disciple and purveyor of “I am” statements, communicator of who sees who through the son, tell us “No one has seen God”.  Yes, I think there’s something to be said for these passages saying God has not been seen.

At one level, encountering (seeing) God would appear to be the defining feature of Christianity.  Whether figuratively, literally, metaphorically, or spiritually, we shape or faith around seeing the risen Christ in the world around us.  Easter begins with Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus in the garden.  There are subsequent resurrection encounters where the disciples see Jesus and the physically touch the wounds on his body.  Others, like Paul have metaphorical or more spiritual encounters with Jesus.  Thanks to John’s language we group these under the broad heading of “seeing God”.  We understand Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity.  From John we learned if we’ve seen Jesus we’ve seen God.  These ideas are passed down to us.  We see God at work in people and in the world around.  The disciples saw one way and now we see another.  Yet, this is hallmark of our belief for two thousand years.  We see God or the evidence of God’s presence in people and their actions.  When I was a child, I was convinced that the diffusion of sunlight around a cloud was what God looked like. That was evidence of God’s presence above my backyard.

John wants to change the rules.  He says, “Let’s go back a step”.  Is it possible to alter the working assumption?  What if no one sees God?  What if no one has ever seen God?  How does that change our faith experience?  Is our faith stronger or weaker? If God isn’t seen, where do we find God now?

If God’s not a visual thing, confirmable by our eyes and rational senses (because that’s what sight means, particularly in the ancient world), where (and how) do we affirm the divinity around us?

Here is what I know.  The Christian faith is a shaped by hearing, listening, and feeling.  If we cannot trust those truths, those senses other than sight, then we cannot trust the very idea of God.  Paul didn’t see God, nor did Moses, Job, or Jesus.  Yet each person heard, listened, felt, and encountered the living God.  Visual appearance did not matter.

If we don’t see God, what happens?  Is it possible to be Christian, especially Christian as we’ve come to know and define “Christian” in the early 21st century? If Jesus isn’t on a billboard or bumper sticker, how do we make God tangible?  How do we talk about God with turning God into an idol or a watered down version of our own personalities and priorities?

Here’s what 1 John 4 is telling us:  God can be anyone.  God can be black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, or Middle Eastern; it doesn’t matter.  If God can be seen, God will likely resemble a template we’ve created.  Our God will be white, middle class, and be more like Santa Claus than the actual God John’s describing.  When God is unseen, it’s much harder to create a God in our own image.  The ability to create visual stereotype is removed.  Hearing, listening, and feeling God changes our faith in unspeakable ways.  We are listening for who God to speak and act; not who we expect to see.  Remember what John says, “No one has ever seen God”.  We see idols and things we shape into our own versions of Gods.

It is helpful to remember that God is an emotional response.  God is felt, confirmed, and observed in emotion.  You probably think that sounds like psychological double talk.  Try this on, “God is Love”.  Is that hard to grasp?  God is an emotion.  In fact, John says if we loved each other the way God loved us, our problems would be solved.  We can’t.  Our ability to love is hampered by our humanity.  In the paper rock scissors game of life, our flawed humanity beats God’s gracious love every time.

John acknowledges the difficulty of living a love infused life to the level God loves us.  However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for God’s love made manifest in lives we can see.  Our limited ability to love doesn’t absolve us from participation in God’s kingdom.  We are not off the hook.  Or we will find ourselves like the Apostle Paul, knocked to ground level, and forced to listen to God’s penetrating questions.  So often, we come to God with petitions and requests. When we’re listening to God, there are probably going to be questions posed to us.  What is God asking you?

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

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