Pray for Me

You might remember a previous article about Ernie.  He’s the exterminator who works to keep our church pest free.  I like Ernie.  On his quarterly visits, our conversations about family, friends, and faith are usually the highlight of my day.  This winter, like last year, we’re having a problem with rodents.  I’ve even had a few in my office.  Though never during the day, they leave tell-tell signs of their nighttime wanderings.  In addition to spraying, Ernie comes and resets large rat and mice traps.  Despite my Christian love for all of God’s creation, I want the rodents gone from my office.

Today, before Ernie left, he stopped at my office door and turned back for a moment and asked,  “Is there anything going on in your life that I can pray about?”  The question threw me for a loop.  Prayer isn’t strange to me.  I’m used to talking about prayer and praying with others.  Did you catch the difference?  I ask the questions.  I can’t remember the last time someone asked me what was going on in my life and if they could pray for me.  My job is to pray for others.  It’s easy to forget that others need and even want to pray for me.

I told Ernie what was going on.  He listened and asked a few perceptive questions.  In those moments, we switched roles.  He was ministering to me.  I wasn’t Pastor Bryant, the preacher with the rodent problem.  I was someone in need of prayer.    Ernie prayed for my family and me.  As I said, I can’t remember the last time someone stopped what they were doing and prayed for me and my life.  I think that says a lot about how people treat preachers.  We are treated like disposable toys.  Place us where you want in the positions you see fit.  If we don’t function properly, bang us until we work again or break from being used in a way God never intended.  If we do not say the right words or go along to get along; then we will be discarded in the name of a righteous God.  When we’re empty, we will be berated for not understanding the word Sabbath.  Our disposal will be our own fault.  No one will ever ask, “Did we ask was there something going on in their life we could pray about?”  No, they will not.  Because that’s not how the world works.

Ernie cared enough about my ministry to minister to me.  He didn’t have to but he did.  Some center, a high priced leadership group for education or ministry needs to invite Ernie to be a speaker.  He gets what none of the ones I see advertised (or have attended) understand.  Empathy works both ways.  If you don’t have that, everything you do, no matter how traditionally you view marriage, is dysfunctional.

Richard Lowell Bryant


Things To Know When Visiting Our United Methodist Church

My Happy Face

1. You’re probably sitting in someone else’s seat.  Ask them to scoot.

2. We provide Bibles. If you bring your own, I’m guessing you’re a Baptist.

3. Turn your phone off.  I will ask to speak with whomever calls.

4. Today is Sunday. We do this every week about 11:00. Give or take.

5. We pray with our mouths, not with our hands.

6. It’s called a bulletin, not a pamphlet.

7. We have one bathroom. I clean it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

8. Our communion bread is Hawaiian. You will love it.

9. If your ferry departs at 12:30, you can leave before the Benediction.

10. We’re glad you’re here.  This is my happy face.

Richard Lowell Bryant

I Have Compassion Fatigue

I have compassion fatigue.  Unlike the sense of physical fatigue which haunts me from late afternoon until early evening each day, compassion fatigue can’t be cured by rest, sleep, a nap, or putting my feet up.  I think the first step toward addressing my compassion fatigue is admitting:  I have compassion fatigue.  Hey, it works for drugs and alcohol.  I have a problem.   (Does anyone know if there’s a 12-step program for compassion fatigue? ) 

I don’t think I’m alone.  A close examination of the map reveals a compassion fatigue deficit at frightening proportions.  We’re having trouble caring for everyone who is beaten, brutalized, and hurt by a world that is just plain mean.

It is hard to be a Christian without some measure of compassion fatigue.  We should be physically and emotionally exhausted.  If church is easy, reflexive, and simplistic without a hint of exasperation then something is wrong.  Then we’re doing church the wrong way in the wrong place.

One noted psychologist defined compassion fatigue as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.”  (Doesn’t that sound like a typical Sunday at church?)  The psychologist, Dr. Charles Figley, went on to add that symptoms may include behavioral changes, exhaustion, cardiac issues, numbness, depression, becoming easily startled, and a decreased sense of purpose.  (Check, check, check, and check.)

The phrase may be new (first appearing in print in the early 1990’s) but the idea of compassion fatigue is as old as empathy and compassion itself.  Immanuel Kant argued otherwise.  He though empathy impedes morality.  Empathy wasn’t really required for someone to be a moral person.  We know what happens when morality is detached from politics and society.  Time and time again, Kant was proven wrong.  Whether in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Milosevic’s Serbia, morality divorced from empathy led to human suffering on an epic scale.  To see and respond to such needs on a regular basis for seventy years has been exhausting, especially for mainline Protestants.  People who help others or care about the world beyond themselves become worn out and tired.  Call it what you will, it’s a reality of the human condition.  Yet, despite our compassion fatigue, the world is a better place.

Compassion fatigue is an underlying premise in liberation theologies.  If we’re unable to empathize and feel suffering on some level, how are we able to truly help the marginalized, the needy, the poor, the forest fire victim, the hurricane victim, the flood victim, the everything coming in from around the world victim, answer emails from advocacy groups, call your senator about that “big” issue, and so on?  Welcome back to compassion fatigue.  What do we do?  How do we go on vacation from the need to be compassionate people?

We can’t pause, stop, or break from the need to be compassionate.  That’s not the way Christianity works.  It is possible, within the larger community of believers, to share our responsibilities with others.  We cannot and shouldn’t function alone.  Phone trees, email lists, and conversations work.  Ask for help when needs arise.  Are we raising money, making kits, or finding shelter for the night?  We must rely upon the body of Christ to meet the needs of the body of Christ.

The antidote to compassion fatigue isn’t less compassion.  It might not even be rest.  The world isn’t getting safer, saner, or less dangerous.  The answer, I believe, is living as Paul describes in Ephesians 4.  “Be angry without out sinning.  Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”  Anger is exhausting, one might even say fatiguing.  Anger saps our ability to be compassionate.  The world wants to make us angry at every turn.  Hence Paul’s reply, “Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.”  Let’s not be part of the problem.

Paul has two grand ideas:  don’t do anything that might hinder your ability to be compassionate or harm the community’s ability to assist you in being compassionate.  In Ephesians 4:28, Paul says, “Thieves should no longer steal.  Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.”

Theft is a crime.  It takes away our sense of safety, sanctity, and security.  A burglar is thief; so are storms, hurricanes, fires, and floods.  All invade, destroy, and take what isn’t theirs to take.  Each leaves persons in need of compassion.  Paul says we should all be in a place to give compassion, in a community.  Our compassion does no good if we’ve excluded ourselves from the community.  How does he phrase it at the end, “with whoever is in need”?  That’s compassion in community, moving beyond fatigue.

He makes the same point again, this time, with language.  “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth.  Only say what is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”  Language can be destructive or compassionate.  Will our words be for the benefit of the community in times of need?

Will we use our gifts and graces for the whole of the community, that is, will we ask for help when we are overwhelmed?  Will we speak in ways that build each other up?  Do we have the courage to say, “I’ve got compassion fatigue and need your help to keep going?”

I hope so.  None of us can do any of this thing we call church alone.  We need each other.  That’s the only real answer I have.

Richard Lowell Bryant


There Is Too Much Confusion, I Can’t Get No Relief

There is something unsettling about this moment in history.   Normal doesn’t feel normal.  Observing those who are on vacation, I’m not the first person living on this tourist island to remark, “It feels like people are going through the motions of having fun.”  Life itself is askew.  You can feel it in the shorter fuses, easier arguments, one too many late night bar fights, and suicide attempts marking “this” present from the past.

Something isn’t right.  Despite the sunshine and fishing on offer, the world seems a darker place.  Why?  I listen.  I watch.  I pray.  I want to know.  The license tags from all over the United States and foreign languages tell me the world is passing through our tiny island.  Despite our size, the people I meet offer a snapshot of a much larger whole.  I ask.  I look.  I notice.  What have I observed?  There are those who are angry and on edge.  Some are drunk.  Plenty are nervous.  Many expect this island to be a tropical paradise (a word frequently used is “happy place”), exempt from problems dominating the world they left.  Some have no plan other than to numb the pain they feel from the constant negativity they imbibe hour after hour.  A few come to die.  Mental health issues have no respect for geography or season.

Aren’t these the perennial burdens of the human condition?  Yes, to one degree.  This feels different.  The world, even this perceived perfect corner of it, is edging beyond weird.  It’s at the golf cart stand, the bakery, or anywhere “wrong” rears its so called head.  There is a growing malignant sense of self-entitled vengeance leaving many Americans unanchored to any larger sense of morality or virtue.  In the past week I have come to realize that vast numbers of Americans (regardless of their political persuasion or faith background) believe that two wrongs make a right.

Regardless of what view one holds of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, or the number St. Augustine’s angels dancing on the head of Saint John Wesley’s pin; it is impossible to embrace the basic teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and believe two wrongs create a right.  This is not a “hold two thoughts in your brain” at the same time issue.  That is the essence of Jesus’ identity.  Don’t confuse retributive violence (or actions) with a God who loves everyone, even the people you hate.  Don’t call death, love.  Don’t call shame, love.  Don’t call anger, love.

If “two wrongs make right” becomes the dominant situational ethic in America, the church need no longer exist.  The Judeo-Christian ethic is dead.  The Creeds and Articles of Faith are meaningless in a world where the underlying value system of right and wrong underscoring the teachings of Christ no longer exists in the culture the church claims to serve.

Perhaps, we could fight the good fight?  I say we replicate the same divisions within the larger culture, demonize our enemies, ride our Wesleyan high horses, create podcasts called “Why I’m Right”, and argue ourselves silly about the true meaning of civility.  Sounds lovely!

To paraphrase Wystan Auden, suffering is what takes place when other people are eating dinner.  If this is what the future portends for the church, as we swim in the backyard pool of homemade authoritarianism (whether political, theological, or Wesleyan Covenantal), we are all dining with each other in order to watch ourselves suffer.  I will gladly offer my seat on the Misery Express to someone else.  I’d rather opt out than participate in an ecclesial struggle where culture (in any hegemonic sense) wins and Jesus is excluded, perpetually, from the team.

In the end, perhaps none of our theological shenanigans and religious posturing will matter.  Climate change will claim this island.  Methodism will, to quote Hamlet, be or not.  Jesus might even return.  And one day, perhaps sooner rather than later, we’ll all be in one of those camps on the border.  There we can argue in person, wearing orange jumpsuits, about the true nature of civility and Sanctification.

Save a cot for me.  It’s the least you can do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Things Ain’t What They Used To Be

1. After almost twenty years of full time ministry, I’ve never really gotten into praying with my hands up. I’m much more comfortable using my words and leaving my hands down.

2. I don’t like phrases from scripture that become Christian jargon. The only hedge of protection I know is in my yard.

3. I also think the word “anointed” is over used. Outside the church, people don’t get how we talk.  We shouldn’t make ourselves hard to understand.  You shouldn’t need classes to “speak Christian”.

4. We need to talk more about Mark 3:20-35. Is Jesus the crazy relative we feel more comfortable trying to contain with our own standards of conformity? I think so.

5. I miss participating Sunday School. Specifically, I mean coloring pictures of Jesus on Sunday morning.  Now I spend my Sunday mornings getting ready for worship.  Coloring was fun.  However, worship pays better than coloring and I have mouths to feed.

6. It’s possible to take the Bible seriously but not literally. I feel like I say this all the time.  Is anyone listening?  Why is this so hard?

7. Intinction is my preferred method of giving and receiving Holy Communion. That being said, I still think it’s a little gross.

8. I think the last good year to be a United Methodist was 1986.

9. A relationship with Jesus is more important than a personal relationship. It’s personal by default.  You don’t define any of the other important relationships in your life (spouse, children, or parents) as personal.  They are simply relationships.  Drop the jargon, focus on the substance.

10. Stop looking for God in the usual, scripted, well-defined, pre-printed places.

11. Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash are dead.  You can’t have a Holy Trinity with only Willie Nelson.  I guess I am a Unitarian Nelsonite.  So be it.

Richard Lowell Bryant

I Don’t Want To

I think it’s time to do one of those periodic religious gut checks.  These are helpful for me as I follow the news (and discussions) in the wake of contentious issues like the government shutdown and immigration reform.  It is helpful for me to take a deep breath, pray, and reflect on a few fundamental ideas.  Given the nature of the political dialogue, religious diatribes, and theological soap boxing over the past few weeks, I want to tell you who I don’t want to be and what I don’t want to do.

  1. I don’t want to preach a Jesus who is simply a reflection of my prejudices and dislikes.  If we’re echo chambers telling ourselves what we want to hear, why call ourselves churches?
  2. I don’t want to pray to a God who hates everything I hate and justifies my hate.  I’m a Methodist not a member of ISIS.
  3. I don’t want to worship a God who can be reduced to catchy one liners, quotes from people I’ve never heard, of or clichés. I don’t want  to follow a God who is reducible to memes.  No one’s ever come to me and said, “Pastor, I want to join the church because I saw the cleverest meme on Facebook.”  It’s never happened.  It never will.
  4. I don’t want to confuse the Good News of the Bible the bad news of television.   How do you avoid that trap?  Read scripture responsibly.
  5. I don’t want to use my belief in Jesus Christ to hurt anyone’s relationship with God, their family, other Christians, or other people of faiths.  When we weaponize Christianity everyone loses.
  6. I don’t want a God who is forced to comment on everything.  Just because we feel the need to leave no issue unobserved, doesn’t mean that God is ready to speak.  Silence is okay, it’s God’s original default setting.  Be OK with being quiet.

Richard Lowell Bryant