A Better Way To Pray Part 3

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This is the third in a series of posts on prayer. In the previous two articles, I’ve explored my challenges with traditional models of prayer (in light of my father’s cancer diagnosis, the rising tide of global violence and war, and illnesses within my community and congregation) and my search for a “better way to pray.” Here, I want to explore the transactional nature of prayer practiced in most congregations and how addressing this long-ingrained perspective might be a first step toward a more authentic prayer life. These thoughts are intensely personal and do not reflect the views of the United Methodist Church or any congregation of the United Methodist Church. This is me, Richard, reflecting on God, prayer, and our need to be heard when we’re hurting, seen when we’re celebrating, comforted when we’re crying, and companionship when we’re alone.

When we pray, are we talking to a person? I’m not thinking about Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Instead, I’m thinking about God. We use the language of “divine personhood” when we delve deep into the weeds of Trinitarian theology. Yet, should we refer to God as a person in the same way you and I are people? Let’s take the word “person” off the table. It’s become more challenging for me to envision God as a person. It’s much easier for me to talk about God as a concept, idea, or something more extensive than the universe itself, the idea of God as a person no longer rings true. I also see a difference between “personal Gods” and the notion of “God as a person.” 

Humanity, Homo sapiens, has always wanted something to worship. However, this doesn’t mean God is a person. We do not have to borrow the language of psychology or philosophy to explain Trinitarian theology. Here we proceed cautiously; as Wittgenstein taught us, words matter.

Persons are limited beings, physically and intellectually speaking. God must be more than the total of our idea of all the traits of personhood. God must be more than we can imagine. To call God a person is to identify God as something less than God, an imitation deity, the “I can’t believe it’s Not God, God.” I do not believe in this traditional notion of a personal God any longer. Why? A personal God is not a real God. A personal God is a toy. A personal God is a reflection of us, our personhood, our self-interests, our limitations, our priorities, and our fears. A personal God is an idol. A personal God is a wholly owned subsidiary of the person you see staring back at you in the mirror. God is not a person. God is God. God belongs to no one. God may lay claim to our lives but we do not own God.

If God is not a person (in the traditional sense), then to whom are we praying? If God is not a person, how do we have a personal relationship (not my phrase, one I inherited from generations of church-going evangelicals who came before me) with an entity that is not a person but something that exists outside the idea of personhood? How do I ask something of, request, and insinuate that I need a favor from a non-personal cosmic entity operating on a scale grander than the number of stars visible to the naked eye? Maybe I don’t.

Is prayer just another transaction, albeit a spiritual one? Am I placing a call, sending an email, hoping that the person on the other end of the line receives the call or reads my message and decides to respond to my request? Yes, and yes. That’s how we approach prayer. In most of our congregations, this is how we do it. Think about the questions I asked last week concerning the Holocaust. Did the “person” on the other end of the line take the phone off the hook or refuse to answer their email for over ten years while 6 million people died? Persons said thousands of prayers in the gas chambers. Who was listening? What happened to those transactions? How can we even talk about the transactional nature of prayer when the answers (to those in particular) seem so haphazard and random? If God is a person choosing whom to listen to and whom to ignore, prayer certainly appears to be a gamble. How much time do we spend gambling, each week, in worship? If God is a person, we must either pray for everything or nothing. Suppose you intensely subscribe to the “God is personal” model. In that case, God appears to pick and choose who to listen to, and frankly, that’s depressing as hell. I’m starting to take that on-again-off-again approach to being a divinity, personally. I didn’t ask to be created but I sure would like to be listened to. I think the transactions I seek are worthy of God’s attention. What must I do to transact God’s blessings for my father’s health? I’d like more than word salad about free will, God’s plans, and how we don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.

What if prayer is not a transaction, a quid pro quo? What if prayer is not a “you say a name, hope God is listening, is in a good mood, and you’re in the spiritual black, so something positive might go your way kind of operation? What if prayer is a spiritual discipline, a holy habit, and a sacred conversation between persons on the faith journey? Now that might be a new way to pray. What if, instead of waiting on answers from God, we became the answers to our own prayers?

What if, in a spirit of vulnerability, we gathered to share our deepest concerns and our greatest joys with each other? What if we became comfortable with sitting in silence with one another? What if, in humility, we could express our fears and hear other members of the body of Christ? Would this not be a new way to pray? What if we read the words of those walked the journey before us, poets and mystics, the psalmist, and wisdom teachers? In listening to each other, are we not creating sacred personhood for those who dare to come to a holy place to know that their prayers are heard with a vital, emphatic, and loud AMEN?

–Richard Bryant

Stop This Crazy Thing: A Disaffiliation Prayer-Poem and Statement of Faith

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God is (somewhere)

Jesus is (love)

Jesus is not (the guy in your stained-glass window)

Faith is (hard)

Belief is (harder than faith)

God is not (a problem to be solved)

Faith is not (an either/or proposition)

Belief is not (perfect)

Scripture is (words)

Prayer is (more listening, less speaking)

Scripture is not (words taken out of context)

Prayer is not (a list of demands)

We are on our religious high horses.

We are not who we think we are.

Christianity is flawed.

Christianity is not what Jesus intended.

The Bible is a collection of history, poetry, myths, stories, and songs.

The Bible is not one book.

Fundamentalism is alienating those seeking Christian communities.

Fundamentalism is not what Jesus intended.

Selective Biblical literalism has been used to justify slavery, the oppression of women, and genocide.

Selective Biblical literalism is not Biblical.

Scriptural authority is a phrase most often used by authoritarians.

Scriptural authority is not a phrase that fosters honest dialogue.

These polarities ARE tearing us, me, and congregations APART.

Before, I am LAID upon the ALTAR of DENOMINATIONAL DISARRAY

Before I DISAFFILIATE from my SOUL, I ask,

I paraphrase the words of George Jetson,

“Stop THIS CRAZY thing.”

–Richard Bryant

There Has To Be A Better Way To Pray

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This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.

I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.

Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.

The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.

–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

Start With Forgiveness

Have you ever wondered why we say the prayers of confession and proclaim forgiveness before celebrating our congregational prayer celebrations and concerns? Is that just the way United Methodists worship? Yes, that is true. You’ll probably find that pattern in most congregations. However, there are theological, Biblical, and spiritual reasons we speak this way.  These reasons could impact your Thanksgiving dinner.

Forgiveness precedes gratitude. It isn’t easy to be genuinely grateful if we need to forgive someone or something. In church, we begin our prayers of confession by addressing God, acknowledging our brokenness, and our need to be forgiven and forgive others. Forgiving others is a central component of what Christians call the “Lord’s Prayer.”  How can we honestly acknowledge gratitude for our lives, blessings, families, and friends if there are some we cannot forgive? Can we share a common table and proclaim our genuine thankfulness to God and others if there are those sitting around our table that we need to forgive? If our hearts are burdened with hatred, remorse, and vengeance, is any of our gratitude nothing more than empty words? Without forgiveness, some internal or external acknowledgment of the need to move beyond past wrongs and hurts, gratitude grows in shallow soil. Life is too short to waste on superficialities. Jesus calls us to forgive from a place deep within ourselves where our emotions are raw and fragile. It’s in that same place, where we’d prefer not to go, where we begin to understand the depth and gravity of the forgiveness embodied in his life, death, and resurrection.

While I write out of the Christian tradition, I see this as an idea rooted in our shared humanity; not solely unique to a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

Before you sit down tomorrow, who do you need to forgive? Is it yourself? Is it a sibling, parent, or friend? Thanksgiving should begin with three words, “I forgive you.” Say it in any manner you feel led. Free yourself, your soul, and the lives of those around you for genuine gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving.

–Richard Bryant

Crypto Mourning – A Reflection on the Present

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To grieve with any level of authenticity, we must not be selective in who (or how) we mourn. To name a loss worthy of memory, sorrow, and joy (in a life well lived) is an act of supreme defiance in a world where we store our wealth in a currency named for the Greek word “hidden” or “secret.” We live hidden and transient lives. Everything we value about life, even its inevitable ending, is obscured with each new mass shooting, virus, disease, and missile attack. Those who die remain unseen, off-camera, and hidden beyond well-worn catchphrases and slick camera angles. Even before the pandemic, the affluent west invested heavily in crypto-mourning. This is the process of continually moving our thoughts, prayers, and concerns from one tragedy to another (as one would move money to offshore accounts) but never asking, “Do these prayers have any real value unless we transfer them as hard spiritual currency into our lives and act upon them?”

While all death is death, we grieve some longer and more viscerally than others. We invest in acts of community and corporate sorrow. Candlelight vigils and community gatherings have done what I once thought impossible: made grief cliché, predictable, and ephemeral. Our grief becomes public, or so we claim, and then we move on. We wait for the next tragedy, and the cycle repeats. The problem isn’t too many people sending meaningless thoughts and prayers. Instead, we’ve made grieving a public media-driven production. Persons whose trauma and grief are too immense to step into this spotlight are largely forgotten. For so many, the vast majority of those in hospitals and homes worldwide, there are no witnesses to the realities of grief preparing to be confronted at this time we force each other to call “joyful.” Their grief isn’t sensational, but it is real. Seek out those who are hurting, be present, and help mend the broken threads of our torn humanity.

–Richard Bryant

Some Confessions in Honor of Saint Augustine

Earlier this week, we remembered the 1665th birthday of one of the most important theologians in the Christian tradition.  Saint Augustine of Hippo, the Neoplatonic philosopher and Bishop of Hippo bridged the gap between late Roman antiquity and the early Church.  We are who we are because of Augustine helped us become.

One of St. Augustine’s early works was The Confessions.  It is a classic work of Christian theology and autobiography.  In short, he defines the genre.  The Confessions may best known for this quote, where Augustine says, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”  What a rascal!

In honor of Augustine’s birth, here are a few of my own Confessions.

  1. After twenty plus years of full-time ministry, I feel awkward and self-conscious when I pray with my hands in the air. I’m more comfortable using my words and leaving my hands down.
  2. Some phrases become part of our entrenched prayer vocabulary. We use them so often they can lose the beauty of their intended meaning. I’m looking at you, “hedge of protection”.
  3. Outside the church, people don’t understand our “insider” language. We shouldn’t make ourselves challenging to understand. We have a vocabulary, by al means. However, everyone should be able to learn as they go.
  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 standards of conformity? I think so.
  5. I miss 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.
  6. It is possible to take the Bible seriously but not literally? I feel like I say this all the time. Is anyone listening?
  7. Intinction is my preferred method of giving and receiving Holy Communion. It may not be the “old way” (of American Methodism), but it is the “oldest way,” which Jesus likely knew.
  8. Were we to compare United Methodism to a rare wine, I’ll prefer the 1738 Herrnhutt from Saxony. It’s a husky, smooth blend of English and German piety.
  9. A relationship with Jesus is, by default, a personal relationship. You don’t define any of the other meaningful relationships in your life (spouse, children, or parents) as personal. They are simply relationships. Be cautious of jargon (this goes for any part of your life), focus on the substance. Be in a relationship with God.
  10. It is easy to walk past a resurrection moment or to go in search of a Resurrection encounter only to realize; God’s right beside you, riding shotgun, ready to talk, and up for the journey.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Sitting Down (A Poem)

Sitting Bull, the Sioux medicine man

Sitting down to pray;
letting go,
with nothing else to say,
being there,
listening,
at the end of the day,
pushing back the world,
keeping the traffic at bay,
hearing what’s around you,
the b flat harmony
on life’s first page.
God told Jacob to take a nap,
find holy rocks where your head can lay,
to see the angels walk,
and know God’s about,
standing up,
breaking down,
climbing a tree,
no special pose,
presence is the key.

–Richard Bryant

Parallelism and Prayer

 

Gracious God,

Evening falls,

Night calls,

We gather,

Because we’d rather,

Find ourselves together,

Than living apart,

Where our spirits depart,

Bring us around some table,

Happy and able,

To find gratitude,

Among our attitudes,,

More than near

We know you are here,

Amen.

— Richard Bryant

Common Prayer for an Ordinary Wednesday in October

Madonna and Child, Burgaw United Methodist Church

Gracious God,

Hear our prayers,

They are sometimes muffled, silent, and nonexistent.

Yet, we come before you today, taking one step into the next moment.

In this moment, we embrace the dignity you give us as children of God.

In this instance, we stand as forgiven people.

We acknowledge we are no different, no better, and no worse than all of the redeemed who we encounter each day.

Wipe the stain of righteous indignation from our hearts.

Forgive us of choosing one sin to love and another to hate.

Forgive us from doing church yet forgetting Jesus.

Heal those who are broken in body, mind, and spirit.  You know their needs in ways greater than we can express.  Where ever they are, in homes, Hospices, Hospitals, offices, cars, schools, or churches; send your spirit.

O Lord, hear our prayers,

Amen

Richard Bryant