Confessions of a 44 year old Still United and Still Methodist Curmudgeon

I like to read from my Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible.  I’m pro-NRSV.  I’ll tell you this.  You’ll never find a themed NRSV translation such as the Beaver Hunting, SideCar Racing, Goat Riding, American Idol, Lacrosse Coaching, Pet Grooming NRSV devotional Bible.  You’ll never locate one.  They don’t make them.  Why?  Bibles ought to be Bibles, not lifestyle accessories.   I’m old enough to remember when people knew that instinctively.

I don’t have a cover on my iPad.  Why would I put one on my Bible?

I don’t like to read hymn lyrics off the wall.  If you’re my optometrist and a worship leader who uses song lyrics to test my failing vision, I’ll make an exception.  Otherwise, pick up a book. Books built western civilization.  Do you know where we read about people who wrote on walls (i.e. cave painters)?  In books.

Jesus didn’t use tiny plastic shot glasses. If you want to do communion right, you use the big cup.  Sip and dip.  We call it “intinction.”  It is 2018, ride the wave back to 1st-century Eucharistic authenticity.

No one uses the term “Last Supper” except to describe paintings and what convicts eat on death row.  Methodists have Holy Communion or celebrate the Eucharist.   Maybe the last supper people are the ones holding on to the little shot glasses?

I’m the one leading the worship service, and sometimes I lose my attention span.  Keep it balanced (between sitting and standing) and don’t go over an hour.  Sometimes it can’t be helped.  On most occasions, preachers start repeating themselves because they’re afraid to sit down and shut up.  Thus, extended services can be prevented.

Go to the bathroom before the service begins.  Do you realize how distracting it is to be preaching when you see people just get up and leave?  You don’t know if they’re mad or have to pee.  If you do have to go, leave by an unobtrusive exit.  Don’t march down the center aisle in the middle of the sermon.  Honestly, what are you thinking?

Turn your phone off.  God called me and said to tell you to put your phone on silent.  Who calls people while they are in church?   Apparently, more than I’ve imagined.  People won’t talk to their friends or relatives all week then suddenly, sometime after 11 on Sunday mornings, the phones start to ring.  Reach out, reach out and touch someone.  Just not on Sunday morning between 11am and 12pm!

I would love to talk to you about planning your wedding at 10:55 on a Sunday morning.  No, the congregation will wait.  That’s the best time to ask me anything.

From where I stand, I see everything.  Did I mention gum chewing?  Grown-ups, adults, chewing gum in church.  Spit it out.  What is this, some Disney special where you’ve switched bodies with your children?

I don’t care who lights the candles just as long as they’re lit.  It’s great when the acolytes show up and the schedule is followed.  In the end, are they burning when the first hymn is sung?  That’s what matters.  We need contained fire in the church.

The 44 Year Old Still United and Still Methodist Curmudgeon

(Putting the Protest back in Protestant)

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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

Richard’s Short Guide to Heresies

1. Transconsubstantiantarianism – the desire to use Communion bread that’s easier to chew.

2. Sedevacantism (Empty Seatism) – sitting in the back pew and attempting to glean the same level or spiritual insights one might gleam from the front pew.

3. Harmoniousism – a belief that doing religious work (even interfaith activities) together results in strength and unity. While this is not a heresy, many people believe such “harmoniousists” to be heretics. They are wrong.

4. Aegyptia reditusism (Egyptian Returnism)-a heresy which teaches that life was better under Pharaoh, before Moses (sometimes also extrapolated to include Jesus of Nazareth). This heresy is easily identified by a desire to return to a time prior to God’s salvific intervention in our lives. Those who express this heresy have often forgotten the oppression, hardship, and pain marked by the era prior to God’s intervention with Moses and/or Jesus.

5. Usism – A uniquely North American phenomenon; the heresy that Jesus was (and still is) a white, English speaking Protestant.

6. John Wesleyanism – a heresy, common among Methodists, which attributes every ancient ecclesial practice, saying, or tradition to John Wesley.

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

Remarks on Presenting Bibles to Graduating Seniors

1. Sometimes we need to be reminded our past is bigger than the history we believe we’ve inherited. We are recipients of an awesome genealogy from our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents and beyond. At some point, the records become scarce. The wisdom keepers of our community pass on. The Bible is a reminder that our story is the common story shared by humanity since the dawn of time.

2. We need to be reminded that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. There is a big picture and sometimes it’s hard to see when you spend all day (or your whole life) looking at Instagram stories. We are part of God’s story.

3. We need to be reminded that community is important. The Bible points us to membership in a community where we believe that gathering around a higher moral purpose is a good thing. There are all types of communities. Some groups are devoted to sports, fitness, or hobbies. Church is different. For over 2000 years, with this book as our guide, we’ve gathered to say pursuing a higher moral purpose in life, rooted in love, is a good thing. When celebrations happen or tragedy strikes; I can tell you from hard won experience, you’re going to want to be with people who value the Bible. This is because you will be loved beyond the superficiality of thoughts and prayers.

4. We need to write our story. Parts of the Bible are unfinished. Mark’s story of the resurrection ends of Jesus’ disciples finding the tomb empty. They never see Jesus’ body. It’s up to the reader to make the resurrection real.  Christian theology is participatory.  Read the book for yourself.

5. Religion aside, this is the foundation work of western literature. To be an intelligent, well-read person you need to know the Bible to appreciate Shakespeare, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, and other great writers of modern literature.

There’s Only One Loyalty

Former FBI Director James Comey’s new book, “A Higher Loyalty” frames the question of loyalty in the singular, as if there is only one loyalty.  We may live in a world of multiple (lesser) loyalties which demand our fealty but there is singular “higher” loyalty.  What is the source of such loyalty? It is clear from his early interviews and book excerpts that Comey’s idea of loyalty is hierarchical.  Loyalty to country precedes loyalty to a particular person, office of state, or political party.  While this may be true or is his version of the truth; his description of a higher loyalty should ring hollow for disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians have no other loyalty than to God.  Competing secular loyalties, those which launch cruise missile strikes and live behind the partisan double standards of fear rarely acknowledge God as a being to whom they offer loyalty.  Lip service, yes.  Loyalty, never.  Yet, despite the media driven competitions for our loyalty, even those who come bearing such anxious phrases such as “the future of the republic” and the “inevitability of impeachment” must be reminded that our loyalty remains with God, not the metaphysical idea of the United States of America.

Christians, because of their higher loyalty to God, are empowered to call into question the assumptions underlying every other loyalty struggling to be heard in the marketplace of philosophical and intellectual ideas.  These ideas are the infrastructure of modernity and like the bridges, roads, and highways that link our nation; the loyalties that once tied us together are also crumbling at the seams.  Because our loyalty lies beyond the public spectacle, we can see when something’s wrong.  This is our witness:  find common ground to preach the Gospel in the world’s wrongness, even when everyone’s singing “Happy Days are Here Again”.

The Body of Christ doesn’t simply call the world’s loyalties into question.  Antagonism isn’t our mission.  We offer alternatives to misplaced loyalties.  Our lives become witnesses to the higher loyalty.  This is accomplished through unapologetic, confessional worship and witness grounded in the historic Christian expression of loyalty to God, community, family, and neighbors.  The people around us and the word they inhabit become divine space, the yet to be immanetized kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.  This is who we are and what we do.

The former director is known to be a student of the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  James Comey views himself, to paraphrase Niebuhr, as THE moral man in a immoral society.  Aren’t we all, Jim?

As Mr. Comey knows, there’s more to Niebuhr than rational critiques of society, social order, economics, and power.  I’m reminded of one of Niebuhr’s sermons on Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew’s gospel.  In it Niebuhr says, “Because we are both small and great, we have discerned a mystery and a meaning beyond our smallness and our greatness, and a justice and a love which completes our incompletion, which corrects our judgments, and which brings the whole story to a fulfillment beyond our power to fulfill any story.”  Mr. Comey, there’s only one loyalty tying everything together.  Everything else is just fancy rhetoric.

Richard Lowell Bryant