I Have Seen the End and It Isn’t Pretty

I have seen the end and it isn’t pretty.

A couple of nights ago, I attended one of a handful of regional gatherings across the North Carolina Annual Conference.  These meetings, led by the Bishop and our General Conference delegates, were intended to outline the three proposals advanced by the Commission on a Way Forward.  Laity and clergy were both invited to attend.  Billed as a time for questions and answers, I hoped it would be a time of learning and sharing.  I was wrong.

I hadn’t been in my seat five minutes when someone raised their hand to speak on the most accurate definition of homosexuality.  It should (said this gentleman), according to any definition one might find, include the term sodomites.  If he said sodomite once he said it three more times.  To be honest, the meeting went downhill from there.

The Bishop did her best to keep order and maintain a sense of decorum.  However, it was clear those in attendance didn’t think much of the one church plan or changing the Book of Discipline to be more accommodating to all United Methodists.  Soon the same tired tropes emerged, homosexuality is the sin par excellence, Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality because they still stoned sodomites in 1st century Palestine (so Jesus didn’t have to bring it up), and Methodists need to be more concerned about keeping people out of Hell.   I wasn’t sure if the man who mentioned stoning wasn’t still advocating taking people, as he said, “to the local rock pile”.   He was intentionally ambiguous.

There were also secondary complaints about the lack of information from the committee, annual conference, and those in charge.  To those who hear only bits and pieces of information or follow Rob Renfroe’s version of Methodism, these plans seem sudden and frightening.   Fear is the word which kept coming to mind.  Beyond the anger, misquoted Bible verses, and the outright bigotry I witnessed; this meeting contained a palpable sense of fear.

My sisters and brothers are scared.  Frightened people have difficulty being faithful disciples.  They are afraid of their neighbors, losing their church, the control they pretend to maintain over God’s kingdom, and the idea that God’s grace is bigger than they realized.  This isn’t simply homophobia.  Yes, that’s part of the equation.  It is theophobia, a fear of letting God be God. What happens if God demands we love people we’ve been inaccurately taught to despise?  God’s spiritual audacity and expansive moral grandeur is frightening to those who image of God is one of wrath and punishment.

The meeting I attended is a microcosm of events occurring around United Methodism.  In fact, I’m betting this gathering was kind of a dress rehearsal for the special General Conference.  The same hurtful words, self righteous speeches, and stereotypes will be thrown around the convention floor in St. Louis.  It will be as wrong and as hurtful there as it was this week.

There’s free speech and there’s hate speech.  What I heard in this meeting bordered on hate speech.  It made me sick to my stomach and ashamed to be sitting in a United Methodist Church.  By the time our gathering finished, I couldn’t wait to leave the building.  I felt confused, angry, and disappointed.  I know people can be mean.  I realize even when we clean up and go to church, we feel like we can say ugly, vile, and reprehensible things about people God created because we “do it in Christian love” or “tradition”.   I’m not naive or ignorant.  However, I’m always surprised (a bit) when I see in person.   A Methodism that is rude, discriminatory, and cloaked in judgmental self-righteousness isn’t the church I know and love.   If that makes me less of a Christian (or United Methodist), I guess we can get adjoining rooms in Hell.

The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about the idea of “God needing us” for God’s very existence.  I’m not one to usually argue with Heschel, however, after what I saw this week, it looks like God could do just fine if we weren’t figuring out ways to put up roadblocks to inclusivity and border walls around the Kingdom of Heaven.  When we’re like this, God doesn’t need us.  Before we’re going to be of any use to anyone, (LGBTQI United Methodists, the elderly, children, migrant families, Syrian refugees, or heroin addicts in our own community, etc.) we need more of God’s love.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Reflection on 75 Years of Church

Over the past weekend, the congregation I serve celebrated its 75th anniversary.  Here are some of my thoughts.

Jesus didn’t know the term “church”.  In the first decades after the resurrection, a word came to be used to describe the followers of Christ who lived and met in community.  Jesus, the man at the center of this movement, worked long before the faithful accepted words to describe who they were and where they met.   To the first disciples, to label themselves as anything other than a “follower of Jesus” made no sense.  It is not how they viewed the world.

Jesus’ “church” was the back roads, hills, and valleys of Galilee.  Long before John Wesley said, “The world is my parish”, Jesus abandoned the synagogues and took his message on the road.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is expelled from the synagogue where he was raised and taught to fear the Lord.  As you or I would put it, he is in his “home church”.  His homecoming sermon did not go well.  Jesus was rejected and nearly killed in the place where he went to Vacation Torah School, Sabbath School, and learned to read the Bible.  Mark says, “They were repulsed by him”.  Who is repulsed by Jesus teachings?  The people who knew him, loved him, and claimed to have his best interest at heart.   Take note.  The people who ought to know Jesus best are the ones angered with him the most.

The people of Nazareth embraced two distinct ideas. God’s presence was to be found in a building.  People weren’t especially sacred.  To be deemed holy in a holy building required one to jump through numerous hoops.   Secondly, faith was something you could own.  Like an inheritance, it was a possession you claimed and could be squandered.  Belief was passed down like property.

How could a carpenter’s child, the son of a teenage mother (people still talked about the strange circumstances surrounding his birth), question their faith and religious inheritance?  This was their synagogue.  Jesus’ Nazareth friends and family believed Jesus had wasted his faith.  People get angry at people who waste things they regard as valuable.

For Jesus, structures weren’t vital to his mission.  The disciples, walking two by two with only walking sticks, no money, no bread, or bags became the closest thing to what we might call “church”.

What did it mean to be the “church” in the year 30?  Here’s the best answer to a flawed question:  it meant a way of life which most modern United Methodists wouldn’t accept.   The ability to embrace poverty while meeting the needs of the poorest in the Kingdom was a primary challenge.  Secondly, if there were obstacles (doctrinal, hierarchical) to hearing the Good News, Jesus removed them.  The church made reaching Jesus easier.

What does it mean to be a church or to call ourselves church in 2018?  The answer should be the same.  We are challenged to deny materialism and wealth “no votes” in our efforts to reach the most vulnerable members of the Kingdom.   It’s our calling to go out instead of waiting for people to come to us.  While we’re at work, let’s make it easier for people to see Christ at work in the world.   Instead of planting doctrinal, Disciplinary, and other stumbling block; are able to make it easier for those in our community to reach Jesus?

After seventy five years of uninterrupted history, given our identification as Methodists and people of this island; what does it mean to be the body of Christ on Ocracoke in 2018?

Churches are monuments, created to reflect ideas and aspirations of the world they surround. They evolve from the evolved.  Humanity’s need to worship a God or Gods has, for centuries, led people from sacred groves of trees to build and maintain holy buildings.  Despite our best intentions, when the grandest cathedral is finished or the simplest chapel completed; we’ve limited our vision.  Our view of the kingdom of God is bounded by the four walls of sacred space we claim as our own.  God keeps growing after we settle down.  Our challenge is to never be comfortable waiting for the outside world to find their way to our door.   We go to the world.

As with the first disciples, we are sent to engage with Jesus’ message and to embody his values as our own.  Our commitment to this church (not solely to the church as a building or birthright) but as an idea will be what keeps the United Methodist Church alive and vibrant.

The church is not a building nor is it simply the people.  Church is more than a holy noun.  Instead, the church is an idea we hold in common (like democracy).  Transcending the barriers of time, the church is present in all ages, spaces, places, and peoples.  We are not our monuments.  Were the church the sum total of our flesh and blood, stone and mortar, wood and nails; the church would have died over two thousand years ago.  Instead, we are the resurrection made real and the recognition of the Holy Spirit in the lives of one another.   We are more than we realize.

The church is an intangible reality found inside each of us and it is also present when we gather as a community.  We are unable to see what makes “church, church”.  However, this indefinable quality gives us words to pray, songs to sing, and a faith in which to believe.  It is the realization of the kingdom of God, the tiniest glimpse of the reality Jesus promised, at least that’s what it should be.

The church has never been about one thing.*  The church, like the Kingdom, is everything.   If that idea is overwhelming, bigger than you imagined; then we’re headed in the right direction.

Richard Lowell Bryant

*At points in history when the church has been about one thing, bad things usually happen.

If We Make Too Much of A Name Change, What Else Do We Do?

The last thing his mother told him was to “be careful”.  She didn’t want him to go to Damascus.  Damascus wasn’t the kind of place one wanted to stay overnight.  Despite her advice, Saul left, the world went black, and now he’d come through the other side.  Up was down, right was left, and the mad hatter was serving tea to Jesus’ disciples in Antioch; among them Saul from Tarsus.  If this was Wonderland, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay.

We know how Saul arrived in Antioch.  There was a horse, fishy scales on his eyes, and a bucket somewhere along the way.  I’m not certain he believed the story of his own journey.  The transition from mean guy to missionary was so radical and rapid the adjustment couldn’t have been easy.  Within days of his conversion he found himself coming clean, like an addict hitting rock bottom.  There were no more secrets. Saul told all the stories he knew.  There were no gifts of immunity.  For the first time in his life, he acknowledged his life was unmanageable.  The higher power he thought the he knew wasn’t real. What was the value of living a life of guilt when you’d heard the voice of God?  It was time to turn his life around.  People looked at him differently now when he told when they told he’d heard God.  Sure, they’d claimed to seen the risen Jesus but he was the crazy one for hearing voices.

Saul was paired with a man named Barnabas for his first preaching mission.  After a time of fasting and prayer, Barnabas and Saul were sent to the island of Cyprus.  Lying just off the coast of Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus has always been a hub for commerce between the east and west.  Jewish synagogues were well established in the major cities of the island.  As became his practice for most of his ministry, Saul contacted Jewish leaders and began to preach using the network he knew best.  Early on, we see the Roman authorities develop a curiosity about Saul’s message and ministry.  The local Roman administration will either be outright hostile or willing to give a hearing to visiting missionaries.  In Cyprus, there are “magicians” who see Saul and Barnabas as threats to their economic well being.  It’s hard for them to differentiate between their work and the message of the Gospel.  While trivial to our ears, this was a major problem for the early Church.  This means the local religious power structures with an economic self interest would try to turn the Romans against Barnabas and Saul.  This is going to be a way of life for Saul until he’s arrested and taken to Rome.

In the midst of this conflict of trying to find a way to preach to the Roman proconsul, something amazing occurs.  If you blink, you’ll miss it.  It’s in Acts 13:9, right after Paul has gone one on one with a “magician”.  Here’s the verse, “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit.” Did you get that?  It’s the first time Saul is ever referred to as Paul!  From there on out, Saul is Paul.  Now why is this significant?  Because you probably thought, were taught, or believed that it has something to do with Paul have a new identity after his conversion to following Jesus.  Perhaps you think Jesus told him his new name was to be Paul.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  It just happened.  He was always known as Paul and Saul and one day, in the midst of Acts 13, for no theological or religious reason in particular reason at all, he starts using his other name.

For some reason, somebody made up a story, years ago, that most Christians believe is true; a story that’s clearly not true.  To realize how untrue the story is, one only need to read the Bible.  It’s a story that’s no truer than Paul’s mother telling him to be careful on his way to Damascus.

Yes, Paul changed his name.  It’s not the big religious deal you’ve been led to believe.  It’s the story of a simple name change to which we’ve attached deep theological significance.  Are there other things we’ve taken out of context from the Bible and made into untrue truths that we keep passing down?  Yes.  Are these alternative facts hurting Christianity?  Yes. Are we talking about the Bible without reading it (especially Jesus’ words)?  Yes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

10 Interesting Observations About the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

1. In the year we remember the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the great schism that gave birth to our vision of Christianity, some United Methodists are fighting tooth and nail to maintain the status quo.

2.  As children of the reformation, our reluctance to consider schism (regardless of your theological perspective), seems disingenuous.   Our ancestry.com results are conclusive: we are schismatics.

3. Protestantism is the product of painful division. It’s who we are. We’re not above it, too good for it, or beyond it.  It’s in our DNA.

4. Perhaps, every 500 to 1000 years, it’s time for Reformation. It’s happened before.  It will happen again.  Why should history stop with our own generation? No one now believes Francis Fukyama was correct with the grand pronoucements about the “End of History” following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Why is the church immune from what’s happening to the rest of society?  It’s not.  To believe any different is the height of arrogance.  Instead of saving us, it may mark our downfall.

5. United Methodists are as related to Martin Luther as to John Wesley. Both men were schismatic revolutionaries. Wesley’s writings, while calling for unity, led to the greatest rupture in the Church of England since the English Civil War. Words are one thing; actions are another. You can’t call for unity in print and do everything in practice to start a new movement.

6. Reformation is great; as long as you’re reading about it in church history books. (Or a tourist in Wittenberg or Oxford.)

7. When Reformation becomes a real possibility and sources of ecclesiastical power are threatened, you’d be surprised the lengths the church will go to shut down debate, name so-called heretics, and reclaim its authority.

8. Reformation is not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s a holistic call for systemic denominational change.

9. Neither Martin Luther nor John Wesley sought centrism within Catholicism or Anglicanism. They created their own path.  Europe’s not 100% Roman Catholic.  Methodism is alive in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  Had either man been a centrist, I’d be an Anglican, America would still be British, and Angela Merkel would still be a Communist Chemist in a formerly Catholic country.

10. #Reformation

Open Source Theology

Creativity is one of the most important means of keeping the church and ministry from stagnating.  Clergy and local churches need fresh, new ideas in order to foster and awareness of the ongoing possibilities of the gospel.  Pastors and church communities are urged to develop their own concepts and initiatives which might work well in their community.  Books and programs (ranging from Vacation Bible School to small group studies) worth millions of dollars are sold to congregations each year for this express purpose:  offer something new, different, and exciting.  Our churches can purchases “newness” by the box or kit.  New ideas, even ones that come prepackaged in shrink-wrap, are vital to church growth and survival.  However, our embrace of openness and newness only goes so far.

These kits, programs, and packages represent a type of “open source” thinking.  They are available to everyone but only those who are available to purchase them.  The creativity and inspiration sold by Cokesbury (and others) isn’t free or genuinely open source.  It’s open, but at a premium.

For something to be truly open source, such as software, the original source code must be freely available and open for distribution or modification.  Open source ideas aren’t bound by copyright rules.  You don’t worry about getting sued for photocopying music or mixing songs.  Open means open.  If something is open source, you can change, use, modify, the actual thing (not ideas or derivatives about a thing).  Open source innovators have immense creative ability to go in any direction.

How would “open source” theology look in contemporary United Methodism? It’s already here.  I argue that “open source” theology is at the heart of the major theological issues dividing United Methodism. I think it sounds like a great idea.  There’s a problem.  To go “open source” means openness.  It also means the powerful lose a measure of their control.

The idea of “open source” theology frightens many people on the theological, cultural, and political right in contemporary United Methodism.  Why?  They want to control the source code.  What is the source code?  In our context, the source code is the scripture and the creeds.  The source code is the part of the software that most people never see.  It’s written, maintained, and controlled by the developers. (That’s us:  the clergy, district superintendents, bishops, seminary trained elites, conference delegates.)  We guard the code.  We manipulate and change how the code works.  If it’s interpreted one way or another, the code comes through our hands. Our code, by the way, is over 2000 years old.  In the case of the Old Testament; the code is 6000 years old.  Some of our programmers refuse to issue bug fixes for a six thousand year old code which still advocates plural marriage, slavery, and the death penalty.  See what I mean?  Isn’t it time to open up this process to a wider, more collaborative audience?

Open source software is software that anyone can enhance, modify, or improve.  What would it look like to have a theology that was open to modifications and improvement from an entire denomination (at the local church level)?  What kind of creativity might this inspire?

To some extent, I’m talking about the Social Principles.  I’m also referring to the Creeds and parts of scripture.  What would this kind of “open source” theology do to the ability of some (in United Methodism) to exercise control over an entire denomination, if the doors to the Bible and the Creeds were wide open for everyone?  There should be nothing proprietary or closed source about being the body of Christ.  After all, who are we to decide anything on behalf of the creator of the cosmos?  It would make it much harder to divide and conquer the body of Christ on misreading of scripture.  The Bible is a gift that was never meant to be guarded in private, interpreted alone, or changed in secret. Hack our theology, leak it to the world.

Richard Lowell Bryant

It’s Almost Time

An Annual Conference Journal

Ocracoke-Preparing for Greenville, NC

Leaving at Dawn on the Swan Quarter Ferry

June 15, 2017

Are you ready for fun?  Have you picked your breakout sessions yet?  I’m having trouble getting my mind around leaving.  It’s not what you think.  I need a break.  Things here will go just fine without me.  A Sunday off will do me a world of good.  For me, it’s much more basic.  My brain hasn’t caught up to the fact it’s Thursday and we’re leaving tomorrow.  To my addled mind, it’s still last Thursday and I’m preparing for weddings which ended in divorce weeks ago.

The ministry, by that I mean, the day to day work of being a pastor, hasn’t helped matters.  Ministry doesn’t stop because you’re going away or even when you empower others to be agents of influence and change.  See what I did there?  I used fancy leadership jargon.  I feel dirty.  It’s a good thing I live near the ocean.  Life happens even when you prepare, plan, and do everything you’re told do before you leave the pulpit for a day, week, month, or year.

At the beginning of the week, a member of our community was swimming in the water of the island.  Derek dove into a shallow spot he didn’t see or expect.  He received extremely serious spinal and neurological injuries.  Derek’s a great guy in the prime of life and in excellent health.  In a moment, it all changed forever.  From Monday afternoon, the enter focus of my week has shifted in trying to care for people asking the most fundamental questions:  Why? What next?  How can we help?

If you’ve read any of these posts over the past few months, you know that we’ve had more than our fair share of evil.  From serious natural disasters, cancer, suicides, shark attacks, domestic abuse, and now a freak accident; hope is taking a beating.  The platitudes and clichés we see on social media fall on deaf ears.  We gathered in the church two mornings ago and waited for a word from God.  We waited in silence.   Names were called, gratitude was offered, the Spirit was thanked, and we waited.  This silence from God is deafening.  I try to hear God in our breathing.  I try to see God in our presence.  We lean on each other’s everlasting arms because that is what we can touch and feel.  When it’s all said and done, we are left waiting.

Derek is in a hospital about five minutes from where annual conference is being held.  Tomorrow afternoon, as soon as I arrive and grab my name tag, I’m leaving the building.  I’m not going to a session, or to say hello to friends, to complain about the budget, or gripe about our position on climate change.  I’m going to see Derek and Callie.  If I’m going to hear God, I don’t think it’s going to be in the opening session of an annual conference.  No one has ever been saved through the effective use of Robert’s Rules of Order.  If God’s around and wants to really move out of the silence, it’s going to happen in a hospital room where doubt and hopelessness have set up shop and refused to be moved.  I’m going to be there, in that room, because I want know: when will the silence end?  Those are questions worth asking.  One day, I’ll tell you how I voted.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Surely Mr. Bryant, You Must Be Joking?

Robert E. Lee on the Portal of Duke Chapel

Over the past few weeks, officials in New Orleans have begun to remove Confederate monuments around the city. This past weekend, protests erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia at the idea of removing statues of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee and renaming a prominent thoroughfare after someone other than General Jackson. The protestors in Virginia, made notable by the presence of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer were met by a chorus of Black Lives Matters marchers and others who take issue to these monuments.

History is complex.  Even today, debating Civil War history is a mess; as the President’s attempts to explain the economic and social origins of the Civil War revealed. Good, bad, and indifferent people disagree about the cause of the war and what place the war should hold in American society. On one side, so the argument goes, the war is part of our past, it’s who we are. The other side argues that public art and statuary glorifying a military to struggle to preserve a way of life built on racism and slavery no longer deserves a prominent place in American culture.

I’m of the mind to agree with those who want to remove and replace the statues. (On a side note, when the Russians took down most of the Soviet era statues of Lenin and Communist era figure heads in Moscow they placed them in a public park. In the larger provincial towns outside of Moscow, Lenin still stands in far too many places.)  So, if we’re in the mood to remove grand edifices which were built as temples to segregation, racism, slavery, and a way of life no longer existing in 21st century in America, we need to dismantle the United Methodist Church.

One of my favorite books is entitled, “Surely Mr. Feynman, you must be joking?” No, I’m not. It’s time to remove ourselves from the public square, sphere, space, and reconstitute as something new. I’m the pastor of a church chartered in 1943. Before that, my previous congregation was chartered in 1941. Here in the rural south, where opposition to change in the Book of Discipline is greatest, are hundreds of churches born in the Jim Crow era. Our churches are monuments, statues, temples, constructed in a pre Civil Rights Act, Brown vs. Board of Education, and in many cases, a Plessy v. Ferguson United States of America.

Our ancient buildings (many with the name Centenary-signifying their foundation in the late 1870’s) represent the past as much as a statue of Stonewall Jackson. It’s no accident that Robert E. Lee stands shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther, John Knox, Sidney Lanier, Thomas Jefferson, and John Wesley. On Methodism’s cathedral, in the heart of the North Carolina Annual Conference, Robert E. Lee and John Wesley are separated by a few feet of Virginia stone.

Yes, Virginia, churches are monuments to the Civil War. This is a much larger quandary at Duke University than Professor Paul Griffiths being forced to attend a diversity seminar.  What do you do with the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia on your big fancy church?  If those at Duke’s Divinity School (from which I graduated) or the university proper really want to address racism they should look across the quad.  Similarly, if United Methodism wants to be indignant at racial or sexual discrimination we can start by looking at ourselves before waging war with the culture at large.

Robert E. Lee should be removed from Duke Chapel.  You want to know the truth, having two reluctant slave owners on the front of Duke Chapel is two slave owners too many. That’s the most racist thing on Duke’s campus. If you’re going to get mad and tear everything down, let’s do it all; including the monumental legacy of United Methodism. The Book of Discipline must first be removed from its pillar.  The revolution will start in the small churches. The new Methodism, the conversations about the past, the future, and living into the resurrection will be locally led.

Will it happen? Will revolutionaries tear down the United Methodist Church? No. We may fall apart but we don’t have enough on the ball to come apart with insurgent aplomb.  However, we might stop using words like schism. We do not need schism. Finely tuned doctrinal arguments over disciplinary angels dancing on the head Wesleyan Covenantal pins will only turn United Methodism into a dying subsidiary of an already co-opted American evangelical movement.

We need revolution from the ground up. The selective use of righteous indignation is killing our credibility to be effective witnesses to the Good News. Are we only mad when Ann Coulter goes to  UC Berkeley or Richard Spencer goes to UVA and touches our guilty nerves? Why are we not angrier with ourselves when we live within institutions unwilling to address their own history? Why are we so surprised that discrimination against innocent people who want to serve Jesus remains the most threatening idea the church can undertake?   I know why.  It’s far more fun to dissect emails from crotchety old professors.  Statues in Charlottesville seem a long way from the front steps of the divinity school.  We’re wearing blinders.  And like the Civil War, both sides are certain God is with them.  Although, after the past year, I’m not sure God would invite any of us over for dinner.