It’s Not About Us

It’s not about us.  Pentecost isn’t a first century episode of “This Is Us”.  In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that’s a huge problem with church right now: we make everything about us.  These buildings we inhabit, fund with apportionment dollars, and pretend to be the front lines in the culture war are hatcheries for spiritual narcissism.  That’s not a church.  Churches, like the Pentecost act, are outwardly focused on the work of God, not self-contained study groups of God’s hand-picked elite.

Pentecost is about God and our response to God.  Pentecost isn’t about us, our feelings, plans, or best intentions.  The frightening immediacy of the Pentecost moment reveals God’s primal urgency.  This isn’t our show.  Suddenness of the Holy Spirit’s arrival offers no time for debate or airing of opinions.  We are either in or out.  God’s grand Pentecost design demands a response.  Press releases, studies, commissions, and Upper Room based prayer meetings will not suffice.  We can either participate in the dramatic act of inclusion God is about to perform or we can debate ourselves into oblivion, which, is the same as telling God no.  We can argue that Pentecost and the future of our brand of Christianity is about us:  our ideas, structures, and decision making are superior to those which shaped and formed the cosmos.  With raised hands and eloquent turns of phrase we can speak by and about God.  Will our crowd funded dissolution conference be about us or God? Who knows?

If we opt for the former, we will be most decidedly wrong.  Now if God chooses against being in partnership with the United Methodists, we’re really up the creek.  Anybody seen Abraham Lincoln lately to ask him what happens when both sides in a civil war pray to the same God?  People get hurt. It’s never pretty or as righteous as anyone is led to believe.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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We Are All Unchurched

Last week, the clergy in our district and church lay leaders were invited to attend a meeting on the evening of Pentecost.  I’ve been preparing all week to speak in tongues.

It’s not that I’m opposed to meetings.  Sometimes important discussions are to be had.  This isn’t one of them.  Gatherings about topics we’ve addressed unsuccessfully for years (anyone remember Catch the Fire?), held only one day after I made the same 10 hour (round trip) journey (for another district meeting), show how little the dominant power structure understands about the stewardship of time and resources.

While presented as such, these meetings are not an honest exchange of ideas. Submit your reflections on note cards that we’ll promptly throw away.  Go get in a small group and write some thoughts on these sheets of newsprint which we’ll never read again.  We’re supposed to do what they believe is right.  Isn’t this how Methodism ended up in its current mess; one cookie cutter meeting at a time?  Band meetings are a great idea.  No one has ever willing to lead that way.    Small groups, yes.  But leadership, never.  They are far too communal, consensus based, Wesleyan, and Socialist.

What are the Methodists of the Beacon District called to discuss on Pentecost?  It would appear to be the perfect topic:  bringing the unchurched back to church.   It is 2018, Donald Trump is in the White House and Roy Moore may run for Governor in Alabama.  May we stop using the word “unchurched”?  The most “unchurched” people are the self-proclaimed Christians who are also accused pedophiles and serial adulterers with a penchant for porn stars.  The term “unchurched” much like the word “evangelical” has lost all meaning in early 21st century America.  It’s time to stop using this word.  We look ridiculous using words we pretend to understand in order to describe a world which doesn’t exist.

United Methodism, in general, has no idea what it means to be a church.  Look around at the mess in our own house!  Evangelicalism has polarized the idea of what it means to be a Christian in America.  In Robert Jeffress’ and Roy Moore’s eyes, I am “unchurched”.   If someone is unchurched, have they (or have they not) been exposed to the right wing Jesus, the left wing Jesus, the Apostles’ Creed, Christian Zionism, or how to dip Hawaiian bread into Welch’s grape juice?  What does it mean to be unchurched?  “Unchurched” is a term laced with such vagueness and ambiguity it is useless in contemporary evangelism.  I believe it creates an insulting stereotype of those who might find love, grace, and mercy in our congregations.

United Methodists don’t know who is “unchurched” and we have no right to judge the value of someone’s religious life experience when they enter the doors of a United Methodist congregation.  In this sense, we are all unchurched.  None of us are getting church right.  We are decoupled from the messy heart of the Good News.  Nobody knows what they’re doing.  We are unhooked, unhinged, and about to come undone.  Just look at our inability to treat women and gay people fairly.  By the missional standards we’re still using, it sounds like our denomination is unchurched.

Richard Lowell Bryant

How’s The Church at Ephesus Doing Today?

What happened to the church at Ephesus?  Everything seemed to be going so well.  Paul seems pleased with their success.  After Paul’s visit to Ephesus, which was memorable, they continued to grow and thrive.  In an era without the internet and modern communication, he was able to stay abreast of events in the church he planted.  “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks for you when I remember you in my prayers.”  Paul remains thankful for the Ephesians.  They are at the top of his prayer list.  This makes sense.  After investing so much of his time and energy in establishing the church, he’s glad to hear things are working.  I’m sure Paul prays for all the places he’s lived, visited, and established.  Nevertheless, when given the variable, especially in the middle of a hostile culture and Roman religious practices, Paul’s going to be extra thankful for the Ephesians.  These first few verses of Ephesians point in us that direction.

We know from Luke’s story of Paul’s time in Asia Minor what happened in Ephesus.  The letter to the Ephesians reveals Paul’s directions and response to ongoing events in Ephesus.  Yet, this doesn’t answer my first question.  What happened to the church at Ephesus?  We know what happened.  You can travel to Turkey and take a tour of Ephesus and see the remains of the community of Ephesus.  The church isn’t there.  You can do the same thing in Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia.  Most of the places where Paul planted churches are archaeological ruins.  Let me emphasize the word “ruins”.  Paul’s greatest successes have vanished from the face of the Earth.  There are no functioning churches.  If churches do exist in the vicinity, they are not the churches Paul started.  Paul’s churches are dead.  The Corinthian Church, unable to love but always willing to fight, is consigned to the dustbin of history.  The Ephesians and the Philippians (the two communities who seemed to “get it”) are no more viable than United Methodism is about to be.

Reading Ephesians 1:15-23, I came away with this idea:  good churches that make disciples, with grand intentions to transform the world, who do everything right, still fade away into history.  We can do everything right (whatever “right” means) at the special general conference and the next general conference and still fail.  It probably won’t matter.  If right means preserving each “sides” version of the status quo, then we’ve left the powerful in place and postponed our inevitable journey toward Ephesus like oblivion.

Mainline Protestantism is dying.  Our churches are struggling. This is not because there are liberals in the pulpits and conservatives in the pews.  It’s not because people aren’t giving until it hurts.  The system we’ve inherited from our parents and grandparents is broken, antiquated, and isn’t easily adaptable to life in the 21st century.  We’ve streamlined and changed titles.  Nothing changes this reality:  our organizational structure is essentially as it was prior to World War II.   That’s killing us.  It’s 2018 and we’re still assigning clergy like it’s 1918.  That’s a serious problem.

Methodism’s current theology toward human sexuality is also flawed.  Also, our institutions and systems of power were developed in a pre-industrial age America.  If we discard the former we need to significantly overhaul the latter.

The institutional church is out of touch with the people sitting in the pews; one need only read the horribly written press release which announced the Council of Bishops’ decision last Friday.  Communication is not among their spiritual gifts.  Private meetings and unreleased votes and ridiculously long time tables inspire little confidence in those who are charged with leading communities between Sunday services.    I know more about what Robert Mueller will do if a subpoena to the president is challenged in the Supreme Court than I do the future of my own denomination and livelihood.  The White House keeps America better informed than the Bishops keep Methodists in the loop.  That’s sad.    It’s also true.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

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

We Took The Word Unclean Out of Our Vocabulary Years Ago

The fifth book of the New Testament is commonly called “The Acts of the Apostles”.  I appreciate the editor’s attempt at inclusivity.  However, if we wanted to be more accurate (I’m not trying to go Dan Brown here), we’d probably call it the Acts of Peter and Paul.  They’re the apostles who seem to do the most talking.  Peter and Paul drive the story.

In the 10th chapter, Peter is speaking.  He seems be preaching sermon after sermon since the resurrection. It’s hard to find a place where Peter isn’t talking about what Jesus did or will do.  Here’s the catch, Peter rarely gets time to wrap up his message with a witty conclusion.  Sometimes he finishes his sermons and at other times he’s arrested.  In this instance, Peter is interrupted; not by an unruly crowd, temple guards, or a know-it-all with questions.  Instead, the Holy Spirit breaks in, much like Pentecost, and descends upon those listening to his message.  As with Pentecost, Peter’s message is redirected (by the Spirit) toward Gentiles who hear the message in their own language.  For a second time now, Peter realizes that the gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t reserved for people like him, those who talk like him, or people who claim to have known Jesus personally.  The Holy Spirit is for anyone and everyone.  Whether you’re consider clean or unclean, you get the gift of the Spirit.  You’re in the church.  There is no litmus test.

If we need to be convinced of this idea, that inclusion is a divinely inspired mandate, it’s probably too late for the United Methodist Church.  If this is the first time you’ve read Acts 10 and realized full inclusion in the body of Christ is not a limit to be set by the writers of the Book of Discipline, it’s probably too late for the United Methodist Church.  If Acts 10 doesn’t remind you that scripture’s ideas about inclusions are more powerful than its limited definitions of marriage, it’s probably too late for the United Methodist Church.  If we’re afraid welcoming difference will compromise our Biblical, historical, and theological witness, the moment we asked that question, we stopped being church (United, Methodist, or otherwise). We can talk about anniversaries all we want but the day we asked that question, that’s the day we died.

I’ll tell you the truth.  I’m not into practicing a zombie Christianity no matter how doctrinally pure it claims to be.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Karl Meet John: Your Wesleyan Brother from Another Mother

England, at the turn of the 19th century, was a mess.  We like to imagine a verdant land full of Mr. Darcy look a likes and an insufferable teenage queen who wants to marry Rufus Sewell.  However, that’s not the case.  Unjust laws, crippling poverty, and economic devastation from decades of European war are decimating town and country.  The same social and economic conditions which spurred John Wesley’s mid-18th century missions to the poor had only worsened by the mid 19th century.  Read any Charles Dickens novel.  As such, the exacerbation of the vast economic disparities in England’s large urban centers which both Wesley’s noticed are some of the very same ones which motivated Manchester’s Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx to write the Communist Manifesto.  Methodism and Marxism arise out of the same historic, economic, and social crisis:  the British Empire’s failure to answer the religious, economic, and political needs of the common people.  Marxism, like Methodism, began in the English Midlands long before Vladimir Lenin and continental revolutionaries ever took it Berlin, Moscow, or points east.  From this perspective, Methodism and Marxism are cousins. They are Wesleyan brothers from another mother.

What about religion?  Aren’t we (people like us) the “opiate of the masses”?  There are volumes upon volumes about the contextual meaning of Marx’s understanding of religion.  State churches, in his contention, made it impossible for common people to receive the political freedom they deserved.  I happen to agree.  State churches are a bad idea.  That’s one widely help interpretation.  On this point, both Marx and Wesley agree.  Wesley thought the Church of England and Christianity in general were fallen, off track, and doing more harm than good.

In 1745 Wesley published, “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion” (the title even sounds Marxist, almost like something the late Christopher Hitchens might have written).  In this tract he outlined how the church was not what it was intended to be.  However, through his own Methodist movement, people could still be benevolent and charitable to each other.  Wesley provided a way around the established church.  If people were numb (say on an opiate) to what God was doing, John Wesley would wake them up.  Isn’t that what reformers do?  Isn’t this a question to ask ourselves today?  Do we want to form the equivalent of a state religion (in 2018)?  Or might we want to be in the process of perpetual reform?

So on this May Day, you don’t have to remember Marx, Engels, Lenin or any of your Communist cousins.  If you want, you can wave a red flag and remember your Methodist ancestors like Comrade John and Comrade Charles who laid the groundwork for the bearded bunch who came later.    Methodists of the World Unite!

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

Will We Be Here in 50 Years?

This past weekend, I attend a family reunion and homecoming on a nearby island.  This island is uninhabited.  No one has lived there permanently since the early 1970’s.  The last person born on the island died in 2010.  However, every two years, descendants of the families who once lived there, both black and white, return for a day or worship and fellowship.  This unique place is called Portsmouth Island.

Since the National Park Service took control of the land in the 1970’s and the island became part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a local historic preservation group has worked to keep the island’s traditions and memories alive.  These “Friends of Portsmouth” arrange the biannual reunions and plan the celebrations.

Portsmouth Island is only accessible by water.  There are no bridges.  Cars aren’t allowed on the island.  It’s about a 15 minute ride across the open water south of Ocracoke.  Saturday was a beautiful cold, sunny morning.  If I could start the day with that level of fresh air blowing in my face, I can’t begin to imagine how different my life would be.

Of the structures remaining on the island (Portsmouth has suffered its share of hurricanes like all of the Outer Banks) the one building which dominates skyline is the Methodist Church.  The former resident and their relatives all tell of lives center around their participation in the local Methodist Church.  On an island which never had electricity (even after the WPA), existed on subsistence agriculture, and practiced a level racial equality unheard of in the south; the church was the center of their lives.

For most of its history, the Portsmouth church was the other half of the Ocracoke Charge (my current appointment).  I’m not certain how often my predecessors boarded much slower boats than the one I took to go over and lead worship in the old church.  I’ve been told once or twice a month.  In the late 1950’s, as the Portsmouth population dwindled and Ocracoke began to grow, the Portsmouth church was closed.  Just as America was experiencing the height of post war growth and productivity, their doors were shuttered.  That’s always struck me as sad.  Someone always gets left behind when the country is told, “We’ve never had it so good”.

As I went inside the church on Saturday, I tried to see building as anything other than a relic.  It wasn’t so much a time capsule as it was any church between Sunday services.  This could have been my church a few miles across the water, empty but waiting on the people to return.  People could file in any moment and we would have regular worship.  That’s not what was happening.  We were having a biannual nostalgia service where people talked about what it was like to have church in this building.  Our worship service for this day was going to be outside.  The church wasn’t coming back to life.

I wondered if someone asked the members of the Portsmouth Methodist Church in 1956 what they thought the Methodist church would look like in 52 years, what they would say.  Would they be surprised to know that their sister congregation, just across the water and about to celebrate its 75th birthday, looks just like they did the day they closed?  Our hymns are the same, our pews are arranged the same way, the red carpet is identical, the organ is in the same place, and our picture of Jesus is identical.  Might they be amazed to know that most of Methodism looks just as it did the day denomination closed their doors?

That scared me.  Is this what I’m in ministry for?  So the churches I serve can become moderately maintained government run museums?

After 52 years, we’re all doing maintenance ministry in form or another, for a denomination or congregations that will all end up like Portsmouth.  Portsmouth is a wake-up call for where we’re headed as the United Methodist Church.  People will return and gather and tell wonderful stories about the work and memories of the places we ministered.  Methodists are great at reunions and covered dish meals.  But that’s not church.

What is to be our legacy?  Given our current bent toward self destruction, the churches we built to be outposts of the kingdom and spent so much money to maintain will look just like they do today.  The sad part, our apportionment dollars will have vanished and our Federal tax dollars, through the National Park Service will be maintaining churches (as with Portsmouth) that people gave offerings, year after year to support.

The fifty year decline of sameness and the embrace of status quo frozenness happened long before anyone started talking about people, regardless of their gender, getting married in a church.  The people on Portsmouth were forgotten by Eisenhower’s America and missed the greatest growth churches witnessed since the Great Awakening.  Methodism closed its doors on a dying community with no apparent economic prospects.  Perhaps that’s a bigger issue and a trend we ought to examine over the next few years:  the left behind, the marginalized, and the poor.  It sounds very Biblical, doesn’t it?  I believe this to be a better set of priorities.  Because frankly, I don’t think Jesus cares about who anybody marries, as long as they love each other.

Richard Lowell Bryant