What Father Brown Has Taught Me About Pastoral Care

I do enjoy watching “Father Brown” on PBS.  Embedded in every Father Brown mystery is an opportunity for pastoral care. Each episode isn’t so much a murder to be solved as it is a series of relationships to be healed. Someone has died, a family is grieving, old wounds are dredged up from the distant past, veterans with untreated PTSD are identified, and emotional pains are discovered. Father Brown is there to offer more than “thoughts and prayers” in these difficult moments. He’s the embodiment of the church community, not the state or the landed gentry. Father Brown is there for his flock. What have I learned from watching Father Brown?

1. Be cautious with words. Listening and looking reveals much about the human soul.

2. Sacraments are vital to the life of the church. Look closely, the community is formed by the sacramental life of the church.

3. Forgiveness is a divine prerogative. We know what we know from our experiences. We also understand what scripture teaches. Common sense, love, and compassion are the best we can share.

4. Ministry involves taking risks. They are there and must be embraced, case by case.

5. Some people just aren’t going to like you. That’s OK. You pray and care for them too.

6. “Father Brown Mysteries”, much like Ash Wednesday, calls us to remember our own mortality. We are all going to die. Regardless of what you do or don’t believe about an afterlife, a basic recognition of our mortality is the defining feature of a Holy Lent.

7. Father Brown understands that physical, mental, and spiritual professionals need to work together. Medicine can be useful, therapy is helpful, and so is prayer in assisting people who’ve been traumatized.

8. Jumping to conclusions is never good.

9. Talk to the whole family.  Especially the ones with a shady past.  They have the best stories.

10. Never turn down cake.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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I Wanted A Religious Experience and All I Got Was This Stupid Tent

I can see the T-shirt now:  “I wanted a religious experience and all I got was a stupid tent (and this shirt).”  Where can I order one?  Isn’t that the essence of many people’s encounter with church, Christianity, or organized religion?  People want God and we give them stuff.  People want to be changed and we offer trinkets, Bible covers, and bracelets.  The church has been known to provide a dressing room (a tent, one might say) and sometimes nothing more.

For all the resplendent glory and metaphysical light surrounding the Transfiguration; there is more to the Transfiguration than a Jesus sanctioned ghost story and an opportunity to bemoan Peter’s “just not getting it” once again.  If we focus on the Las Vegas style magic show we miss the message and meaning behind Jesus’ smoke and mirrors. What are we doing?  Does the church provide an opportunity for a real world encounter with the divine?   Where does the Old Testament fit into our collective worship and individual lives?  What do we do when God scares us and we don’t know how to respond?  Where does our need for stability and predictability end?  Is it possible to ever have a well manicured, covered, managed, fill in the blanks relationship with God that we attempt to control?  No, it’s not.

The Transfiguration challenges our need to control God.  Peter’s actions seem benevolent.  They are motivated by fear and kindness.  Peter doesn’t know what else to do.  Don’t ancients like Moses and Elijah (not to mention the Holy Spirit) need shelter, especially on the rugged terrain of a mountain?

If we don’t understand someone (or something), we try to control what we don’t know or dislike.We create new creeds, statements of faith, dictates, and realign dogma.  Even when our actions appear motivated by virtue (or the right reading of Augustine, Aquinas or Wesley), it is easier to make our image of God fit inside our tent (something we built, can move, and reassemble at will) than embrace God’s expansive vision of the world around us.  In the tent we’ve built, whether built out of love or a desire for power, God is ours to control and wield.  So we think.  When you pull up the stakes and pack up your tent only to pitch it again at the bottom of the mountain to show the world the “God Show” you captured at the top of the mountain, God’s not there.  The tent is empty.  God’s not there.  God was never in your tent.

God isn’t left behind on the mountain.  I still believe and quote Paul Tillich as often as I can:  “God is the ground of all being”.  Our greatest fear at encountering God, like Peter and his colleagues on the mountain, comes from realizing we cannot control God.  We can put words in God’s mouth, attribute actions to God, blame God, and do countless other things.  But that’s not God.  That’s us playing God.   See the difference?

Richard Bryant

A Meeting, About A Meeting, About Going Forward: Mansplaining the Way Forward

rothman_mansplain_post

This weekend, our district is gathering to hear our General Conference delegates explain the three options being offered by the Commission on the Way Forward.  I need to make a confession: I’d rather be getting a root canal.  This doesn’t sound like fun.  Don’t get me wrong, United Methodism needs to have this conversation.  I want to get the show on the road.  We need to finish, vote, do whatever, break up, and move on with our lives.  This interminable waiting isn’t healthy for anyone.

It seems all we ever do is talk about what we’re going to do if we get a chance to do something other than more talking.  Frankly, I’m bored of talking and so are the people in my church.  They too want to get on with their religious lives.  The denomination is holding them hostage and no one has the time nor the inclination (except for a few fanatics) to develop the Stockholm syndrome.  Most of the folks I encounter just want to go home, home to a church not ripped apart by culture wars they didn’t start and given the freedom to love whomever is in their midst.

Another reason I’d prefer not to give up a Saturday morning to a command appearance is this:  I have the ability to read.  No doubt, you’ve heard the term “manspslaining”.  Neither I nor my colleagues need to “mansplained” about the three options for Methodism that we can easily read online.  The Commission on the Way Forward is blessed with a propaganda outlay rivaling the operating budgets of most small cities in North Carolina.   It appears to be a waste of valuable resources and time.

Through their videos, press releases, website, articles, and the countless re-sharing of their materials down to the district level; I believe their message is getting through.  If you’re not hearing, learning, and reading this important information it’s because of apathy.  You simply don’t care.  Everyone understands what is at stake.  I’m sure there are many people who’d prefer to keep their head in the sand and not talk about the impending collapse of United Methodism.  Some plan pancake suppers and casually  forget to explain what’s coming down the road.  This, however, doesn’t make the future any less real.  Those leaders are doing their congregations a disservice.  Forcing everyone to listen to the delegates elected three years ago,  those who kicked the can down the road, would be funny if vocations, families, churches, and lives weren’t on the line.  Reading PowerPoint to each other while we whisper revolution from our various moral high grounds.  They say that’s what it (the meeting) won’t (or shouldn’t) be.  Stern instructions will be given in the beginning, “We’re here to listen to the plans, not re-litigate the issue.”  You and I both know that’s what it will become.

I realize meetings like this are an effort to put everyone on the same page regarding our future.  The thing is, we’ll never be on the same page.  There’s no such thing as the same hymn sheet.  That’s part of the problem.  Even in trying to find a way to close the door and shut off the lights, we still want to make everyone come to meetings, talk a little more, and conform to a method.  Is that, in and of itself, and indication that we’ve already failed?

Richard Bryant

Ocracoke UMC

Beacon District

NC Conference

Planet Earth

On Shitholes

I want to speak frankly of “shitholes”.  I do not want to justify the President’s vulgarity or embrace my own.  Instead, I wish to pose a thought experiment.  If we are to embrace a worldview where some places are “shitholes” and other places are first world paradises, what does this mean for our Christian faith?

If we want to limit people from so-called “shitholes” from coming to America, we’ll have to stop Jesus.  By the President’s standards, Nazareth is a “shithole” and so is Bethlehem.  Christianity began, grew, continues, and is strongest today in the ill-defined presidential “shitholes”.  The Christian church is growing the fastest in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.  Christianity is all but extinct in Western Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries.  If America accepts what the executive branch terms as “shitholes” it means we close the door on Jesus Christ.  The culture war idolatry we now practice (and call Protestantism) is a pale resemblance of the “faith of shitholes” we were called to embody.  If Jesus is no longer central to what we do then we are no longer Christians.  The game is up.  We might as well call ourselves civic groups who pray.  We sure aren’t churches.

Like many of my colleagues, I am in ministry because of my desire to go to and live in actual “shitholes”.   When I sang “Here I Am Lord”, I meant it.  I wanted to witness the impact of diseases, preach in the jungle, and build new churches in the middle of nowhere.  I still do my job.  I see firsthand:  God is in the shit.  I’ve found that to be true time and time again.  In the poverty, emotional, psychological, and physical crap we discard onto the most vulnerable people in our world God is working to heal broken souls.  I am blessed to help carry the bandages.

Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?  At the end of the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  In Luke’s gospel, the Lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Do you know what that means?  It means the one from the “shithole”.  The one from the “shithole” showed the other man who was in a literal “shithole” (a ditch) mercy.

Take away the “shitholes”  and you take away Jesus.  Take away Jesus and you don’t have shit.

Richard Lowell Bryant

By His Track Marks We Might Be Healed: Jesus, Pain, and Opioids

Jesus and pain; those aren’t words we readily associate with each other.  Joy, hope, peace, love, grace, and salvation are the kinds of terms one expects to hear from clergy and laity.  Unless you’re a member of the Spanish Inquisition, Jesus and pain are like oil and water.  I’m not so certain.  I think it’s impossible to talk honestly about Jesus without addressing how Jesus’ life intersects with spiritual and physical pain.  Why is this important?

Our congregations are in pain. This isn’t because they’re overwrought by the coming dissolution of United Methodism.  It’s because their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives are struggling with opioid addiction.  Some wait on phone calls they know will one day come.  Some weep from behind hymnals.  Some hope no one asks them any questions about their loved ones so they won’t have to lie.

I’m witnessing the impact of opioids in our church and community.  The stories are not complex nor are they unique.  Medicines are too easily prescribed.  People get hurt on the job.  Surgeries go wrong.  Sometimes genetics work against the better angels of our nature.  The pain of an injury, leading to an addiction, which leads to job loss, which leads to a divorce, arrests, or even death.

Are prayers alone enough?  In 2018, everyone loves to talk about cancer, brain tumors, Alzheimer’s, even HIV/AIDS during prayer concerns.  Opioid addiction, a silent killer that knows no socio-economic boundaries, walking door to door, no wants to lift up.   Why?  It’s painful.   It’s sad that we’ve made people feel too uncomfortable or unwilling to bring their pain to church.  That’s on us.

What does the church do?  Go back to the beginning.  We have a starting point to talk pain.  Jesus was intimate with spiritual and physical pain.  We like to talk about Jesus “sharing our sufferings”.  That’s not only a Lenten/Easter reality but an existential constant.

Some early Christian writers quoted the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases and we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”   (Isaiah 53:4-5 NRSV)

Those are words about pain and healing.  We might read them in worship once every three years.  It would do us good to spend more time working through the ideas of bruises as needle tracks, infirmity as addiction, disease as disease, and affliction as something other than garden variety sin.  The benefits of moving from the metaphorical to the literal have the potential of holding out hope to those who’ve already given up on the idea of healing.  The church alone cannot solve this problem.  However, I do believe the United Methodist Church has the potential to be part of a lasting solution.  This won’t happen unless we engage with reality instead of living in a future we’re still debating.

These are conversations worth having.  Our prayers cannot be censored out of fear, guilt, or judgment.  Whether in prayer, study, or support; we must name what we face.  The greatest threat to the Christian community isn’t LGBT Methodists, illegal immigrants, or devout Muslims.  It’s the people dying to survive.  You know; the person that went to high school with your kids, the guy two houses down, the man sitting next to you on the pew-his daughter.

Out of anguish, says Isaiah, we find light.  Are we ready to do something with this Epiphany light that’s more than decorative?

Richard Lowell Bryant

The 95 Methodist Theses

Rev. Richard Bryant hammers the 95 Methodist Theses into the door of Ocracoke UMC

In honor of this weekend’s Reformation Sunday celebrations commemorating the 500th anniversary of the the posting of the original 95 Theses on the cathedral door at Wittenberg, I’ve written a Methodist version of 95 Theses.  Taking the form and structure of the original, these attempt to address the need for reform and renewal in contemporary United Methodism.  I’ve tried to stay true to a few of Luther’s original themes.  Why?  Because the need for “reform” is timeless.

Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Richard Lowell Bryant, Master of Divinity and ordinary pastor therein at Ocracoke, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter, email, tweet, or fax. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “This do in Remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19), he willed our lives to be examples of life, ministry, and work.

2. These words, “doing” and “remembrance” cannot be understand as referring to the creation of an Anglican Church by Henry VIII or a Methodist Church as a response to spiritual failures of the Anglican Church some two hundred years later.

3. Yet it does mean we are to follow Jesus and continue his ministry in contextual, cultural, and appropriate means.

4. Sin is anything we let separate us from the love of God, whether that love is made manifest in family, friends, work, school, church, or anywhere. We cut ourselves of from God.

5. It’s important to forgive ourselves.  Forgiveness starts with us.

6. No one person can make anything right with a cosmic being.

7. Religious leaders help us understand the power of forgiving each other and God’s redemptive love.

8. Always give the dying and their families the benefit of the doubt.

9. The Holy Spirit forgives in ways we never understand. Step out of the Spirit’s way.

10. No one can say anything definitively about Heaven, Hell, or anything in between. None of us have been there.

11. We make up rules; rules which none one reads, and enforce them when no one is looking. We call this “Christian Conferencing”

12. In order to get people to follow our rules, we wait until they’re on their death beds, in tough jams, and use guilt to see how Christian people really are. That’s wrong.

13. Dead people aren’t Methodist, Anglican, Wesleyan, Catholic, or anything. They are God’s. There are no United Methodists, Baptists, or Pentecostals in heaven.  We’re all the same.

14. Allow space for God to work out what’s going on between the living and the dead.

15. Don’t make things worse for people who face serious illness, the loss of loved ones, or stare death in the face. Life stinks for them already. Be present, as Christ would be.

16. Again, we don’t know eternity. We know grace. Focus on that.

17. As fear decrease love increases. Make love greater than fear.

18. Love is not a meritocracy.

19. The assurances we have now are all we’ve got.

20. No one, no identity group, spiritual leader, pressure group know the answer to solving sin, guaranteeing salvation, or filling pews.

21. Those who make such promises are wrong.

22. Those who condemn in this life will probably be proven wrong in the next.

23. If human administered forgiveness is all we’ve got, only the perfect people would be absolved. And no one is really perfect. Thus, forgiveness is worthless.

24. The high sounding promises made by purists about holiness are really deceptions and illusions. Their guesses are as good as mine.

25. The power of the purists, self appointed popes of Methodism, is really in the freedom lay people and local congregations have handed over.

26. We can pray for anyone. Forgiveness and what constitutes sin is God’s business. It’s ultimately not even in God’s book what defines a sinner. It’s what’s in God’s mind. No one knows the mind of God.

27. More money doesn’t guarantee more holiness or freedom from Sin.

28. Money leads to greater greed.

29. Can I say it again, the Purgatory is a joke? Eternity, the afterlife, is God’s business? Let’s focus on the here and now.

30. All we have is the spiritual integrity we possess at this moment.

31. The people who pray constantly to get themselves out of Hell are really less concerned about doing right by the people they are sitting by in church.

32. If you think you can pray yourself out of Hell but then treat people like dirt, you’re probably going to end up in Hell anyway.

33. God is doing great things in the lives that many want to remove from Christian fellowship.

34. Grace is never about penalties and punishment. Grace is about love and a desire to be better than we ever imagined.

35. Coming to terms with our own mistakes as individuals and institutions is part of growing and living. Grace helps us learn from our blunders. Guilt forces us to live in fear and make them over and over again.

36. We don’t need to permission to encounter God and receive the grace we’ve been given.

37. There isn’t a formula or litmus test for salvation or forgiveness. God works and exists beyond the structures we’ve established.

38. Still, we come to Christ’s table to proclaim to each other, each week in Church that we are forgiven. Church is the best place, in the body of Christ, for the priesthood of all believers to share this message with each other.

39. Sometimes, the smartest church people in the world don’t understand the obstacles they create toward freely and easily encountering God’s grace. That’s on us.

40. People of faith who know they’ve done wrong have no problem asking God and each other for forgiveness. We create an environment of grace and love where the asking and the living make reconciliation easy. We have a structured time where each week we “pass the peace” and bring God’s shalom into our lives. No one else does this.

41. When we pray we also pray that we will put our prayers in to action.

42. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. We need to do things. Acts of mercy and sacrifice make our prayers a reality.

43. Giving to the poor and needy are crucial to Christ centered discipleship.

44. Love builds on love. The more love you show, the more people see the love of Christ in the world.

45. The more we look past ourselves and see the needs of others, the better off we will be.

46. Always keep back something to give away. You never know when the next hurricane or tragedy is around the corner.

47. Give to the things you choose to support.

48. Prayers matter, money buys water and food; God can do something with whatever we offer.

49. Trust that our stewardship, mission, and ministry are a partnership with God.

50. We are not building anything for our glory.

51. Our glory is not seen in the work we do but in the lives we’ve impacted.

52. We don’t trust in endorsed Bible studies and DVD teaching sets.

53. It’s better to listen to our own stories and trust the experiences of the people around us.

54. In stewardship season, we talk a great deal about the needs of money but we rarely talk about the corrosive impact money has on our society as a whole.

55. We celebrate our need for money and what money can accomplish but rarely ask “Why has the church afraid to talk about health care costs, student loan debt and the real financial issues that touch our congregations?”

56. People know very little about the state of the church finances and the best we’ll offer them on how to manage their own is a Dave Ramsey course.  We can do better.

57. We should do a better job talking about the church’s role in the global economic system.

58. It’s easy to assume that the church’s investments (say in fossil fuels) make sense and are ethical. This is not always true.

59. John Wesley had a commitment to working with the poor and treating them as ministry priorities. Do we share the same financial priorities consistent with our time?

60. We may make the same declaration in words but do our deeds consistently match a Wesleyan ethic of helping the poor.

61. It’s clear in the social principles and the Book of Discipline our hearts are in the right financial and ethical direction when it comes to spending and service. Has this message reached the local church? I don’t think so.

62. The most valuable gift we possess is the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must keep giving this away.

63. It’s a hard gift for some to accept. It calls the world and dominant power structures into question.

64. It makes the last first and the first last.

65. The Gospel calls into question wealth, power, position, and privilege.

66. We are caught up in a net which forces us to examine our own lives.

67. Demagogues, dictators, and fascists have little room to stand in the light of Jesus’ clear teachings about loving one’s neighbor.

68. When the world is placed in the light of the simple beauty of the cross; the clarity and contrast become apparent. The world goes one way and Jesus goes another.

69. Those who want complacency with the world are guilty of collusion with evil.

70. If you preach Jesus; the risk is greater, the break is permanent, and there is no return.

71. Once you speak this truth, there is no going back.

72. Methodism is a house divided.

73. The strain upon our pre-fabricated Tudor timbers is great.

74. Within that house are many rooms with many ideas.

75. Ideas thunder around the rooms. Those who contrive futures rooted in dreams from God they cannot verify seek sin and find it.

76. If John Wesley and his brother Charles were now to be found among the United Methodists, they would find the class meeting a relic 18th century practice and themselves too progressive for many in their own denomination.

77. I say on the contrary that greater graces come from love not division.

78. We have placed a greater emphasis on the Book of Discipline and its precepts than the Holy Bible.

79. We have disregarded centuries of universally accepted higher criticism and Biblical scholarship in favor of 19th century Biblical literalism to inform our debates on key matters such as human sexuality and nationalism.

80. Therefore, the United Methodist Church is making policy decisions by using interpretations of scripture and policy documents written with interpretations that do not reflect the broadest spectrum of academic or religious opinion.

81. The result has led the United Methodist Church to adopt policy which discriminates against gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans. Couching this discrimination in religious “culture war” language and flawed translations of scripture, the church has made this issue as emotive as possible and virtually guaranteed a schism between conservative and liberal elements in the church.

82. Why does the church not simply change the language? Institutions are slow to change. When churches split, it’s usually seen as a failure. When a bad marriage ends, it’s usually seen as a good thing for everyone involved. The church thinks it’s better than the people they minister to. That’s irony! Until we realize we’re not, we’ll suffer and the LGBTQ community will suffer most.

83. Since same sex weddings are legal in the US for all couples, weddings should be legal for all couples in United Methodist Churches. We are above the law. That sends an awful message.  We look unwelcoming and arrogant.

84. Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors is a joke. It’s a lie. We didn’t mean it when we ran the campaign and we sure don’t mean it now. I would love it to mean something.

85. I try for it to mean something but for me to really put that program to practice, it would get me in a great deal of trouble.

86. We spend too much time patting ourselves on the back and giving awards to Methodists for the things we should be doing as a matter of course.

87. There’s such a thing a self-promotion and shameless narcissism. We cross that line far too often.

88. What a blessing it would be for every United Methodist to really do the Three Simple Rules.

89. Stop living in fear of Schism. Do ministry today.

90. However, don’t live with your head in the sand. Confront reality head on.

91. Comfort the laity in these times of uncertainty.

92. Bring peace where there is no peace.

93. Point to the Cross.

94. Don’t argue with zealots. “But Jesus said,” Is always a better reply than “John Wesley said”.

95. This is more than any of us can handle. However, we’re not alone.

Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant

On the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

What John Can Learn From Martin

As we approach this weekend’s celebration of “Reformation Sunday” which marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I’ve compiled a list of 10 items that “John” (a Methodist) could learn from “Martin” (a Lutheran).

1. Sometimes you need to say what needs to be said. Drop the fancy Wesleyan theological language and speak clearly.
2. Your critique of institutional religion shouldn’t be incremental. Rip off the band-aid and move on.
3. Stand up to the powers at be. In the words of the late Tom Petty, “don’t back down”.
4. Once your critique goes on the cathedral door, the hazards are more than being relegated to outdoor pulpits or dirty looks from other clergy. You’re risking your life.
5. Don’t be anti-Semitic.
6. It never looks like a “Reformation when you’re in the middle of it.
7. Let the church leave you.
8. Educate the clergy and let them have families.
9. Liturgical worship (in everyday day language) can educate and inspire.
10. It’s never about us.

Richard Lowell Bryant