If You’re Headed To General Conference: Appeals to Biblical Authority Are Meaningless

1. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his sister.
2. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his dead brother’s wife.
3. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and one woman and her servants.
4. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his rape victim.
5. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and many women.
6. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and 700 women and 300 concubines.
7. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and one woman and her slaves.
8. The Bible endorses marriage between one soldier and his virgin prisoners.

All of the above are considered moral in the Bible. Does this mean United Methodists should condone these actions and cater them with pizza and cake in the fellowship hall? No, of course not.  However, same-sex marriage; that would be immoral and undermine the historic foundations of Christianity, Wesleyan theology, and western civilization.  I call bulls#$@$.

I can’t stand in a pulpit and support most of what the Bible deems as appropriate for marriage.  (I’ll tell you now, I will not officiate a ceremony for a man and his sister.  Nor will I marry a man and his rape victim.)  I won’t rationalize these texts, explain them away, or tell my congregation anything other than this: how the Bible talks about heterosexual marriage, as described above, is immoral, wrong, and disgusting.  The moment we cite the Bible as an authority on marriage it loses all influence on the institution of marriage.

How the United Methodist Church denies loving couples the right to marry is also immoral and wrong.  This denial has nothing to do with the Bible.  We’re using the Bible to dress up our dislike of other human beings.  That’s disgusting.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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A Hard Week To Call Yourself a United Methodist Christian

We are facing a momentous few days in United Methodism. In just over a week, delegates from all over the world will gather in St. Louis, Missouri to make a decision on the “Way Forward.” What does this mean? Methodists, like other mainline denominations such as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians, are coming to terms with what it means to welcome LGBTQ persons into our congregations and ordained ministry. This is has been a very heated discussion in Methodism for many years. Now, the church is in a place to make a decision, one way or the other, or seek a compromise. Emotions are running high because both sides in this debate feel strongly about their positions. When this process is over, some people may decide they can no longer remain in the United Methodist Church. Others may look to create new versions of Methodism which reflect their theological priorities and understanding of scripture.

Like much in our country, what’s happening in the church feels disconcerting and confusing. Our church is polarized. The state of our religious discourse is tribal and toxic. It’s hard to find common ground amid the clichés and church jargon. Fear drives our responses to the world around us. Despite our differences, most people share one premise: We don’t want our church, country, or life to change into something that feels less comfortable and less holy. We like our routines and habits. We also prefer our interpretations of scripture.

In one moment, I find myself asking, “Why can’t we all get along?” In the next, I will seek every opportunity to proclaim God’s love for each of those God made. I don’t want to get along.  It is a confusing time. I have found that when the world feels this uncertain, it is an excellent time to reflect. How did we get here? What brought us to the moment? Why do we think this way about a specific issue? If we have a good idea about what brought us to this point, we might find a way forward.

My reflection begins with today, this time in history. After following the debates over the future of the United Methodist Church for many years, attending countless meetings and conferences, it’s hard to know what to think about United Methodism. I really don’t know. The anger on display, the self-righteous strutting of those seeking to gain power over others, and our love of the institutional church itself lead me to believe that our current incarnation has little to do with Christianity. In many ways, we’re like a spiritually active civic club with chapters across America. That’s not who we set out to be, but it’s who we’ve become.

We don’t feel Christian. Methodism, on a bad day, pulls me away from Christianity. I’m lured into the trap of caring more about what means to be a United Methodist with a pension and a home to live in than I am someone who is identified as a Christian. I don’t like to believe my Methodist identity trumps my Christianity.  It shouldn’t.  Methodism doesn’t have a monopoly on following Jesus.  At best, they should co-exist. These past few years, even that’s been a challenge.

Not that being a Christian is any more comfortable than clinging on to Methodism. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ make it next to impossible to call oneself a Christian. Sex scandals in every denomination, the co-opting of faithful people as pawns for partisan politics, and Christianity’s slowness to meet the needs of a hurting world make hard to say, “I’m a Christian.” I want to say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not like those people who do these hurtful things.” Then, despite my best intentions, I realize that anytime I say, “Those people” I’ve already tossed vital elements of my faith out the door. So yes, in 2019 it’s hard to identify as “Christian.” Given all the caveats placed on what one must believe (by believers on all sides of the spectrum), I don’t know if I match anyone else’s definition of being a Christian other than my own.

If I feel out of place and unable to identify with either Methodism or Christianity, what do I do? If the ideas and attitudes have become so polluted by politics, fear, and the vagaries of human emotion; where do I look?  If I don’t know what to do with the institution of United Methodism and Christianity looks nothing at all like I remember in Vacation Bible School; I can go find Jesus. Jesus isn’t an institution or idea. (We’ve tried to make him one.) At a point in history, there he stood. His words, recorded by his followers, are an undeniable testament to God’s priorities. Those words remain mine to read and then to share. They are a call to engage with God beyond our institutional priorities, tribal politics, and justifications. I may not know where I relate to United Methodism. At times, I am uncertain about labeling myself Christian in 2019. However, I can always return to Jesus.

Where do I go? I gather with the crowds who’ve come to hear him speak. These listeners and onlookers are my people. I can feel their energy and enthusiasm. By the seashore, people came from all directions. They could see, hear, and explore the impact of his words in ways we’ve lost. Jesus was unfiltered. There were no attempts to make him more understandable or applicable to the lives of the listeners. When Jesus speaks, life makes more sense. I get what he says. He moves me in ways Saint Augustine or John Wesley never has. Listen to his words:

“Blessed are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.” Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

Jesus sees the poor and hungry. We love to talk about the poor. We fly to visit the poor in other countries while neglecting the poor on our doorstep.  By acknowledging what is difficult for us to see, Jesus draws us closer to serving others.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” I can always return to Jesus. Jesus knows the broad sweep of human emotions. He accepts that there is a joy to be lived and sorrow to be embraced. I recognize there is room for me and my baggage in Jesus’ life.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors to did to the prophets.”

Jesus knows it’s hard to walk the line between religious expectations, tradition, and a world in need. If you come back home to Jesus and rely on his words, some people are going to hate what you say and do. Some people will hate what I’m writing. A strong response, according to Jesus, is a measure of success. Keeping our identity formed by our interactions with Jesus, despite the reactions we receive, is part of building the kingdom.

We can take Jesus’ words, package them as our own, and offer it to the world as Methodism or some other variety of Christianity. Or, we can mingle with the crowds and listen to Jesus.

Despite the structures, systems, and commissions which define our way of life as United Methodists (and Christians); it is still possible to associate ourselves with Jesus. Everything else is window dressing. This is us, who we are; the poor, hungry, troubled, joyful, and alive.

Richard Lowell Bryant

7 Pauline Lessons That Can Help Our Denominational Discourse

1. “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Simplify our worship, prayer, and community time.  Let’s make everyone feel welcome.  Be aware of anything that makes worship an insider experience.   Joy doesn’t need jargon.

2. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection.” (Romans 12:9-10)

Love is the guiding principle of the Christian tradition. Be reticent in labeling people or ideas as evil. Focus on love, goodness, and mutual affection. This is hard.  However, it’s all we have. Who needs another option when love is on the table?

3. “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8: 31)

“These things” are our lifeblood. We talk “these things” to death. Our “things” are important, and there is much to be determined. If we’re working in conjunction with God’s will, why are we so concerned with being right? In our search for allies, have we neglected the greatest ally of all? The determination of rightness rests with God.

4. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)

This moment, these decisions, and these arguments will all be history. Something better, in the eschatological sense, is inevitable. If we believe that the arc of history is bending toward reconciliation, we’re on the crest.  Let’s stay put.

5. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry. We do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1)

Our ministries are defined by mercy. We exist in mercy and work by mercy. Are there plans or ideas that embrace mercy to a greater extent than another? In mercy, we see the light of eschatological hope. If we find mercy we find God’s will.

6. “Look at what is before your eyes. If you are confident that you belong to Christ, remind yourself of this, that just as you belong to Christ, so also do we.” (2 Corinthians 10:7)

We all belong to Christ. Look for Christ in those with whom you agree and disagree.

7. “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge so that you may be fulfilled with the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 4:18-19)

Humility is hard to embrace.  We should study humility every day. Paul’s prayer that we may be fulfilled (find enough) in God’s fullness is a reminder to embrace humility.  If we’ve made enough space for God’s fullness, there is less room for our egos.

Richard Lowell Bryant

I Love It When People Tell Me What I Need To Do

We are in the proverbial “calm” before the storm. As we come down to the wire, this is the period before any big Christian blow up (i.e., General Conference) where the self-righteous fence riders tell everyone else to go to our opposite corners to pray and fast. Of course, sanctimonious fence riders are the only ones with real virtue; they take no official positions, claim to be above the debate, and are always ready to tweet, “If we’d only pray, fast, and do God’s will” we could all continue living with our head in the sands of late 20th century Methodism.

As the Snickers commercials say, I’m not me when I’m hungry. I hate fasting. I do not believe that my preference for three sensible meals a day will someway impact General Conference or my opinions on a way forward. Fasting, despite my need to lose a few pounds, I reject out of hand. I need to feel well to be well. I’m sure God doesn’t want me dragging and undernourished, especially during a nasty flu season.

I’m pro-prayer. However, I don’t believe in weaponized prayer. The moment I start praying against something, my motives become unclear. Is this prayer about God or me? Rather than pray for a preferred outcome or the demise of my adversaries, I prefer the model of the Lord’s Prayer. There Jesus tells us to ask that God’s will be done on “Earth as it is in Heaven.” That’s a big ask, yet I’m comfortable with God’s will being the primary goal of any prayer. While others may have gone to their corners and heeded the calls of the mealy mouth moderates who want us to all get along; I’m not praying for my preferred plan or against another. I’m going to pray that whatever happens is better than our present reality. To me, an inclusive and loving church is the embodiment of God’s will.

Should I pray for an outcome that doesn’t divide the church and respects the humanity of all persons in the church? If the United Methodist Church is pursuing God’s will, then those outcomes will be foregone conclusions. The Christ who died for all did not leave rules on who may enter the church. The boundaries and limits of God’s presence have always been of our design.

Here’s why: If God is who I believe God to be; everyone is welcome into ministry, marriage, or United Methodism. If God is who I think God to be, God’s love will be a stronger presence than any of our attempts to interpret ancient doctrine in a modern context. If God is who I believe God to be, comfort and compassion will define our future instead of separation and segregation. If God is who I think God is, we will realize the Beatitudes are just the beginning. There is a whole world we can continue to bless.

Richard Lowell Bryant

7 Reasons I’m Excited, Scared, Happy, Nervous for General Conference

 

1. Do we trust God to call us to become the best versions of ourselves?  Somedays yes, other days no. In other words, trusting God is easier said than done.  This is a little scary.

2. I am excited because we have the opportunity to move towards a more grace-filled communion. Grace is not something to be decided by committee, commissions, councils, or boards.  Unfettered grace will open doors locked for fifty years.

3. We have the ability to give birth to a new, inclusive Methodism. Church no longer need be about managing decline.

4. We are stepping into a space where we can listen to God. Will we stop and listen?

5. There is not a pox on anyone’s house. Fear runs through every position, plan, and proposal. If we weren’t afraid, we wouldn’t be human. This is an opportunity to confront our fears.

6. Ideas are not our problem. Loving our brothers and sisters who disagree with us; that’s our issue. I am excited because this is a chance to work on love like I have never done before.

7. I am excited because so much I believe in is on the line. I’m overwhelmed to be alive at this moment in our history.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Corinthians Forwarded Their Mail

So much of what I read in the run-up to the General Conference reminds me 1 Corinthians 13:1. I hear both mortals and angels speaking, but the love remains inaudible The banging, the gonging, the name calling about one plan or another goes on ad infinitum. Despite the interlocking sounds and screams of self-righteousness, the piled on “Amen’s,” and recycled wisdom so corny that Mark Twain wouldn’t touch it; love is absent. We appear to be all out of love. Someone in Corinth has forwarded their mail to the United Methodist Church.   I decided to open my copy and see what the Corinthians had to say.

The Corinthians know us better than we know ourselves. Perhaps this is why they wrote. Smart people, with advanced degrees in theology and church history debate Methodism’s future the way Cicero debated to fall of the Roman Republic. With prophetic powers conjured from reading volumes of old Methodists journals and diaries, these women and men tell us what will happen to our denomination. Their faith, formed in years of retreats, campfire conversions, and Bible-thumping revivals is as strong as 1st-century martyrs like Polycarp. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, they know that their salvation comes not only through Jesus Christ but through a uniquely modified form of worship called Methodism. Oh, and do they believe. More than in Welch’s grape juice, dinosaurs, global warming, or an interventionist foreign policy guided by the Holy Spirit, they believe in Methodism. Though, as the Corinthians letter reminds us, even if you believe in a flat earth (for all the right Wesleyan reasons), and don’t have love, you have nothing at all. In fact, the letter’s author says something more dramatic, “You are nothing.”

Without love, we are a society for our own self-edification debating rules for chapters. Whether you have a Book of Discipline full of rules or full of expectant hope; love defines the nature of our Christian experience. Without love, we’re people spending a great deal of money to fly delegates in from all over the world to argue “about” love. That’s not loving. That’s St. Louis after Valentine’s Day. Love is more than a constitutional crisis, judicial hearings, and heated debates about a Bible that most people never read. Love is an idea that calls for patience and kindness. Love is not rude. Why? Love doesn’t insist on being right.  Sadly, Methodists do. In our world, someone has to be right, and someone will be wrong. What if we ran our families like we run our denomination?   Perhaps we do.  Are we more dysfunctional than we realize?

I suspect we think we are here defending the truth of scripture. How can the Bible fight unless it has bullies like us to back it up in schoolyard cultural wars? The letter addresses this as well. There is only one truth: love. No matter how right or wrong something appears to be, the truth is measured in love. What do you think about a self-giving love that puts up with anything and everything despite our willingness to love ourselves more than we love each other?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Have You Heard of the Isaiah 61 Plan?

 

People tend to make things more complicated than they need to be.  If you don’t believe me, reach in your pocket or purse and pull out your phone.  Remember, that overpriced piece of plastic in your pocket, the one built with rare Earth elements that are nearly impossible to extract from Africa and Latin America, and assembled by underpaid workers in China, it is supposed to be a phone.  It’s not a game console.  Your phone isn’t a music player.  Your phone isn’t a weather machine.  Nor is your phone a purveyor of gossip, passive-aggressive memes, your thoughts about coffee, or ideas about the government of the United States.  Yet, it is.

Your simple, beautiful, cellular phone purchased to stay in touch with your family and friends is a web of interrelated ideas and a complex network of lifestyle applications with nothing to do with the first reason you bought a cell phone:  you wanted to reach out and touch someone.   So now, we text, we never talk.  We type, we never talk.  We send distorted artistic renderings of smiley faces and other animals.  We never speak.  Who talks on the phone?  No one talks.  Yet for nearly 40 days, we’ve excoriated our politicians for avoiding the one thing we rarely do ourselves:  put down our phones and talk.  I’ll ask again:  why don’t we?

Why do I bring up the complicated lives we lead and the phones we carry as a metaphor for how things have gone wrong in the United Methodist Church?  Our phones remind me of the faith we profess and the building in which we sit, the church.  I’m not talking about local churches but also the church in general.  The church, throughout its history, has been good at taking beautiful, life-changing ideas designed to connect people and places and making them more complicated than they need to be.  The church can become a dot-connecting, hoop jumping, and saying the right words exercise.  This model of the church teaches that if we do all the approved steps, in the right order, we’re being Christian.  Actually, that’s not the church.  It’s a form of secular religion (complete with liturgical devotion), divorced from the Christian tradition.  This is the “best” “worst” thing the church does.

In our journey toward complexity, that is, creating an application for everything; we’ve lost touch with the original idea (our equivalent of the phone) which should have guided our efforts and innovation.  Instead, we let the constant need for innovation guide the movement.  As a result, we forget why we’re here, what we believe, and what we originally intended to do (and why those things still need to be done.)

So why are we here?  What is our “original” phone?  What brought us together in the first place?  If we were to remove all of the applications and garbage from our phones/devices what would be left over?  What would it look like?  Is it the Apostles’ Creed?  No.  In my mind, the Apostles’ Creed is an application.  It’s something we download.  It doesn’t come with being a Christian.  The Creed was written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus and his disciples.  Others, after decades of early innovation, decided what was important for Christians to believe about Jesus, the person.  The creed can augment our information about Jesus, but it’s not the last word.  Scripture is our primary point of entry when encountering Jesus.

Here’s the difference between the creed and what we’re looking for:  we want simplicity.  The Creed tells us what to believe.  Belief is a layer of complexity Jesus rarely broached.  I want to know what Jesus said about himself and how that points to things Jesus did.  Do you see the distinction?  What do others say about Jesus vs. what Jesus says about himself?  Then, in revealing anything about himself, do we learn anything thing about the primary path of discipleship?

If the church wants to make things a little less complicated, we need to go back to the 1st generation “Jesus” phone.  What can we learn from Jesus not just what others say about Jesus?  How can we make the church look more like Jesus and less like ourselves?

Jesus is invited to read scripture in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  This is at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.  He’s on the cusp of becoming a well-known teacher.  People like what he has to say.  Naturally, Nazareth is proud of the home town boy made good.  They want in on the Jesus movement.  It’s a great honor to be invited back to your home pulpit to speak, even for a United Methodist.  I don’t need to tell you that family and friends were in the congregation.  This is a big deal on multiple levels.

Sabbath morning, Jesus arrives, full of the Spirit and ready to worship.  When the time comes, the prophetic scroll is presented to Jesus (Isaiah 61:1-2, 58:6).   (The guest always received the prophetic reading.)  Luke says that Jesus read the following:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

“And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Jesus says, “This is me.  I have come to do these things.  If you want to get on board, now is this time.”  Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus gives his mission statement. In other words, if it doesn’t fall into the broad categories as I’ve outlined above, it’s not me or my thing.  What has the Church done with Jesus’ plan for proclaiming the Good News?  Do we still think Jesus’ news is good?  What have we turned the Good News into?  Is it a series of litmus tests to determine how best to navigate the complex, hoop jumping Christianity we’ve created in 21st America?  Yes.

You see Jesus’ priorities.  You know what the church values as priorities.  When given the opportunity to quote from Old Testament he chooses to highlight the poor, captives, the blind, and the oppressed.   He quotes Isaiah, not Leviticus.  Jesus doesn’t reference marriage or human sexuality; the two issues many United Methodists believe should frame the church’s entire response to the secular world.

If we want to make the church look less like us and return it to the priorities Jesus outlined, we know what we need to do.  It’s not like poverty, captivity, health care, and oppression aren’t global crises that manifest themselves in our own back yard. Some oppression even originates in our own theology and from parts of United Methodism.

We follow Jesus by doing Jesus’ actions.  Being a Christian is more than repeating a creed or mouthing a prayer.  It ought to be about putting belief into practice.  We should become the answer to our own prayers.  If your belief keeps someone oppressed, in darkness, or denies their fundamental humanity; it’s not Christian.  Go back and re-read today’s lesson.

To talk about bringing “Good News” to the poor can lead to being branded a socialist.

To talk about proclaiming release to the captives can lead to being called soft on crime.

To talk about the recovery of sight to the blind in body and mind can lead to being called a supporter of Medicare for all.

To talk about letting the oppressed go free can lead to being called a revolutionary.

Let people call us any name they choose.  What matters is that we’re following Christ in ways that it is difficult for anyone to contest.

Jesus calls us to do these words he read in Nazareth.  This is his plan.  This isn’t about repeating a creed and telling the story of man’s life.  Jesus isn’t trying to keep an 18th-century denomination alive in 21st America.  Jesus shows how to do the Good News. Good News that accepts everyone as God made them, on face value, from day one.   If we make it any harder, that’s on us.  I don’t want to be the guy who makes it any harder for someone to know, hear, or understand a liberating Jesus.

Richard Lowell Bryant