Why Anyone Still Went To or Hosted A Willow Creek Event This Week Is Beyond Me

Bill Hybels Demonstrating Leadership by Holding a Sharpie

One of my first appointments was as an associate pastor in a large congregation.  This was in Willow Creek’s heyday.  Many churches wanted to copy the “Willow Creek Model”.  Some members of my new congregation traveled to Willow Creek (just before I was appointed) and drank the Kool-Aid.  To be honest, I’d never heard of the place.  After seminary, I spent two years in the British Methodist Church.  The words “Hillsong” and “Willow Creek” meant nothing to me.

Evidently, my new church was on the Willow Creek train.  What did this mean?  I asked some questions and did a little reading.  I didn’t like what I found.  It was all a little Amway-esque.  Apparently, we needed to do what they were doing, lock stock and barrel.  From reading Bill Hybel’s books to wearing embroidered Polo shirts, our goal was to emulate his formula.  He was charismatic, kind of like a football coach who led seminars with moral overtones for IBM sales executives.* There was no theological depth.  That was in 2001.

Fast forward to today.  What a joke!  If could get those hours back I spent watching a sleaze lecture me about leadership, I’d be more than happy.  I knew it was weird and a little creepy then and now I know for sure.  I didn’t like having this formulaic contemporary suburban Christian cult shoved down my throat.  Now that I know Hybel’s definition of accountability is to sleep with whomever he wants, I’m sickened.

I applaud those churches and leaders who pulled out of this week’s Global Leadership Summit.  Going to Willow Creek for leadership lessons is akin to parents asking a brothel owner for advice on how to raise their teenage daughters.  It’s not cool.  The church doesn’t get a free pass simply because we preach Psalm 51 and say I’m sorry in just the right way.  Take a number, get in line, and look around:  no one’s buying Willow Creek’s version of the self-help Gospel.  There’s a footnote in American religious history waiting for you and your dear leader.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

* Of course, this was until someone came along saying, “You don’t want to be the next Willow Creek, you need be the new Saddleback.  Have you heard of the Purpose Driven Life?”  And so we bounced from fad to fad, seminar to seminar, and earned a few frequent flyer miles in the process. 

 

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The Nuremberg Defense

The Nuremberg Defense still works, at least as filtered through a uniquely
United Methodist interpretation of Romans 13 via U. S. Attorney General
Jeff Sessions’s United Methodist Christian Education. If the German
Lutherans in the dock at Nuremberg had been Methodists from Alabama, who
knows who’d have lived well into the 20th century? If we hadn’t been so
busy trying to keep races from mixing on our own continent, we could have
evangelized an Aryan Europe, eager for our arms-length approach to
Christian responsibility and Christ-like living.

You know what I’m talking about, right? I shouldn’t make that
assumption. The Nuremberg defense was the strategy used by senior officers
of the German High Command when tried by the Allies for war crimes after
World War II. (The trial took place in the city of Nuremberg, Germany;
hence its name). After WWII, when confronted with the horrors of the
Holocaust and ethnic cleansing in Russia, many officers claimed they were
simply “following orders.” These were not personal decisions, which they
may have objected to, but political decisions required by the necessity of
war, went their defense. Another former Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, made the
same defense when tried by the Israeli government in 1961. Lt. William
Calley and those responsible the My Lai massacre in Vietnam echoed the
same defense at their trials in 1971. What does this mean? If you want
morality, don’t look to war. War, as Gen. William Sherman said, is Hell.

Oh, be positive, Richard, it’s a lovely day, you might say. Yet if you’re
still in a detention center and your family is in Honduras and you’re
still in Texas, I’m guessing you’re in a form of hell. But if it’s great
for us, what does it matter for anyone else? That’s how many people say
they feel. Yet if the church is going to help anyone, even in this time of
denominational transition, our ability to remain empathetic must be
strong.

In this moment, we’re in a struggle for the survival of the democratic
republic. Those who are waging war on civil liberties, human rights,
freedom of the press, and the religious freedoms of those who aren’t
evangelical Protestants, could care less our impassioned letters to the
editor, daily bouts of incredulity, or attempts to censure members of our
own denomination. When powerful people such as an Attorney General who is
a lay leader in our denomination confidently and proudly relies on
versions of the Nuremberg defense, we’re done. When such a powerful person
can do so with full knowledge that United Methodist bureaucratic timidity
won’t challenge them (“our hands are tied by the Discipline and we refuse
to untie them despite the human suffering we pretend to acknowledge and
loudly bemoan”) we’re done. We’re finished not because of theological
divisions over homosexuality. No, this is far worse. We’ve become
short-attention-span activists; we say care, but after one letter telling
us no, we’re ready to let the institutional word be the last word.

Change was never going to come by compiling signatures. With human beings
still in cages, do we move on to our less “controversial” arguments? Hell,
no! We do both. How do we look at one letter from one district
superintendent claiming to settle the erosion of basic human rights in
America and United Methodism’s complicity in such an evil? I can’t salute
like a good soldier, say “yes, sir” and carry on. We’re well past that
now.

As for the Romans 13 justification, I don’t owe Caesar anything. I don’t
think Paul meant for us or anyone else to transpose the phrase governing
authorities (as he knew them), meaning the Imperial Roman Administration
to 21st century America. I don’t want to be Caesar’s pet. Even Caesar is
subject to God. Our Caesar and those who administer his justice seem to
forget, this God isn’t a reflection of their own vengeful natures, but the
God of the Sermon on Mount. I owe that God everything.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Following the Jesus Code

The man in question was discovered sleeping under the trees in the upper left, above the brick sign.

Here’s the problem.  I’m bound, even obligated, to follow the Jesus code.  What’s the Jesus code?  It’s this idea of loving strangers, showing hospitality to all, and extending care to visitors who enter my world; especially my life at church.  I signed on to live by the code years ago both in its Old and New Testament forms.  In fact, I’m a big proponent of the code.  I love the code.  On a regular basis, I’ll stand up in church and urge others to adopt the code for themselves.  Living by Jesus’ rules of graciousness and hospitality can be challenging.  Jesus, unlike our world, went out of his way to embrace those who many of us might willingly ignore or reject.  This is what makes following Jesus fun.  We are asked to push ourselves into areas where our comfort matters less than sharing God’s love.  That’s exciting, especially when you’re preaching on a Sunday morning or on in the controlled setting of mission trip with people who look just like you.  On the other hand, following the Jesus code can be unsettling on a Thursday morning in late July, particularly when you find a stoned homeless man sleeping in a hammock in the front yard of the church.

We’ve had a tremendous amount of rain over the past three days.  Localized flash flooding has inundated the island.  Ankle to knee deep water is everywhere.  Crickets, mosquitoes, and standing water have made our summer vacation island a swamp.  It’s humid, hot, and nasty.  The severity of the thunderstorms has limited the number of outdoor campers in the National Park Service and private campgrounds.  No one, if they had a choice, wanted to ride those out.

Hence my surprise this morning at seeing a hammock strung among a few of our only trees.  Someone was camping at the church.  No one told me about this.  I saw a few plastic bags and a man with dread locks, a beard, a knit camp, and well-worn beach wear.  He reeked of pot.

I brought him water.  Water is part of the Jesus code.  Without moving from the hammock, he thanked me for my compassion.  It was just water.  He wanted to know if I was a vegetarian.  I am not.  I eat meat.  This, in his mind, was not good.  Humans, he tells me, are mushroom based life forms.  If we were all vegetarians, wars would cease.  Fish would live in peace with chickens.  Pastors, he says, are all about money and power.  I tell him I’m broke and have no power.  In fact, I’m on the way to the dump.  If I had real power, someone would take my trash for me.  The “Christian/vegetarian humans are mushrooms” diatribe goes on for fifteen minutes.

I keep insisting I need to get to the dump before they close.  He laughs, “I ended up preaching you a sermon, how about that?”  Yes, that he did.  I  heard his sermon.  It was loopy and a little frightening.  However, I hope he felt heard and valued.

“What’s your sermon on this week”, he asked?

“I don’t know”, I said.  I didn’t want to prolong the conversation.  It will probably be about something I call the “Jesus Code” and how it’s been getting me into some blessed and strange encounters for more years that I care to count.  One way or another, Jesus is always asking me to practice what I preach.  It’s easy to tell other people what to do.  It’s another matter altogether to be that person you’re telling other people to be.  Church bigwigs will tell you that church involves a lot fancy things.  This morning, here on Ocracoke, church was offering space, water, and an ear to a stoned homeless guy sheltering from a flood.  I was out of my comfort zone.  That’s OK.  Because it doesn’t get more Jesus like than that.

If this was today, can you imagine tomorrow?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Revoke King David’s Security Clearance: Send Him Back to Shepherding

Late last night, I took a moment to read through the coming week’s lectionary passages. Over the past few Sundays, I’ve wandered down the Old Testament path, looking at 2nd Samuel. That’s made things a little easier. The gospel and epistle readings have been tough. I say this prayer before I turn to the new readings, “Please God, don’t let them be about treating immigrants fairly, offering free health care to everyone in Galilee, and feeding people who aren’t on a welfare to work program. Amen”. That prayer never works.

Words like immigrants, justice, and peace keep popping up in the readings. It’s almost like Jesus wants me to talk about these important issues. In fact, it’s like the Bible is speaking directly to the social and political divides which haunt America. At those moments when I think I could marry some self-help mumbo jumbo with a bit of Jesus and preach about the “safe” topics; Jesus puts me back in the middle of the briar patch. Sure I could look for something else. I could go to other texts. I could preach a seven part summer sermon series with titles like:

Choices in Prayer

Life in Pieces

Spiritual Ideas I Gathered from Watching Marvel Superhero Movies

How to Calm the Waves of Brokenness

Jesus Died for Your Comfort

God Wants You to Walk on Water

You Have to Get Out of the Boat

Yes, I could preach those sermons but then I wouldn’t be preaching the Old Testament, the demanding stories of Jesus, or the hard words of Paul.  But is that really preaching?  If worship becomes a cross between Tony Robbins and a Ted Talk is it still church?  No.  It’s entertainment.

Still, when I read what’s on offer, I’m sometimes taken by surprise. Last night was no exception. I looked at where we’re headed in 2nd Samuel and there it was: King David is having an affair with Bathsheba. I immediately sent an email to God:

To: God@heaven.org

RE: 2nd Samuel 11

You want me to talk about a powerful ruler who has a history of sexual indiscretions and then commits treason by having one of his own men killed in battle?  Do you realize how awkward this is?  Aren’t people liable to get uncomfortable and draw conclusions to the world beyond church? This is what I’m supposed to preach! Not to mention, there are probably people in my congregation who’ve been impacted, in their own right, by infidelity and betrayal.  Color me queasy.  

Yours truly,

Richard

P.S. Amen

God is incredibly busy so I’m not expecting an immediate reply. That being said, I’m going to go ahead and mull this one over. So, without pushing too many hot buttons, I think King David is a real twit. In fact, I am all for removing King David’s security clearance. Have you seen this man’s history? A man who can’t be trusted to be faithful to his own wife or lead his own men in battle and is responsible for the murder of one of his own soldiers has lost the trust of the nation. There are words to describe such conduct: treasonous, cowardly, and a traitor. David has betrayed the very idea that undergirds the Kingdom of Israel and the very God who placed him on the throne. No, this man, this Judean shepherd can no longer be trusted to guide, guard, and shepherd this Kingdom. His clearance must be removed. Maybe, just maybe, Israel needs to think about getting a king who doesn’t give lip service to God.

If God gets back and wants me to talk about walking on water, I’ll let you know.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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

A New Testament Look at Immigration: Texts and Topics

1) Revelation 3:20 – Jesus is knocking at our door. Jesus comes in many forms, some obvious and others less noticeable. Nonetheless, Jesus ends up on our doorstep, the borders to our home, and at the frontiers of our nation. Do we ignore the knock? Do we drain our compassion dry to eventually proclaim, “This is not Jesus”?   Wouldn’t it be easier to open the door?  We know who it is.

2) Matthew 8:20 – Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Even beyond the story of being a refugee after his birth Jesus remains the ultimate stranger in a strange land. Nowhere is home, despite being creator of the Universe. Where else can Jesus go?  Receiving the undocumented, homeless Jesus is our responsibility.  Our role isn’t to ask, “Why can’t a carpenter build his own house?”

3) Romans 12:13 – Paul reminds the Roman community to, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Unlike the Old Testament scriptures reminding the Israelites to care for foreigners because “they were once slaves in Egypt”, Paul gives no word of explanation.  It doesn’t matter that your ancestors were slaves.  Now, as people of faith, hospitality is something we all do. The justifications of the past are no longer relevant. Paul writes to the Romans, “Do the right thing.” Christians care for the saints living among us, no matter where our journeys began.

4) Timothy 1:8 – Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. Paul is also telling Timothy that there are illegitimate uses of the law (religious, judicial, and political). Paul’s sampling of legitimate uses of the law does not include welcoming strangers, refugees, or asylum seekers in the wider community.

5) Hebrews 13:12 – Therefore Jesus suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. Jesus didn’t suffer and die in the well-defined borders of a modern nation state. Held in the detention centers of Roman Palestine, Jesus died on a physical and spiritual border. As a common criminal with no rights, Jesus could not be tried by laws protecting those “inside “the city gate. Salvation, as we read Hebrews, happens on the border, somewhere between our idea of civilization and the coming Kingdom of God. The writer of Hebrews says it’s what happened outside the gates that defined the future of Christianity. It’s past the gates, within the fences, and among the camps where we will encounter the resurrected Christ.  Let us go to him.

Richard Lowell Bryant

My God is undocumented,
He arrived,
Illegally, unwanted, and unknown,
Across the border of heaven and Earth,
With no identification, family, or job,
A permanent refugee,
From a genocidal king,
Forever being sought,
By greedy statisticians in Rome,
Living hand to mouth,
Among the poorest of the poor,
With no fish, no one would eat,
With no money, no taxes got paid,
with no money, no prayers got said,
with no documents you were as good as dead,
My God is undocumented,
living on the margins,
of fishing villages,
and textile towns,
crossing over,
to the other side
of the big bad lake,
to the undocumented side,
He’s moving today,
From your Capernaum,
To today’s Decapolis,
And back again,
To meet the undocumented,
Unloved, chained-up, people,
On the other side,
People like us,
Our undocumented God,
Our God who arrived without papers,
Illegally, against Roman law,
And no family at all,
With dubious lineage,
And no photo id,
Who died on the cross,
For you and me,
My God is undocumented.

–Richard Bryant

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.