Keeping Religion Out of Politics

It is important to speak,
Because in my Biblical bag of topics,
There are stories about Sarah and Abraham,
Not James Dobson and Franklin Graham.

When Joseph saved Egypt from famine,
Religion became Political,
When God sent Moses to Pharaoh,
Religion became Political,
When God told Moses to receive these laws,
Religion became Political,
When Job asked God why,
Religion became Political,
When Elijah picked a fight with Jezebel,
Religion became Political,
When Isaiah said “Here I Am”,
Religion became Political,
When King David murdered Uriah,
Religion became Political,
When Mary sang the Magnificat,
Religion became Political,
When Herod killed innocent children,
Religion became Political,
When Jesus said it would be hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom,
Religion became Political.
When Pilate interrogated Jesus,
Religion became Political.
When Jesus questioned God’s intentions in the Garden of Gethsemane,
Religion became Political.
When Constantine made the Church a part of the Government,
Religion became Political.
When Henry decided he wanted divorce after divorce,
Religion became Political.
When the Methodists became Methodism,
Religion became Political.

–Richard Bryant

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Confessions of a 44 year old Still United and Still Methodist Curmudgeon

I like to read from my Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible.  I’m pro-NRSV.  I’ll tell you this.  You’ll never find a themed NRSV translation such as the Beaver Hunting, SideCar Racing, Goat Riding, American Idol, Lacrosse Coaching, Pet Grooming NRSV devotional Bible.  You’ll never locate one.  They don’t make them.  Why?  Bibles ought to be Bibles, not lifestyle accessories.   I’m old enough to remember when people knew that instinctively.

I don’t have a cover on my iPad.  Why would I put one on my Bible?

I don’t like to read hymn lyrics off the wall.  If you’re my optometrist and a worship leader who uses song lyrics to test my failing vision, I’ll make an exception.  Otherwise, pick up a book. Books built western civilization.  Do you know where we read about people who wrote on walls (i.e. cave painters)?  In books.

Jesus didn’t use tiny plastic shot glasses. If you want to do communion right, you use the big cup.  Sip and dip.  We call it “intinction.”  It is 2018, ride the wave back to 1st-century Eucharistic authenticity.

No one uses the term “Last Supper” except to describe paintings and what convicts eat on death row.  Methodists have Holy Communion or celebrate the Eucharist.   Maybe the last supper people are the ones holding on to the little shot glasses?

I’m the one leading the worship service, and sometimes I lose my attention span.  Keep it balanced (between sitting and standing) and don’t go over an hour.  Sometimes it can’t be helped.  On most occasions, preachers start repeating themselves because they’re afraid to sit down and shut up.  Thus, extended services can be prevented.

Go to the bathroom before the service begins.  Do you realize how distracting it is to be preaching when you see people just get up and leave?  You don’t know if they’re mad or have to pee.  If you do have to go, leave by an unobtrusive exit.  Don’t march down the center aisle in the middle of the sermon.  Honestly, what are you thinking?

Turn your phone off.  God called me and said to tell you to put your phone on silent.  Who calls people while they are in church?   Apparently, more than I’ve imagined.  People won’t talk to their friends or relatives all week then suddenly, sometime after 11 on Sunday mornings, the phones start to ring.  Reach out, reach out and touch someone.  Just not on Sunday morning between 11am and 12pm!

I would love to talk to you about planning your wedding at 10:55 on a Sunday morning.  No, the congregation will wait.  That’s the best time to ask me anything.

From where I stand, I see everything.  Did I mention gum chewing?  Grown-ups, adults, chewing gum in church.  Spit it out.  What is this, some Disney special where you’ve switched bodies with your children?

I don’t care who lights the candles just as long as they’re lit.  It’s great when the acolytes show up and the schedule is followed.  In the end, are they burning when the first hymn is sung?  That’s what matters.  We need contained fire in the church.

The 44 Year Old Still United and Still Methodist Curmudgeon

(Putting the Protest back in Protestant)

Things To Think About This Week

Our minds bend toward worry.  How do we use our anxiety productively? Can we direct our fear toward something we can control?  Yes. If we worry about those in need following Hurricane in Florence, we can help those who are suffering in tangible ways.

The new technology that connects and improves our lives is destroying the privacy, security, and safety of real communities.  Our virtual lives make us vulnerable.  How can you take control of your vulnerability?

Outrage is necessary when confronting evil.  Some things in this world are outrageous.  When you see it, call it out.

It can happen here.  It is happening here.

Better isn’t only a goal for politicians and priests.  Better is for each of us, today.  We need to hold ourselves to higher standards.

There are too many places on the planet in political, social, and environmental peril.  It is important those of us touched by hurricanes and erosion talk with those impacted by typhoons and earthquakes.  Our lives are intertwined.   All is not well in this world. None of us is ready for Bishop Elon Musk to establish the Martian Missionary Annual Conference.  We are needed here.

The irrelevance we (as individuals or churches) sometimes feel is not the relevance we experience.  Our lives mean more than we realize or are willing to admit.   Go read your Baptismal vows.

The church is an old idea, an ancient model, trying to survive in challenging times.  We need to talk about Reformation; not as a catchphrase or cliché.  It is time for systemic change.  Every five hundred years or so, the church seems to demand an overhaul, from the bottom up.  Now is the time for Reformation.  However, Reformation is not synonymous with regression.

To resist ecclesial change is to ignore the political, economic, and social upheavals occurring all over the world. The church, beyond the international level, pretends it is too inconsequential to influence the global movements demanding change from governments and entrenched bureaucracies all over the world.  This is not true.  Our conversations in local churches are also reflective of more substantial shifts occurring at the global level.  If we limit one, we impede the other.

The world is not a place we remember one Sunday a year, one Sunday a quarter, or after we receive a particular e-mail from the conference or a general board.  Engagement is our full-time job.  In most cases, our global commitment is a part-time position.    We all suffer as we wait for the next headline from Syria, hurricane, or earthquake. Is something more significant happening, something more disconcerting than we realize?

An echo chamber never lies.  I will prove that I am not an echo chamber.  The world is a painful, sometimes crummy place where the good guys often lose.  If I were an echo chamber, I’d have painted a much rosier picture about the Holy Spirit making all things right. Beware of echo chambers.

What if the way we think of church, Bishops, the Bible, Annual Conferences, committees on ways forward, FBI investigations, the United States Senate,  the Judiciary Committee, and the Supreme Court is part of the problem?

We are the problem we’re trying to solve.

Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant

10 Reasons Why People Leave Church

1) They were never really “there” in the first place. The church was a way station between soccer practice, scouts, and the other stops in our over-scheduled lives. Church seems, for a time, like the right thing to do. After a while, the incessant moralizing and demands to volunteer grow difficult for many people to manage. Other parts of their lives, like volunteering (at school) comes without the tinges of guilt and people talking about (however occasionally) heaven and hell.

2) Ritualized singing is awkward. The only other places on earth where people sing together, en masse, the same songs, are English football games. Church shares this unique commonality with football hooligans from Leeds and Liverpool. The strangeness of singing either repetitive praise choruses or 18th-century hymnody, in public, may rub the modern person the wrong way. If someone is hurt, broken, and seeking purpose in their life; enter our building and sing with strangers! That’s a big ask.

3) Have you seen what I wear on Sunday morning? I dress like Dumbledore. That may strike folks not used to traditional liturgical worship as odd. This could run a few people off. Harry Potter fans love it! My Ordinary Time stole is a Slytherin scarf.

4) We fight like cats and dogs in meetings over really inane stuff. Have you been to a church meeting lately? If people want to fight, they’ll eat dinner at home with their kids.

5) People find new churches. We have to compete with the gym church, the football game church, the golf church, the fishing church, the boat church, and any number of things people worship. These other churches provide community, potlucks, and they don’t ask you to sing.

6) Some people are fickle and mean. When their meanness gets exposed, people leave.  I think this works both ways.  People leave when they encounter meanness and hostility.  Some also leave when they realize their meanness won’t be tolerated in a Christian community.

7) People join political parties, fishing teams, alumni associations, golf clubs, and social groups; yet they don’t like the idea of traditional denominations having a larger institutional identity.  When the church becomes more than a bland, generic, or cookie cutter version of every other church, they leave.

8) It takes a boatload of money to keep us going.  Even the smallest church is expensive to run.  People decide to spend their money elsewhere.  It’s the economy, stupid.

9) People leave the church because you didn’t cast their child in the Christmas play.  Most times it is not unanswered existential questions about suffering, the preacher’s politics, or anything so grand.  It’s the little things.

10) People leave the church because they read too many Dan Brown novels.  They believe the worst about Christianity and we don’t give them any reason to think any differently.

Richard Lowell Bryant

No One Is The Greatest (Mark 9:30-37)

In the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks one of the most critical questions of his life. It’s one that churches ought to post over sanctuaries, altars, and Sunday school classrooms. I know I give weight and almost hyperbolic importance to nearly everything Jesus says or does. However, this one is right near the top.

Allow me to set the scene. Jesus and the disciples are still in and around Capernaum. When they had entered a house (we don’t know whose home), Jesus asked them a question. “What were you arguing about during the journey?” That’s the question. You’ll find it in Mark 9:33.

We know that question like the back of your hand. It’s been a long journey, drowned out by radio fights and the occasional loud, unintelligible argument. Once you pull into the driveway, there is a moment of peace and a deep breath of relaxation. You are home. As you step from the car and make your way toward the gate, the steps, and the door the rumblings once contained to the car slowly emerge from those who managed to grab much less luggage from the back of the vehicle. It is then you realize that whatever argument or disagreement that ruined the last three hours of your car ride is about to cross the threshold into your home. The dispute about someone’s makeup, a text message, or who is in a relationship with “you know who” is not going to stay in the car. It’s nowhere, with you, blocking your way to the bathroom. Hence you feel the need to ask the question, “What were you arguing about during the journey?”

You know what the argument was about. Jesus knew what the disciples were discussing. He wanted to hear them say it. It was important, as we tell our children, for them to use their words. What did they think they were discussing? With some distance and a bit of perspective, what were they fighting about? Here’s where it gets silly. I know this will seem unbelievable. The disciples were debating each other on who is the “greatest.” Yes, that sounds utterly ridiculous. Grown men were debating one another about who is the “greatest” in the “Muhammad Ali” sense of the word. Can you imagine such nonsense? It seems so out of character for religious people to be concerned about achieving “greatness” in heaven or the afterlife.  Jesus is not concerned with status in the same way as corporate America or the Roman Empire. My mind is blown.

No, it’s not. Nothing about this passage surprises me. What does amaze me is how infrequently we read Mark 9 and how we seem never to apply Jesus’ question to our own lives. “What were you arguing about during the journey?”

Who is the greatest Methodist?
Who is the most significant Christian?
Who are the legitimate heirs to John Wesley?
Who is the most revered teacher of tradition?
Who is the holiest interpreter of ancient doctrine?

There’s never been a more appropriate question for Methodists to ask each other. We’re all on a journey, and we’re doing an excellent job trying to convince ourselves (through various commissions and reports) that we’re not arguing with another. We know what we’re doing. No one is fooled. As one who loves a good argument, I admit this without hesitation or reservation.

Here’s the problem: if our arguments slide into calls for supremacy, superiority, and salvation through an understanding of our own prestige, you’re no longer following Jesus. An idea of one’s greatness mixed with a smug sense of self-satisfaction at possessing a monopoly on God’s truth will not lead us to the least or the last. Prominence does not lead to the Cross, flooded towns, separated families or anywhere the suffering call home.

Whatever greatness is, Jesus indicates at the end of this passage, it is the opposite of welcome. To seek influence is to build barriers between Jesus and those who need Jesus most. Power makes it challenging to welcome strangers. As we compete for preeminence in our churches and denomination, we are less able to embrace the most vulnerable members of our community. Greatness comes at a cost. We give up being the church. To remain the church we want to be we lose the ability to be the church Christ called us to be. The choice is stark, we can either be “great,” or we can be followers of Jesus.

Is there really a debate to be had?  I hope not.  Oh, if you’d like to argue with me about how non-great I am, I’ll be outside.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jesus Takes All The Fun Out of Being Methodist

Jesus takes all the fun out of being United Methodist and religious. Don’t those two go together?  How are people going to know we are Holy Methodists unless we dress alike (custom UMC t-shirts of some nature), pray in public, make grand displays of our faith in the public sphere, Facebook every mission-related activity, and invoke God in every conversation?  Has Jesus not been an evangelism seminar?  Jesus needs to offer coffee, small groups, and a service for men who can’t tuck their shirts in.  Moms need a morning out and Jesus needs to say more about the sanctity of straight people being married.  What is he, some snowflake libtard?  Public piety and a healthy sense of religiosity define one’s Christianity.

Just kidding!  LOL!  I know they don’t but you’ve got to be honest, even on our best days, it’s a distinction we have trouble making.  Just take a look at this:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  Matthew 6:1-7

If we can’t practice our piety in public to be seen by others, how are we going to recruit (sorry, I mean evangelize) others to join our churches?  Especially when institutional trust in religion is at an all-time low.  Public practices of piety are our stock in trade.  We would collapse and die without publicity.  We give evangelism awards and applaud each other on the back for cookie sales.  Those are public displays of piety.  We brand everything, from disaster relief ministries to youth events.  We have idolized the corporations and corporate practices that are bankrupting our communities.  Yes, we’re giving to the poor but these giving actions are preceded by the trumpet sound of car magnets, t-shirts, and official name badges.  We don’t call “practicing our piety before others”; we’ve cleaned it up and use the term “witnessing”.

Everyone prays differently.  Cokesbury’s catalog is dominated by books on different methods of prayer.  I think Jesus says:  don’t use your prayer time to make other people uncomfortable.  Just as he says don’t make a big deal out of what you do (focus instead on the how-Jesus is big on methodology), the way you communicate to God is intensely personal.  Do what’s right for you but don’t weird other people out with your words or actions when you pray.  Don’t be a spectacle.  Spectacles are for other people to see.  Who is your audience when you talk to God?  Here’s a thought:  give God the privacy and time God deserves.  Keep your password protected, like you would any sensitive communication.

Religious people love clichés.  (If someone tells me they’re going to put a hedge of protection around me I’m going for the weedeater.) Jesus has heard them all.  Be a better speaker and writer by using fewer clichés.  The same thing goes for prayers.  I know it feels fun, especially when you get on a roll and the “father gods, we just wannas, and hosannas” start to roll off your tongue.  Maybe Jesus is burnt out on hearing so many repeated phrases.  Try saying what’s on your mind.  It doesn’t make you any holier, more religious, or smarter.  Talk to Jesus.  Spit it out.  Drop the jargon.  It’s you Jesus wants, not the Dollar Store trinkets you’re bringing along.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Marks of a Metho-Fascist

The Wesleyan Covenant Association is asking in a new publication, “Are We Better Together?”  If by “we” they mean the United Methodist Church, I’m guessing they say “no”.  They’d prefer to be with people who think like them and those who don’t share their views, according to a press release I read last week, aren’t really Christian or following Jesus Christ.

For those who choose a different path, is it possible to be in a connectional relationship with those who hold such a narrow definition of Christian tradition and doctrine?  As much as I embrace the One Church Plan, it’s also difficult for me to see any option that involves staying in a rump denomination that marries a puritanical form of Methodism with basic fascism.

At some point, the fence riding and proposal forwarding will end.  We cannot go on like this forever.  Decisions will be made.  Those eventual judgments will not be the outcomes of committees, delegates, or bishops.  Instead, the consciences of individual clergy and laity will decide not, “Are we better together?” but “Are we going to be Metho-fascists?” Here are a few questions we might ask to see how far we’ve gone down the fascist road.

What are the marks of the growth of fascism in the church?

Are we falling prey to the demagoguery?

Is it easy to be swayed by proof texting?

Will we be distracted and allow the church to be reorganized along lines foreign to Christ’s mission and ministry?

Is the language of hate and the subtle rhetoric of violence now common in our collective discussions of our future?

Will we be distracted by ephemeral issues that take our focus away from the marginalized (the hungry, the poor, immigrants, those without health care)?

Will we fall victim to a warped theology of denominational chauvinism and superiority?

Jesus directly confronted the fascism embodied by the Roman empire and its imperial ideology.  Jesus died violently at the hands of a fascist, imperial state.  Will we continue Jesus’ legacy of opposing fascism?

Richard Lowell Bryant