Author Archives: RenewalWorks Admin

Monday (December 11, 2017)

3-1

A recent email reminded me of a favorite book by Will Willimon, Methodist bishop, teacher at Duke Divinity (Sorry, Tarheels), and extraordinarily gifted preacher. When Bishop Willimon lived in Durham, a neighbor asked about church, specifically about what makes the church different from other organizations. The neighbor said his own preacher had asked him to invite folks to church. The neighbor couldn’t figure out a good reason to do that. Why would he invite someone to be part of this? He had nothing against the church, but said he didn’t see anything different or special about what we do on Sunday. “Friendliness? Caring? I get all that at Rotary.”

The neighbor went on to note that the Durham Bulls, the local baseball team, had done more to bring black and white people together than the church ever thought about. “A Saturday evening at the Durham Bulls is more racially inclusive than a Sunday in any church.”

More on Willimon’s book in a minute, but I thought about it when a young, wise friend shared a link to an article that appeared last week in The Atlantic. Its title: “The Consumerist Church of Fitness Classes.” The article notes liturgies involved with gyms and spin classes and yoga studios. These places gather people in community, give rituals to perform, receive tithes. As more and more Americans move away from organized religion (Pew Research tells us that in 2015, 23% of adults identified as religiously unaffiliated, up from 16% in 2007), folks seek “new forms of community building, new ways to seek mental clarity and spiritual experiences.”

The author notes that gyms often mimic the form of traditional religious services. They create community. They create space apart from busy brains. They create a zone, so that fitness is a gateway to a larger, more lasting state of happiness and fulfillment. Gyms offer coaching, elevate expectations and foster accountability, something lacking in many churches. They are transformative.

A parishioner admitted to me recently that she feels more connected with folks in her yoga class than folks in church. Mind you, this is an active member of the congregation. All of it challenges us to think about Will Willimon’s neighbor, to think about what is special about church.

In response to questions asked, Willimon wrote a book called Shaped by the Bible. In the introduction, he says we are left with a question: What makes the church, your congregation and mine, different, utterly essential, without equal, unique?

(Hit pause button before you read his answer: What would you say? Would you have an answer?)

Then consider Willimon’s response: “A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.” He continues: “That does not mean we worship the Bible, or capture God between the pages of the Book. It means that in our life with the Bible, we are confronted by the living Lord.”

For me, the distinctive nature of the church, confronted by the Word, attempting to form its life in response to the Word, has to do with what is in the Word. As Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” The Bible is a story of God’s relationship with us. It is a story of grace. It promises forgiveness, the persistent opportunity to start over. It’s a story about how love wins. Heaven knows, we need that story. You may or may not get all that at the gym or the yoga studio. But if you’re not getting it at church, church doors should close.

We live in a grace-starved world, filled with folks looking for community, accountability, authenticity, growth. As Christmas nears, maybe our communities can offer graceful gatherings in distinctive ways, so that if you and I were thinking of inviting someone to be part of church, we’d have good reason to do so.

-Jay Sidebotham

 A vision for a church I’d want to join:
(courtesy of St. Paul, from the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans)
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (December 4, 2017)

3-1

Legend has it that as St. Augustine was shifting from the rather active social life of his youth (euphemism alert) to a life in the church, he prayed to the Lord: “Give me chastity, but not yet.” A variation on that prayer comes to mind as the season of Advent begins: “Give me patience and give it to me right away.”

Advent, a countercultural season invites us to slow down and be quiet as the rest of the world cranks up activity, often with concurrent uptick in crankiness. With long lists of things to do, the church pushes in the opposite direction. The church invites us to do less. The church invites us to wait. The church calls us to patience. Easier said than done. Any ideas on how to become more patient? I’m all ears.

Whether waiting for coffee at Starbucks, or waiting in traffic, or waiting to board a plane, or waiting for a report from the doctor, or waiting for a job offer, or waiting to become a more spiritually evolved person, or waiting for the Kingdom of God, this season can be a challenge. For me, the focus on spiritual expectation and anticipation with its call to patience, represents a growth opportunity. How do we wait? How do we become more patient?

A few thoughts on patience, from someone who knows too little about it:

First of all, patience is apparently a gift. That virtue is described in Paul’s letter to the Galatians as one of the fruits of the spirit. We claim holy activity, divine agency in making it possible for us to live life patiently. With that in mind, give thanks for the measure of patience you have. It’s holiness at work in you. Give thanks for those in your life who regard you with patience. That is God’s work in the community. And if you dare, ask God for the gift of patience. (But be careful, the way that prayer gets answered may try your patience.)

Second, patience is a practice, which is to say that we grow in this particular virtue as we try it out, as we give it our best shot. How might we practice it more fully? What gets in the way of viewing life with patience? Maybe there are ways to act as if we are more patient than we actually are. When tempted to respond with urgency, how can we have the presence of mind and spirit to relax, to breathe, to count to ten, or drink a tall glass of water, to practice forbearance and forgiveness, to ask “What’s the big rush?”

Finally, patience seems to be something of a creed. A disposition of patience says a lot about what we believe. To respond to life with patience suggests some level of trust, an admission that while we may not know the future, we know the one who holds the future. If we can find a way to let go and let God, we find resources for living with patience. We have put faith into action. We have shown what we believe.

Often we confuse patience with tolerance. Putting up with a jerk, who may be a parent, child, sibling, colleague, boss, employee, or on a larger scale, a public figure who makes us nuts. Like any spiritual virtue, we can often find a way to make it something that sets us apart from others, holier than thou and all that.

But if we can remember that patience is a gift, and practice it as such, and share it as such with people and circumstances that call for patience, we may well have lived into the spirit of the season of Advent, as a reflection of the gracious and very patient God we worship.

-Jay Sidebotham

 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
-Galatians 5
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
-Isaiah 40:28-30
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
-Psalm 40:1-3
Why is patience so important? Because it makes us pay attention.
-Paulo Coelho
A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.
-Henri J.M. Nouwen
Favorite bumper sticker:
PBPGINFWMY
(Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet.)

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (November 27, 2017)

3-1

I’ve been told that the preacher should always have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Some days that’s harder than others. Last week, there was no avoiding the intersection when I read a column in the New York Times which spoke about idolatry and heresy, of all things.

In this column entitled “When Politics Becomes Your Idol” (Oct. 30), David Brooks wrote about today’s political climate, making use of terminology not often found in the secular media. Even in church circles, talk of idolatry and heresy can seem antiquated and exclusive, hierarchical and judgmental. And here those terms show up with my morning coffee.

I’ve been watching Mr. Brooks with interest for a while. He seems increasingly interested in the power of religion and the spirit in our common life, the importance of values and character, the forces of grace and sin. Maybe that evolution prompted last week’s lament over hyper-partisan discourse in our time. He observes that these days people “often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away – religious, ethnic, communal and familial.’ He wonders if political affiliation is now being used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness. He notes that people on the left and on the right now use politics to find moral meaning, turning politics into an idol, idolatry defined as giving allegiance to something that should be serving only an intermediate purpose. Good definition.

Again, I’ve noted Mr. Brooks’ spiritual evolution over the years. A sign of that evolution is his willingness to listen to a range of voices. In this recent column, he cites insights from Andy Crouch, editor of Christianity Today. Mr. Crouch has written a book called Playing God, noting that idolatry is seductive because at first it seems to work: “The first sip of the martini tastes great. A new smartphone seems to give power and control. Status from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. And what seemed to offer more control begins to control you. Idols fail to deliver on their original promises. They ask for more and more and give less and less.”

All of that prompts Mr. Brooks to note that we need to put politics in its place. It needs to be displaced by more important dependencies: family, friendship, neighborhood, community, faith, basic life creed. And if we’re going to get these kind of priorities straight, maybe a good place to start is to think about what Jesus might say on the subject, or more to the point, where he might lead us, or even more to the point, whether we are inclined to follow where he leads. As G.K Chesterton said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” One of the desert fathers morphed that teaching as follows: “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” Jesus calls our hearts to love of God and neighbor. There ain’t enough, ain’t much of that floating around in today’s politics.

With the help of Mr. Brooks writing about the idolatry of our current political climate, the heresy that it will be fulfilling, I wonder about the idols we worship. I wonder about where we give our hearts. Today’s idols are not carved out of wood or stone. But we give them power, as we seek to fill the God-shaped space inside of us.

Pray this week for grace to give our hearts to that which will satisfy our hearts.

-Jay Sidebotham

 Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
-Exodus 20
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
-David Foster Wallace
Beware of any work for God that causes or allows you to avoid concentrating on Him. A great number of Christian workers worship their work. The only concern of Christian workers should be their concentration on God.
-Oswald Chambers
My Utmost for His Highest
We must overturn so many idols, the idol of self first of all, so that we can be humble, and only from our humility can learn to be redeemers, can learn to work together in the way the world really needs.
-Oscar A. Romero
The Violence of Love
Don’t raise me up, I am but a messenger.
-Jimi Hendrix

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

 

Monday Matters (November 20, 2017)

3-1

Representing

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting the Diocese of New Jersey. On one of the days, I met with lay leaders from various congregations to talk about spiritual growth. Then I met with clergy to explore the same topic. In some ways, a different audience. On the other hand, I was struck with common purpose.

At both gatherings, I was made mindful of what our tradition says about the ministry of the church. In the Prayer Book (p. 845ff.), there’s a section called “The Outline of the Faith”, a.k.a, the Catechism, FAQs about faith. When it comes to questions about the ministry, the Prayer Book says we are all the ministers of the church: lay people, bishops, priests and deacons. I’m curious whether you think of yourself as a minister.

There are questions about each of those four orders. For each of the four orders (lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons), there’s a job description which begins the same way. Each are called to represent Christ and the church in the world. So what does that look like? How are we Christians, clergy and lay people, doing with that job description? Truth be told, the best that can be said is that we get mixed reviews.

Mahatma Gandhi spent his life in proximity to Christians, many of whom encouraged him to convert. He resisted, mindful of the discrimination he personally experienced from good upstanding, religious folk. Gandhi said: “I like your Christ but not your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”

Recent surveys indicate that when people are asked for associations with the word “Christian”, common words that come to mind are judgmental, hypocritical, exclusive. In the first days of the church, people outside the church looked at people inside the church and said, “See how they love one another.” These days, not so much.

Again, there’s nothing new about this. The liturgy for Morning Prayer includes a prayer attributed to St. Chrysostom, an early saint. I say the prayer most mornings. The prayer book fails to note that St. Chrysostom was virulent in anti-semitic preaching. We just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We don’t always note the hatred spewed by Martin Luther towards Jewish people. When I was in middle-school Sunday School, I remember receiving a youth magazine that included an article written by J. Edgar Hoover in which he attacked Martin Luther King, labeling him an immoral communist. Why were they giving that out in Sunday School? In our own time, ardent Bible-reading Christians proclaim a gospel that, in my humble opinion, seems to have nothing to do with Jesus.

A good look in the mirror lands me solidly in the company of folks who fall short. Resentment, pride, envy, hypocrisy, disdain, indifference, withheld forgiveness often grab hold of my heart. It all challenges my faith, causing me to wonder why my life doesn’t look a bit more redeemed. All of it calls us to rely solely on the mercy of the Lord, which is not just forgiveness, but also power to better represent Christ and Christ’s church.

Take this week to think of folks who represent Christ for you. In my own life, I’m mindful of a woman widowed in her 90’s after 60 years of marriage. She wondered what God was calling her to do with the next chapter of her life. I think of a friend suddenly disabled who navigates that challenge with hope. I think of a family who faithfully supports him. I think of a minister who works with teenagers, and shows them God’s unconditional love in creative and caring ways. I think of a priest in Honduras who, at great personal risk, ministers to people with AIDS when other faith traditions in his country shun those folks. In a week devoted to thanksgiving, I give thanks for those representatives.

Then think about what it might mean for you to represent Christ and his church. Take this Monday morning to think about one way you might grow in this area this week. We are each and all ministers in the church. Representing Christ is what we’re called to do.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
-II Corinthians 5
 
 
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
-Ephesians 5
 
 
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me, O God of Israel.
-Psalm 69

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

 

Monday Matters (November 13, 2017)

3-1

Angels laughing

I recently heard a story about John Coburn, gentle giant of the Episcopal Church a generation ago. He was involved with a big old national church meeting, with lots of politics, resolutions, serious discussion. One of those places where fun goes to die.

As John Coburn led this conversation, he cited one of my heroes, Karl Barth, great theologian of the 20th century. As far as I can tell, Dr. Barth never had an unexpressed thought. He wrote volumes on just about everything. I often wonder what he would write about the times in which we live. When I studied his work in seminary, it would literally take me about an hour to read a page from his theological tomes. I think it’s why I wear thick glasses. Having said all that, here’s the word from John Coburn that caught my attention:

When the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, who wrote and published volumes of Dogmatic Theology throughout his professional career, recognized that his life was drawing to a close, he wrote concerning his prodigious theological efforts:

“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, ‘Look’ Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics.”

John Coburn continued, with reference to the meetings in which he found himself:

“Well, dear angels of God, here we come now with our little pushcart full of Books, Reports, Memorials and Resolutions, Petitions and Pamphlets. Please keep an eye on us so we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our Mission- Yes, Ourselves- No.”

All of this is to say that church can be terminally serious, but that’s hardly news. What I find remarkable is that some of the church leaders who encountered greatest opposition, endured greatest persecution, given greatest opportunity to harbor resentment, have responded with joy.

You could start with St. Paul who wrote an epistle to the Philippian church from a 1st century prison cell (let your imagination run wild) and filled that letter with the words “rejoice”. St. Francis of Assisi is remembered across the centuries, the most admired and least imitated of the saints. One of his legacies: joy. In our own day, the joyful demeanor of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama all point to a spiritual reality, that joy is a mark of spiritual growth, even for those who face the deepest suffering and combat the greatest human evils. I admire and envy these saints at once.

Along with the joy, comes the appeal of simplicity and humility. Dr. Barth once addressed a group of seminarians. One skeptical snark, aware of the word count in Dr. Barth’s writings, asked if the good doctor could sum up his theology in one sentence. I’m told Dr. Barth responded with a smile and said: I can do that.

He said:

“Jesus loves me. This I know. For the Bible tells me so.”

Well played.

And play is good. Try some playfulness this Monday.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.
-Karl Barth
 
Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.
-G.K.Chesterton

 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
-Philippians 4
 
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise. Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.
-Psalm 66

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

 

Monday Matters (November 6, 2017)

3-1

I’m exhausted. The New York Marathon demanded presence at 5:30am. Running didn’t start until 10:30am. The course snaked through all five boroughs of the city. The finish line was crossed mid-afternoon. Watching my daughter run the race required effort. Trying to figure out where I could best view her from the sidelines called for a lot, but I prepped well for it. (Point of personal privilege: I’m so proud of her.)

Perhaps it’s a preacher’s occupational hazard. I’m led to consider the ways that scripture compares the spiritual journey to a marathon. Old Testament prophets and New Testament pastors spoke of how the way of faith was like a race. A long one. They spoke of how spiritual disciplines compared to physical training, how spiritual practice prepared for the challenge. Does the analogy apply? Some Monday morning observations from one whose long distance running days are over, in other words, from one who is not particularly well-informed on the subject. But I won’t let that stop me.

First, the spiritual life seems more like a marathon than a sprint. Some of the great cloud of witnesses I know are people who have been at this journey for decades. I often cite one of my mentors, a woman in her nineties who suddenly found herself a widow and wondered aloud what God was calling her to do with the next, new chapter of her life. She never stopped running the race. Who are those wise folks, those saints in your life?

The race requires discipline and takes practice. Very few walk-ons in the marathon. There’s preparation involved. So in the spiritual realm, we practice in the sense that we put faith to practical use. And we practice in the sense that as we do, we grow stronger and get better at it. Prayer and scripture and service equip us for ministry, providing strength, the resources to live the life to which God calls us.

The race calls for endurance and intention. The passage below comes from the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, a letter written to early Christians facing persecution. They may have wondered why they got in the race at all. You may have days like that. Maybe this is one of them. We may hit a wall. We are called to keep going, a day at a time, one foot in front of the other.

It helps to run with other people. That same letter to the Hebrews reminds those folks of a great cloud of witnesses cheering them on (like sidewalk spectators on Manhattan streets). In the marathon, it helps to have people cheering you on, which is why showing up for community life, for worship and study is so important. It’s why the observance of All Saints Day matters, as we considers saints across the generations and around the world who run the race with us, setting the pace, showing us how it’s done.

Whether you’re running a road race or competing in the rat race, let us run with endurance the race God has set before us, knowing that we don’t go it alone, knowing that we don’t run in our own strength, but as Hebrews says, we run looking to Jesus, the author and finisher, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
-Hebrews 12:1

 

The God who has girded me with strength has opened wide my path.
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights.
– 2 Samuel 22:33-34

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to people of understanding, nor yet favor to people of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
-Ecclesiastes 9:11

Even youths will become exhausted, and young men will fall. But those who wait on the Lord will find new strength. They will fly high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.
-Isaiah 40:29-31

I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
– 2 Timothy 4:7

When you walk, your step will not be hampered; and if you run, you will not stumble.
– Proverbs 4:12

I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize.
-Philippians 3:13

Every athlete exercises discipline in every way.
-1 Corinthians 9:25

I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.
-Psalm 119:32


4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

 

Monday (October 30, 2017)

3-1

Monday, October 30, 2017

We’re here to help, with suggestions for a Halloween costume if you haven’t yet figured that out. Dress up like Martin Luther. Bet you hadn’t thought of that one.

Tomorrow, October 31, is the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther took a hammer to cathedral door, posting 95 Theses that within two weeks had gone viral, 16th century style. The anniversary is widely hailed as the beginning of the Reformation, though like all historical movements, a convergence of forces, political, social, scientific, theological had been at work for a while.

To help you live into the role of Martin Luther, a few Monday morning thoughts on some key contributions (and varied quotable quotes in the left-hand column), offered in the conviction that as individuals and as a church we always need renewal, refinement, repentance, revival, restoration and, yes, reformation.

Luther was about grace. Early in life, he tried hard to be a religious A+ student, to get it all right all the time, in that unattractive way that religious people focus on being holier than thou. It did not make him happy. As he read Paul’s letter to the Romans, he realized that he would be justified not by how many hours in prayer he spent, or how exhaustively he confessed every sin. He embraced grace, as he recognized what Rob Bell has said: There is nothing we can do to make God love us less. Grace his fears relieved. He talked about justification by faith. The word justification really means being set in right relationship, with God.

He was about scripture, known for his phrase sola scriptura. Scripture, the ancient text, the old, old story of Jesus and his love would be his guide. The church had lost that compass and he sought to return to that source, which is often the way renewal happens. He was no biblical literalist, not a fundamentalist. For instance, he was not sold on every book of the Bible (He called the Letter of James an epistle of straw.) And he saw God’s word coming to us in many ways.

He was saint and sinner at once. When he staked everything on grace, it allowed him to move beyond pursuit of perfection. Luther amply demonstrated ways he fell short of the glory of God (one way of describing sin) with his anti-semitic writing, which were extensive and which contributed to the vile and violent history of war against the Jews in western culture. (Read Jim Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword, for a powerful and disturbing portrait of what the church must confess.) Part of what he shows is that, in a way that can deeply challenge faith, religious people, even religious heroes often betray their loving Lord in the ways they treat each other, specifically in the area of social jusitce. We see that in the persistent racism in our own nation, where Sunday morning at 11am is still the most segregated hour of the week. That’s not a news flash, but it should keep us humble and ready for repentance and reformation, and open to reconciliation.

He prayed a lot. Apparently, the guy prayed about 3 hours a day. Someone asked how he had time for that, when he had this job to do, i.e., reforming Europe. Was that the best use of his time? He responded that he was too busy not to pray that much. As we contend with decline in many of our churches, we could do worse than follow his example, and take it to the Lord in prayer.

Take this week to give thanks for the ministry of Martin Luther, saint and sinner. Honor his day by beginning some process of renewal and reformation in your own life.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

 Quotable quotes from Martin Luther:
 
The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.
 
God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.
 
Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.
 
I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.
 
The fewer the words, the better the prayer.
 
Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.
 
God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.
 
One learns more of Christ in being married and rearing children than in several lifetimes spent in study in a monastery.
 
The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
  
I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.
 
Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
 
The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.
 
Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer.

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

 

Monday Matters (October 23, 2017)

3-1

Last night, I gave a talk at St. James’ Church in Manhattan. Tomorrow night, I start a Bible Study on the Letter of James in North Carolina. I am privileged to serve as an Associate on the staff of St. James’ in Wilmington, N.C. And today is the Feast of St. James. So I guess someone is telling me it’s time to write about St. James.

The brief letter attributed to James comes near the end of the Bible. It has staked out a unique place in the collection of books of the Bible. Martin Luther is getting a lot of attention these days as we near the 500th anniversary of the day he nailed 95 Theses to the cathedral door, sparking a reforming movement. Luther was big on scripture, but he wasn’t sure James’ letter was up to snuff. He described it as an epistle of straw. His beef with the letter was that it seemed to pile on virtuous acts/good works to the notion that we’re saved by grace.

If the scripture is like a symphony, we hear many voices for sure, sometimes wonderfully dissonant. And we need them all, including the voice of the Letter of James. It articulates what I call the so-what factor. What does the gospel look like when it goes to work in real life? Why does the gospel make a difference?

So I’m going to go all-directive on you this morning and suggest that you read the Letter of James. There are five chapters. Perhaps you might read one a day. It won’t take long. Ask yourself what it has to say to you in your journey of faith. There are many gems in the letter, but here’s one that sticks out for me. It’s one of the few places in the scripture where the word religion is used. It reads like this:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 2:27)

Three thoughts on this verse:

Religion: It’s a word that’s not always in good favor these days. What do you make of the word? Many prefer to speak of being spiritual rather than religious. If someone asks you if you are religious, what does that mean? Pious? Puritanical? Hanging out in some place where fun goes to die? Break the word down and it means to bind again (re-ligio), maybe even to put back together. Granted, you don’t have to look far to find ways that religion has messed up, ways it is defiled and impure. At the same time, we sure could use some ways of bringing things together in a time when the center does not seem to hold.

Care for widows and orphans: It’s a commitment to help all those who need help, those pushed to the margins, those without defenders, those without resources, those who seem to be increasingly under attack. That kind of care is a mark of religion. Such attention binds us together. It’s hopefully helpful for those who are served. It’s transformative for those who serve, seeing that we are all in this together.

Keep oneself unstained by the world: Again, this may sound priggish, but we live in a world where, for instance, it would seem ludicrous to some to help those who are helpless. We live in a world that often says that to win, someone else has to lose. We live in a world that often thinks of scarcity rather than abundance, of merit over grace, a world that tilts toward resentment and covetousness, a world where others as seen as objects.

Read the Letter of James. Find a gem in your reading. Let it help you put faith to work in the world this week.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

A prayer for the Feast of St. James, which happens to be today:
 
Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Amen.
 
 
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you to will and to do of his good pleasure.
-Philippians 2
 
 
God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.
-Martin Luther
 
 
St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.
       – Martin Luther
 
After reading it, do you agree? 

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

 

Monday Matters (October 16, 2017)

3-1

Thoughts and prayers

A few years ago, when I was serving in a big urban church, a parishioner who was also a screenwriter explored the possibility of producing a television drama about a church. She interviewed the staff and wisely decided one of two things. Either the show would be really boring or no one would believe what goes on. Maybe her angle was wrong. Perhaps it should have been a comedy. As an aspiring cartoonist who does a lot of drawings about the church, I note no shortage of material.

As an example, the small non-Episcopal Church in which I grew up provided grist for such a show. Our family lore has preserved this story. It has to do with an older woman in the parish, influential in our small community, a bit eccentric. (It’s church, after all.) She was glad to let everyone know the depths of her piety. On one occasion, she was speaking with a friend at coffee hour. A third woman approached to share concern about some personal struggle. This older woman, let’s call her Jane, said “Oh, I pray for you every day!” As the third woman departed, moving out of earshot, Jane turned to her friend and asked, “Who was that?”

It’s easy to say we pray. We’ve heard a lot in recent days about thoughts and prayers. Tragedies striking our common life (shootings in Las Vegas, fires in Northern California, storms in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas) have been on our minds and in our prayers. I suspect we all have personal storms, private turbulence that weighs on our hearts, minds and spirits. We know those struggles in the lives of people we love. As we’ve heard people express their concern, offering thoughts and prayers, the question has been raised: Is that enough? Is that too easy? Is it a dodge? A bromide? A dismissal?

All of this points to the connection of prayer and action. How do we pray not only with our lips but with our lives?

All of this leads me to think about the mystery of prayer, which is more about changing us than it is about changing God. It calls me to draw on the wisdom of spiritual heroes who knew no separation between contemplation and action in the world, people like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and Richard Rohr.

And the brothers at Holy Cross Monastery folks. Decades ago, a few of them made their way to South Africa as apartheid was unraveling. Church leaders there invited the brothers to come to the country to model life in community, since the violence of the previous regime had left people without those skills. A few of them went, like many characters in the Bible, not knowing where they were going or what they would find or what they would do when they got there. As they describe that time, they say they went and simply said their prayers, observing the monastic hours throughout the day.

They began with prayer, waiting for God to show them what it is they were called to do. Before long, the tragic death of an unattended child on train tracks bordering the monastery’s property revealed the mission. It would be about caring for the poorest in this town, tending to children too often left alone for too long. It would be about starting a school, providing quality education equal to the best schools in the country. It began with thoughts and prayers, which were indispensable. But it didn’t end there. They’ve done something beautiful for God.

These days, our thoughts and prayers are with victims of a mad shooter, victims of nature’s fury, victims of abuse by people in power, victims of indifference, victims in a world with devils filled that threaten to undo us. The thoughts and prayers, contemplative acts, are the beginning of a response. They lead us as baptized persons to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. What specifically can we do towards that end?

If you’re not sure, pray not only for those who suffer. Join me in prayer, asking God to show us how to respond, how to help, how to heal, what to do.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

 Heard yesterday in church:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, 
whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
-From Paul’s letter to the Philippians


Action and contemplation are very close companions; they live together in one house on equal terms. Mary and Martha are sisters.
-Bernard of Clairvaux
 
 
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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.
-from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6)
 

Discipleship Matters Conference 2017

Oct. 16-18, 2017

The conference will explore Christian formation for discipleship, scripture engagement, habits of daily prayer, serving the poor, and sharing the Good News.
Registration is now open! Find more information and the link to register online at

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

 

Monday Matters (October 9, 2017)

3-1

Have you ever changed your mind? How did that happen?

As is often the case, converging thoughts from separate sources have made me reflect on my own state of mind, what led me in the past to change my mind, how resistant I am to that kind of change.

It started with a friend who reported he was taking a break from social media, convinced that Facebook was comparable to a pulpit, i.e., that piece of furniture that stands six feet above contradiction. My friend wondered: Has anyone ever really changed their political or religious point of view because of something they saw posted on Facebook? We could say the same thing about cable news, where viewers gravitate to punditry that confirms what they already believe.

In my work focused on spiritual growth, I often ask about what has helped people change or grow. Most often I hear that such as an experience has to do with challenge, crisis, or suffering. Often, it has to do with a relational experience, sitting down with someone who has something to teach us, breaking out of the bubble.

The chaotic state of our world right now indicates that we could benefit from that kind of conversation. That same chaos also suggests that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing, that we need among other things, a new mindfulness, a change of mind.

But what does that change look like? Is it change for change’s sake? Change in what way? What’s our compass?

About the time my wise friend chimed in with his social media sabbatical, I came across readings for the first Sunday in October, which have been on my mind since, as they talk about a change of mind. One of the readings was about the children of Israel in the wilderness, GPS deprived, challenged but also formed by that experience. They came out a new people, with a new mindset. Their minds were changed.

That same Sunday we eavesdropped on Jesus’ conversation with religious opponents, folks unable to see the new and amazingly gracious thing that Jesus was bringing into the world. The gospel writer says it simply: The professional religious people of the day refused to change their minds. Which makes this professional religious person ask again: How is it that people change their minds? And change to what?

The third reading for the day helped. (It helped so much I included it below) St. Paul writes to the beloved Philippian church about their state of mind. He calls them to be of one mind. (Imagine!) And he invites them to discover a new and different path. He encourages them to have the mind of Christ. Change we can believe in.

What does that change look like? The mind of Christ has to do with an attitude of humility and service, a mindset oriented toward the other. Paul confirms that we can experience that state of mind as well. In another passage from his letters, St. Paul calls his readers not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12). Said another way, by the changing of their minds. Which comes from following Jesus, as simple and complicated as that may be.

It could be said that Jesus came into the world to change our minds. To make our minds repositories of love and compassion. To give us the power to change, when left to our own devices, we’re stuck.

Thank God he did.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

 From St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians
 
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.
 
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name
that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
 
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
 
Hey readers of Monday Matters. You should come to this conference.  Our conversation will be enhanced by your presence. Sign up now!

Discipleship Matters Conference 2017

Oct. 16-18, 2017

The conference will explore Christian formation for discipleship, scripture engagement, habits of daily prayer, serving the poor, and sharing the Good News.
Registration is now open! Find more information and the link to register online at

4

Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.