Author Archives: RenewalWorks Admin

Monday Matters (September 3, 2018)

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The collect for Labor Day:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A selection from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), chosen for the observance of Labor Day:

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Other readings suggested to help observe Labor Day:

Ecclesiasticus 38:27-32a
Psalm 107:1-9
Psalm 90
I Corinthians 3:10-14
Matthew 6:19-24

Here’s hoping you’re enjoying this Labor Day holiday, last gasp of summer.

It’s one of the few national holidays that has woven its way into the church calendar, along with Independence Day and Thanksgiving. There are prayers and scriptures chosen for Labor Day (cited above). Among those readings, we find a selection from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches his disciples about what it means to put faith to work in the world. That selection invites us to consider the sacred quality of our varied vocations.

The passage challenges listeners to think about what they are working for, where they are devoting their efforts, where they are giving their hearts. It includes this line that always comes to me as huge, often unsettling, occasionally annoying challenge. Jesus says: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

It causes me to think about where I am giving my heart, not a bad question for Labor Day. It’s not always an easy one to answer, because in my ADHD spirituality, I’ve got a number of treasures I’m pursuing all at once, some pulling in opposite directions. The fact of the matter is, my heart is not in one place. In our service of Holy Eucharist, we pray for gladness and singleness of heart. I’m guessing the reason we pray for such is because I (we) haven’t quite gotten there yet. Kierkegaard said that purity of heart is to will one thing. Let me repeat: I haven’t gotten there yet. How about you?

A few centuries after Jesus offered his teaching, a desert father offered this equally rigorous challenge, a variation on the theme our Lord and Teacher struck in the Sermon on the Mount. Abba Poemem wrote: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart. Again, it calls us to think about where we are giving our hearts, and to ponder and puzzle over pursuits that we know or at least suspect won’t satisfy our hearts. Think of those pursuits as spiritual junk-food. Delightfully delicious in the moment (I’m talking cool ranch Doritos) but hardly sustaining, marginally nourishing.

I can see why this passage is selected for Labor Day, as we are asked to reflect on the work we do, whether we get paid for it or not. The passage raises questions not only appropriate for the holiday. They are good questions to explore as we launch into the academic year, a new program year for many churches and schools and organizations. September has something of the feeling of new year, beckoning resolutions and intentions for the next chapter in the journey. It’s not a bad time to embrace Jesus’ question: Where are we giving our hearts? Where is our treasure? Do we give our hearts to that which will not satisfy our hearts?

Perhaps it’s a lifelong journey to arrive at purity of heart, to will one thing. Perhaps we won’t experience that until we reach the other side. But perhaps we can take a step to think about where our treasure lies, about where we are giving our heart.

With that in mind, reflect on this prayer about the work we are given to do, offered this Labor Day but good for just about any day:

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

 

Monday Matters (August 27, 2018)

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Some of the greatest hits of the Book of Job:

Job 1:21
He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 5:7
Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.

Job 5:9-13
God does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number. God gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields; God sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. God frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. God takes the wise in their own craftiness; and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.

Job 19:25-26
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.

Job 23:10
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.

Job 38:1ff
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

Job 40:1-5
And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Then Job answered the Lord: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”

If I were to say, “You must feel like Ezra, Nehemiah or Ezekiel,” I’m betting most folks would have little idea what I meant, no idea who these biblical characters were. But I’ve discovered over the years, in all kinds of situations, that if I say: “You must feel like Job,” people know exactly what I’m talking about.

Biblical literacy may be sliding in our culture, but Job remains a character with whom many people identify. Even if we don’t know all the particulars of Job’s story, the challenge of why bad things happen to good people surrounds us, whether we’re watching the news or hearing the stories of neighbors or listening to those sitting across from us at the dining room table or reflecting on our own lives.

Alfred Lord Tennyson described the Book of Job, the 19th book of the Bible, as the greatest poem of ancient or modern times. We’re reading it these days in the Daily Lectionary found in the Book of Common Prayer. (If you want to hear some of it, find a local church offering Morning Prayer on a daily basis.) The book is bracketed by brief narrative passages describing how Job got into his predicament and then how he got out of it. But in the middle, the guts of the book, we find poetry that so moved Tennyson and others, conversations between Job and friends, then conversations between Job and God.

The three friends go down in biblical history as profiles in discourage. They start out okay, sitting in silence for seven days with their beleaguered friend, a commendable ministry of presence. But after a while they can’t take the silence any more. They open their big mouths, which often gets us in trouble. They offer advice and explanations. “Your suffering is your fault.” “Your suffering is your children’s fault.” “You should have done something different.” These friends reveal the difficulties we have when we encounter suffering. We wish to make sense of it all. We nervously want to find an explanation. Basically, we talk too much.

I’ve been helped in reflection on the mystery of suffering by a teacher, J. Christiann Beker who wrote a short book entitled Suffering and Hope: The Biblical Vision and the Human Predicament. Dr. Beker, a theologian and biblical scholar, wrote from the perspective of his time in a slave camp in Holland during World War II. He claims no tidy answers to ancient questions. He notes that the Bible speaks in varied voices on the problem of evil. Sometimes suffering can be explained. Sometimes not. Sometimes it’s the result of human activity. Sometimes it can be redemptive. Often, it is simply mystery. In all of it, Beker affirms that, in the end, love wins. Hence the hope. It’s a call to faithfulness when life makes little sense. Have you ever needed to answer that call?

I’ve been told that in the face of inexplicable suffering, we’re called to withstand when we can’t understand. We’re called to proclaim when we can’t explain. Our withstanding proclamation can best be summed up for me in the language of Paul’s letter to the Romans: Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Another mentor offers this slightly gloomy assessment: Suffering is the promise life keeps. In a culture that seeks to numb us to the effects of pain, to put it at a distance, to rationalize it, our faith calls us to face the rigorous truth that pain comes to each of us, and that God is present with us in that challenge.

As our church reads these days from the Book of Job, grapple with the notion that God is present with us in the suffering we face. Can you believe that? See if you can hold on to the promise that love wins. And if you have a friend who is suffering in some way, great or small, you don’t need to say a lot. But it sure would be great if you could show up.

-Jay Sidebotham

P.S. The Early Bird discount to register for the Discipleship Matters Conference expires on Aug 31st!  Register now and join us for an enlightening conversation about discipleship and spiritual growth

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

 

 

Monday Matters (August 20, 2018)

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O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever.
Let Israel now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
-Psalm 118:1-4

Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God: for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and selfishness that have chilled his faith.
-Thomas Merton

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
-Mahatma Gandhi, after being refused entrance to a church in Calcutta because he was not from preferred caste

Lord Have Mercy

The prayer of 4th century St. Chrysostom concludes the service of Morning Prayer. It’s a beautiful statement of the power of prayer, written by someone revered by our church. But just about every time I say it, I’m reminded of the fact that the author of this prayer also wrote homilies attacking the Jewish community, sermons brimming with his day’s version of anti-semitism.

Episcopalians owe a great debt to Martin Luther, who inspired Thomas Cranmer as Cranmer assembled the Book of Common Prayer. Luther launched a much-needed reformation in the church and left a legacy of focus on God’s unconditional love, salvation not by our efforts but by the prevenient grace of God. But he also wrote hateful rants against his Jewish neighbors, vile material that often come to mind when I hear “A mighty fortress is our God.”

I was raised in a church with people steeped in scripture, people with deep prayer life. Yet as I reflect on my long life, among my vivid memories are numerous explicitly racist comments and attitudes from those same folks.

One of my earliest memories of Junior High Sunday School is a newsletter from some Christian publishing group that included an article by J. Edgar Hoover excoriating Martin Luther King, claiming he was a communist. I was young but I knew something was out of whack.

All of this came to mind as I shared the tears of a news commentator as the grand jury released results of its investigation into the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. It described the abuse of more than a thousand children. I wonder how you reacted to the news. Was it news?

I learned recently that a pastor I admire resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct, inappropriate behavior in the sacred workplace. The Me-Too movement came to a church that taught me a lot.

All of it could be enough to make this priest a none (i.e., one of those folks in our culture who claim no religious affiliation). On any given day, we could find reason to make that move. All of it makes me realize that if we’re not outraged, we’re not paying attention. All of it calls into question the power of our faith. Is it as transformative as we say?

Of course, we can fall back on Luther’s line that we are saints and sinners at the same time. And I don’t mean to cast stones. We Episcopalians have built our own glass houses. I feel pretty certain that my foibles are probably neither newsworthy nor remarkable, but let me assure you they are there in full force. I know the dark places in my own heart where one could find racism, jealousy, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, indifference, resentment, schadenfreude, hankering for revenge. We need not go into detail. I generally keep them pretty well hidden. Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of spiritual work to do.

That is part of what draws me to St. Paul, and the letter he wrote to the Romans, where he said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He meant all, including and perhaps especially the most religious people of his day. Maybe he was preaching to himself. I also sense that he realized that there’s not that much difference between the best and the worst of us. What St. Paul knew, as he called himself the chief of sinners, is that the mercy of God is bigger than any of our shortcomings. The mercy of God binds the human community. Again, it includes all. It makes me realize why Jesus might have felt that the notorious sinners had more open ears to his message than did the really religious people of his day.

So what keeps me from becoming a none? I still believe that the church at its best can be an instrument to speak of mercy in a world that needs to hear that word. In the meantime, it’s a call to any of us who consider ourselves spiritual or religious to surrender any sense that we’re better than anybody else. And to cling with confidence to the one who modeled sinlessness. And to hold on to the hope that he will carry us to that day when we shall be where we would be, when we shall be what we should be, things that are not now nor could be then shall be our own.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (August 13, 2018)

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Offer these prayers each day this week. They have both been set to music, so feel free to sing along:

I am weak but Thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long, As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Refrain:
Just a closer walk with Thee, Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee, Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Thro’ this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares? Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er, Time for me will be no more; Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.

Day by day, day by day, O, dear Lord, three things I pray:
to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly,
follow thee more nearly, day by day.

The prayer of
St. Richard of Chichester

Finding the center

Monday, August 13, 2018

Just a closer walk with thee

Last week, my attention was directed to a Pew Research report, dated August 1. It explored why Americans do or don’t go to religious services. It’s timely material for any of us in mainline denominations who note dramatic decline in membership. Gatherings of clergy often brim with anxiety about these trends, without a clear understanding of how to respond. Over the years, my own response has involved streamlining services, trying to be more contemporary, working on extravagant welcome, providing free parking, serving really good coffee. I wish I’d known about this research.

The Pew research report put it this way. More than any other reason, people say that they attend religious services in order to get closer to God. A majority report that when they attend services, they do indeed experience that greater closeness.

I want to hold that report along side another bit of research, a Gallup poll published last April, which asked what people wanted when they came to church. A quote from that report: “What was the top reason people gave for why they attended worship? Music? Volunteer opportunities? Nope. The top response was sermons. “Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” and “Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” were nearly tied at 76% and 75% respectively.” People want to grow in their relationship with God. Duh.

I’ve participated in church services, indeed I’ve presided at church services that made me feel closer to God. I will also confess that I’ve participated in and presided at services that I suspect made God feel more distant, for me and others. Sometimes we just bore people.

So think this week about what it might mean to be closer to God. What does that look like? When in your life have you made movement towards that closer relationship with God? What caused that to happen? Was church part of that experience?

I don’t have the street cred of Pew Research, but here’s my own anecdotal reporting after talking with a lot of Episcopalians. The most common answer that I get for what drew people closer to God was some experience of suffering or crisis. In those times, people turned to the community for support and guidance, peace and prayers, teaching of ancient wisdom.

Ironically, when I ask what caused God to feel more distant, I could get the same answer. Suffering or crisis. I served in Manhattan in 2001. We noted an uptick in attendance after 9/11, a sign that people were looking to get closer to the Holy One in the midst of things beyond understanding. As parish priest, aware of who showed up on Sundays, I also noticed a number of people who stopped coming to church because their loss felt too great.

To move closer to God means to know God better. It’s about relationship. When the church is living into its vocation, doing what it is called to do, being what it is called to be, it provides pathways for this kind of spiritual growth, this kind of connection. The church can also get in the way. I’m personally wrestling right now with the ways that church leaders (including yours truly) fall short, leaders who disappoint, leaders who get in the way of spiritual growth.

So perhaps in spite of the foibles of clergy (again, yours truly included), we are called to focus on what helps people grow closer to God. Take this week to imagine what that might be for you. Ask God to show you what a next step might look like. Then dare to take that step.

-Jay Sidebotham

Here are links to the two research reports cited in this column:

Why Americans Go (and Don’t Go) to Religious Services

www.episcopalcafe.com/why-people-go-to-church/

 

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

Monday Matters (August 6, 2018)

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The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life

Turn
Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus

Learn
Reflect on scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings

Pray
Dwell intentionally with God each day

Worship
Gather in community weekly to thank, praise and dwell with God

Bless
Share faith and unselfishly give and serve

Go
Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus

Rest
Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace and restoration

Calendar alert: Today, August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Read this great story (Luke 9:28-36) and see how the disciples came to see Jesus at the center.

Finding the center

I’ve been praying for healing for Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, who had surgery last week. Understatement alert: I’m not alone in those prayers. I’ve also been praying in thanksgiving for his leadership, and the challenge he recently put to Episcopalians and any others who are interested.

At the convention of the denomination last month, he invited folks to commit to the way of love, the way of Jesus. That way is outlined in seven spiritual practices which you can find at this website: www.episcopalchurch.org/explore-way-love.  I’ve also included them above. Their goal? To help people move to a Jesus-centered life.

It’s very much in line with the work we do with RenewalWorks, which begins with an online inventory asking people about their own spiritual life. Based on answers, the research indicates four stages of spiritual growth along a continuum. These four stages are: Exploring, Growing, Deepening and Centered.

More than 2/3 of Episcopalians indicate that they are in the first two stages: exploring or growing. For those who are centered, percentages are in the low single digits. Despite the small numbers, we hold that centeredness as a goal, as we seek a Jesus-centered life.

So what does it mean to be so centered? Eastern religious traditions may have lessons for us. Focus on balance, silence, intention and core strength contribute to centeredness. Contrast that with the distractions we find in our ADD culture. In our context, what would a Jesus-centered life actually look like? Find here a few suggestions. (You may add more):

A Jesus-centered life means listening to Jesus’ teaching, being his student. It’s spelled out, in summary fashion, in the commandment in the Hebrew Scripture. Love God. Love neighbor. Simple, but not easy.

A Jesus-centered life means acting the way he acted. We have a relative who lives in town who regularly calls in the morning and asks “How can I help you today?” That’s a Jesus thing. Service.

A Jesus-centered life means giving the way he gave, with a generosity of spirit extended especially to those who have been excluded or pushed to the margins.

A Jesus-centered life means forgiving the way he forgave. That’s a hard one for me, because I treasure resentments like trophies.

A Jesus-centered life means taking it to the Lord in prayer. I marvel that Jesus repeatedly went off to pray to the one he called his Father. If he could take that time in his limited three year ministry, when he had a world to save, maybe we can do that too.

Summing up, a Jesus-centered life means living in gratitude for the grace of the word made flesh, the God of creation stretching out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into saving embrace.

My spiritual advisor (a.k.a., my spouse of 33 years, bless her heart) tells me that the word “ego” is really an acronym which means “edging God out.” Whether we admit it or not, I think much of our striving is motivated in pursuit of a me-centered life. It takes practice to live otherwise. Even the most altruistic has got ego gratification at work, or at least as temptation. (As I have previously noted, one of my mentors confessed: “I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.”) But that should not keep us from moving along the spiritual continuum toward a more centered life, centered on Jesus.

Think this week about what a Jesus-centered life looks like for you. Along the way, ask yourself whether it is something you wish to pursue.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

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

Monday Matters (July 30, 2018)

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 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 honor.
-Romans 12:1-10

The Honor Challenge

In the mornings, it’s been my practice to start the day with Jay’s stream-lined version of Morning Prayer, which includes prayers, reading and thinking about the scripture passages assigned in a daily lectionary. Sometimes I run across passages that really speak to me. Sometimes I’m befuddled. Sometimes unmoved. Sometimes I run across passages I would have omitted. (Thank goodness no one put me on that committee.)

In recent weeks, we’ve been reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, as it celebrates the wideness of God’s mercy, the amazing grace that is far more expansive than any of us religious types like to admit. That letter has been at the heart of renewal in the church over the centuries, precisely because it celebrates the love of God from which we can never be separated.

Its final chapters (12-16) represent what I call the “so-what” factor, implications for living that come as our response to amazing grace. As I read those chapters last week in my early morning fog, one particular line stood out for me. I’ve been thinking about it over the past few days, and I’d like to share it with Monday readers. As Paul speaks to the church, calling them to live out the grace they have received, he issues this challenge: Outdo one another in showing honor. It almost sounds like a competition. Figure out ways to honor each other.

It got me thinking about that old-fashioned word “honor.” It can easily get co-opted, its meaning cheapened in a culture where we talk about honoring a credit card or a coupon. Other traditions often reveal a better handle on the idea. I remember visiting a Native American reservation, and attending a potluck dinner for the community, a long table abundantly spread with great food. After grace was said, I expected the many children in the community to be the first through the line. Much to my surprise, without instruction from anyone, the eldest in the room, some assisted by canes and walkers, went through the line first, an outward and visible sign of a culture that honored its most senior members. Quite a difference from our youth-centered culture which often relegates seniors to the margins. Out of sight, out of mind.

In the liturgy for the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, the word “honor” looms large. It shows up in a couple places, but for me, most significantly in the exchange of rings as the soon-to-be married couple say to each other: “With all that I am and all that I have, I honor you.” It’s not a commitment to a set of rules. It’s not a contract. It’s a commitment to another person. It’s a covenant by which the best is sought for the other.

That call to honor is implicit in promises made at baptism, inviting us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Does it really mean all? It calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. Does it really mean every?

I can’t say that I always understand what the Apostle Paul was thinking, but I have a feeling that kind of covenantal relationship is what he hoped for when he challenged the Roman church members to outdo one another in showing honor. It is indeed a counter-cultural approach in a world that asks “What’s in it for me?” or “What have you done for me lately?”

What would your interactions look like this week if you embraced St. Paul’s challenge, if you tried to outdo one another in showing honor? What would it mean in your office? In your home? In your church? What would it mean to honor the people who wait on you at a store or restaurant? The pushy driver trying to cut into your lane? The relative whose political point of view makes you nuts?

Take the challenge. Outdo one another.

-Jay Sidebotham

Coming attractions: Please note that the entire Episcopal Church will be invited to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans during the season of Epiphany (January and February 2019), as the second round of the Good Book Club, organized by Forward Movement and endorsed by the Presiding Bishop. Fasten your seat belts. Romans renews.

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

Monday Matters (July 23, 2018)

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The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Mark 6

Rest a while

A recent poll indicated that nearly half (47%) of parents say that they share fewer meals with their family than when they were growing up. 43% say that they have fewer family meals now than they did five years ago. 57% of parents say that when they do eat a meal together, family members are distracted by technology. I suspect we’ve all been at a restaurant and looked over at another table to see a family together, each on the phone, maybe even texting each other. Maybe that’s your family. It could be mine. (I’ve been known to send an email from my office upstairs to my wife working downstairs.)

In our work with congregations, we find that a busy schedule can be one of things that gets in the way of spiritual growth. We’ve learned that being busy with stuff at church is no guarantee of a deeper spiritual life. In fact, that kind of busy-ness can be an obstacle, an impediment, even an off-ramp.

And while there is no mention of smartphones or social media in the Bible, which is a mercy, the gospel reading we heard in church yesterday does have something to say on the subject, once again proving that scripture is a lively word.

There’s this interesting line in the reading from Mark, printed above, which says that Jesus invited the apostles to a retreat. He called them to a quiet place. Many were “coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” I suspect every generation thinks it’s the busiest, the most overworked, the one facing greatest schedule demands. For whatever reason, the apostles were busy being busy, with no leisure even to eat. To my mind, as someone who rarely misses a meal, that is busy. Circumstances were of course different than ours. Maybe they had no leisure to eat because they lived at subsistence level. Maybe they didn’t have leisure to eat because they were scrambling to find money to buy food.

But I’ve always taken this passage as timely. When I get all flipped out about a crowded calendar, I recall that there’s nothing new under the sun. I think of all the times Jesus goes off by himself to pray, to rest. How did he have time to do that? He had a world to save. I imagine Jesus looking at the way we live, regarding it with compassion, seeing us coming and going, as we make life choices that forfeit time to sit and (literally or figuratively) have a meal. The gospels tell us that Jesus looked on the crowd who were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. That could be us.

When I served in midtown Manhattan, at a church on a busy avenue, with as much pedestrian traffic in front of it as any church I know, I used to stand on the top steps at rush hour and watch people go by. On a good day, I’d pray for them. The words from the gospel, the description of harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd seemed to fit that New York crowd. Sure, many were accomplished. Many were wealthy. They still looked like sheep headed in a lot of directions.

As I noted, our work on spiritual growth has indicated that the busy-ness of our lives can impede spiritual growth. People claim that they simply do not have the time to gather for worship, or to sit quietly each day, or to engage in ministries to help people in need. With work now accessible 24/7, with stores open all the time, with sports practices round the clock, we probably do need greater intention about time for retreat, reflection, stillness, peace.

I’m taken with the call of our Presiding Bishop to commit to practice the way of love. At the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, he invited Episcopalians to seven practices that help people move toward a life centered on Jesus. (You can learn more about this invitation and read about these practices at www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love.)

One of those seven ways: A call to rest. Just like Jesus’ call to come away to a deserted place and rest a while. Maybe summer is a good time for you to do that. Maybe it’s a good time to look at your calendar and consider whether you are busy being busy. Maybe you feel harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. If any of that is true, maybe you need to hear Jesus say to you: Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

-Jay Sidebotham

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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 (July 16, 2018)

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A favorite hymn text about the church: Hymn #51 in the 1982 Hymnal

We the Lord’s people,
heart and voice uniting, praise him who called us out of sin and darkness into his own light, that he might anoint us a royal priesthood.

This is the Lord’s house, home of all his people, school for the faithful, refuge for the sinner, rest for the pilgrim, haven for the weary; all find a welcome.

This is the Lord’s day, day of God’s own making, day of creation, day of resurrection,
day of the Spirit, sign of heaven’s banquet,
day for rejoicing.

In the Lord’s service
bread and wine are offered, that Christ may take them,
bless them, break and give them to all his people, his own life imparting, food everlasting.

Summer reading assignment

Ah, July in Texas. What a great idea!

Actually, it was great. I’ve just come back from a small gathering in Austin. About 1000 bishops and deputies, and a host of others like me showed up for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Our time together was marked by lots of meetings (What’s church without meetings?), lively conversations, healthy debate, shared learnings, great fellowship, joyful reunions, vats of guacamole, and compelling liturgy, including preaching by our Presiding Bishop and others. I continue to give thanks and praise to God for the ministry and witness of Michael Curry, who inspires us with the loving, life-giving and liberating message of Jesus.

All of it got me thinking about the church: What is the church really about? What is it for? Is it an institution whose time has come and gone? Does it have a future?

We should always be asking those questions. A mentor put it this way. In every generation, the church needs to ask whether it is doing and being what it is called to do and be. Statistics indicate a transitional time for the church in our culture. That makes some folks anxious or fearful. I take it as opportunity to think creatively about our call. This guiding question for me in my ministry comes from Brian McLaren: Is the church a club for the elite who pretend to have arrived or a school of disciples who are still on the way?

The vision of church as school, the belief that a synonym for disciple is student with Jesus as instructor leads me to give a summer reading assignment. For the next few Sundays, our lectionary will offer selections from the New Testament letter to the Ephesians. It has become one of my favorite books, as it speaks of the mystery, marvel, miracle of the church. It speaks of blessing, inheritance, hope and call. Mostly it speaks of grace and how we respond to it.

Take this summer to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest what this letter has to say about the church, and your place in it. I believe the whole letter can be summed up in these few verses,

Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

These verses tell us that it begins with God’s grace, that our place in the community is not a reflection of our spectacular religious achievement, but is the outgrowth of original blessing. Our life in the church only makes sense as we see that all is gift. How would this week shift if you carried with you this notion of amazing grace?

It goes on to say that we are given gifts for a purpose. We are God’s workmanship, the result of God’s creativity, created for good works. How would your week shift if in whatever you do, you recall that you are God’s creative work, intended for expressions of gratitude and generosity, the response to grace?

It goes on to say that God has called us to a new way of life. God has prepared a way for us, good works in which we are meant to walk. How would your week shift if you woke each morning and asked God to show you clearly the path God would wish you to walk?

There will be no written book report on your summer reading (although if you want to send your comments to me, I’d love to see them). Rather the report will be your life, as people see your good works and give glory to God in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

-Jay Sidebotham

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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 (July 9, 2018)

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Proverbs 11:17

Those who are kind reward themselves, but the cruel do themselves harm.

Luke 6:35,36
Jesus said: But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Colossians 3:12
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

I Corinthians 13:4
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant.

And then there’s this from the Dalai Lama whose birthday was last Friday:
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.

The Courage of Kindness

I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing the movie about Mr. Rogers. A goofy comedy or something with themes Jurassic or Jedi would have interested me more. But we heard good things about the movie, and my spouse (way more spiritual evolved than I am) really wanted to see it. So I went. Good husband award.

I was surprised by how it moved me. For someone like me who overly indulges in the toxicity of 24/7 news, it provided an antidote that fed the spirit. The movie is aptly titled “Won’t you be my neighbor?” That’s something I can imagine Jesus asking.

Not that I was asked, but I could suggest an alternative title for the movie. It would be “The Courage of Kindness.” Other members of my family had apparently paid more attention to Mr. Rogers over the years. For me, the movie served as introduction. The little I had known about his show had left me unimpressed with its unpolished simplicity, its quiet, slow pace, its fairly crude production value. As Saturday Night Live demonstrated, it was easy to mock.

I hadn’t realized how brave Mr. Rogers was. He saw a need and followed his instincts to offer a show that was not in the least flashy, a show which so clearly affirmed the dignity of children, a show that took children seriously. In a gentle way, he addressed issues of racial segregation. He spoke honestly about exclusion, about family break-ups, about violence, about death. In the face of all that, he preached grace, the inherent value of each person. I left the movie impressed with the powerful courage of his kind of kind spirit. Who knew?

It made me think about how much we need the courage of kindness in our world. So I cracked open my Bible and was surprised at the number of times the virtue of kindness comes up. I listed a few references to kindness above. One in particular strikes me: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. (Ephesians 4:32) I read in that a call to live life mimicking the kindness of Christ, who called the children to himself when adults were trying to silence the children or shut them out. Jesus took the children in his arms. He blessed them.

Speaking of blessings, a number of years ago, I was introduced to a blessing which I use at the conclusion of liturgies, a blessing which has spread widely. It goes like this:

Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind. And God’s blessing be with you.

It’s remarkable how many people relate to this blessing. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the rigorous realism that life is short. It may also be that phrase: Make haste to be kind. We could do worse than to wake up each morning and think about how soon kindness can be demonstrated. Opportunities abound.

Our culture is experiencing a drought of kindness. The crudeness of politicians and pundits tempts us to respond in kind. The spirit of Jesus invites us to another way. Jesus said: Don’t respond in kind. Be kind. Treat each other with grace and forgiveness. Affirm the dignity of all persons, especially children.

What would it mean this week for you and me to make haste to be kind? What might it look like to share that spirit not in the reluctant way I went to the movie, but recognizing that there is remarkable power when we practice the courage of kindness.

-Jay Sidebotham

Note to readers:
I wrote this post after I saw the movie last week. Then on Friday, I read an excellent column by David Brooks, published in the NY Times, all about the meaning of this movie. I commend it to you. I wish I’d written it.

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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 (July 2, 2018)

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Churches should always be two things simultaneously: schools for saints and hospitals for sinners. On the good side, they ought to be schools, helping to draw out of us our best, teaching us the skills and practices that helps us in imitation of our Lord, to be humble, loving and wise. At the same time, in an acknowledgement of the broken place where each of us starts, it ought to be a hospital. There is much sickness in us that needs to be healed on our way to sanctity and it will take time. In any church, we are always going to be surrounded with other recovering sinners like ourselves. Among the great gifts we can give each other is to release the temptation to grumble at each other’s brokenness.
-Christopher Martin
The Restoration Project, a wonderful book published by Forward Movement. Buy it.

Pray for the church. Pray for our country.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

This is one of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book (page 816). It’s a prayer for the holy catholic church, which I take to mean the church around the world in all its diversity, everyone from Baptist to Presbyterian to Pentecostal to non-denominational to Roman Catholic to Orthodox and my personal fave, Episcopal, to name just a few.

What I love about the prayer is how it begins with rigorous realism, the recognition that the church always stands in need of renewal and reform, maybe even resurrection. It’s a reminder that the institution is not an end in and of itself. It is an instrument for people to come to know the love of God powerfully and graciously expressed in Jesus. It’s a reminder that the church exists to remind the world that love is the way. The prayer acknowledges that the church sometimes does that well, and sometimes, not so much. When it falls short, as it often does, the church needs to change

And we all love change, right?

This prayer has been on my heart as many people wing their way to Austin for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Austin in July. Good idea. The convention will meet from July 5-13. Join me in prayers for this gathering. I’m praying that it will be an occasion where the church grows in its ability to share the news that love is the way.

This prayer has also been on my heart in this week that includes Independence Day, a civic holiday included in the church calendar to give thanks for our nation. There is much to give thanks for in this noble experiment called the United States. There is much to love about our country. And we have a lot to work on. We could apply this prayer to our nation, praying that we will be filled with truth and peace. We can most certainly pray that where there is corruption or error or anything amiss, that we can move forward together.

This week provides opportunity to think about the character of our nation, as the occupant of the Oval Office asks us to consider what makes a nation great. As I think about families being divided, that question has triggered my recollection of what Nelson Mandela said: The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children. As I think about toddlers in cages, I think about what Doestoevsky wrote: The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

The fact is, we have work to do as a church and as a society. Join in prayer for our church gathered in Texas to figure out what it means to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.

And join in prayer for our nation, as divisions mount. Use the collect for Independence Day if that is helpful. It’s printed below. We have much to celebrate in our common life, in church, in nation. We’ve got a lot to work on.

The Collect for Independence Day

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-Jay Sidebotham

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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.