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Monday Matters (January 15, 2018)

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An Inescapable Network of Mutuality

For many reasons, it is meet and right this morning to recall the words from Dr. King included below, part of a letter written from a Birmingham jail. The past week of 24/7 news has left me wondering whether Dr. King was right, whether the way we now live is the way God’s universe is really made. Was Dr. King dreaming?

I recently participated in a group in my town, different folks from different walks of life gathered to think about how we address challenges facing our community, a reflection of wider challenges facing our nation. The fine facilitator tried to bring focus to our discussions. He led us in creation of a list of the issues our group could address. We knew we couldn’t do everything. Maybe we could not even do much. But we believed we could do something.

We quickly came up with a list of issues to address: poverty, discrimination, incarceration, education, income inequality, housing, homelessness, health care, child care, elder care. I bet you could come up with a very long list in very short order.

There were many voices, so I didn’t add to the list, but on the drive home, this issue came to mind. How might it be possible for us to see that in our communities, we are connected? How can we build a culture in which we share and bear responsibility for each other, built on the conviction that we are meant to be in community, that we are meant for communion?

Maybe there was a time when that sense was prevalent. Maybe not. Forgive me if I’m repeating this story about Mayor LaGuardia, as told by Brennan Manning in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel. In the middle of the Great Depression, the mayor turned up at a night court in the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. An old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. Her daughter’s husband had left. Her daughter was sick. Her grandchildren were hungry. The shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop charges. “It’s a bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people a lesson.” LaGuardia said to the woman: “I’ve got to punish you. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.”

As the mayor pronounced sentence, he was reaching into his pocket. He tossed a bill into his hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit. Furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” $47.50 was turned over to the woman. Fifty cents (a big hit in those days) was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

All I know is that almost 50 years after Martin Luther King lost his life, gave his life, our country seems to lack that sense that we are in this together, that whatever affects one affects all. Our culture is gripped by division, leaders making things worse, as we are plagued by discourse undermining the dream of a single garment of destiny.

Jesus prayed on the night before he died for his disciples that we all may be one. I’m praying he is praying for us now.

-Jay Sidebotham

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jesus prayed: ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
-John 17

From the Baptismal Covenant:

Will you strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will with God’s help.


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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 (January 8, 2018)

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I recently heard New Year’s resolutions described as a to-do list for the first week of January. I’m wondering on this Monday morning, one week into 2018, how you are doing on your own resolutions?

A wise friend pointed me to an op-ed piece The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions, by David DeSteno, N.Y. Times, 12.29). The article talked about resolutions, how and why and whether they make a difference. The statistics aren’t great. By January 8, 25% of resolutions have “fallen by the wayside.” By end of year, less than 10% have been fully kept.

I’ve always regarded New Year’s resolutions with some suspicion. Same for Lenten disciplines, or commitments to change my life upon milestone birthdays (the ones with zeroes on the end). A resolution can become one big, looming ought, another piece of evidence (as if needed) that I fall short. They become obligations. They are more about rules, and less about grace.

Spiritually speaking, they can become what one preacher called ‘teeth-gritting Christianity.” I will be a better person. I will be a more loving person. It’s my duty. It’s what good people do. It’s what clergy do. The problem with making resolutions is two-fold for me. First, it’s apparently not all that effective. Second, it’s not very graceful.

So I found this op-ed piece illuminating. It wasn’t written by a preacher. It was written by a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. A great deal of the article has to do with self-control. That caught my eye, because in the work we do charting spiritual growth with RenewalWorks, we note that one of the important virtues for folks in the spiritual continuum is self-control. St. Paul lists it as one of the fruits of the spirit. Too often in my own experience, and as this columnist notes, self-control is a matter of rational analysis and will power. It becomes a kind of law. Too often I fall short. I miss the mark, which is how a friend, a rabbi has described sin.

Dr. Denota argues that authentic self-control comes not from force of will, but from social emotions like gratitude and compassion. In his studies, he has found these emotions incline people toward patience and perseverance, qualities needed to fulfill resolutions. “When you are experiencing these emotions, self-control is no longer a battle, for they work not by squashing our desires for pleasure in the moment but by increasing how much we value the future.” Theologians (and others) might refer to that as hope, or maybe faith, or maybe love, or maybe all three.

The article goes on to say that the key to self-control is putting something else ahead of our own immediate desires and interests, responding not to the cost-benefit analysis of being generous, but rather responding with these social emotions, i.e., gratitude and compassion. That sounds to me a lot like Jesus.

The author concludes by inviting readers to cultivate these emotions: “Reflect on what you’re grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals.” Perhaps that’s a plan for the coming year. It’s not too late to embrace these as resolutions for 2018.

So a week into a new year, if the good professor is right, 25% of your resolutions may have slipped away. Not to worry. Tap into that social emotion of compassion and have compassion on yourself. Continue your way through this new year with expressions of gratitude and a compassionate perspective, key elements to the patient perseverance needed to fulfill resolutions.

-Jay Sidebotham

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?    -Micah 6

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.    -II Corinthians 5

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.    -T.S.Eliot

The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.    – G.K. Chesterton


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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 (January 1, 2018)

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Who moved my drishti?

Time for a review of last year. Among my last year’s resolutions: to show up at yoga classes more often, for a variety of reasons. One good reason: to learn from my wife, the yoga instructor, and to know more about her work. She’s a good teacher, on many levels. Another goal: to work on my own sense of balance, in a variety of ways. In its most literal sense, this goal involves gravity defying/denying stances, made all the more challenging by the graceful ease of folks on neighboring mats.

Some days I have found that my balance is just fine. Other days, not so much. Just like life. But one of the things I learned is that it’s important to have a focal point, which in Sanskrit is called a drishti.

I learned this one day when I was practicing, doing a gravity experiment, focused on a water bottle that was placed by my neighbor’s mat. And then he moved it. And then I fell over. Gravity experiment concluded. Since then, I’ve learned to try to focus on something immovable. Steady. Trustworthy. (Not a bad life lesson, related to the wisdom of the desert fathers: Do not give your heart to that which can not satisfy your heart.)

As I look forward to 2018, I resolve to learn more about balance, in all the ways that balance presents itself as a challenge. A lot of that has to do with focus. In the words of the civil rights movement, it’s about keeping eyes on the prize. In the changes and chances of life (a phrase swiped from the Prayer Book), in our ADD culture where much seems out of balance, is there a path marked by constancy?

A lack of focus can be a seasonal disorder. (Liturgical purists will note we are still in the Christmas season, and many of you may not be reading this at 9am on New Year’s Day, since you just went to sleep.) Viewed objectively, the demands of the holidays can seem ludicrous. How did such a beautiful feast day, begun in humble simplicity, get so crazily complicated? Is that why Jesus came into the world? How do we maintain balance, with focus on the reason for the season?

Yuletide seasonal disorder can carry over into the rest of the year. In my work with clergy, especially folks who’ve been in the church a while, I too often find they have lost touch with their first love, with why they got into ordained ministry in the first place. Demands of bulletins and buildings, concerns about pledging units and parishioner critique can knock them off balance and take away the power of the initial call, which is after all a matter of the heart. When did they lose their drishti? Who moved it?

That can be true for all who serve in the church, those who may feel that the call to life in a faith community now feels like a wrong number. There’s a marked increase in the number of “nones” and “dones’ in our culture, those whose religious affiliation is listed as none, or whose experience with the church causes them to be done. There are many explanations for that, but somebody, something moved their drishti.

On this the first day of the year, it’s a good time to ask: where’s the focus? Can we maintain balance by setting an intention for the year ahead? If that seems daunting, how about an intention for just the next few days, perhaps leading up to the observance of Epiphany, on January 6. Do we see a star, even if far off? Can that star set a stable course as it points to the word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

Let that grace be our drishti. Set an intention, a resolution this week. Focus on grace, on the love shared and celebrated in the (ongoing) Christmas season, expressed in Christina Rossetti’s poem below. It is love that comes with simplicity and generosity, free of condition. It is love freely given, love to be freely shared, not just at this time of year, but all year long.

-Jay Sidebotham

Since it’s still the Christmas season, a favorite Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti:Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

St. Paul’s Drishti,
from his letter to the Philippians, chapter 3

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.


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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 (December 25, 2017)

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A few years back, as I was working on the Rector’s Christmas Sermon, it suddenly began to rhyme. This morning, I share that seasonal doggerel, based on Luke’s gospel, with apologies to real poets everywhere. The poem/sermon is based on Luke 2:1-14 included below.

Room for Joy

If I could meet the innkeeper,
The thing I’d want to know
Is why he pointed to the barn
Two thousand years ago.

We don’t know much about him.
St. Luke’s account is thin
It’s up to us to speculate.
Could he have let them in?

Perhaps he acted out of spite:
“There’s no space here,” he said,
as if he were some ancient Scrooge.
What’s going through his head?

It could be he’d just had enough.
The day had left him harried.
This couple was the final straw.
And were they even married?

Perhaps it seemed too troublesome
To welcome as a guest
This pregnant child. Her presence
Might deny him beauty rest.

Or was he snidely mocking them?
“A room? Tonight? From me?
What’s the matter?
Can’t you read that sign: NO VACANCY?”

“No wait. There is one open room.
I’ll book you right this minute.
You’ll like it. Lots of nice fresh air.
May I place you in it?”

“No chocolate on the pillows though.
No pillows there at all.
And by the way, you’ll share your suite.
You’re bunking in the stall.”

It may be that he saw a chance
In Joseph’s anxious gaze
To make a couple extra bucks
By renting out that place.

“I wonder if they’ll go for it”
He ponders at the door
“They must be pretty desperate.
Perhaps I should charge more?”

But maybe there’s another way
to think about this guy.
Perhaps he really hoped to help
There’s one more thing to try.

It may be true he had no room.
But could he just say no?
These homeless folks in need of help.
He could not let them go.

“This may sound stupid, Joseph.
I know it might not please.
But I’ve got one small space that’s free.
Do you have allergies?”

The innkeep’s wife would chide him.
“I know that life is hard.
I’m glad to help the homeless,
But not in my backyard.”

We don’t know why he sent them there
What moved him, we’re not sure.
His choice reflects the ways we choose
with motives rarely pure.

It could have been expedience,
Indifference or pity.
But maybe it was grace that moved him
in that crowded city.

For when he pointed to the barn
That night, it’s clear to see.
He made a tiny place for joy
And that made history.

What room do you and I have?
What space for joy, I mean.
It need not be so fancy
It need not be so clean.

We each have got a God-shaped space
(Augustine’s line, not mine)
We’re restless till it’s filled by joy.
That’s how we’ve been designed.

We need not offer up that place
With motives that are best.
We only need to offer it.
Joy sees to the rest.

We’re not unlike that innkeeper
With lives preoccupied.
We may think there’s no room for joy.
Here are some reasons why:

We may think we’re too busy.
Joy will have to wait
It may seem inconvenient.
Please, joy, I’m running late.

I really should make room for joy.
Some time to just be merry
Perhaps a week from Tuesday.
I’ll look in my blackberry.

This busy season crowds out joy
I bet some still are hoping
To make a few more purchases
Is the mall still open?

And what if I receive a gift
And I have none in kind?
What if they spent a whole lot more?
Can joy survive that bind?

Family tensions crowd out joy:
Will siblings start in fighting?
Will parents push my buttons
old arguments igniting?

The fact is, sometimes space concerns
are deepest felt inside.
There’s no room left within closed hearts.
A fact we try to hide.

For many, night is just too dark.
The pain keeps joy at bay.
That’s why this story matters most.
It says: Joy finds a way.

Let every heart prepare a room.
Let heav’n and nature sing.
Joy to the world. Our leap of faith.
The message angels bring.

It’s message of the gospels,
Echoing Isaiah.
Good news to hapless shepherds:
Joy will find a way.

What is this thing called joy, you ask
I’d really like to try some
Can I put it on my credit card?
Is that the way to buy some?

Some suspect that joy is found in
toys that we obtain
Children of all ages look
That way to ease the pain

Is joy found in a fancy car?
Or in the Dow’s expansion?
Is joy found in a zip code
Or in a new macmansion?

Joy can trump our circumstance
For folks who have it all
Can seem, of all, most miserable
How paradoxical!

But joy is not the stuff we own.
It’s not a pedigree.
It’s not a corner office.
It’s not theology.

Joy arrives in person
In this dark world of sin.
Joy shows up in that small boy
Can we let him in?

This holy child of Bethlehem
(the joy for which we pray)
casts out our sin and enters in
Is born in us today.

And when joy grows within our lives
with new life from above,
It brings the news in person,
who tells us: God is love.

It’s not too late to meet him.
He’s met in neighbors now.
And when we offer thanks to God
Joy breaks through somehow.

Joy comes in bleak midwinter.
Joy comes in silent night.
Joy comes in land of darkness deep.
Joy comes with dazzling light.

The innkeeper turns out his lamp.
He’s finished washing dishes
It’s been a busy weekend.
For quitting time he wishes.

He wonders what is going on
With that young couple there.
Maybe he should take a look.
He’s way too tired to care.

But wait, he’s hearing footsteps.
And many happy voices.
A flock of sheep in his backyard
A company rejoices.

As he goes to check it out.
The cry comes: “It’s a boy!”
His barn now a delivery room
A room made just for joy.

“With God all things are possible.”
To Mary, message sounds.
She’s smiling broadly, pondering
Could joy know any bounds?

It’s getting weirder, there’s no doubt.
The innkeeper is nervous.
The gath’ring in his stable’s
looking like a worship service.

The sign that says “NO VACANCY”
Still flashes in the night.
But it seems much, much dimmer now
There is a brighter light.

He simply cannot help himself.
He smiles to see that boy.
Surprised by what he learned that night.
“There’s always room for joy.”

We learn the same thing as we meet
and honor Christmas Day.
For with sweet little Jesus boy
Joy will find a way.

-Jay Sidebotham

 Luke 2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’


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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 (December 18, 2017)

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Bearing witness

If you’ve been hanging around church this December, you couldn’t help but run into John the Baptist. He gets star billing in Advent. He has a lot to say. Jesus spoke about his greatness. That greatness is underscored by the fact that each gospel gives him plenty of air time and that the church calendar tells his story many times throughout the year. So what is it about this guy?

If he came to my church, I’d be more inclined to call security than to invite him into the pulpit. A Dale Carnegie drop out, he opened up sermons calling his congregation a brood of vipers. (Sort of the anti-Joel Osteen.) Flannery O’Connor once said: You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd. She might have been thinking of John the Baptist.

Yesterday in church, we read about him, as described in the prologue to John’s Gospel, an overture to the grand themes of that soaring gospel. The fact that John the Baptist finds his way into those opening verses suggests his significance. The prologue is included below–it contains this line: John came to bear witness (or testify) to the light. He was not the light but came to bear witness (or testify) to the light.

I have a feeling that’s the key to his significance, and why he has something to teach us. He knew how to bear witness. In the passage from John’s gospel, John is repeatedly asked “Who are you?” He’s not the Messiah. He’s not Elijah. He’s not a prophet. He’s a voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist knew who he was, knew who the Messiah was, and knew they weren’t the same person. Many leaders, religious and otherwise, haven’t gotten that memo. I suspect that many of us, in secret corners of our hearts, conflate the two.

In his book, Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr talks about John the Baptist’s brand of wisdom. He writes: Religions should be understood as only the fingers that point to the moon, not the moon itself. Often in western Christian art, John the Baptist is shown with arm extended, index finger pointing beyond himself. He points to Christ on the cross. In the artist’s eye, John is bearing witness. Would we be depicted that way?

Episcopalians often find language of witness to be foreign, something other traditions do, but not for polite company. Episcopalians often rightly and sometimes reactively resist tendencies of religious folks who seek to confirm they are right by pointing out where others are wrong, by compelling agreement or coercing conversion.

But what if bearing witness is simply about sharing what we have seen of God’s grace in our lives, news a grace-starved world is dying to hear? How would you describe that kind of good news in your own life? When and where have you been graced? How would you talk about that gift? Maybe you want to try that over Christmas dinner?

I’m forever indebted to young people I worked with in Chicago who taught me about God-sightings, noting where in the course of the day, they saw God’s activity, talking freely about it. Simply. Authentically.

And what if bearing witness takes place not only with our lips but with our lives. In one of his sermons, John the Baptist talked to soldiers and tax collectors, people in positions of power. He said if you want to bear witness, stay right where you are and do your work with integrity. Do not abuse your power. Practice justice and mercy. Share if you have more than you need. These are all ways of bearing witness.

Prepare for Christmas this week by thinking of a couple ways you could bear witness to Christ coming into the world, full of grace and truth. Point to the light of the moon, so surrounded by darkness.

-Jay Sidebotham

 The Prologue to John’s Gospel 
(Note the second paragraph which speaks of John the Baptist)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

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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 (December 11, 2017)

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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.

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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 (December 4, 2017)

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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.)

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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 (November 27, 2017)

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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

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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 (November 20, 2017)

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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

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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 (November 13, 2017)

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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

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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.