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Monday Matters (July 24, 2017)

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Hope

Where do you go these days to hear a word of hope?

Early in my ministry, a seasoned priest offered this advice. He said: “Jay, in Sunday worship, you only have to do two things. First, keep worship to an hour. Second, leave people more hopeful than when they came.”

About ten days ago, I had the privilege of attending the Ordination and Consecration of Sam Rodman, new Bishop of North Carolina. I’ve known Sam for years. The diocese will be blessed by his strong, gentle, faithful leadership. The service was great. It did not succeed, however, in the one-hour rule. Wasn’t even close, perhaps the exception that proves the rule. But it did leave me hopeful about the church, with bishops to lead like Sam.

I was struck in the service with one sign of hope in particular: The strong commitment to engagement in scripture. Like all our liturgies, there was ample opportunity to hear what the spirit is saying through words from the Bible. Let’s not take that miracle for granted. It’s amazing grace that we draw meaning and purpose from words written centuries ago. But there’s more.

Sam was asked to solemnly declare his conviction that the “Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, and that they contain all things necessary for salvation.” All things necessary for wholeness. All things necessary for healing. All things necessary to keep hope alive.

Sam was asked if he would be faithful in the study of Scripture, in order that he as bishop might have the mind of Christ. I ran across a study not long ago that said many clergy only read scripture in order to prepare for a sermon. Relatively few clergy actually read scripture to feed their souls or deepen their spiritual lives or discover a lantern for the path. This liturgy asked Sam to read scripture to have the mind of Christ.

Sam was asked to boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of the people. Scripture has that power.

And once Sam had been ordained, the Presiding Bishop gave him a gift. You guessed it, a Bible.

Since Sam’s service, I’ve been thinking about why he got all those questions about the Bible, about why we still read scripture. The material is really old. There’s tons in there that is perplexing. There’s a lot that offends. Much of it can be used in spiritual malpractice. Too many of us have been clobbered by proof texts ripped out of context, separated from inspiring love.

But we keep on reading it. Every year, at the end of the year, we read a prayer about scripture (printed below) which reminds us why we pay attention to the Bible. It says we hear, read, learn, mark, inwardly digest scripture so that we might hold on to hope. And which one of us does not need some hope. The kind of hope reflected in the story of the Exodus. Freedom happens. The kind of hope reflected in the Exile. There is a way home. The kind of hope that lets Peter walk on water, kept from sinking by Jesus’ hand. The kind of hope reflected in Easter. Dead ends become thresholds. I don’t know about you, but I need to hear that old, old story all the time.

Research indicates that engagement with scripture is transformative in the Christian journey. For all that is confusing or annoying or even offensive, it is a story of relationship with God, a story of healing amid brokenness, a story of persistent grace. In other words, it is a story of hope. Are you in need of hope this Monday morning? Where do you go when you need a word of hope? The news? I think not.

Find your way into what Karl Barth called the strange world of the Bible. Make it a part of a daily routine. Persist in parts that are difficult. Ask your irreverent questions. Ask God to speak to you through it. And let it be a source of hope.

-Jay Sidebotham
 
Interested in diving into scripture? Looking for a way to do that? Let me recommend:
 

The Path, published by Forward Movement, in which the Bible is broken down into 25 chapters.

Read Forward Day by Day each morning

What is the Bible? by Rob Bell

The Good Book, by Peter Gomes

The Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four gospels

Psalm 139. Memorize it and it will change your life.

 From the Book of Common Prayer:
 
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 
We have found in the Bible a new world, God, God’s sovereignty, God’s glory, God’s incomprehensible love. Not the history of [man] but the history of God! Not the virtues of [men] but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Not human standpoints but the standpoint of God!
-Karl Barth, The Strange New World of the Bible
 
How do you stand up against injustice and not lose hope? How do you live with less worry and more joy? How do you forgive someone who has wronged you? What do you do when the person in power doesn’t have any integrity or moral compass? When do you take action and when do you trust that it’s all going to work out? What we see in the Bible is that we aren’t alone in these questions – these are the questions people have been wrestling with for thousands of years. And on page after page after page of their writings they never stop insisting that this struggle we call life isn’t futile, hopeless or pointless. It’s divine.
-Rob Bell, 
What is the Bible?
 
We are left with our question. What makes the church, your congregation and mine, different, utterly essential, without equal, unique? Let me venture a 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.
-Will Willimon, 
Shaped by the Bible
 

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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 17, 2017

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You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. -Anne Lamott

Years ago, Life Magazine featured a two-page spread of photographs, a mosaic of images of Jesus from around the world, portraying a Jesus who might have grown up in Africa or Asia or South America. To me, the most jarring of the images came from the Scandinavian tradition, which portrayed Jesus as a Bjorn Borg look alike. I’m not sure what the historical Jesus looked like. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a blondie.

For me, the collection of images indicate our tendency to make Jesus into our own image. You’ll be shocked to learn that people often use religion to affirm what they already value, confirm status quo, ratify existing (and dearly held) points of view. We hear reports that Jesus favors one candidate or policy over another. On social media, people claim they know exactly what Jesus would do about divisive issues of our time. All I know is the guy was full of surprises, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

I recalled the Life Magazine photos when I recently read an article by Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy who spent 48 years teaching at U.S.C., a theologian known for writings on Christian spiritual formation. In this article, he spoke about his work with churches and religious schools, trying to measure spiritual vitality. For him, this kind of growth was about growing in Christ-likeness. It stood in contrast to those Life magazine images, suggestive of the ways we try to make God or Christ in our own image. Dr. Willard challenged readers to think about how we might change to become more like Christ.

But what does that mean, to be like Christ? I’m sure there’s not one answer. But try this exercise this morning. Think of five attributes of Jesus, based on what you know of him. Can you make some commitment to be more like him in those five ways?

I’ll start. Here are five things that came to my mind about Jesus:

  1. He valued simplicity, born as a refugee in a stable. He was itinerant, often homeless, and navigated all that with joy and freedom from anxiety.
  2. He was big on forgiveness, even forgiving his torturers and executioners. It makes me think he knew how to manage the kind of petty resentments that drive me nuts.
  3. He made a commitment to be of service, washing disciples’ feet, maybe an episode from an ancient near eastern version of Dirty Jobs
  4. He paid attention to people no one else liked or noticed: the rich and wildly unpopular Zaccheus, the crazy guy in the cemetery, the woman at the well with a scandalous past, those incompetent and fickle fishermen (who apparently never catch a fish without Jesus’ help).
  5. He went off by himself and prayed a lot, recognizing the need to appeal to the one he called Father, to a higher power.
    There’s more of course. I’ll stop there and ponder these five, focusing on them this week. Rather than trying to make Christ look more like me, I’m going to try to make some shift to look more like Christ, try to bring that shift to my work, to my responses to the troubled state of our world, to my relationships, my family and friends.

A clergyman I admire offered the following wisdom in a wedding homily. He charged the couple standing before him to be Jesus for each other. In other words, to be more like Christ.

It would be a good idea if we all in the church worked on that, mindful of what Gandhi said when pressed to convert to Christianity. He declined the invitation, saying: “I like your Christ, but not your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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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 10, 2017)

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I’m wondering if it’s your time to ask Rabbi Kushner’s question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Maybe you ask that question all the time.

The question has come my way lately, with a big challenge suddenly faced by a friend I care for and deeply admire. It’s basically inexplicable. At times, maddeningly sad. I’m guessing you know about such challenges. They come in great variety. As one of my mentors says, suffering is the promise life keeps. How’s that for a cheery kickoff to Monday morning?

Part of why I spend time reading the Bible is because scripture knows and shows that these kind of questions make up our stories. Most famously, the book of Job raises the question but resists any neat answers. Psalmists repeatedly ask where God has gone. Jesus posed the question, echoing Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In such moments, about the worst response one can offer is something that tries too quickly to make sense of it all. Job’s friends, prime example, offering something that ties it up in a neat package, often more about easing one’s own discomfort than supporting those who suffer. I have in mind sayings like: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “God never shuts a door without opening a window.” All feed into the Gary Larson cartoon image of God at the computer, watching the falling grand piano about to smash an unwitting pedestrian, God pressing the smite button. Do we worship such a God?

If you’re asking the bad things/good people question, there may on occasion be explanations for the challenges, something we have done or something done to us. Too often, there are no available easy answers. So we are led to the prayer from the burial service which asks for God’s help in the midst of things beyond our understanding.

And we withstand when we can’t understand. We proclaim when we can’t explain. What we proclaim is God’s presence, often felt most deeply in love and prayers of others.

We proclaim resurrection, which literally means “to stand again.” When folks we love get knocked down, we move forward with them and for them, helping them stand again. We say our prayers with them and for them, prayers with our lips and with our lives, prayers that may be no more or less than silent, faithful, loving presence.

We give thanks for what we are able to give thanks for. And if the attitude of gratitude is too hard, we let someone else do the thanking and praying.

With courage (it suggests both bravery and heart), we hold on to hope. St. Paul, who knew suffering and challenge, prayed about it, occasionally whined about it, asked for relief from it and didn’t always get relief. He referenced his own suffering in the letter to the Romans. Speaking of his own experience, he said suffering brings endurance which brings character which brings hope because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. (Romans 5).

When we find ourselves in times of trouble, when understanding or explaining elude us, when we can do no more than withstand, in those moments a positive spirit, a sense of hope and promise becomes our guide. Easier said than done, I know. But something we are each and all given to do at some time. Maybe this Monday morning is that time for you. Blessings in this time.

-Jay Sidebotham

 Elie Wiesel died one year ago, a holy man whose survival of the Holocaust forged such an authentic response to the mystery of suffering. Here’s a sampling of his wisdom, from his book entitled Night:
 
I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.
 
I was very, very religious. And of course I wrote about it in ‘Night.’ I questioned God’s silence. So I questioned. I don’t have an answer for that. Does it mean that I stopped having faith? No. I have faith, but I question it.
 
When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.
 
Don’t lose hope… Have faith in life… Help each other. That is the only way to survive.
 
For me, every hour is grace.

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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 3, 2017)

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Monday, July 3, 2017

Tomorrow we observe the Feast of Independence Day (a.k.a, the Fourth of July). It’s one of the few secular holidays that has found its way into the church calendar, along with Thanksgiving and Labor Day. Appointed scripture readings and prayers help us reflect on who we are called to be as a nation. The feast indicates that our lives as citizens are related to our lives as followers of Jesus.

The feast has to do with more than hot dogs and hamburgers, though I won’t turn those down. It has to do with a sacred celebration which invites us to ask this holy stewardship question: What do we do with the gift we’ve been given in our common life, as a nation blessed with remarkable prosperity and unprecedented freedoms?

As Episcopalians, who claim that praying shapes our believing, we can look to the collect crafted for this day (below), and see what it says to us this Monday. Look at what we pray for. We ask that we may all have “grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.” So join me in reflection on that word righteousness.

Righteousness means so much more than being right or even being good. In scripture, righteousness suggests right relationship, with a recognition that so many of our relationships are out of whack. What does it mean to be a righteous nation? It seems to me that it is about building relationships marked by healing and wholeness, mending places where relationship is broken. The scriptures (you can look them up…a nice spiritual discipline for a day off) appointed for the Feast of Independence Day speak to the character of this common life.

There’s a reading from Deuteronomy (10:17-21) written to the people of Israel before they entered the promised land and started to figure out what it meant to be a people. The reading talks about the character of the nation: executing justice for orphan and widow (the neediest, the marginalized), loving the stranger and providing food and clothing for them. Maybe this is one of those places where folks say we don’t need to take scripture literally. But at face value, the righteousness of a nation has to do with how we treat the least among us. Across the political spectrum, folks will disagree about how best to accomplish that. But the goal seems clear.

The psalm chosen for the day (Psalm 145) reflects God’s character as loving to everyone. “Compassion is over all God’s works. The Lord upholds those who fall, and lifts those who are bowed down. The Lord opens wide his hand and satisfies the needs of every living creature.” Again, scripture indicates a community marked by healed relationships.

The New Testament reading from Hebrews (11:8-16) calls readers to remember that they were once strangers and foreigners, that they desire a better country, a heavenly one. It’s a graceful, hopeful acknowledgement that we can always do better.

The Gospel reading, excerpted from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-48) is a call by Jesus to love not only neighbors but also to love enemies. Does he really mean that? It’s not fun. It’s not easy. In our divided nation, what would it mean if we would and could do what Jesus asked us to do?

As I reviewed these readings, calling us to think about who we are on this national holiday, I was struck with how much we have erred and strayed from a righteous vision, from right relationships. The measure of a great nation, it would seem from scripture and especially from the prayer, has to do with an embrace of grace, a commitment to live in righteousness and peace, to let that be shown in compassion, especially towards those pushed to the edges.

Independence Day is a holiday, which means it’s a holy day, a chance to reflect on who we are, and who God is calling us to be. Enjoy the celebration tomorrow. Give thanks for our remarkable nation. Pray for our leaders. And consider the call to deeper righteousness, to healthier relationships, marked by compassion. Is there a specific way you can live into that imagination this week?

-Jay Sidebotham

 

A prayer for Independence Day

(Book of Common Prayer)

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.

Another prayer for Independence Day:

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years. Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!

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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 (June 26, 2017)

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I recently got a new car, with lots of features to master. I keep trying to turn the car off by pressing the fan for the defroster, a button strikingly close to the ignition.

Shortly after acquisition, I was driving home at night, turning left into our neighborhood across two lanes of busy traffic. The maneuver required moving to a center lane designated for turns, waiting for a break in oncoming cars. I sat there for a while. A car very much like mine pulled into the center lane from the opposite side of the road, facing me from only a few yards away, also wanting to cross oncoming traffic. Get this. The guy had his blinding brights on, shining directly in my face.

Alone in the car, I allowed a tepid version of road rage to surface. The word “idiot” may have been heard. Maybe an expletive or two. (There are no tapes.) With bright light shining in my face, it was hard for me to assess oncoming traffic. What a jerk.

Then I looked at the relatively complicated dashboard on my new car. I realized that I had had my brights on all along. I switched them off. He switched off his. I was guilty of the thing that made me so mad in the other guy. Go figure. Blinded with my own indignation, I failed to notice my part in it.

Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said that with the judgment you judge, you shall be judged.

A week ago I led a men’s retreat, at the request of a fine group of Episcopalians who wished to explore ways to faithfully navigate the turbulent times in which we live, how to be in community with people with whom we disagree. I accepted the invitation with hesitation, because I haven’t figured it out for myself. But I thought it would be good for me to give it thought.

As I thought and prayed about how to guide the group, I realized I had to look inward. I had to contend with my own road rage. (Mr. Trump is not the only one who yells at the TV.) I had to face my judgmental tendencies. I was led to the promises in the baptismal covenant, which describe what it means to be a Christian, not what it means to become one, but what it means to be one.

The first promise asks if we will continue in the teaching and fellowship and prayers of the church. In a nutshell, it’s asking if we will start by doing our own spiritual work in community.

The second promise asks if we’ll persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we sin, repent. I am up for the resisting part. The challenge comes with the word whenever. Not if ever. Whenever. Again, we’ve got work to do. Before I prescribe everyone else’s course correction, I should consider my own.

The third promise asks us to proclaim good news, in what we say and do. It doesn’t say convince or compel or coerce. It says proclaim. Trust the results to God.

Honestly, I find the fourth promise annoying. It says we seek and serve Christ in all persons. Christ is there, even if well disguised. I could wish that promise wasn’t included. I savor a long list of exceptions. But the message is clear: Christ is somewhere in all persons. (Can the Prayer Book really mean that?)

The fifth promise calls us to strive for justice and peace, demanding active advocacy in a world where the neediest are being thrown under the bus in oh so many ways. That is balanced by another irritating call: to respect the dignity of every human being, even the driver with brights on, even the family member or congregant or co-worker or politician who in our humble opinion needs to see the light, and may in fact be a jerk.

Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty of reason for indignation these days, plenty to resist. But to break the cycle, maybe we need to recognize our own part, figure out ways we fail to work for justice and peace, ways we fail to seek Christ in others, ways we fail to respect each other, ways we allow a judgmental attitude be our default.

In other words, maybe we each have to check our own spiritual dashboard.

-Jay Sidebotham

The Five Promises in the Baptismal Covenant: A spiritual dashboard?
 
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?
 
Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
 
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
 
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
 
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

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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 (June 19, 2017)

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What’s in a name?

If the New Testament book of Acts was a movie up for Oscars, Barnabas might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Maybe. He has fifteen minutes of biblical fame, and there’s tons we don’t know about him. But he had a feast day last week and he’s one of my favorite biblical characters, perhaps because we know little about him. (If we knew more about him, chances are he’d be less impressive. Funny how that works.)

Here’s what we know. He was there at the beginning of the church, the blossoming of the Jesus Movement, in that remarkable time before Christians were called Christians. (They were first known as people of the way, which is a title worth reclaiming, but that’s for another Monday).

St. Barnabas was committed to helping people in need. He was called to help St. Paul get incorporated into the church, when many people were suspicious of the recent convert who had so vigorously persecuted Christians. He began to travel with Paul around the rim of the Mediterranean. I think anyone who could be St. Paul’s traveling companion deserves kudos. It couldn’t have been easy. Paul and Barnabas moved from church to church, raising funds for those suffering famine in Judea, setting the precedent that part of the mission of a global church has to do with caring for our brothers and sisters around the world (a first century version of Episcopal Relief and Development).

The thing I find so intriguing about him has to do with his name change. He was originally known as Joseph. His name was changed to Barnabas. There are other folks in the Bible who have name changes, often a sign that they are noteworthy, a sign that God is doing something new in and through that person. In most cases, God does the renaming. In this case, the apostles, the community changed Joseph’s name to Barnabas. I find that intriguing.

They gave him that name because Barnabas means “son of encouragement,” which is why I’m impressed with the guy. I found myself wondering what the community saw in him. The word “encouragement” is rich. At its heart, we find the word courage, which suggests not only bravery but also heart, courage sharing its root with the French coeur. Clearly, Barnabas had a gift which allowed others to approach life not only with the bravery that it took to be part of this persecuted community, but also to do so in the spirit of love that became the brand of the early church. Outsiders looked in on the church and said “See how they love one another.’ Do you think people would look at the church today and say that? They might well say: “See how they argue with each other about stuff that nobody else cares about.” But I digress.

I know I’ve written about Barnabas before, but he’s been on my mind this week, posing this slightly scary question. If my community was going to change my name, what would they change it to? Would I like the new name? Am I even connected enough to a community that knows me well enough to identify and celebrate my gifts?

Maybe you want to ask that question for yourself.

And if those questions provide no answer, maybe in tumultuous times we could all channel our inner Barnabas and adopt his name. Maybe we could all decide to be, or strive to be children of encouragement. Make a start this morning. Who can you encourage?

-Jay Sidebotham

The Collect for the Feast of St. Barnabas
 
Grant, O God, that we may follow the example of your faithful servant Barnabas, who, seeking not his own renown but the well­being of your Church, gave generously of his life and substance for the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 
Acts 11
 
News of this (the growth of the church in Antioch) came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year, they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

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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 (June 12, 2017)

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Diving in

It seems to me there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who stand by river’s edge and take the plunge, diving into even very cold water. And those who dip toe in the water, gradual entry, bit by bit, often a more arduous process. I count myself in that second group, especially when it comes to the spiritual journey.

When as a young adult, I began to explore the Episcopal Church, I waded in slowly. I’d purposely arrive at church a bit late, locate myself behind a column toward the rear of the church, avail myself of easy exit when service was done. My journey at that time was marked by lots of questions and some confusion about the ways Anglicans worshipped. All that book juggling and liturgical aerobics. I heard words like narthex and verger. Even the word eucharist was new to me. I read in the bulletin about something called the Collect, clearly distinct from the Offertory. I thought: These folks are avid fundraisers.

And then there was the Creed. I was struck with how a group of seemingly intelligent folks stood and mouthed the same words, week after week. It often seemed rote. Many seemed bored. I joined in, sort of. I would stand and begin the creed, able to affirm the mystery of a creator. But there were other lines that were perplexing or even unbelievable. Raised a Protestant, I decided I would not say the lines I didn’t particularly like or comprehend.

I observed several things. First, no one seemed to mind, or in fact, notice when I stopped talking. The community let me come at my own pace, as I stepped bit by bit into that stream. That was grace.

And while I indulged in this defiant personal boycott, the creed still got said. The community continued, and in fact, carried on even if I was unsure or uncomfortable. More than that, the community carried me into deeper belief.

You see, over time, I found myself changing, growing, expanding in what I said I believed. For me, it was true that faith is more often caught then taught. It was contagious. I came to say more of the creed, until eventually I joined saints around the world and across the generations in fully making this affirmation of faith. I came to see that the doctrine of the Trinity expressed in the Creed is key, revealing the character of God as mysterious, as relational, as community, as welcoming me into that community, as love.

I came to be moved by the creed, words polished over the century. I was moved by the fact that for centuries, people of faith have gathered and said these words. I was moved by the fact that around the world, on any given Sunday, people were saying these words. I was moved by the fact that in red states and blue states, faith was affirmed. Maybe not fully understood. Maybe not even fully believed. But the words got said.

I still have moments when certain lines defy understanding. On those days, I say them anyway in the spirit of the New Testament character who said “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

On this Monday after Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday of the year dedicated to a doctrine, take time to think about what we believe, about where we give our hearts, which is what belief is all about. Give thanks that God’s love welcomes us, preceding our assent, exceeding our comprehension.

And dive into that great stream of saints around the world and across the generations. Or dip your toe in the water, taking a small step into the ever rolling stream, a community on the move that will carry us with our questions and our challenges and our injuries, with our gifts and hopes and love.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

-Jay Sidebotham

God as community. Are you ready to join in?
 
God is not what you think. Visions of an angry, distant, moral scorekeeper or a supernatural Santa Claus handing out cosmic lottery tickets to those who attend the right church or say the right prayer dominate our culture. For many others, God has become irrelevant or simply unbelievable.
-From the introduction to THE DIVINE DANCE by Richard Rohr
 
Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between the Three – a circle dance of love.
-Richard Rohr
 
We can’t have full knowledge all at once. We must start by believing; then afterwards we may be led on to master the evidence for ourselves. 
-Thomas Aquinas

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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 (June 5, 2017)

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Pentecost

Some thoughts prompted by the reading for the Feast of Pentecost, which we observed yesterday, thoughts which worked their way into a sermon. Here’s some of what got preached:

Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church, marking that very peculiar day described in the book of Acts when the church began, also described in the gospel of John (chapter 20) when the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples.

Jesus sends the disciples out into the world, breathing on them, a conveyance of his grace and power. As he dismisses the disciples, he says to them: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.

Here’s what I found myself thinking about this week. How exactly does the Father send the Son into the world? A number of things occur to me, by no means an authoritative or exhaustive list. Feel free to add your own insights.

First, the Father sends the Son into the world in the most understated way, charting a path of humility. The Son is born to a young unmarried teenage girl. The delivery room was a stable, a shelter for animals. His parents were homeless refugees. He appeared not in Rome or Athens, but in the little no-count town of Bethlehem. Paul describes this journey in a beautiful hymn found in his letter to the Philippians (included below). He says that Jesus took on the form of a servant and did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. If that’s how Jesus was sent into the world, as servant, with humility, how are we being sent in a similar way into the world this Monday morning?

Second, the Father sends the Son into the world at a specific time and place. Scholars sometimes call this the scandal of particularity, which captures the outrageous grace that God uses real people, as exasperating as that may be. It brings to mind the phrase: I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand. As the Father sent the Son into a particular time, as Jesus lived his life in a limited geographic area, so we are sent to particular places, to meet particular people, to be of service there. Not everywhere, but somewhere. What specific somewhere, what specific encounters are you being sent into today?

Third, the Father sends the Son into the world in a spirit of compassion, a word which literally means suffering with, and which connotes the great love that animates the good news of Jesus. Karen Armstrong, scholar of comparative religion, has noted that compassion is the central value of all great faith traditions. Lord knows a cursory reading of the morning paper will let us know that it is in great demand. As the Presiding Bishop repeats, “if it ain’t about love it ain’t about God.” Jesus comes to stretch out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into his saving embrace. That’s what he was sent to do. Apparently, that’s what we are sent to do as well. What are the opportunities before you this day to share and show love, give someone a break, cut someone some slack, look at life from that person’s point of view?

Finally, the Feast of Pentecost reminds us that the Father sends the Son into the world with transforming and healing power that calms troubled waters and multiplies snack lunches to feed multitudes and opens blind eyes and opens sealed tombs. The Father sends us into the world with that same resurrection power, which we name and claim, admitting that on our own, we’re capable of little besides ego-centric envy and resentment. This Monday morning, as you are sent out into your world, how can you access this higher power?

Those are my thoughts on how it is the Father sends the Son into the world, and how we are sent into the world. You may have others, but take this day as an occasion to see what God is up to in your neck of the woods. Tap into the power that lets you share God’s grace with someone, somewhere, in a spirit of service and compassion this Monday morning. Because Monday matters.

-Jay Sidebotham

What happens on Sunday morning is not half so important as what happens on Monday morning. In fact, what happens on Sunday morning is judged by what happens on Monday morning.
-Educator and theologian Verna Dozier
 
Philippians 2:5-13
 
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.
 
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
 
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

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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 (May 29, 2017)

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We will remember them

The summer season starts this weekend in a big way. The beach will be packed. Waterways gridlocked. Barbecues blaze. Lots of festivities, a welcomed break.

But like many of our holidays, the reason for the celebration can get forgotten, ironic for a holiday meant for memorial. This morning, I commend to you one of the thanksgivings from the Book of Common Prayer, mindful that our praying shapes our believing. It’s called a prayer for heroic service (The Book of Common Prayer, page 839). I invite you to offer this prayer in a few quiet moments today. Maybe say it as a grace before you dive into a Memorial Day feast. Maybe offer it to complete the day. Here’s the prayer:

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The prayer calls us to remember with gratitude. It’s been said in the journey of faith that we don’t need so much to be instructed as we need to be reminded. So much of our faith, so much of our scripture is about looking in the rear view mirror and seeing how God has acted, and also seeing how much has been offered in the past, and how much loss has been endured.

The prayer asks us to imagine ourselves in the day of decision. We remember today countless lives lost, many of whom were young people with so much future ahead of them. Pause to remember their courage, captured in the poem in the left hand column which comes to us from another country that experienced great loss of its own.

In an understated way, the prayer talks about how those who we remember ventured much for the liberties we enjoy. I’m reminded of what Jesus said about finding your life by losing it. That seems to be a deep spiritual principle, if not an easy one. Let this day be a day to honor those ventures, not only with our recollection but with our action.

Which leads to a call to cherish liberties. Across the political spectrum these days, there is fear that liberties are endangered, one way or another. We are for sure divided, but today we pause to celebrate the greatness of a nation that has blessed its people with exceptional freedoms, not to be taken for granted, freedoms in need of vigorous defense.

Finally, this prayer calls us to action, to recognize that there are still those who don’t enjoy the benefits of true freedom. It calls us to gladly accept disciplines that come with freedom. What would you say are those disciplines? What would it mean for you to accept them?

Enjoy the gift of this day. Make the enjoyment richer by including in this day some moments to remember the fallen, with the help of these words from the poet Laurence Binyon,

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

-Jay Sidebotham

For the Fallen
Composed by Robert Laurence Binyon in 1914, as he reflected on the losses of World War I
 
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
 
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
 
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
 
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
 
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
 
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
 
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

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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 (May 22, 2017)

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Across the border

One of the great privileges of my work: I get to connect with church folk around the country who, in a variety of ways, are exploring what it means to be a person of faith in a world where faith is challenged. They are my teachers, and they give me the strong sense that the Spirit is at work in many ways in many places.

Recently this work led me across our northern border to talk with the Rev. Dawn Davis, rector of a church outside of Toronto. She’s been leading a large, lively congregation for about a decade and is thinking with rigor about how people are formed spiritually. Said another way, she is looking at how people grow in relationship with God and neighbor.

She’s done interesting research on the topic and has come to the conclusion that there are at least three elements required in order for an individual to experience growth in the Christian life. Here they are, and I quote:

  1. A personal encounter and awareness of God nurtured through a private devotional life that is attentive to specific spiritual practices.
  2. A corporate worshipping community that provides relationships to support, model, encourage and reveal the cultural expectation to grow into the fullness of Christ.
  3. A small group or mentor that, through a loving, trusting relationship, models, nurtures and provides opportunity to verbally reflect on the spiritual experience and which facilitate the confident awareness and sharing of that experience.

I share these three as an invitation to think about your own journey, to take stock of your spiritual life, to see if these elements are part of that life, and if there is anything you’d add to her list.

For starters, what is the character of your private devotional life? Is it a matter of study, prayer, silence, journaling, walking? How are those practices animating your ability to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world?

Second, is your engagement with a worshipping community part of your own spiritual development? Is church attendance just one big annoying ought? Or is there some sense that coming together with fellow followers of Jesus on a regular basis helps you grow into the fullness of Christ (what an amazing phrase!), so that together you can be of service in the world?

Third, after you’ve focused on what you do as individual, and what you do in a worshipping community, is there some place in between, where relationships go deeper? This is where Episcopalians sometimes struggle.

We’re often fine on the private spiritual moment. But in my heart, I don’t believe it’s possible to be a Christian alone.

We’re big on worship. But the liturgy is not designed to foster the kind of relationships where we know each other and are known. Way too often I hear folks speak of the loneliness they experience in church. I’ve felt it as clergy. Too often we expect the exchange of the peace or coffee hour to be relationship builders. They can help, but I don’t think that’s the intention behind those rituals. Too infrequently do we get to share the amazing things God does in our lives.

Many churches have discovered the power of small groups, the transformative power of mentorship and spiritual coaching. Many Episcopal churches have not yet discovered that power, so key to growing a relationship with God.

Maybe each one of these three elements is part of your life. Thanks be to God if that is the case. If not, consider ways that you might grow your faith by making a commitment to private devotional practice, to participation in a worshipping community, and to connection with a few folks on some deep level, leading to confident awareness and sharing of your experience.

And then put that all together in a way that helps you participate in God’s healing of a broken world.

-Jay Sidebotham

PS: If you’re interested in knowing more about this research, contact the Rev. Dawn Davis at dawndavis3d@gmail.com

 
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair…
 
The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear.
 
We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.
 
So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service… Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either.
 
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

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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.