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Monday Matters (February 11, 2019)

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Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess, Thou hast given me: I surrender it all to Thee to be disposed of according to Thy will. Give me only Thy love and Thy grace; with these I will be rich enough and will desire nothing more. Amen.
-St. Ignatius of Loyola

I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.
-Abraham Lincoln
 
At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.
 -Maya Angelou
 
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
-A prayer of self-dedication, from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 832)

Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.

Ephesians 3:16-18


Surrender

“When I realized there was nothing I could do, and when the black cloud reached me I would either live or die, I turned and faced it, summoned every ounce of life within me, and hurled it heavenward, praying, “Take me.” It was both an incredibly terrifying moment and an incredibly liberating moment. I felt that everything that happened after that in terms of being swept up into the incredible witness of people of faith at St. Paul’s, flowed from that moment of total surrender. Thanks be to God.”

I share this witness from Dr. Courtney Cowart, a leader in our church and a friend. Her witness builds on my post last week, as I spoke about how the peace that passes understanding reaches to the most extraordinary moments. I’ve added Courtney’s story to the great cloud of witnesses, her recollection of September 11, 2001, when she gathered church leaders to tape a video about the spiritual journey, a video interrupted by planes slamming into skyscrapers. First told to stay put, then told to run, she spoke of her encounter with the divine in a moment. She let that awful, awesome experience lead her into a healing ministry in lower Manhattan at St. Paul’s Chapel for months to come. After that, with the hard-earned wisdom of that New York experience, she spent years in New Orleans,  helping the rebuilding process after Katrina. She is a saint in our times.

In the witness with which I began, Courtney used the word “surrender,” which when you break it down means “rendering over” or maybe “turning over” or maybe even “letting go.” As a good Episcopalian, and for good reason, I have ambivalence about the term “surrender.” In my own goofy spiritual history, surrendering to God or Christ or the Holy Spirit seemed to suggest diminished self, a denial of original blessing, a weak view of human dignity, a heretical assertion that when God said creation was very good, God didn’t really mean it. There’s a big old tradition that says sinners simply need to raise the white flag. We’re no good. Just give up.

I remember a time when I was puzzling with some Episcopalians about this idea of surrendering our lives to God or Christ. These Episcopalians were not buying it. I could relate to ways they felt ill at ease. There’s a lot in the Christian tradition that stresses, maybe even glories in our status as miserable offenders.

That afternoon conversation gave way to some quiet time in my office, when by the working of the Holy Spirit, I was reading some Thomas Merton. I found a passage in which he wrote that we were called to surrender to the creative power of God’s grace in our lives. I printed out this prayer and posted it prominently in my office.

I found myself thinking that if Thomas Merton could speak of surrender, maybe I should pay attention. I found myself wondering what it would mean to surrender in such a way, to let go of my own agenda (easier said than done when you take a gander at my to-do list). What would it mean to render over, to give over my own illusion of control and mastery, and trust in God’s guidance, providence, creativity, grace?

Jesus said that if we lose our lives we will find them. Meanwhile, we grasp and hoard, gripping tightly. We practice teeth-gritting religion. May God give us grace this week to surrender to God’s creative power of grace in our lives. 

-Jay Sidebotham

4
Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (February 4, 2019)

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How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said, who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?
 
Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
 
When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
 
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply. The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
 
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!

Ephesians 3:16-18


Two Questions

When I am afraid, I will trust in you, in God whose word I praise.

Psalm 56:3,4

Over this past weekend, it was my privilege to gather with a group of clergy and lay leaders to talk about spiritual growth. On Friday night, our gathering began with a couple questions posed by the host. We were each asked to name a time when we were scared and to name a time marked by joy. As we went around the circle of about 30 people, everyone had a story. Everyone knew moments marked by fear.

One person told about the time when as a teenager, he was wedged in an elevator shaft at his workplace, as malfunctioning machinery almost crushed his body. He was delivered, and eventually healed from great injury. But in the moments when that outcome was not at all certain, in those moments when he thought his young life was over, he remembered saying to a holy presence: This is it. I am no more. I am yours. He said he was not talking to himself but to an enveloping light presence, a calming effect, the real peace that passes understanding.

A colleague tells of a parishioner on the fated flight that landed in the Hudson River, geese debilitating the engine of the plane. As he was told to prepare to crash, as he considered he might be living the last few moments of his time on earth, he told of a peace that passes understanding. He attributed that peace to the practice of the spiritual life experienced in his church. He knew a holy presence as the plane descended.

Friday night, everyone had a story of fear. That’s in the Bible. So many times in the Bible we hear the words: Fear not. Celestial messengers approach Mary, Joseph, shepherds and it sounds like those folks were all tempted to run for cover. I get it. But I also get the consistent message, conveyed through biblical characters and through more contemporary characters, that we have not been left alone. There is something to this peace which passes understanding.

Which is not unrelated to the second question as we went around the circle on Friday night. When have you experienced joy? For many folks, the joy was related to the fear. A toddler that wandered away from child care was found. A gravely ill person recovered. Everyone had a story about an experience of joy, which were often stories of deliverance, of healing, or said another way, stories of salvation. They were not only stories of salvation. They were stories of relationship. No one told a story about getting a good grade, or getting a promotion, or getting a nice car. But among the 30 folks there, stories of births of children or grandchildren, stories of weddings, stories of love emerged. And if our Presiding Bishop is right, if these are stories about love, then they are stories about God, present with us in joy and fear.

Take a moment to think about when you’ve been scared, and about when joy has come your way. Maybe you’ll have opportunity to share those stories with someone, around the dinner table, over coffee, at church. How did you navigate those times? Where was God in the mix? And as you reflect on those stories, how might that help you make it through this first week in February?

Wishing for you the peace that passes understanding, blessings in your day from Jay Sidebotham

AN INVITE:
As part of The Good Book Club, I’ll be leading an online Bible Study for 8 weeks. It started on January 9, but it’s not too late to dive in!
Time: Wednesdays at 8pm EST Topic: Paul’s letters to the Romans. Learn more here. I hope you will join me!

4
Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (January 28, 2019)

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I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:16-18

Q: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
A: I will with God’s help.

From the Baptismal Covenant

Spiritual practice is not just sitting and meditation. Practice is looking, thinking, touching, drinking, eating and talking. Every act, every breath, and every step can be practice and can help us to become more ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh

For the rest of your life to be as meaningful as possible, engage in spiritual practice if you can. It is nothing more than acting out of concern for others. If you practice sincerely and with persistence, little by little, step by step you will gradually reorder your habits and attitudes so as to think less about your own narrow concerns and more about others’ – and thereby find peace and happiness yourself.

The Dalai Lama

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.

Verna Dozier


Practice

Shortly after we moved to Chicago, I received one of those wonderful spousal Christmas gifts, an offering subtly (or not) suggesting area of improvement. I was signed up at the local gym. I began to show up daily, religiously, when the doors opened before dawn. I was joined by other religious folks who also showed up every day for exercise. Some were buff. Why did they need to exercise? For some, like me, it was clear why exercise would be a good idea. But we all showed up, regardless of proficiency. As we did, a community was forged.

Since moving to North Carolina, my current pre-dawn routine involves a daily yoga class. The same folks show up every day, religiously. It’s like an 8am service in an Episcopal church. We park our mats in the same place. We know who puts their mat where. Newcomers beware of unwittingly altering the arrangement. We rarely speak beyond good morning and have a good day. We say Namaste to each other in the same way 8 o’clockers exchange the peace. A community is forged through this practice.

One member of our early morning yogic community is really good at yoga, as far as I can tell. (I know. One is not supposed to compare.) He’s in really good shape. All muscle. He can defy gravity in his poses without breaking a sweat. I recently learned that he is a yoga teacher. I’m intrigued with the fact that as a teacher he practices each day with the rest of us. Why does he need to practice, especially before the sun comes up?

A friend who teaches at a seminary said that one of his colleagues did a study of main-line clergy. A large percentage of those clergy have no daily practice of prayer or engaging with scripture. If those spiritual practices are done, it is only in preparation for Sunday worship. I found it a sad commentary that spiritual leaders don’t feel like they need to continue to practice, that they don’t need to engage in spiritual exercise, that they are not being nourished and strengthened and challenged in that way.

It brings to mind Pablo Casals, the great cellist who died in 1973. He would practice for hours each day, even into his nineties. Somebody asked him why he needed to do that, since he was arguably the best cellist in the universe. He answered that he practiced because he got better. He understood that his engagement with music was not about destination. It was about that open-ended opportunity for discovering new horizons.

The spiritual life is sort of like that. (A rector I admire describes his church as a spiritual gym.) For each of us, for all of us, it takes practice. First, practice in the sense of practicality, putting muscles to work, continuing to learn and grow. Second, practice in the sense of getting better at it, deepening, dare I say, improving. Practice in the sense of growing in our love of God and love of neighbor. We get in spiritual trouble when we imagine we don’t really need to do that anymore.

The practices can come in great variety. Beware those who get too prescriptive about what those practices might be. But also beware of those who think the practices don’t matter. Take this week to think about your own spiritual practice. How are you being intentional, mindful about it? If you’re looking for a practice, consider the Way of Love, proposed by the Presiding Bishop www.episcopalchurch.way-of-love.org Or shape your own way of love. It works if you work it.

-Jay Sidebotham

AN INVITE:
As part of The Good Book Club, I’ll be leading an online Bible Study for 8 weeks. It started on January 9, but it’s not too late to dive in!
Time: Wednesdays at 8pm EST Topic: Paul’s letters to the Romans. Learn more here. I hope you will join me!

4
Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (January 21, 2019)

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Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A prayer for the day we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jesus said: But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:27-36, chosen for the day we remember Dr. King


MLK

We set aside today to remember the life and ministry and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King. In a season when our nation seems more divided than ever, here are thoughts about how to navigate division, wherever it turns up: at home, in a workplace, at church, in our country, on our globe. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, Dr. King shaped his strategy with an eye on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s a great example of how important scriptural engagement can be. A selection from that sermon (Luke’s version) is printed above. In that sermon, Jesus offers a counter-intuitive call to love enemies.

Here’s how Dr. King spoke of Jesus’ teaching:

Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.

It is in fact a spiritual practice, and I come back to Dr. King, who offered specific guidelines for those who would join him in non-violent resistance. Dr. King, often compared to Moses, came up with his own ten commandments for those who would choose to be part of his movement. Here they are:

  • Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus
  • Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation-not victory.
  • Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
  • Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
  • Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.
  • Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  • Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  • Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  • Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  • Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

We can take a broad view of what it means to love enemies. We all have them. They turn up in many places, in many ways, evoking varying degrees of intensity and complication. It takes practice to relate to them in the transforming way Dr. King describes. 

You may not feel able to embrace all of his commandments, tackling them all at once. So do what you can today. Because this day, honoring Dr.King’s birth, and this week, and this new year all offer opportunity to hear these commandments, and set them to work in a world that sure could use them.

-Jay Sidebotham

AN INVITE:
As part of The Good Book Club, I’ll be leading an online Bible Study for 8 weeks. It started on January 9, but it’s not too late to dive in!
Time: Wednesdays at 8pm EST Topic: Paul’s letters to the Romans. Learn more here. I hope you will join me!

4
Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (January 14, 2019)

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Seek the Lord and his strength. Continually seek his face.

-Psalm 105:4

The path of spiritual growth is a path of lifelong learning.

-M. Scott Peck

Working life has extended so much in the last fifty years that it exceeds life expectancy of even the most successful businesses. Very few businesses are successful for more than 25 or 30 years. And yet most educated people who go to work in their early twenties will keep working until they are 70. And so they had better be prepared for a second career whether it’s in another organization where they are doing what they have been doing or in a new line of work. They must be prepared to learn again. They must be prepared to position themselves. They must be prepared to want to learn- to see it not as something they need to do, but as something they enjoy doing. They will have to learn how to learn.

-Peter Drucker


Disciples Are Learners

If I were ruler of the universe, I might lose the word “disciple” for a while. Just for a while. I’d replace it for a season with the word “student” or “learner.” There is no limit to the reasons why it’s a good thing I’m not ruler of the universe. Just ask my family.

But here’s one paradoxical thing I’ve learned about being a learner. Times of deep learning came for me when I was asked to be a teacher about something I may not have been entirely comfortable teaching, times when I had to be a learner in order to be a teacher.  We’re talking stretch goal.

This has happened for me recently as I have been asked to teach a couple classes that feel like the deep end of the pool for me. Fun but not always easy. I was asked to speak at a day on discernment, a day about figuring out what God is calling us to do and be. I feel like I’ve been in discernment my whole life. The more I’m at it, the less sure I am how much I really know about it. 

So when I got this assignment, I was grateful to have a guide, a book about discernment entitled Decision Making And Spiritual Discernment: The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way, written by Nancy L. Bieber. This wise author identified three aspects to discernment, not necessarily a sequence as much as a braid, interwoven dynamics that strengthen the process of figuring out what God calls us to do and be.

The first of these elements is willingness. What does it mean to say yes? To God? To life? Prophets in the Bible put it this way: “Here I am.” Dag Hammarskjold described his own moment of assent: “I don’t know Who or – What – put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone –  or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.” To what degree do we meet God’s invitation to new life with willingness?

The second element is attentiveness. Are we paying attention, or are we asleep? The question surfaces in other traditions as a matter of mindfulness. Of all the problems that the disciples had, as described in the gospels, insomnia was not one of them. At critical moments (the Transfiguration, the Garden of Gethsemane), they snore. That strikes me as both recognition and caution. We too often sleepwalk through life. And if we’re not asleep, we’re often distracted. What do we miss because of it? To what degree do we meet God’s invitation to new life with attentiveness?

The third element is responsiveness, which is all about showing up, putting faith into action. It’s about taking a step, like Abraham leaving homeland for a new land, not knowing where he was going. It’s Peter seeing Jesus walking on the water, and then putting one foot over the gunwale, then the next, stepping out in the confidence (a bit fleeting) that he could too walk on water. To what degree do we meet God’s invitation to new life with responsiveness?

The author promotes these three strands of discernment, interwoven, interdependent. She makes no claim that they promise success from the culture’s point of view. Neither did Jesus. In terms of the times in which he lived, he was not such a great success. But according to the author, these strands do provide a foundation for living. So does Jesus.

I’ve been told that as we write the narrative of our own lives, we have options. We can look at ourselves as hero, victim, or learner. Be a learner this week. Discernment is really another word for learning. Seek the path God intends for you, the path into which God invites you. As you tackle that work, do so with an eye on willingness, attentiveness and responsiveness.

-Jay Sidebotham

AN INVITE:
As part of The Good Book Club, I’ll be leading an online Bible Study for 8 weeks. It started on January 9, but it’s not too late to dive in!
Time: Wednesdays at 8pm EST Topic: Paul’s letters to the Romans. Learn more here. I hope you will join me!

4
Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (January 7, 2019)

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O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.

-A prayer from Easter Week

Open our eyes that we may behold the wonders of your law.

-from Psalm 119

I heard a story this weekend told by a woman in her 60’s. She remembered her father, now deceased, a military man who was away a lot as she grew up. But when he was home, he would have a pre-dawn breakfast with his daughter. Just the two of them, meeting over bowls of Grape Nuts. And they would each talk about miracles they had seen the day before. Decades after these breakfasts, this woman still remembers the early morning God-sightings. Not a bad spiritual practice. Not a bad way to begin a day. Not a bad way to be family. Not a bad breakfast.


God-sightings

When I was rector in Chicago, it was my privilege and joy to travel with our young people for a mission trip each summer. We boarded busses, headed for communities where people needed minor construction done on their homes. We pledged to leave places better than we found them, which happened most of the time.  I invoked the Hippocratic Oath, which most of the time was fulfilled.

The program was well organized, so that many youth groups came together, with hundreds of teenagers staying for a week in a high school. I’ve had better night’s sleep. (I usually found a remote corner for my sleeping bag which I called “The Rectory.”) The teenagers were divided into work teams, serving along side people from other churches. At the end of each workday, we’d reunite for dinner, fun, games, and worship. Let’s just say that the latter wasn’t Anglican chant. Not particularly contemplative. Lots of lively music, funny skits, teaching and preaching. And the following interesting feature.

At one point in the liturgy, the worship leader would invite young people to come forward and share God-sightings. Open mic testifying. Where had they seen God that day? So picture this. We’re all in a gym, in bleachers. Our group, good Episcopalians, climbed to the absolute back row, a bit skeptical, smugly resistant  to this exuberant worship, suspicious of the theology. The first night or two, our group sat back, with arms folded.

But I remember that night, as I sat with our young people, when one of our young people clomped noisily down the bleachers, making his way to the mic where he shared his God-sighting. Not exactly an Anglican thing to do. But it was simple and beautiful and authentic. In nights that followed, other members of our group did the same. They spoke of small kindnesses, a homeowner who brought a cool glass of lemonade to break the summer heat. Others spoke of the faithful courage with which homeowners navigated poverty and illness.

We returned to the parish. Young people were given opportunity to preach, to talk about work trip. Their sermon text? They offered God-sightings, which launched a new dynamic in the congregation. People began to keep an eye out for God-sightings. Parishioners of all ages, including most reserved and proper pillars of the church, shared the ways that they saw God at work. Unprecedented in my experience. Epiphany began yesterday. It’s a season (a long one this year) when the church talks about God-sightings. We began with the three wise men from the east, ending with the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. In between those two stories, we find a great variety of God-sightings that show up in the gospel reading in Sunday. Listen for them on upcoming Sundays.

And then look for your own God-sightings. Where do you see God at work in your world? You might see God on a walk in the woods or a ride on the subway. You might have a God-sighting when you have dinner with those who share your household. You might have a God-sighting when you watch the news with stories from the other side of globe. The sightings are there. And there is great, transformative value in living life with an eye open for God-sightings.

The reason for this season? Remarkable epiphanies happened in the story of Jesus. Ordinary epiphanies happen to us all the time. Do we have eyes to see them? Are we expecting them? Can we wake up to them this week? Start each day asking God to help you see them. End each day noting how that happened.

-Jay Sidebotham

AN INVITE:
As part of The Good Book Club, I’ll be leading an online Bible Study for 8 weeks, starting on January 9, Wednesdays at 8pm EST. Topic: Paul’s letters to the Romans. Learn more here. I hope you will join me!

4
Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (December 31, 2018)

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O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. -Psalm 96:1
 
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.   -Psalm 51:11

You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forward I make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known.                 -Isaiah 48:6

 
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.      -Rev. 21:5
 
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.                   -Isaiah 65:17

But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. 

           -II Peter 3:1
 
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 
       -II Corin. 5:17

Whenever

It’s one of my favorite words in the Prayer Book. It appears in the promises we make at baptism, when we say that whenever we sin, we will repent and return to the Lord. It doesn’t say if ever. It says whenever. It’s gonna happen.

The word also appears in the prayers at a wedding. As we pray for the couple, we ask that they receive grace whenever they hurt each other. Not if ever. Whenever. It’s gonna happen (as one who has been married 33 years can attest).

So why do I like this word? It champions the premise and promise that there is always a chance for a new start. God does not write us off. God is in the forgiveness business. And just to make sure that we get the point, the Bible is full of stories of folks who screw up and find a new path forward. Moses, a murderer and fugitive, becomes the greatest leader in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jonah is told to go east so he heads west, ends up as lunch for the whale, and proclaims grace to great effect. The prodigal son creeps home filled with shame and receives a party. Peter denies. Thomas doubts. Paul persecutes. You get the idea.

All of which is worth thinking about on the cusp of a new year. What will you do with the new? We often make resolutions, teeth-gritting determinations to be better, to be different, to improve self, to assert power when we may at our core know our selves to be powerless. I saw a billboard on Saturday. Big headline: New Year. New You. It was for a team of plastic surgeons. I may well be a candidate, but I don’t think it gets to the heart of the matter.

The Christian faith, the gospel, approaches all of this in a different way. It goes to the heart. God is in the business of making our hearts new. Jesus told Nicodemus, an old really religious guy, perhaps the Episcopal clergy of the day, that he must be born again, born from above, born anew. Resurrection means to stand again. Paul speaks of the possibility that we can become a new creation. The psalms repeatedly invite us to sing a new song. The Revelation to John envisions a new heaven and a new earth.

You can look at our world, our nation, our church, our own lives and reasonably conclude that old ways are not working. (File by title: Government shutdown.) Perhaps that’s precisely what we need to see in order to invite God to do some new work in our hearts. How might we offer that invitation?

One suggestion: In the church in which I serve, over the next two months, we are going to explore the Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-centered life. These are seven simple (but not necessarily easy) things we can do to live in a new way, proposed and promoted by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Check it out at https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love.

One of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book intercedes for young persons. That’s all of us, isn’t it? Here is the prayer: 

God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world. (I’ll buy that.) Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Did you catch that part? Failure is not a measure of our worth, but a chance for a new start. You’ve got that chance today, on the last day of 2018. Fact is, you have that chance every morning. That’s good news, worth celebrating. Happy New Year.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (December 24, 2018)

When I was growing up, around this time of year, my mom would play this carol on the piano and my dad would sing. He had a good voice. It was a gift. Here’s the text of the carol:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
all for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
all for love’s sake becamest poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
all for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising,
heavenward by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
all for love’s sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
savior and king we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
savior and king, we worship thee.

-text by Frank Houghton (1894-1972)

Gift 

I’m guessing your day is full so I’ll get to the point. Think about gift. First, think about the ways in which the message of Christmas represents gift to you. What specifically about the story of Jesus strikes you as gift? Not just the manger and shepherds and magi, but the whole story, through miracles, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension. The fact is, religious folk can lose sight of Jesus’ story as gift.

That old, old story can get hijacked by a sense of obligation, so that religious observance becomes a duty, or a set of rules, or a weapon against people of different traditions, or heaven forfend, it can become boring routine. It can become an ought, shaping what one friend called, teeth-gritting Christianity. For some church attendance at Christmas can be a speed bump on the way to more festive celebrations. Attendance can become a transaction with a relative (spouse, parent, child) who bargains for your attendance at Christmas liturgies. We can lose sight of gift. With that in mind, take a bit of quiet time today (we could all use some quiet time,) to think about how this familiar story suggests gift. John’s gospel says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Literally, the Word pitched a tent with us. That Word made flesh was full of grace and truth, a winning combo. As Paul wrote to Titus, in his succinct, six word description of the gift of Christmas: The grace of God has appeared. What do you know of grace? That’s Christmas. Second, think about the gifts you will give today and tomorrow and in coming days (Christmas is a season, not just a day). Why are you doing that? There can be obligation that comes with that as well. Perhaps there’s fear you’ll receive something and not have something to give back. 

Take time to think about the people to whom you give gifts tonight or tomorrow. What makes you thankful for that person?  What do you love about that person? As you give those gifts, focus on how that person might be a gift to you. I know, it’s harder to do with some than others. Offer them your blessing. Third, think about gifts you offer to God this Christmas. Romans 12:1-2 calls us to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, not putting something to death but bringing something to life, out of thanksgiving, as a gift. Today and tomorrow, carry with you the final stanza of the hymn “In the bleak mid-winter”
What can I give him, poor as I am.
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part
Yet what I have I give him, give my heart. 

Give your heart this Christmas. Best gift ever. 

Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (December 17, 2018)

From Luke 3:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Memorable Sermons

I confess that I rarely remember sermons, even my own. What did I preach on last Sunday? Give me a minute. I know I can pull it up.

So it’s striking to me that I remember a sermon given in Advent over 30 years ago. It was a sermon drawn from the gospel we read yesterday in church, delivered in a church filled with people in powerful positions. (That passage is included above. Read it before you read the rest of this column so I can share why the sermon from the late 1980’s meant something to me.)

But before we get to that, let’s talk about memorable sermons. Did you notice in the passage that John the Baptist had a distinctive (and memorable) preaching style? When I start a sermon, I sometimes begin with a winsome joke or squishy story I got off the internet. Warm up the crowd, you know.

Not John the Baptist. He looks out on the crowd that made a big effort to hear him in the desert. They had passed up a lot of pulpits along the way. And what does he do but greet them as a brood of vipers. A career killer for most preachers. But the more John does that kind of thing (hardly the stuff of a Dale Carnegie course or Toastmasters), the more people came to hear him. I think the reason is because people knew, as I know about myself, that there’s a bit of the snake inside each one of us. We mask it pretty well, especially in the Episcopal Church where we savor salvation by good taste. But John issued a rigorous assessment, and the people buy it, because they know on some level it’s true. On some level, I imagine they want to change.

So they are prompted to ask: Well then, what are we supposed to do? That question at the end of a sermon is the mark of a good sermon. John’s answer was clear, simple, practical, again a key to a memorable sermon.

Folks in the crowd asked what they should do. He told them that if they had two coats, they should share with someone who didn’t. Same with food in their pantry. If they had more than they needed, they should share it. I don’t think there has been a moment in my privileged life when I didn’t have more than I needed. That’s a blessing for which I give thanks. But it’s also a spiritual challenge, as my ability to hoard suggests there may be some viper in me.

Tax collectors asked what they should do. I might have expected John to tell tax collectors that they had to give up that vile profession by which they collaborated with oppressor and ripped off neighbors. Instead, John the Baptist tells them: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” In other words, stay where God has put you. Bloom where you are planted. Bring the values of God’s life to your life. Bring the values of the Jesus Movement to the movement of your own spiritual journey. The impact of honesty in a profession marked by extortion will be a great witness.

Soldiers asked what they should do. “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Again, I might have imagined John telling the soldiers they needed to go AWOL. Instead, he tells them to stay put, to navigate their lives with integrity and honesty, or as Michael Curry has been saying of late, to focus more on the power of love than the love of power.

The point of the sermon I remember from years ago was the same as John the Baptist’s teaching. We are called to let our transformed lives transform the places where we are right now. If we want to live as followers of Jesus, we can do that right now in the place God has placed us. Faith unfolds in real time, in real life. The point I remember? The preacher told us: Live your life, in your home, in your office, in traffic, in church, as a citizen, with integrity, with honesty, with charity, with humility, with kindness. If we have been given any power, let it be guided by love. Let your light shine. 

I heard that message from that sermon long ago. I still think about it. I’m still working on it.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (December 10, 2018)

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Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.
– Karl Barth
 
The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.
– Thomas Merton
 
Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.
– Karl Barth
 
Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true.
-Thomas Merton
 
Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.
-Karl Barth
 
Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.
– Thomas Merton
 
To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.
-Karl Barth
 
The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds.
-Thomas Merton
 
Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.
-Karl Barth
 
To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.
-Thomas Merton
 
I haven’t even read everything I wrote.
– Karl Barth
 

Fifty years ago today

How’s this for holy coincidence? On this day, December 10 in 1968, two spiritual heroes died. Karl Barth and Thomas Merton both transitioned to eternal life on the same day in that tumultuous year. They were different from each other. I don’t know if they ever met. They came from different Christian traditions. They died on different sides of the globe. But for different reasons, I was formed by their writing, which reflected their faith and witness. Maybe we all were. We talk in the church about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. These guys were cumulonimbus. Giants.

Karl Barth’s theology was shaped by the horrors witnessed in World War I. Years later, with Hitler’s rise to power, Barth joined the Confessing Church and he was chiefly responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration (1934), one of its foundational documents. In that document, Barth claimed that the Church’s allegiance to God in Christ gave it the moral imperative to challenge the rule and violence of Hitler. Barth was forced to resign his professorship at Bonn due to his refusal to swear an oath to Hitler. In two world wars, Karl Barth saw sin at work. That shaped his theology. But he also believed deeply in grace, the love of God from which we cannot be separated.

In 1941, Thomas Mentor entered the Order of Cistercians, the Trappists, at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. His gifts as a writer were encouraged by the abbot. In addition to lots of translation work, Merton corresponded with people around the world, offering spiritual direction, showing affection for friends outside the community, and demonstrating ability to be fully engaged in the world even though he lived a cloistered life. Merton shaped a generation of faithful folks who sought connection between the contemplative life and action for justice and peace. He came to be a force for peace in a time when our nation was deeply divided by war. He explored pathways to engagement with other faith traditions, part of that work for peace.

Both Barth and Merton, each in his way, helped me see what grace is all about, and that it is all about grace. Even though one was cloistered in academia and the other in a monastery, both taught that a vision of grace does not remove a person from the world, but calls for deeper engagement to work for justice and peace.

Today, we give thanks for their lives, their witnesses, their ministries. We are challenged by their examples to bring the gospel of grace to a broken world. So celebrate their remarkable lives by reading some of what they’ve written (samples included above to pique your interest). Celebrate their lives by asking this question: How does our relationship with Christ shape your response to the needs of the world?

Karl Barth, who apparently never had an unexpressed written thought, did most of his writingImage result for John the Baptist from Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpieceat a small desk in his study in his Swiss home. Probably billions of words. Maybe trillions. Over the desk, he hung a print  of John the Baptist from Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. That piece of art guided his writing. John (that great Advent figure) stands with arm extended, pointing beyond himself to Christ on the cross, where in the words of the hymn, love and sorrow flow mingled down. That was Karl Barth’s work: to point beyond self to Christ. I sense it was Thomas Merton’s vocation as well. How will you and I do that? May that be our work, our vocation this week.

-Jay Sidebotham

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