Monday Matters (September 18, 2017)

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Just because

Recent travels gave me the privilege of dropping in on a lively Bible study (not an oxymoron). Turns out I needed to be there. The topic du jour was forgiveness, based on the gospel read yesterday in church. The topic of forgiveness has been coming up a lot on Sundays. It’s also been brought to my attention in other settings recently, which reinforces my own need to do spiritual work in this area. I’m not that good at forgiveness.

I’ve been wondering why forgiveness gets so much biblical and liturgical airtime. Not only did Jesus talk a lot about it. He practiced it at the crucial moment of his life. On the cross he prayed: Father, forgive them.

In our worship, forgiveness seems to be the threshold we must cross to grow in relationship with God. When we gather for eucharist, we precede Holy Communion with the confession, recognizing we have been forgiven. Before we receive bread and wine, we claim forgiveness as we have forgiven others. The Lord’s Prayer, repeated in every liturgy in our tradition, holds forgiveness at the center.

As the discussion about forgiveness unfolded at the Bible study, one person mentioned Anne Lamott’s well-circulated insight about resentment. She compares withholding of forgiveness to drinking rat poison and hoping the rat dies. I have a photo by my office door, a reminder in my comings and goings. It’s a picture of the small jail cell where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years. Soon after his release, he spoke of how he had forgiven his captors. Someone asked how he could possibly do that. He said if he failed to forgive, they would still have him in captivity.

That principle was echoed by Desmond Tutu who affirmed that there was no future without forgiveness. The study group noted recent examples in Amish communities or in Charleston where unspeakable injury was met with forgiveness. Amazing grace.

Our discussion ranged to include the challenges around forgiveness, the myth that you can forgive and forget, the annoying (or worse) difficulty of forgiving someone who is clueless or careless about the injury that person has inflicted, the depths of injury human beings inflict on each other, often most painfully in families. And sometimes in churches.

In my work, as we explore movement in the spiritual journey, a key topic we consider is forgiveness, beginning with the good news that we have been forgiven. We observe that an inability to practice forgiveness can be a stumbling block, an obstacle thwarting spiritual growth. I have a feeling that Jesus knew that, when he said (as we heard yesterday) that we are called to forgive, not just once, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. He calls for limitless forgiveness. Which of course, makes no sense.

Which brings me to the comment made by one of the participants in the study. This wise person (also wise guy) said that, in the end, he was committed to being a forgiving person just because Jesus said to do it. He compared it to his own family when he was growing up. At certain points, his parents instructed him to do something he wasn’t inclined to do. In lively adolescent rebellion, he asked why. They said: Just because.

From his point of view, Jesus’ call to forgiveness had little to do with whether we wanted to forgive, whether we felt like it, whether it was just or fair, whether it even felt possible. It was a matter of listening to our teacher who said that forgiveness is good for us. It was a matter of obedience. As followers of Jesus, we sometimes are led to practice forgiveness just because Jesus taught us to do it, trusting that Jesus knows stuff we don’t, trusting that Jesus knows who we are, trusting that Jesus knows what it means to build loving, liberated lives.

Just because.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgivable.

-Desmond Tutu
 
Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
– Oscar Wilde
 
To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
– C.S.Lewis
 
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
– Mark Twain
 
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
– Nelson Mandela
 
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
-Ephesians 4:32
Hey readers of Monday Matters. You should come to this conference.  Our conversation will be enhanced by your presence. Sign up now!

Discipleship Matters Conference 2017

Oct. 16-18, 2017

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

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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 (September 4, 2017)

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Faith at work: Thoughts on Labor Day

Along with Thanksgiving and Independence Day, Labor Day is one of three national holidays that has made its way into the church calendar. Why so few? Why these three? What’s the spiritual dimension to Labor Day, as prayers and scriptures selected for the day pose questions about the work we do?

A reading from Ecclesiasticus celebrates the variety of kinds of work that people do, smiths and potters and such. What kind of work would that passage talk about today? How can today’s work be so celebrated, so honored?

A reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians focuses on what it means to build a life. It asks about the work we do, paid or unpaid, about the kind of foundation on which we build. What would it mean to build on Jesus Christ, as St. Paul recommends?

In the gospel, an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges the disciples to think about where they are giving their hearts. Jesus says: Where your treasure is there will your heart be also. In our work, do we give our hearts to that which will not satisfy our hearts?

(We’ve listed those readings below. Take a few minutes on this national holiday to reflect on those passages.)

I’m particularly taken with the prayer crafted for Labor Day, mindful that our praying shapes our believing. This Monday morning, pray it with me. It’s found below. Parse that prayer a bit, beginning by noting that our lives are linked one with another. Recently, I’ve been reminded by three ways that we are all connected.

For starters, I’m mindful of the ways that life came to a halt on a Monday afternoon as the sun sped across the continent, eclipsed by the moon. In a time when our nation seems more divided than ever, for a brief darkening moment, there was unity forged in the presence of a force greater than ourselves. The cosmic scope of the event evoked a sense of wonder. We were united by beauty and maybe a bit of holy fear. For once, something was genuinely awesome.

And in a nation in which one in three people knows someone personally affected by Hurricane Harvey, we’ve seen a different way in which our lives are linked with others. That unprecedented weather event has called people from all walks of life to pitch in to help. Schools and sports arenas, bowling alleys and mattress stores, mosques and megachurches opened doors to strangers, a recognition that in the face of powers greater than ourselves, we are bound to each other.

Then last Monday, ministers from around the country gathered in DC to remember Dr. King’s march on Washington. Their trek, their tribute reminded me of Dr. King’s letter, written from a Birmingham jail, addressed to mainline clergy who he thought were, how shall we say, under-performing in pursuit of justice. He wrote:

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

So what is the so-what factor? Given that we are all in this together, the work we do is intended to be done, not for ourselves alone, but for the common good, done not only mindful of what we get out of it, but what we can offer to the wider community. We’re in this together. That’s something to celebrate on Labor Day. Something to work on this fall.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.
-Psalm 90:17

A prayer for Labor Day

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

Readings for Labor Day:

  • Ecclesiasticus 38:27-32
  • I Corinthians 3:10-14
  • Matthew 6:19-24
Hey readers of Monday Matters. You should come to this conference.  Our conversation will be enhanced by your presence. Sign up now!
Discipleship Matters Conference 2017

Oct. 16-18, 2017

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

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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 (August 28, 2017)

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Angels help us to adore him

16th century saint, Teresa of Avila, was a live wire, reflected in her request: “God save us from gloomy saints.” Legend has it that while she was traveling to visit monasteries, her cart overturned and she ended up sitting in a mud puddle. With fist raised toward heaven, she addressed the Almighty: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”

Offered in the same feisty, faithful spirit, she prayed: “God, I don’t love you. I don’t want to love you. But I want to want to love you.” That prayer gives me strange comfort, as I’m aware of the limits of my love for God. I’m not always sure what it means to love God. But I gather it’s pretty important.

I’m reading my way through the gospel of Mark and came upon a passage last week that made me remember Teresa’s prayer. After a series of testy encounters with opponents trying to trip him up, Jesus is approached by a scribe who asks: What is the greatest commandment? Maybe it’s a trick question. Maybe it’s a trap. Maybe it’s a sincere wondering. It sounds to me like the scribe is telling Jesus, after a lot of discussion and dispute about religious rules: “Cut to the chase. Tell me what’s expected, what’s important, what matters.”

Jesus reaches back into his tradition, and recites the summary of the law. (The encounter is printed below.) The greatest commandment is simple, if not easy. It is one thing, except it’s two: love of God and love of neighbor. A succinct answer indicates limitless engagement: Love with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. The scribe agrees with Jesus, and Jesus commends his questioner with words I’d like to hear: “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven.” Often I feel pretty far. I’d like to be closer.

Apparently Jesus thinks that the fulfillment of the greatest commandment is not about right doctrine, not about right political point of view, not about right understanding of the liturgy, not about right advocacy or activism, not about right understanding of scripture. Teresa of Avila put it this way: “The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which stirs you to love.”

In other words, it’s about right relationship. All that Jesus wants from us is love, to be in loving relationship with God and neighbor. Jesus doesn’t seem to want us to know about God. Jesus wants us to know God. Jesus doesn’t seem to want us to love our understanding of God. Jesus wants us to love God.

Sometimes when Episcopalians hear this kind of talk, they balk at phrases that suggest a “personal relationship with God” or “a relationship with Jesus.” Sometimes they say: “That’s not how we talk.” The old hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus” does not show up in our 1982 Hymnal. I know well the pitfalls of boasting of relationship with God. That old ego can creep in anywhere, especially into religious observance. Case in point, as I’ve mentioned before, my beloved younger sister once gave me this tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker: “Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite.”

But I think we need to reclaim language of relationship, as a way to enter into the mystery of figuring out what it means to love God. It’s why we sing: “Angels help us to adore him.” We need help to grow in this way. Scripture offers assistance, as it claims that love of God can’t be separated from love of neighbor. One of the letters to John at the end of the New Testament pointedly asks: “How can you say you love God who you can’t see when you fail to love your neighbor who you can see.” Maybe that means if we’re struggling to figure out what it means to love God, a place to start is by showing love to those around us.

Think about what it means to love God, how that love is demonstrated, how it grows and how goes to work in your world this Monday.

-Jay Sidebotham

Note: Just happened to run across this article which talks about actor Andrew Garfield and how preparation for the movie “Silence” caused him to fall in love with Jesus, much to his surprise.

If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.

-Presiding Bishop Michael Curry

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked Jesus, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,-this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
 -Mark 12

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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 (August 21, 2017)

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Monday, August 14, 2017

On vacation a few years ago, my wife and I stayed in a hotel overlooking the water. Each room had a balcony, with enough privacy so you didn’t see neighbors, but not so much that it cut off views, enough to see that each balcony had the identical birdfeeder hanging over the rail. As I looked right and left, I noticed that some feeders were apparently quite popular, birds on every perch. Others could have hung a big old vacancy sign over them. The difference? The birdfeeders that got attention were the ones with birdseed in them. The empty ones? No birds. The birds went where they were fed.

Because as a preacher, I’m like a shark, always feeding, always looking for material (Be warned!), I immediately compared this line of birdfeeders to churches. I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but it got me thinking about why some churches are filled with folks and others not?

I’m not entirely sure. There are many reasons which many people are studying. It’s easy for this mainline clergyman to get dismissive, even jealous of more popular churches. One may be tempted to think: They just offer spiritual junk food or just tell people what they want to hear or just provide entertainment. After all, we live in a consumerist society, where church can easily become a matter of how enjoyable it is. We may go to a place as long as it is pleasing to us. We gravitate to communities of agreement the way we choose cable news channels. We placate aesthetic or political sensibilities, salvation by good taste.

Whether it’s Bach or Bono or banjo, all can be offered for the glory of God. But there’s probably some part of all churchgoers that do go for entertainment. Preachers, liturgists and musicians all need to watch that the offering is not about us. (After all, ego is an acronym for edging God out.)

I have noted in conversations that something deeper may be going on. It may be about finding a place where people are being fed in the spiritual life, where hunger is met. Being fed is different than being entertained.

I think it’s why Jesus spent so much time at meals with both followers and detractors, as if to note parabolically that he would fill the empty place in each one of us, address the hunger. I think it’s why we find that participating in the eucharist is transformative for folks as they launch on an intentional spiritual journey. It’s about being fed. We live in a world filled with people who are spiritually hungry, on a deep level. How is that God-shaped space inside of us going to be filled?

Where are you being fed in your spiritual life? Early in my ministry, I asked that of a parishioner. She got all teary, which caught me off-guard. She wanted to be fed. It wasn’t happening. When I speak with folks about finding a place to worship (church shopping to be crass about it), I encourage them to go where they are fed, noting that we can be fed by many things: beauty, silence, prayer, music, teaching, hospitality, architecture, outreach, tradition, scripture, preaching, challenge, solace, and of course, bread and wine.

Again, where are you being fed in your spiritual life? What have been sources of spiritual nourishment in the past? Are those still working for you? A feast may be right in front of you, in your community. It may be you have to look further afield. But events in our broken world make it all the more important for us to be fed, sustained, equipped with strength and courage.

We now have a couple birdfeeders at our house. At first, we weren’t getting much business. It turns out the seed I bought would clog the openings. Nobody, not even inventive squirrels, were being fed. Perches were vacant. A few weeks ago, I found seed that apparently works better. I’m proud to report extraordinary popularity. Standing room only. I may get more feeders. I guess the birds now being fed are telling friends that our house is the place to go to be fed.

I’ve seen that happen in churches, too.

-Jay Sidebotham

As evening approached, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

– Matthew 14
 
He gives food to every living thing. His faithful love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of heaven. His faithful love endures forever.
– Psalm 136
 
Jesus said: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
– Matthew 6

 

Clean and unclean birds, the dove and the raven, are yet in the ark.
– Augustine

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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 (August 14, 2017)

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Don’t let him know, but I stand in awe of a friend, Jim Stephenson, extraordinarily gifted musician and composer. He has a big heart that complements his big talent. He was so deeply moved by tragic events in Charleston several years ago that he composed a piece of music entitled There Are No Words, a piece offered in the confidence that music heals, or as Hans Christian Anderson put it: “When words fail, music speaks.”

I’m late with Monday Matters this morning. Like many clergy colleagues up late on Saturday night revising sermons in light of events in Charlottesville, I found myself wondering what to say today. I found myself with a heavy heart. I listened to a portion of Jim’s music.

I’m on retreat in the mountains of North Carolina, removed from newspapers and cable channels. Days and dates are not top of mind. This morning, I was on a walk in the woods, with a different Monday Matters message ready to be sent. Then I remembered that today is August 14. In the Episcopal Church it is a day we remember the life and ministry and witness of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

He grew up in New Hampshire, and as a young adult had a profound conversion on Easter Day, 1962. He entered the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in March 1965, answered a call to travel to Alabama to help secure the right to vote for all citizens. He was jailed for joining a picket line. Then he and his companions were unexpectedly released. Aware that they were in danger, four of them walked to a small store. As sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales reached the top step of the entrance to the store, a man with a gun appeared, cursing her. Jonathan pulled her to one side to shield her from threats. He was killed by a blast from the 12-gauge gun.

We remember him on this day. In light of the weekend news, it may be a day in which we wonder who we are and how we got here. We may wonder what has changed since the 60’s. It may be a day when words fail.

And then there is music.

You see Mr. Daniel’s willingness to confront danger, part of his work for justice and peace, came in part from an experience of Evening Prayer when he took the words of a song, the Magnificat, to heart: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.”

Pray this Monday for our nation and our world. Pray for a young woman who lost her life over the weekend, for those who mourn for her, for all who are injured in body, mind and spirit. Pray for faithful and loving leadership. Pray for all whose hearts harbor hate. Pray for those who are indifferent. (That may mean praying for ourselves.) Pray that the Spirit will show us how we can work for justice and peace and healing of our land.

And if words fail, read the words of the Magnificat below. It’s a song with the power to heal.

-Jay Sidebotham

The prayer for the Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Magnificat
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

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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 (August 7, 2017)

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Someone near and dear to me gave me a most thoughtful gift. The donor was mindful that I spend time with words, preaching and teaching and writing. The gift is a refrigerator magnet. It reads: I am silently judging your grammar. It’s helpful to have that warning in front of me each morning, though the judgment is not always silent.

Admittedly, I am inclined to make errors that come in great variety, and a variety of folks in my life point them out. Like when I tell a congregation that we will say the psalm in unison, together. (An example of repeating myself redundantly). Or when I say something is very unique. I’m reminded that something either is or is not unique. It can’t be very. Or when I pluralize the word priority. Numerous priorities undermine the meaning of a priority.

Let’s pause to consider that last egregious error. It’s related to something on my mind since we’ve been reading Jesus’ parables this summer on Sundays. These parables, some lengthy, some succinct, describe the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. With transformative power, parables stay with us, having a life of their own. Just when you think you’ve figured out the meaning, they come at us again, asking us to think about them in some new way.

(As an aside, I remember my first New Testament class in seminary. I expected we’d dive into dense theological study. Instead, at the end of the first class, the teacher gave this homework assignment: Go home and write a parable. It was one of the most difficult homework assignments I ever received, triggering ever deeper respect for Jesus as divine teacher, as I produced a pathetic parable. Give it a try this week.)

One parable in particular, recently read on Sunday, has been on my mind. Here it is, in its entirety:

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)

This parable made me think about my priority. Not my priorities. Okay, I’m not entirely sure that priority needs to be singular, but it has made me think: Is there one great pearl I value above all else? What is it? There are other ways to frame the question: What would I live for? What would I die for? Is there something, one thing, that would lead me to give up everything else?

What is the pearl of great value for the church, its singular priority? As I travel around the church, I’m aware that one of the challenges these days for faith communities is our culture: They don’t really know what they are about. They’re often not entirely clear about purpose, not always clear on where they are headed. Sometimes they appear to be about everything, and so sometimes end up being about not much at all. Mission statements can be at once lengthy and lacking.

On an individual level, what is the pearl of great value for my life and for yours, as far as the spiritual journey is concerned? Is there focus, mission, purpose? Maybe it is a call to be of service. Maybe it is to become more like Christ. Maybe it is to live into the simple but not easy commandment Jesus gave to his followers: to grow in love of God and neighbor.

Once we have identified the priority, for ourselves and our community, how do we live into it? What distractions pull us away? I doubt I’ll ever totally get away from living with a plurality of priorities, numerous vocations sometimes competing with each other, marking my spirit with ADD. I know many distractions, diversions, detours on the spiritual path.

But that should not deter from moving toward single-mindedness. Join me by taking a step in that direction this week. What will that step be? How would you describe your pearl of great value?

-Jay Sidebotham

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
-Matthew 22
 
 
Purity of heart is to will one thing.
-Soren Kierkegaard
 
 
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
-Matthew 6

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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 31, 2017)

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On occasion, I participate in yoga classes taught by my wife. I’m surprisingly good at certain parts of the practice, like shavasana and child’s pose. There are poses I refuse to do in front of parishioners, like happy baby. And there are parts that make me think one should never receive yoga instruction from a spouse. Take plank for instance, which is basically holding an army push up halfway down for about 3 or 4 days. Or chair pose, which is something my Junior High gym coach made us do when we misbehaved.

And don’t get me started on this particular instructor’s ability to count: “Hold that pose for 10, 9, 8, 7, you all look great, 9, 8, 7, 6, breathe deep, 8, 7, 6, 5, now smile, 7, 6, 5, 4…”

All of this is preceded by a time in which the instructor prepares us for practice with mindful meditation, helping us make transition from busy lives outside the studio. My wife is particularly gifted at these reflections. Of late, she has incorporated a passage attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh (see below) to begin the session. It has caught my attention as it includes this particular intention: to be awakened from the trance of forgetfulness.

I don’t think that this wise Vietnamese monk is talking about forgetting names, forgetting where I left my keys, forgetting my password (though I often find myself in that kind of trance). The power of that phrase comes in recognizing that the spiritual journey is about remembering, and in recognizing that a lot of the time I am spiritually asleep.

This awakening, this act of remembering is a spiritual intention, at the heart of the Christian tradition. The story of the children of Israel is told again and again to the children of Israel, to keep them on track by reminding them to look in the spiritual rear-view mirror. “Remember, your father was a wandering Aramean.” When wandering in the wilderness, the children of Israel would complain to God, as if asking “What have you done for me lately?” To counter that complaint, they were called to recollect divine provision, redemption, forgiveness and liberation. Scripture calls people of faith to do the same these days, to awaken from the trance of forgetfulness.

The psalmist knows that a strong relationship with God comes with awakening from forgetfulness. In exile, the psalmist speaks of holding on to the memory of Jerusalem. See the portion of Psalm 137 below. Or read the first 8 verses of Psalm 78. It includes this intention: We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works he has done…that the generations to come might know, and the children yet unborn, that they in turn might tell it to their children, so that they might put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God. (vss. 4,6,7)

In the New Testament, Jesus gathered disciples at the Last Supper, instituting the eucharist with the command: Do this in remembrance of me. In our liturgy, a portion of the prayer used on Sunday at communion recalls the great and gracious things God has done in the past. That portion of the prayer is referred to as anamnesis. That literally means not forgetting (not amnesia).

Have you ever felt yourself caught in a trance of forgetfulness, spiritually speaking? Maybe you’re there this morning. The call to thanksgiving is meant to awaken us. We give thanks to God not to stroke the ego of a narcissistic divine being. Rather, we reflect on ways we have come to experience grace in the past so we can embrace those experiences in the present, and trust they will unfold in the future. When we can remember that amazing grace, we can awaken from the trance of forgetfulness.

Carry that phrase with you this Monday. Awaken from any trance you might be in. Forget forgetfulness. Remember that grace abounds.

-Jay Sidebotham

 People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.
-Samuel Johnson
 
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
-Psalm 137:5,6
 
Mind, space and body in perfect oneness.
I send my heart along with the sound of my breath.
May my breath awaken me from the trance of my forgetfulness.
So that I can transcend the path of sorrow and suffering.
-adapted from 
Thich Nhat Hahn
 
Perhaps nothing helps us make the movement from our little selves to a larger world than remembering God in gratitude. Such a perspective puts God in view in all of life, not just in the moments we set aside for worship or spiritual disciplines. Not just in the moments when life seems easy.
-Henri Nouwen
 

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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 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.