Monday Matters (January 13, 2020)

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Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

 All I want to say to you is, “You are the beloved, and all that I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – “You are the beloved.”

If it is true that we not only are the Beloved, but also have to become the Beloved; if it is true that we not only are children of God, but also have to become children of God; if it is true that we not only are brothers and sisters, but also have to become brothers and sisters…if all that is true, how then can we get a grip on this process of becoming? If the spiritual life is not simply a way of being, but also a way of becoming, what then is the nature of this becoming?

-from “The Life of the Beloved” by Henri Nouwen

Beloved

A key learning from RenewalWorks has to do with reading the Bible. We’ve learned that as folks engage with scripture, as they make it part of their lives, then spiritual vitality deepens. As congregations embed scripture in all that they do, spiritual vitality increases. When I say such a thing, many folks assume we are pitching fundamentalism, something that feels foreign to the Episcopal world. Not so.

Shout out to a friend and teacher, the Rev. Gary Jones. He writes guides to help with reflection on the gospel passage read on Sundays. These reflections include insightful background info on the given passage, followed by a series of thoughtful questions. These guides are used by small groups in his church (St. Stephen’s, Richmond, VA.) but with their availability online, they reach way beyond his parish bounds. They might just be a helpful resource for you in your own spiritual journey. Preachers, they might just help in preparing sermons for Sunday. Check them out.

I found his reflections for yesterday’s readings to be particularly helpful. In case you missed it, yesterday in church we read the story of Jesus’s baptism, a story appearing in each of the gospels, a tip-off that the story merits our attention. We read that story, in one version or another, every year on this Sunday. I’m not alone in wondering exactly why Jesus was baptized, a question commentators have struggled with for quite a while. In his invitation to reflect on this story, Gary quotes Will Willimon, teacher and preacher, who had this to say about baptism:

In baptism, the church is not saying that someone is not a child of God until he or she is baptized… The coronation of Queen Elizabeth did not “make” Elizabeth a queen. A coronation can only make someone a queen if that person is already royalty. The nation said publicly at the coronation, “This woman is royalty; put a crown on her head.” At baptism the church says publicly, “This person is royalty; baptize her.”

I’m wondering what your take might be on Willimon’s take on baptism. I’m wondering how you think of baptism as related to coronation, regardless of what Harry or Meghan are up to, or how the royal summit proceeds later today. (Maybe we should all say a prayer for that meeting, but I digress.) Willimon’s vision was, for me, quite interesting. It certainly does not cover all the traditions, symbols, images, interpretation of baptism that have evolved over centuries. But it does set Jesus’s baptism in the context of grace, always a good place to land.

The story of Jesus’s baptism, told in each of the four gospels, always includes a voice from heaven that speaks of Jesus’s belovedness. That belovedness, that grace preceded Jesus’s visit to John the Baptist at the muddy River Jordan. That belovedness was a statement of Jesus’s timeless royalty. And as Henri Nouwen points out in his really awesome book, Life of the Beloved, that heavenly voice affirming belovedness comes not only to Jesus. It comes to us.

So this Monday morning, as you launch out on whatever your week will bring, think about the ways your life can be shaped by a heavenly voice saying that you are beloved. As you listen for that voice, allow it to animate your week. Relax in it. Enjoy it. Savor it. Give thanks for it, and then share that sense of belovedness with all the children of God you meet.

We live in a world where way too many people walk around feeling like they are not enough. Too many people cannot buy the fact that they are beloved. The gospel says that we are each and all royalty, because we are each and all embraced by God. Scripture tells us that, in a variety of ways. Dare we believe it? And if we believe it, how does it change that way we face this Monday?

-Jay Sidebotham

Another great way to engage in scripture….

The Gospel Of John | Epiphany 2020

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Jay Sidebotham

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

Resolving to deepen your spiritual life in 2020?

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (January 6, 2020)

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Sing to the Lord a new song.

-Psalm 96:1

Behold, I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

-Isaiah 43:19

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new.

-II Corinthians 5:17

 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

-Hebrews 11:8

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

-Revelation 21:5

 Change is good. You go first.

-Dilbert

They left for their own country by another road.

Or as King James puts it, the magi went home by another way. And isn’t that just what life is like?

On this Monday, which also happens also to be the Feast of the Epiphany, we read the story of the magi who came from the east in search of the Christ child. Once they had encountered him, they returned to their homes, though apparently not by the route they had originally intended. Their story brings us to the conclusion of the season of Christmas, 12 days preceded by the season of Advent, seasons filled with stories of people of faith whose spiritual journeys involved course correction, or recalculating to use the language of GPS.

Zechariah and Elizabeth, seriously senior citizens, all of a sudden had to find room in their house for a nursery. Is there a senior’s discount for Lamaze classes? Mary got the unexpected news that she was expecting. Joseph has numerous encounters with angels that make him the guy who exemplifies the saying: Life is what happens instead of what we plan. Shepherds and innkeeper and even Herod find holy interruption in their plans, courtesy of Christmas story. And then these magi, traveling from afar, following yonder star, find that after they meet Jesus, it was time to find another way home.

Epiphany coincides with the beginning of a new year, replete with opportunity for resolutions, intentions about how things might be different, how things might be made new. Maybe you’ve already made and broken new year’s resolutions.

The question is: are we open to the new thing that God has for us in this season, in this coming year? Asked another way, are we ready for that epiphany indicating that our journey home will cause us to travel some other way, maybe some uncharted way?

Maybe it’s a decision to make a radical change, taking a leap of faith, taking a big old risk, leaving something secure for something uncertain. The Bible is filled with stories like that. Sometimes that leap is the only way to live into God’s intention.

Maybe it’s a matter of bringing new attitude to the current situation without making any external changes, geographic or otherwise. Maybe it’s a change of heart.

Maybe it’s a set of circumstances beyond our control that give us little choice but to chart a new path.

One way or another, the feast which we observe today tells us that the encounter with Christ changes us. The news that God breaks into our world in ways we might not expect, tends to shake things up. One way or another, it’s just not same old/same old. The news that we are loved without condition frees us for new possibilities. The news that we are not alone, that God is with us (a.k.a., Immanuel), grants us courage to do and be something new, to chart a new path.

Open your heart this year to the new thing God has in store for you, the new way set out before you. In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, perhaps make it a daily practice to ask God to show you that way, and to strengthen you for it.

Grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home, perhaps by another way. 

-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

Resolving to deepen your spiritual life in 2020?

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org


Monday Matters (December 30, 2019)

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Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

-John 1:17

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

-Stanza 3, Joy to the World

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and warring humankind hears not the tiding which they bring; O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!

-Stanza 3, It came upon a midnight clear

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone, snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away, when he comes to reign, in the bleak midwinter a stableplace sufficed the Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

-Stanzas 1 and 2, In the bleak midwinter

Holy Innocents

My first year as a rector was shaped by time spent with an 8 year old. When I met him, he was in the late stages of a battle with a brain tumor. I saw him almost daily for several months until he died on Christmas Eve. His funeral was held on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day when we remember the cruelty of a political system that left mothers grieving over toddlers murdered by King Herod’s forces. Hardly the jolly material we’ve come to associate with Christmas. We observed this feast two days ago, on Saturday. It caused me to remember my young friend, a companion in the journey of faith, in many ways my teacher.

The fact is, I never fail to notice in the Christmas season that while there may be an abundance of desserts, our faith does not sugarcoat the truth about our lives.

On December 21, we observe the Feast of St. Thomas. In the days after Jesus was tortured and killed, we meet dispirited disciples locked behind closed doors for fear of political retribution. In that locked room, Thomas shares doubts born of grief.

On the day after Christmas, we observe the Feast of St. Stephen, the guy who triggered all that singing about good King Wenceslaus. A closer look reminds us that Stephen was the first martyr of the church, victim of brutal execution, responding in a Christ-like fashion, asking forgiveness for those who were killing him.

And then we tell a story about young boys being killed by King Herod.

All of this is to say that the story of Christmas is full not only of grace, but also full of truth. It conveys the truth of the incarnation, the power of Immanuel, which means God with us in the suffering that is part of the deal. That presence is the very definition of compassion. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my mentors repeatedly told his congregants that suffering was the promise life always keeps. A profoundly Christian tenet, but one that is key to Buddhist thinking as well. I’m imagining that Monday Matters readers each know something about that.

I remember the memorial service I did for that eight year old, fumbling for words, recalling that there was no way to make sense of it. I’ve been taught that in the face of such suffering, there may be no words. We are called to withstand when we can’t understand. We are called to proclaim when we can’t explain. And what we proclaim is the good news that in the end, love will win.

In the meantime, we may have no earthly idea how that will be true. We live in that meantime, and so we pray for the holy innocents in our midst, victims of war and terrorism and gun violence, children hiding under desks in schools, refugee children on our borders, detained in cages and separated from loved ones, those who contend each day with poverty and hunger, some in our neighborhoods, in our local schools. I have no words to explain how all this can be. Holy innocents surround us.

There are times we can explain suffering. It sometimes comes as consequence of what we do. It sometimes results from greed or envy or fear or indifference. But there is a whole stream of suffering which seems random and beyond explanation. That’s where Jesus can be our teacher, as we survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died, sorrow and love flow mingled down.

And somehow we still sing “Joy to the World.” (I’ve actually had a few requests for that hymn at funerals.) I go back to the Book of Joy, the chronicle of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The book records the joyful character of their relationship. Laughter looms large. Yet both knew deep suffering at the hands of cruel political systems. They were never in denial about the principalities and powers they battled. Yet in it all, they exude joy. Maybe they know the wisdom of a saying attributed to all kinds of folks: “In the end, all will be well. If all is not well, it’s not the end.”

I recognize this is not the cheeriest holiday message. But I hope that it can be one marked by grace and truth, one marked by joy, as we recognize that Jesus knows what we go through and meets us with compassion.

-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

Resolving to deepen your spiritual life in 2020?

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (December 23, 2019)

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When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

    – The poem “The Work of Christmas” is from Howard Thurman’s
The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations

The so-what factor

A teacher told me years ago that there are a bunch of questions to ask when we study scripture. They include: Who (wrote it)? To whom (was it addressed)? When (was it written)? Why (did anyone bother to write it)? What (does it say)?

All good questions, for sure. But this teacher said the most important question was this: So what? What difference does this text mean? How might it change us? We can ask that question about scripture. We can ask that question about our liturgies. And this week, we can ask it about Christmas. What is this season for? How does it change us? What difference does it make?

I know we’re in the last hours of Advent. I will undoubtedly be accused by the Advent police (a terrifying force) of getting to Christmas too soon. But a few texts have been kicking around in my head of late, all describing the so-what factor of Christmas.

There’s the final stanza from the beautiful hymn “In the bleak mid-winter,” text written by Christina Rossetti.

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 can I give Him: give my heart. 

It says that Christmas is about what we offer, in worship with our lips and with our lives. So we will gather, singing “Come let us adore him.” And we will be asked to think about where we give our heart, and how that open heart reaches out to the others. Join me in considering those questions this week.

Laurence Housman wrote a beautiful text for a hymn, though not specifically a Christmas Carol. It spoke of how the babe in the manger calls us to think about the world in which we live. Google his story. He was an illustrator who lost his eyesight so turned to writing and social activism, working for peace in a time of war. I’m haunted all year long by the challenge he poses in this last stanza of the hymn. He asks us to think about what we love, where we give our heart. Reflect on this stanza:

How shall we love Thee, holy, hidden Being,
If we love not the world which Thou hast made?
O give us [brother] love for better seeing
Thy word made flesh, and in a manger laid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Then of course, there’s the reflection offered by theologian, mystic, activist and prophet, Howard Thurman who wrote about the work of Christmas (included above). It describes our call to live out the implications of Jesus’ precious arrival in our midst. It may be the best articulation of the Christmas so-what factor that I’ve ever seen.

By my accounts, we’ve got a bit more than 24 hours left in the season of Advent, a season of contemplation. As you contemplate this week, when you will sing of joy to the world, as you look for a present for Jesus on his birthday, consider the season’s so-what factor. Consider the ways you can be of service this holiday. As God so loved the world in sending us Jesus, pass that love on to family, especially those who push our buttons, to Christmas dinner partners, especially those who watch different cable channels, to neighbors, especially those who might be alone, to those nearby and far away who have been pushed to the margins, and there are simply too many of those folks.

My hunch is that a commitment to be of service will be a great offering for the Christ child. I believe it will make your Christmas merry.

-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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (December 16, 2019)

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Lord, let not our souls be busy inns that have no room for thee or thine, but quiet homes of prayer and praise, where thou mayest find fit company, where the needful cares of life are wisely ordered and put away, and wide, sweet spaces kept for thee; where holy thoughts pass up and down and fervent longings watch and wait thy coming.

-Julian of Norwich

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour, 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 becomes 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.

On purpose

It’s a privilege to work with Episcopal congregations through the ministry of RenewalWorks. I am occasionally asked for the elevator speech for RenewalWorks. What is our purpose? We actually have a number of efforts underway, but they can all be gathered under this heading. We are seeking to make spiritual growth the priority for our congregations. 

That of course triggers conversation about what we mean by spiritual growth. How would you define spiritual growth? Our answer has to do with relationship, growing in love of God and love of neighbor. We believe that movement toward deeper relationship represents growth. We believe that it is the reason congregations exist. We believe that’s why RenewalWorks exists. That’s our purpose. End of elevator speech.

We are learning a lot in this work, blessed with many teachers along the way. I was recently given a book by a friend and rector of a wonderful congregation. The book is entitled Becoming a Blessed Church, by a Presbyterian pastor named N. Graham Standish. The author talks a lot about the importance of churches staying in touch with their purpose. He notes that most churches began, in one way or the other, with real clarity of purpose. That may have been a recent church plant. That may have been centuries ago. But over time, and for various reasons, the congregation may have lost touch with that originating purpose. Dreaded statements like: “We’ve never done it that way,” or “We’ve always done it that way,” take over without much thought about why we do what we do. I commend this book as it offers a guide for congregations to discern what God’s purpose looks like for them. Spiritual growth can happen in a variety of ways and this book invites people into a process of discerning God’s call and purpose for the community.

Meanwhile, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. And I’ve been thinking about spiritual purpose as we approach Christmas, asking myself about my own sense of the purpose of this observance. For me, it’s about good time with family and friends. Acknowledgement of people who are important in my life. Expressions of gratitude for the gift they are to me. Obligation to have a gift for someone who might have a gift for me. Anxiety that I haven’t done enough. Tasteful decorations. Opportunity to eat favorite foods. Time off. Well coordinated liturgies so folks will think I’m good at my job. The list goes on, all of them a part of my own observance. What would you say is the purpose of your observance of next week’s holiday?

I’m wondering how this Christmas might be different if somehow I could remember it as a piece of the purpose of church, a chance to grow spiritually, a chance to grow in love of God and neighbor? Have I, even I as a member of clergy staff, lost touch with that purpose? Another way to get at the question: Do you think Joseph and Mary would be surprised if given a chance to see how we observe the birth of their child? Is all this what John the Baptist was preparing for? Does our observance correspond to the miracle, the mystery of the grace of the word made flesh, dwelling among us, born not into power but into poverty.

It’s a most wonderful time of the year. Sure there’s craziness and silliness. I served at one church where there actually was a bourbon-infused fist fight at the Christmas Eve service over someone saving too many seats. Might those folks have lost sight of some original purpose? “Joy to the world” became “Get out of my pew.” (Expletives deleted.)

My prayer for my own observance, and while I’m at it, my prayer for your observance, is that the celebration of Christmas may be a piece of a larger movement, a deeper discernment: to grow spiritually, to grow in love of God and neighbor. That would be a most merry result.

-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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (December 9, 2019)

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Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
-Psalm 27:14
 
What is my strength, that I should wait? and what is my end, that I should be patient?
-Job 6.11

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is in him.
-Psalm 62.5
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
-Isaiah 40.31
 
O my strength, I will watch for you; for you, O God, are my fortress.
-Psalm 59.9
 
My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.
-Psalm 119.148
 
My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
-Psalm 130.6
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.
-Romans 13.11
 
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of God.
-Revelation 3
 
Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city.
-Isaiah 52.1

Advent alliteration

Loving and friendly readers have occasionally helped me identify growth opportunities in my writing. Case in point: incomplete sentences. Extraneous, or absent commas. I have been known to repeat myself, redundantly, saying the same thing over and over. (But that’s true of lots of preachers.) I also frequently fall into the graceless grammatical gimmick of alliteration, a persistent ploy meant to make memorable Monday Matters. On this Monday morning in Advent, alliteration surfaces once more, as we are early on in a season that provides a chance to watch, to wait, to wake up.

In Advent, we’re called to watch. We hear that injunction in scripture, but what does that mean for us in the journey of faith? I suspect it’s a matter of looking for the signs of God’s life and love breaking into the world. I’m reminded of cold winter mornings when I was commuting by train, standing on the platform in the darkness, wind howling down the Hudson River valley, as I wondered and worried (alliteration alert) if the train would ever come. Murphy’s law of public transportation: The lower the temperature, the more likely trains would be delayed. I could easily surrender to despair: “This is the morning the train will not come.” I would watch intently, and would often grow more anxious as I looked down the dark track. But then, I would see the faintest glimmer of light on the rails. Just a sliver. The train was still far away, but I knew it was coming. That hint of light was transformative, watching transformed into hope. Translate that to your spiritual life. What are the signs of hope, a better future breaking into your dark present? Name them. They can be the smallest of signs, but they can change us.

In Advent, we’re called to wait. We hear that injunction in scripture, as we’re invited to wait on the Lord. But what does that mean for us in the journey of faith? This time of year, our culture gives tons of time (alliteration alert), ample opportunity to wait. Lines in traffic. Lines at the post office. Lines at stores. What will we do with that time? It can be a spiritual exercise to wait with grace and kindness. How about this for an Advent observance? Throw somebody off by letting that person in front of you in line. Thank the person behind the counter dealing with the Christmas rush. Those opportunities are small reflections of ways we are called to wait in our faith. Advent tells us all about them, whether it’s John the Baptist telling us to get ready and prepare the way, or Mary and Elizabeth getting news that new life was on the way. It’s a season of expectancy. It calls for trust, which in the darkness of the season, the darkness of our world, can be challenging.

In Advent, we’re called to wake up. We hear that injunction in scripture and in great Advent hymns (e..g. Sleepers Wake). But what does that mean for us in the journey of faith? The injunction’s implication (alliteration alert) is that we are somehow spiritually asleep. Maybe that sleepiness is simply that we are caught in routine, without any imagination that things could be different. Is it ever the case that you navigate Sunday liturgy on auto-pilot? This clergy person confesses that it happens to him. Maybe it’s fatigue that contributes to spiritual grogginess. Or maybe we’re overworked. In our research on spiritual vitality, we discover that one of the great impediments to spiritual growth for folks in our culture is simply that they are over-booked. Maybe it’s a matter of indifference to the brokenness of the world around us. We tend to gravitate to communities of like-mindedness, to shield ourselves from the pain of the world, or find ways to anesthetize. We too rarely seek what God is up to in the neighborhood, especially with neighbors who differ from us, who have been pushed to the margins. Are we awake to a world in pain? Are we contributing, in our spiritual drowsiness, to that pain?

Blessings in this Advent season, a time to wait and watch and wake up. These are things we’re meant to do all year long, but perhaps especially in this season as we prepare for the grace that will appear on Christmas, the grace we’ve been waiting for, the grace we’ve been on watching for, the grace that wakes us up to the love of God from which we can never be separated, and invites us to share that love.

 -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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (December 2, 2019)

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Jesus said to him (a father who had asked Jesus to heal his son in the grips of a life-threatening illness), “If you are able!-All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out “I believe; help my unbelief!” 

-Mark 9:23,24

If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.

-Frederick Buechner

 The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.

-Anne Lamott

You can’t know – you can only believe. Or not.

-C.S.Lewis

Advent hope

One of the ways I pass the time: doing cartoons about church life. It’s fun, and kind of a no-brainer. Material surfaces in abundance. It’s just a matter of keeping one’s eyes open, as I don’t have to make anything up. One of my favorite themes portrays conversations that happen between clergy and parishioners at the door at the conclusion of services. I often gather these encounters under the title: What they say and what they mean. One might call it the “Bless your heart” syndrome.

For instance, people have said things like: “Your sermons have gotten so much better,” which I take to mean: “You used to be really bad.” People have said: “That was an interesting take on the passage,” which I take to mean: “Which half-baked seminary did you attend?” After one sermon on a difficult passage, a parishioner leaned in and said to me: “Nice try,” which I took to mean: “You probably should have let someone else try.”

Recently, I preached a memorial service. The homily focused in particular on the Prayer Book directives for the service for the Burial of the Dead. It is intended as an Easter liturgy, one that finds all its meaning in the hope of the resurrection. (Look at those beautiful instructions in the Prayer Book on page 507 if you have a few minutes.) Based on the readings chosen for that service, readings marked by hope, my homily focused on Easter.

At the door after the service, a parishioner complimented me on the homily and said: “I liked it. It sounded like you really believe it.” The way he made the comment made me think he was a bit surprised. And that triggered a few thoughts, projections of what this parishioner meant by what he had said.

My paranoid self wondered/worried whether he meant that sometimes when I preach, I don’t really sound authentic or convincing. Do listeners wonder if I mean the things I say? Am I just toeing the line, just going through the motions, saying what I know I’m supposed to say, saying what I know will please the crowd?

I wondered if this parishioner had ever had the experience I have occasionally had, sitting in church services with clergy that seemed bored by the liturgy and unclear about what they’d like to proclaim. In those moments, I’ve wondered if there was anything those clergy found amazing about grace.

I wondered if this parishioner realized that there are times for me that the whole Christian story seems just so strange and hard to believe. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I can joyfully jump into belief with both feet, totally immersed in wonder, love and praise.

And then there are times when I have to pray: “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Emily Dickinson said that she believed and disbelieved a hundred times an hour. She said that it made her faith nimble. Thanks, Emily, for that helpful take on my own spiritual vacillation.

As we begin Advent, we commit ourselves to a remarkable story, leading to Bethlehem. If it weren’t so familiar, we might find it beyond fantastic. If we’re honestly grappling with the story, we might well join Mary who responded to the angel’s birth announcement by saying: “How can this be?” And as we follow the story to Easter morning, there will be more and more moments that fill us with wonder, and maybe doubt and disbelief.

I’m grateful that in the memorial service this parishioner got the idea that I believed in hope. Where would we be without it? The focus of that service represents the core of the Christian faith. And while I confess doubts about the mystery of life here and beyond, and while I admit that I have no idea what it really means that in death life is changed, not ended, I do in fact believe that there is truth there, truth worth banking on.

I hope that provides a hopeful note as we begin the season of Advent, a season of hope.

 -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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (November 18, 2019)

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Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesusthere with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding[i] him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23: 32-33, 39-43

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

-Psalm 25:7

Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people; help me when you deliver them.

-Psalm 106:4

And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

-W.H.Auden

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

Stanza 13-16 from the poem “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon

Remembering

This coming Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, is traditionally focused on the theme of Christ the King. What kind of sovereign is Jesus? To find an answer, this week, we travel to the cross. We read Luke’s account of Jesus’ final hours, with that poignant exchange only provided by Luke. Thieves on either side of Jesus enter into conversation, one taunting Jesus, one defending him. The second thief then makes this request: Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Of all the things that this thief could have asked in final moments, he asks to be remembered. He prays that he will not be forgotten. Maybe that’s an unusual prayer. Maybe that’s everyone’s prayer.

My 92 year old mother has moved out of her home into an apartment in an assisted living facility. She has made the rather significant transition with grace. We have been working to help in the down-sizing process by going through her books. There are lots of them. On one shelf, she had spiral bound calendars going back over 30 years. I happened to open a few of them, randomly scanning the decades.

What I learned was that my mother was years ahead of Facebook. There’s a lot not to like about social media in its current unregulated state. But here’s one of the good things about Facebook. On any given day, one is reminded of birthdays, and given a chance to send a greeting. People are remembered. For the most part, people report feeling good about that.

Well, my sweet mom was way ahead of Zuckerberg. She’s been remembering birthdays for decades. For almost every day in those calendars, there was an indication of whose birthday it was. Some days had five or six entries. I’ve learned over the years that I should have bought Hallmark stock. Every single day she mailed multiple birthday greetings. She sent them to close relatives and good friends. I think she sent them to people she met standing in line at the dry cleaners. She sent them to prisoners she met with weekly, and to rehab center residents. She sent them to folks living in mansions. She sent them to relatives of relatives. And in doing so, she let people know that they had been remembered. Not a bad feeling.

It’s a small thing, I know. Obviously the prayer of the thief on the cross was a request for a more profound kind of remembering. It was of course more than a birthday greeting. I don’t know exactly what the thief was asking, but I imagine that his request to be remembered was a request for forgiveness, and grace, and inclusion, for hope of life changed not ended.

What he asked of Jesus, and in a small way, what my mother’s mailings indicate is that people matter, that there is inherent dignity in everyone. Everyone. As Jesus stretches out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, I hear him saying to all of humanity: You matter. You are actually worth remembering. He says that to you and to me. That’s good news because too many in our world are simply forgotten.

I regard my mother’s birthday cards as sacramental, a small outward sign of something deeper, that people are worth remembering, and that we can be part of that remembering, in the spirit of our baptismal service which tells us there is dignity in every human being. In ways great and small, we can offer forgiveness, grace, inclusion, all ways of being noticed, remembered, honored.

Who in your orbit stands at risk of being forgotten? Who has gone invisible? Maybe it’s an old friend, or a relative who drives you nuts, or someone in the nursing home you drive by every morning. Who in our society is forgotten? Can we find a way to work for justice and peace for the sake of the dignity of every person? 

Can we do some holy remembering this week?

 -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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (November 11, 2019)

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A Prayer for Heroic Service

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

-P. 839, The Book of Common Prayer


The Collect for the Feast of St. Martin (November 11)

Lord God of hosts, you clothed your servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice, and set him as a bishop in your Church to be a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy steps, that at the last we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Matthew 25:34-40

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Veterans’ Day/The Feast of St. Martin

Calendar convergence alert: Today is not only the observance of Veterans’ Day. In the church calendar, today we observe the feast of St. Martin of Tours, soldier and saint from the 4th century. We give thanks for veterans on this day. I invite you to use the prayer for heroic service printed in the column on the left as a way to honor them.

I also invite you to consider the witness of Martin. I was introduced to his story in my first church, which bore his name. Legend has it that one winter day as he was riding on his horse, making military rounds, he came across a beggar, freezing in the snow. Martin took his sword, sliced his own cloak in half and gave it to the beggar. In a dream that night, Christ appeared to Martin. Christ was wearing that cloak, thanking him for it, demonstrating the truth that Christ is present in all persons, even when Christ comes well disguised.

The symbol for Martin is a goose. Why, you reasonably ask? After his military service, Martin became a priest in the south of France. He was apparently good at it. So good, in fact, that the people of that region elected him bishop. Martin, clearly a person of wisdom, heard the news of his election and ran in the opposite direction. He hid in a barn. As people were searching for him, the geese in the barn began honking, giving away his hiding place. Next thing you know, Martin is wearing a miter.

The story of Martin has become important to me, for a few reasons. Maybe you’ll find it helpful too. His call began with service. He met Jesus in a simple act of grace, service without expectation of reward. As I travel around the church and ask folks what helped them grow spiritually, what may have jump started their own spiritual journey, I often hear that it had something to do with a simple act of service.

If we are ever wondering how to move forward in faith, if an encounter with Christ seems remote, perhaps starting with service is the way to go. Lord knows there are no shortage of opportunities. I have found in my own life, when church work and priesthood seems overly weighted with meetings and administration, when ego invades sermon preparation, when reasons I pursued ordained ministry seem obscured in the past, an intentional act of service, often offered with a degree of anonymity, can help get me back on track.

There’s a wonderful aspect of surprise in all of this, reflected in the reading from Matthew’s gospel often associated with the feast of St. Martin. (See excerpt above.) Those who stand before the king are commended for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner. Much to their surprise, they are told that they met the King in those expressions of love.

Martin’s story also says something to me about call, with that rather goofy symbol of the goose. Couldn’t a soldier saint have merited a more noble symbol? The goose says that a frequent sign of the authenticity of a call is the sense that God must have the wrong number. Throughout the Bible, call story after call story repeats this theme: You can’t mean me. There’s a dose of healthy humility in there. There is also a sense that by God’s grace, we can all be useful in God’s work in the world. What’s the saying? God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies those God calls.

Spend some time today (especially if you have the day off) giving thanks for  veterans who have ventured much for the liberties we enjoy. In a season when liberties seem increasingly in jeopardy in many parts of the world, we remember struggles that have safeguarded the dignity of every human being. And while you’re at it, give thanks for St. Martin, soldier and saint, who shows that any one of us can meet Jesus any old time.

 -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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (November 4, 2019)

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Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

-From the Service of Holy Baptism

The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

-Archbishop William Temple

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

-John 13:34,35

People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay down one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.

-Dorothy Day

I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.

– Dorothy Day

Pastoring the Community

On the last Sunday of October, I was privileged to worship at a church led by a good friend, a priest I admire. I enjoyed the opportunity to sit in the pew and worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, exceptional beauty because his church happens to be on the big island in Hawaii. Let me explain. I was invited to offer a few presentations at the annual convention of the Diocese of Hawaii. I thought it my duty to do so. That’s the kind of devoted disciple I am.

After the convention, I visited my friend’s church, a vibrant spiritual community. I’d attend regularly if it wasn’t 6000 miles away. Under the leadership of my buddy (a fine and faithful priest), this church is really humming. I found myself wondering what made that true, because I come into contact with a lot of churches that struggle mightily.

I got a hint as my friend was welcoming worshippers. The announcements were made at the beginning of the service, and there were a few of them. As those announcements were winding up, an ambulance passed by the church. My friend stopped his announcements and said to the congregation: Let’s have a moment of silence to offer prayers for whoever is in that ambulance.

That may seem simple, but it struck me as an indication that his church was connected to its community, and that the regular course of things could be paused, indeed interrupted to attend to a local need. In my time there, I realized that small prayerful gesture was sacramental, an outward and visible sign of a deeper sense of service to the community in Jesus’ name.

The church has a community meal. Anyone can come. No charge. Live music makes it festive. Extra meals are taken to folks without homes, who sleep in tents on the beach. It started small. No one knew how it would be paid for, but now each week about 300 people come, whether they are part of the church or not. The Lord has provided. It’s drawing people.

This church also offers a weekly mass on the beach on Saturday evenings. Members of the church attend and participate in a eucharist. The altar is a surfboard on sawhorses. Maybe not everybody’s liturgical style, but it is an outreach to the community, welcoming anyone who passes by.

The early church, the beginnings of the Jesus movement, experienced dramatic growth. I’ve wondered why that is so. One ancient commentator noted that it was because people outside the church looked at people inside the church and said: See how they love one another. I wish that were true of the church today. I’m guessing, based on surveys of people’s associations with the word “Christian,” that many folks outside the church would say: See how they judge one another. We have work to do.

Our research into churches indicates that one mark of a spiritually vital congregation is that such congregations pastor the community. That doesn’t mean they just dole out charity. It means they engage in advocacy for justice and peace. They enter into inter-faith dialogue. They seek relationship with the community. They see what God is (already) up to in the neighborhood. They live into the baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

This pastoring of the community is true of my friend’s church on the big island, as it is true of many churches I am privileged to visit. Another thing we’ve learned in our research is that many of our most active churches, already doing a lot to pastor the community, are not satisfied. They feel called to do more.

For individuals and for congregations, I throw out Monday morning questions. How are you pastoring the community? How are you following Jesus who came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45)?

Give thanks to God for ways that is happening. Say yes to ways yet to be experienced. It may be as simple as saying a prayer for a passing ambulance.

 -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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org