Monday Matters (March 27, 2017)

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“I may not be much but I’m all I ever think about.”

I heard that line for the first time last week. Google reveals it’s been around for a while. I couldn’t find out who first said it, but it triggered a few reflections.

It reminded me of a clip from a movie featuring Bette Midler. She says to some other character, “Enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?” It reminded me of what a friend once pointed out: When you look at a group photo, and you happen to be in the group, where do your eyes go first? You look at how you look in the picture. It reminded me of what Frederick Buechner wrote about humility, that illusive virtue that disappears as soon as we become aware of it, bringing that temptation to be proud of how humble we are. Buechner wrote:

Humility is often confused with saying you’re not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship. If you really aren’t much of a bridge player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy. True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.

Mr. Buechner challenges us to question the way we think about what’s in our hearts. There aren’t easy answers. This is a spiritual issue. It’s been said that the word “ego” is really an acronym: edging God out. This calls for spiritual work. It’s complicated, because as I’ve said before, quoting a clergyman I admire, I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed. Amidst the mixed motives, how do we combat the tendency to think that it’s all about me? (Newsflash: It’s a tendency that is a particular challenge for clergy, among other professions. Just saying.)

For those who try to be Jesus followers, it has to do with having the mind of Christ. See the passage from Philippians below. That passage includes an ancient hymn by which the early church figured out how to put faith to work in the world. It comes with seeing Jesus as a person for others, and deciding to follow him by doing the same: being a person for others. Maybe begin each day with this thought, a kind of prayer: How can I be of service this Monday?

As Lent leads to Holy Week, we have opportunity to put other concerns aside and focus on the spirit of Jesus, who rides humbly into Jerusalem, not in imperial chariot but on a donkey, who kneels to wash disciples feet, who stretches arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into saving embrace, who on Easter morning is mistaken for a gardener and speaks Mary’s name so she can know he is alive. Take this holy season as opportunity to shift the focus from self to other, to think about how to be of service. It’s a way to find out that Jesus is very much alive.

-Jay Sidebotham

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 servant, 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.
-Philippians 2

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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 (March 20, 2017)

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Setting the Table

For a while, I worked in advertising, before I made the slight career shift to ordained ministry. (Some say I’m still in advertising.) Some have doubted there could be transferable skills from the first career to the second. But I’m grateful for what I learned: the importance of communication, the power of focus on a single idea, the importance of team work. One of my bosses said that there were really only two motivators for consumers: fear and love. That will preach.

The fact is, there are lessons for the spiritual journey that come from all kinds of fields. St. Paul wrote to early Christians and compared the life of discipleship to training in military service, or preparing for a long distance race, or being in the construction business (what foundation will you build on?), or agricultural work (also a favorite of Jesus’).

My gifted cousin and her husband are about to open a wonderful café here in North Carolina. I can’t wait. To guide them in their work, they have turned to a book by restaurateur Danny Meyer. The book is called Setting the Table. It’s a book focused on hospitality, on how we prepare to welcome people. In the past, I’ve used this book to learn about what it means to be church. In that book, Mr. Meyer identifies five core emotional skills which guide his work, and will guide my cousin in her new endeavor:

  • Optimistic warmth: genuine kindness, thoughtfulness and a sense that the glass is always half-full.
  • Intelligence: Not just smarts, but an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning.
  • Work ethic: A natural tendency to do something as well as it can be done.
  • Empathy: An awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how your actions make others feel.
  • Self-awareness and integrity: An understanding of what makes you tick and a natural inclination to be accountable for doing the right thing with honesty and superb judgment.

Those five skills led to remarkable successful restaurants in New York and around the country. Can those skills be translated into Christian virtues, spiritual practices? Let’s give it a try:

  • Optimistic warmth: Sounds a lot to me like hope.
  • Intelligence: What is a disciple but someone who is always learning, and who knows, especially in the spiritual journey, that we’re never done?
  • Work ethic: A mentor used to tell me that we seek to make worship our most excellent offering. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that we become perfectionists. It does mean that we do what we do with care, as an offering to the God we worship for the glory of God. Should we offer less?
  • Empathy: Just another word for love, or perhaps, compassion, the common virtue in all faith traditions.
  • Self-awareness and integrity: it looks a lot like humility to me.
  • Setting the table: That’s what the church is about, getting ready to welcome people to God’s feast. That’s what the individual spiritual journey is about, as we relate to those around us in a world so hungry for a greater sense of authentic hospitality.

This Monday, this Lent, how can we set the table with hope and love, in a spirit of worship and humility, as disciples who are always learning?

-Jay Sidebotham

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
– Isaiah 25:6

 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
– Romans 12:9-13

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
-Hebrews 13:2

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.
-Henri J.M. Nouwen

True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts’.
-Kathleen Norris 

Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions – for and to – express it all.
-Danny Meyer

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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 (March 13, 2017)

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Spring Training

A nod to Saturday Night Live: I confess that Lent is often for me the “Debby Downer” of liturgical seasons, 40 days when I’m supposed to feel more miserable than thou, when I’m called to live into the definition of a puritan, i.e., someone who is unhappy because somebody somewhere is having a good time. Religious people have a special talent for this kind of joy-deprived way of life. No doubt, Lent is a time to take a rigorous look in the mirror, which can often call us to explore growth opportunities revealed in self-examination. It can be rough going.

But the word Lent finds roots in the old English word for “Spring.” Lent is for sure a time in the wilderness, a time of challenge, maybe even deprivation. It’s a time to admit that we have fallen short. But that wilderness is also a time of formation. Scripture tells us that it led the children of Israel to a new land, a new world.

Lent leads us to new life, as well. Its connection with springtime means that it draws our attention to signs of new life all around us. An extra hour of sunlight in the evening. (Did you all get to church on time yesterday, or did you arrive for the dismissal?) Trees beginning to blossom (though yesterday in North Carolina we had snow). And of course, Spring training.

Which reminds me of a favorite quote about baseball, which has something to say not only about the joys and challenges of Lent, but about the spiritual journey. Hear this word from former baseball commissioner, Francis T. Vincent, Jr.:

Baseball teaches us how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball, and precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often – those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers error to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.

The Christian faith is good news because in its rigorous truth, it recognizes that we are not perfect. Denial of that truth doesn’t help anyone. The baptismal covenant speaks of the opportunity to return, whenever we sin, not if ever. St. Paul reminds us that we have all fallen short of the glory of God, but also reminds us that we can never be separated from God’s love. What part of never do we not understand?

The gospel invites us to rely not on our ability to get it right all the time (to bat 1000. Who can do that?) Rather, it invites us to rely on grace and mercy, and to show our dependence on grace and mercy by showing grace and mercy to others.

It’s a process, a journey for sure. A wise parishioner described the process this way: Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgment.

As disciples, we are learners, on a journey or continuum calling us to be more and more like Christ. How will you reflect on that journey this Monday morning? Maybe you can use the prayer for young persons (below). Note how that prayer speaks of the gift of failure. And as you do, as you observe this Holy Lent, also note that Spring is in the air.

-Jay Sidebotham

From the Ash Wednesday Liturgy, the invitation to observe the season of Lent:
 
Dear People of God: 
The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
 
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our moral nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
 
 
A prayer for young persons (and we’re all young at heart)
The Book of Common Prayer, page 829
 
God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways
give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. 
Amen.

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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 (March 6, 2017)

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I spent Ash Wednesday in Manhattan. In a nostalgic moment, I stopped in at a church where I had served, a big place on a big New York avenue, with an aisle about the length of a football field. As in many churches, ashes were being imposed all day long. I sat and watched a steady stream of New Yorkers in glorious diversity, a vision of the kingdom of God, coming to receive ashes and to be told they were dust. It caused me to recall times when I had stood up front and imposed ashes as part of my ministry in that church.

We offered ashes continuously from 7am to 7pm. One year, I had the last hour-long shift. At about 6:59, we were ready to call it a day, I spied a young businessman, dark three piece suit, attaché case in tow, sprinting pell-mell down the aisle. When he got to me, I told him: “Relax. Take a deep breath. I’m not going anywhere.” He looked at me as he kneeled and said: “You don’t understand. I gotta make this quick. I’m double-parked.” Ashes delivered, he sprinted back down the aisle.

As I watched him, I thought he was trying to do what we all try to do: Fit a spiritual life into a full life. Not always easy to do.

As I enter into conversations with congregations about spiritual growth, about what helps spiritual growth happen and what gets in the way, one of the persistent answers I hear when I ask about obstacles to spiritual growth: the busy lives we lead. That can happen in church, where too often we confuse church activity with a deepening relationship with God.

My current work with congregations is based on insights from a huge, bustling, seemingly successful congregation, thousands in regular attendance. The church had grown, based on this model: More church activity = greater spiritual growth. But was that true? This church discovered, after many years, that the model was flawed. Many of the most active, many of the busiest folks in church were spiritually stalled, depleted, annoyed, thinking of leaving, done. So why am I telling you this on this Monday morning?

Lent is a season for spiritual growth. That growth may have a lot to do with the less we do. I know well that for many churches, programming cranks up at this time of year. I don’t wish to discourage participation. But maybe giving up something for Lent will have to do with clearing something from the calendar, carving out time for silence, prayer that involves more listening and fewer instructions to the Almighty.

I commend a book by Bill Hybels called Simplify. It points to the spiritual growth that comes by rigorous assessment of very full lives, an attempt to simplify what we make too complicated, doing fewer things better. Speaking from my experience, activity (especially religious activity) may be an attempt to prove to God that we are worthy of attention. God is not impressed. The fact is, the gospel is that we are already beloved.

Saints of our tradition knew this, making time for silence, for prayer, following our Lord’s example. I’m always amazed at the number of times we read in the gospels that Jesus goes off for solitude and prayer. Didn’t he realize how much he had to do to save the world in three years? Martin Luther was asked how he could spend so much time in prayer when he had all of Europe to reform. He said: “I have so much to do each day that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” In their collaborative book, The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama playfully compete about who wakes up the earliest to pray (The Archbishop at 4am, the Dalai Lama at 3am).

So how about you? Take the gift of Lent as a chance to simplify, to be quiet, to listen to what the Spirit is saying. You may have to be quite intentional about it. It may be inconvenient. It may seem outwardly unproductive. It may be counter-cultural, and even get you in trouble.

But try it, even if you get a ticket for being double-parked. It’s worth it.

-Jay Sidebotham

Matthew 14:23
After he had dismissed them, Jesus went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.
 
Mark 1:35
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
 
Mark 6:46
After bidding them farewell, Jesus left for the mountain to pray.
 
Luke 5:16
But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.
 
Luke 6:12
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
 
Luke 11:1
It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.”
 
Luke 22:41-44
He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.

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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 (February 27, 2017)

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Continuing education

Among the many things for which I’m grateful these days is the chance to roam around the church (courtesy of American Airlines) and learn. Learning is what disciples are supposed to do, I think. I’m learning that learning never stops.

I had the chance to learn from Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, England, who preached at the National Cathedral last Thursday night. With impeccable timing of finest comedians (Colbert, Stewart, Fallon watch out!), he spoke about evangelism. He highlighted something I’d never noticed, which is that at the heart of the word “evangelism” (a word which makes many Episcopalians nervous) is the word “angel”. The word “angel” really means messenger.

He shared stories of evangelism, times when he was a messenger, including a moment sharing his faith while ordering coffee. His clerical collar gave him away as he waited in line. Another caffeine-deprived consumer asked about his vocation. After she had done some quizzing about what had caused him to become a priest, she offered her own take on church people. From her point of view (i.e., millennial outside the church), they could be divided into two groups:

The first kind of Christian, she observed, treated Christianity like a hobby, like gardening or bridge or macramé. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing transformational, either. Nothing that seemed to make a huge difference in life. “Why bother?” might be an appropriate response.

The second kind of Christian holds faith so tightly that it scares off anyone nearby. It’s that vociferous, occasionally angry, annoying, self-righteous embrace of faith. I suspect you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, you are blessed. To my mind, if that’s the good news (which is what “evangel” really means), I’d hate to hear the bad news. I have a friend who said she’d start jogging when people who were jogging looked like they were having fun. Perhaps the same could be true of religious folks, who often specialize in being more miserable than thou.

In response to his coffee companion, this winning bishop posited a third way (thanks be to God). He described it as the way of Jesus, the way of justice, peace, and joy. Standing in line, waiting for his latte, he told this young woman about a way that breaks down barriers, and tears down walls in a world that seems bent on building them. He spoke of a way that brings a sense of the abundance of life that Jesus showed and shared.

And he gave this young woman this piece of advice: Go to your local church and find out what it is to be fully human. Go and find out what it means to live life as God intended life to be, life shown to us in Jesus Christ. Does your church help you do that? Can you help your church help to do that?

It was a moment of evangelism. Maybe the bishop was the angel, the messenger. Maybe she was. It doesn’t really matter, because good news was shared. It began with the bishop listening to this woman he just met, valuing her insights, honoring the truth she knew, learning from her. That listening is key to evangelism.

He moved then with courage to proclaim that the gospel is good news, that it can help us become all that God intends. He presented the gospel as news that God’s greatest joy is to help us realize our original blessing. Too often church fails to do that. But in my travels, I’m learning that it can happen. That’s been a great lesson.

Today is February 27. The day is a gift. How will you be an evangelist, a listener, a proclaimer of good news, a messenger, an angel? And how would you like your coffee?

-Jay Sidebotham

The glory of God is the human person fully alive.
-St. Irenaeus
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
-Jesus (John 10:10)
An oldie but a goodie:
I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love; I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true. It satisfies my longings as nothing else would do.
Refrain:
I love to tell the story,
‘Twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story, more wonderful it seems than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams;
I love to tell the story, it did so much for me,
And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest; And when in scenes of glory I sing the new, new song, ’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
“I Love to Tell the Story,” Words: A. Katherine Hankey (1831-1911)

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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 (February 20, 2017)

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Correction

Back in my ad agency days, one of the principals of the company was also chief copywriter. I recall one meeting when a young assistant, an aspiring writer, suggested an edit on copy the principal had written. The executive responded: “I tend to love what I write.” It was a response not unlike Pilate’s: “I have written what I have written.” The young assistant learned to keep future suggestions to himself.

Last week, I wrote a Monday message which I thought was pretty good. It was based on my recollection of a political event, the meeting of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, which I credited to Jimmy Carter. One of the readers kindly pointed out that that was fake news, perhaps alternative fact, since it was Bill Clinton who welcomed those two to the White House lawn. I felt slightly stung for being wrong, for being found out, fearing readers will think less of me, embarrassed for carelessness or cluelessness or both.

A person near and dear to my heart gave me a refrigerator magnet which reads: “I am silently checking your grammar.” That person does indeed remind me on a regular basis that when I write stuff, I’m inclined to not always navigate my grammar that good. When I get these corrections, there’s a part of me that defaults to defensive mode.

My point in this Monday morning confessional is simply to indicate that even though I embrace the gospel articulated by St. Paul, i.e., all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, I hang onto the pride of being right, or at least more right than others. I feel called to embrace the title of one pretty smart theologian, James Alison, who wrote a beautiful book about new ways to think about the doctrine of original sin. The book bears a hopeful title: The Joy of Being Wrong.

I have some distance to go in answering that call and discovering that joy.

Early in my ministry, a parishioner came to me to speak about the spiritual journey. He had Ivy League degrees in philosophy, one of the smartest people I had ever met. Over time, he came to embrace the Christian faith, and one day stopped into my office and said: “I finally get it. The gospel sounds like this: I’m not okay. You’re not okay. But that’s okay. ”

I wanted to unpack that a bit with him, to speak of original blessing, but he was on to a basic truth, which is the good news that God’s blessing comes to us by grace, with forgiveness and mercy, and not because we always have our act together. And even though I signed on to this gospel and pledged to try to follow Jesus years ago, there’s still part of me that wants to cling to being right, and wants God to be reminded of how lucky God is to have me on the team.

Whenever I participate in a service of Holy Baptism, I’m struck with the wording of the second promise in the Baptismal Covenant (p. 304 in the Book of Common Prayer). “Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you sin, repent?” Note that it doesn’t say “if ever.” It says “whenever,” which is to say that we will fall short, as sure as the sun rises. It’s going to happen today, February 20, to each one of us. The hope of our faith is not that we will arrive at the place where we will never fall short. The hope of our faith is that whenever that happens, we have a way home, the possibility of a new start, which is what resurrection is about.

And the hope of our faith is also that we can be gentle with each other. (See Ephesians reading below.) When Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that we are not to judge each other, he says we should pay more attention to the 2 X 4 in our own eye before we critique the speck of sawdust in neighbor’s eye. In touch with our own shortcomings, grateful for grace that looks beyond those foibles, we are called to share that gratitude in kindness and forbearance toward others and their inevitable shortcomings, lapses, failures.

How will you be gentle with yourself and with those around you this week?

-Jay Sidebotham

A reading from the letter to the Ephesians (4:31-32):

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
And to add to that reading from scripture, a favorite cartoon which I’ve shared here before but which bears repeating:
 

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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 (February 13, 2017)

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I’m not watching as much news as I used to, but it’s been a life-long interest (okay, addiction). Prompted by news I am watching, combined with our recent journey through the Sermon on the Mount on Sundays, I’ve been thinking of an image from decades ago, when Jimmy Carter brought Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin together on the White House lawn to broker a peace deal.

It was a brief season when the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers” seemed like it could be true. Here’s what I remember: the pained expression on Mr. Rabin’s face as he reluctantly shook hands with Mr. Arafat. Rabin went on to say that you don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies. It is work.

So we come to the persistent biblical injunction to love your enemies. Okay, it’s not everywhere in the Bible (there’s a gracious plenty of revenge), but it comes up enough to make us pay attention. Hear the first verses of Psalm 109: Hold not your tongue, O God of my praise; for the mouth of the wicked, the mouth of the deceitful, is opened against me. They speak to me with a lying tongue; they encompass me with hateful words and fight against me without a cause. Despite my love, they accuse me; but as for me, I pray for them.

Did you catch that? The psalmist says this about enemies: As for me, I pray for them.

How annoying is that? To be asked to pray for one’s enemies. Jesus said we should do it, and he modeled it when they were torturing him to death, praying that God would forgive those who hurt him. The first martyr of the church, Stephen, prayed the same thing, a tip off that that is what disciples are meant to do. I’ve tried praying for enemies. I confess that my evil twin sometimes would like to pray they’ll get hit by a truck. I don’t think that’s Jesus’ point.

There is something transformative about prayers for enemies. I don’t know how it works, but I know it does. It changes the relationship, softens the heart, drains the poison. It has power to affect relations of nations, the political system, our workplaces, schools, our households. Maybe even our churches.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not good at it. I can hang on to resentments with the best of them. So don’t listen to me. But do listen to great spiritual heroes have shown that this matters:

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

It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared’ (Luther).
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.
-The Dalai Lama

This Monday morning, is there someone you can pray for in the spirit of these spiritual leaders, in the spirit of Jesus?

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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Monday Matters (February 6, 2017)

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Religious, not spiritual

Building on what I wrote last week, a few reflections on words recently heard from Nadia Bolz Webber. She described herself as being religious, but not particularly spiritual. She suggested that she often practiced her faith as a habit, even though she often didn’t really feel all that spiritual, all that holy.

It’s the opposite of what we hear often in a culture filled with nones and dones. (Nones are those who claim no religious affiliation. Dones are those who have given up on organized religion.) Increasingly, religious observance is regarded as quaint, outdated, irrelevant, boring, mindless, offensive, oppressive, and if nothing else, optional. Spirituality is embraced. Religion, not so much.

I have a feeling that, like it or not, we are all religious people. We gather regularly for liturgies of all kinds, upholding traditions which engage our spirits (We’ve just come off one of the largest religious events in our culture, an annual liturgy with Falcons and Patriots in procession, Lady Gaga offering anthems in there somewhere.) So the word “religion” could probably stand some exploration, maybe even redemption.

Accounts vary regarding its etymology. According to Cicero, the word “religion” means to choose again (re + lego), to go over carefully. I’ve liked the sense of the word attributed to Augustine (and Joseph Campbell) by which religion literally means “to bind together again.’ Re: again, Ligio: bind, as in ligaments. We could all stand to be brought together again. Can religion do that? Can it help the center hold?

My take on it: Religion without spirituality can, without a doubt feel empty, routine, soulless. Spirituality without religion can lose its way, veering off into individual experience. Religion, with all its foibles, reminds us that we need to show up. We need each other. We need to be in community with people who will be our teachers. That invariably calls for structure and organization, institutions and habits. Tradition matters. Truth be told, even the most non-traditional folks among us gravitate toward tradition.

But neither religion nor spirituality are ends in themselves. They are instruments, vehicles, channels that by amazing grace, allow us to know something of the God who knows us intimately, to love in some way the God from whose love we can never be separated, to serve, even haltingly, the God who came among us as servant.

With that in mind, religion and spirituality and scriptural engagement and social action and polished liturgy and sacred music and fine architecture and compelling preaching and regular church attendance and generous pledging and successful church growth strategies are not the destination. They are meant to draw us into loving and healed relationship with God and with each other. Religion on a good day does that. Sadly, too often, religion trips over itself. It gets in the way.

It’s interesting to me that the word “religion” is hardly ever used in the Bible. But equally interesting is to note the way that religion is described when it does appear in the New Testament. It’s not about institution or tradition or bureaucracy or rules. It’s about engagement of the heart, showing love to people who need to know love–the least of these. (See biblical citations below.) These days, they seem more threatened than ever.

So whether you are spiritual or religious or some combination of the two, ask today why one should bother with any of it. And try this answer on for size: practice spirit-filled religion that discovers its true nature in serving those in greatest need. There’s no shortage of opportunity to do that.

-Jay Sidebotham

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1:26, 27
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.
-Isaiah 58
Jesus said: “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-4

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (January 30, 2017)

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Twisted

Best-selling author Nadia Bolz Webber leads a Lutheran church in Denver. It’s called The House for All Sinners and Saints. That covers about all of us.

I heard her speak last week at a conference of folk who serve in churches, a group that does remarkable holy work. It’s also a group that knows well the foibles and failures seen in the pews on Sunday, seen around the table at a church meeting, and of course seen in the mirror. In a season of heightened anxiety, she gave hope for why we do church, why we need church, even with all the foibles and failures.

Ms. Bolz Webber is a big presence, not just because she is tall. She speaks truth to her generation. She has lots of tattoos. She wears a lot of black clothes. Clergy often do that, but this is a bit different with its goth flavor. She cusses some when she speaks publicly. I find that sort of fun and unexpected, but ultimately not that important.

What got my attention was her transparent confessional tone, her witness to the darkness of her own soul, on exhibit when she admitted the twisted nature of her inner life. Just one example she offered: her experience of a kind of religious road rage as she was walking in a prayer labyrinth behind someone who was moving way too slow. I believe she said something like “Get on with it.” And maybe even included an expletive.

The crowd of church folk laughed knowingly. She shone light on the thing that Jesus talked about, oh, all the time. The really religious people are often so tied up in knots, so internally twisted, that they forget that it’s all about love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Jesus needed to remind them that God comes to give us a new heart.

It’s the prayer of David after the prophet shone light on his twisted, murderous, adulterous activity. David prayed: Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. It’s the teaching of Jesus in Mark, chapter 7: ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.” He said: “You abandon the commandment of God (i.e., according to Jesus, that command is love of God and neighbor) and hold to human tradition.” Then Jesus said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.’

Ms. Bolz Webber said that the twisted nature was what might be called sin in some other context. She noted that sin is not simply a list of naughty things we should not do. (Sometimes that would just be easier.) It is this inner disposition that puts “hope in poison as if it was medicine.” That was another line that caught my attention, a corollary to what Anne Lamott has said about the inner life which can get pretty twisted, which is that holding on to a resentment is like drinking rat poison in hopes that the rat will die.

It’s all about the heart, and so I repeat the wisdom of the desert father that I have found both helpful and challenging: “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.”

She got me when she spoke about why the faith, why church matters. (In a twist, she said she was religious, not spiritual.) We need to come together and be together to share the transformative power of God’s love, love that identifies each one of us as child of God. We need to come together in a place where the gospel is proclaimed (Love wins), where bread is shared, where water is poured, where forgiveness is pronounced. You don’t get all that anywhere else.

She noted that hurt people hurt people. Conversely, she noted that forgiven people forgive people. The key to untangling, untwisting the inner snarl? Remember that each one of us is a child of God. We can’t hear that often enough. Can you hear it this Monday morning? Can you share that good news?

-Jay Sidebotham

From Psalm 51

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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

If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.

Monday Matters (January 23, 2017)

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The Blame Game

On the road last year, my wife and I stopped at a gas station. It was cold and we had the dogs in the car, so I closed the door behind me. My wife went in to use the restroom. The dogs were a little anxious so they jumped up on the armrest to watch me pump gas. When Spirit (my blessed dog and spiritual advisor) jumped up, he pressed the button that locked the car. I heard the click and thought: Okay, got the keys here. Oops. Not so. There they were. Sitting on the front seat. Where I left them. Next to the dogs.

I pleaded with the dogs. If they locked the car, surely they could unlock it. I soon realized that was probably not the answer. The interesting thing I noticed about myself is that as I realized we had a problem, I was immediately eager to blame someone. What were the options? The dog? My wife? The designer of the car? The gas station? Congress? The universe? Not myself, of course.

Why am I telling you this? My point (and I do have one) is that so often in my life, when things go sideways in ways great and small, my initial and strongest reaction is to figure out who to blame, who screwed up, who is wrong (unless it is undeniably me). Flip side: so often in life, when things go sideways, my initial response is to figure out how I am not to blame, how I am not in the wrong, a refusal to own my part. (After all, I could have put the keys in my pocket).

When I cross the Jordan and am ultimately made whole, finally healed, I suspect I won’t focus so much on whether I’m right or wrong, won’t reflexively crouch into defensive position, but will think about how to move forward from strength to strength in service in God’s perfect kingdom.

But for now, in this state of imperfection, where I am so obviously a work in progress, I suspect it would be best to think less about being right and more about being righteous.

The word righteous could use redemption. For many, the word suggests a most unattractive puritan piety, as in self-righteous. But in the Bible it suggests right relationship, the healing of things that divide us. These days, those divisions seem to invite us to participate in the blame game.

The Bible is full of folks who play that game. When Adam and Eve get caught taking fruit from the forbidden tree, Adam says the woman made me do it. Then he actually blames God: “The woman you gave me…” Eve in turn says the serpent made me do it. It’s enough to make me pity the serpent. When Cain kills Abel, God asks where Abel is. Cain says: Am I my brother’s keeper? Deflect. Aaron makes an idol, the golden calf out of melted jewelry. Moses confronts him. Aaron claims the calf just jumped out of the fire. Not my fault. Fast forward to Jesus, whose great complaint against his opponents, political and religious, were that they were always trying to justify themselves, rather than looking at what they could do to contribute to justice, mercy, healing and grace.

I’m working on understanding the difference between being right and being righteous. That work comes out in homilies. One Wednesday after I preached on the theme (preacher preaching to himself), a gracious parishioner sent me the poem included below. It shows that it may be best to forgo defensive posture, and think about what will lead to whole relationships and new life, to growth.

There’s a lot that’s messed up on the national and global scene right now. There’s a lot that can be messed up in our workplaces, churches and families. Things go sideways all the time. The clear call of Jesus to focus on love of God and neighbor (even when that neighbor is the enemy) seems to be a way forward. This Monday morning, consider these questions:
How might you chart that way forward, even in predicaments that tempt you to cast blame on others or to justify yourself?
Can you ask: What is my part?
Can you set your default on mercy, not judgment?
What would it take to view yourself not as hero or victim but as learner?
After my wife and I arrived at a place where we could chuckle about dogs in car, realizing that blame was pointless, the two of us out in the cold, a scruffy looking angel appeared in a pickup with all that was needed to open the door. The dogs were set free. And we could move forward.

-Jay Sidebotham

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow in the spring.
 
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
 
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
 
And a whisper will be heard where the ruined house once stood.
 
by Yehuda Amichai
 
From the Sermon on the Mount:
 
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:3-10)
 
 
 
The quality of mercy is not strained; 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath. 
It is twice blest; 
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
-Wm. Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

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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.