Monday Matters (May 30, 2016)

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Sunday matters

On this holiday Monday, I’m thinking about Sunday.

I remember when I was a rector, there were times I’d run into a parishioner in the grocery store, or almost run into them. Sometimes they’d see me at the other end of the aisle and pull a 180. Other times, we might have the chance to converse and I would get awkward apologies about why they hadn’t been in church recently. I considered shopping in another town.

I tried to assure people I wasn’t taking attendance. Occasionally, I’d confess to myself that I hadn’t noticed their absence (my bad). I learned that I was not the only one who faced this dynamic. As one of my colleagues said, after he’d had a few of these encounters: “I’m not a truant officer.”

The news tells us that patterns of church attendance are shifting. Regular church attendance today would formerly have been considered sporadic. In previous generations, there was no competition for Sunday morning. Now soccer games, open malls and little if no cultural expectation compete with worship on Sunday. Summer is upon us, a season when church attendance drops, prompting one child to ask: Is God on vacation?

I can imagine any number of reasons why church attendance is in decline. Too often, worship can seem boring or irrelevant. Often clergy (at least this clergyman) and congregants appear to go through the motions, not quite on auto-pilot but closer than I’d like to admit. Often the failures of organized religion (or disorganized religion in the case of the Episcopal Church) drive people away. Often we are answering questions no one is asking. Often we fail to offer challenge, a way to put faith to work in the world. Often we promote our own tribal notions of what worship should be rather than proclaiming good news, telling the story of Jesus and his love. I could go on. The question surfaces: Why go to church?

I got to thinking about that question when I read a newspaper article last week. (Raleigh News and Observer, Health and Fitness section, 5.23.2016.) A new study released in a journal published by the American Medical Association indicates that church attendance is actually good for your health. People who go to church apparently live longer. I thought: There’s got to be some way I could use this information.

But I think we need to shift from focusing only on what we get out of worship, move away from thinking of worship as consumer product, as entertainment, as a presentation subject to our critique, dependent on our approval. Can we move towards a focus on what we bring to the experience, what we offer, how we can be of service, in anticipation of a transformative encounter with the Holy One?

The idea of a weekly gathering goes back to the first days of the church. Christians got together on the first day of the week, for remembrance of resurrection, to be reminded of new life, for eucharist (thanksgiving) recalling grace experienced in the Jesus movement. They gathered for strength to carry on the journey, mindful that one can’t be a Christian alone. They needed to be together in a hostile culture. They gathered so the world could witness a new kind of community marked by compassion. The Book of Acts tells us that outsiders looked at the early church and said “See how they love one another”, with the implication that they soon would join.

With cultural pressure to show up on Sunday dissipating, it’s an opportunity to discover a new call to worship. Communal worship (a.k.a, Common Prayer) alone will not be the key to our spiritual growth, but it is an indispensable element. So ask these questions: What is my spiritual community? What is the commitment, for me and my household, as regards to gathering for worship? Where do I go to find strength for the journey? How can I support others in that journey? What do I bring to the table? What can I offer? How will the community be diminished by my absence? How will it grow with my presence?

-Jay Sidebotham

And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them.
-Acts 20:7
 
 
 
 
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
-Hebrews 10:24,25
 
 
 
 
Worship is like a drama:
The clergy, ministers and musicians are the prompters;
the people are the actors; 
and God is the audience.
-Søren Kierkegaard

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

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

Monday Matters (May 23, 2016)

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Monday, May 23, 2016

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

-Luke 10

So I’m sitting on the floor of the Phoenix airport, near the gate, waiting to board. It’s crowded. The plane is delayed. Folks are grouchy. I’m wearing jeans and an old shirt so no one knows I’m an Episcopal priest. Incognito, I can be as cranky as I want without impeding the spread of the gospel. I’m focused on my laptop, in my zone. But for some reason I look up to see a guy in a clerical collar. He’s got a big nametag that says chaplain. And then I recognize him. He’s the Bishop of Arizona.

I’m not sure I’d ever met him in person, but he’s well known and well regarded in the wider church. We have some mutual friends. So I yelled to him, “Hey, Bishop.” I introduced myself, told him what I was doing in town (I was leading a Vestry retreat for one of the local parishes) and mentioned the folks we knew in common. Having done with all that, I asked what he was doing.

He told me that he asks each of his clergy to spend time serving as chaplain somewhere in the community, usually one day a month. The venues come in great variety. He said that if he asked his clergy to do that, he should do it too. So he clears the bishop’s calendar (loaded with meetings about meetings about the next meeting) and spends one day a month practicing a ministry of presence in the airline terminal of all places.

As I suspect you know all to well, it’s a place ripe for pastoral care. The harvest is plentiful (see gospel reading above.) The whole system breeds anxiety. In case you forget the anxiety, they insist on reminding you by having you remove your loafers which after all could be incendiary devices that bring down the aircraft. (Have a good day!). The boarding process has become a parable of a grace-starved world, as the human community is divided into an increasing number of categories conveying status. First class. Premium, Platinum. Gold. Silver, Wood. Hay. Stubble.

Often people prepare to board a plane at critical moments in their journeys. Saying goodbye. Reuniting. Responding to a crisis. Moving to a new home. Trying to make a meeting or meet a deadline. Often people are fatigued, worried about travel, fearful of flying. And meaning no offense to the folks who staff the desks, the airlines seem increasingly limited in the ability to provide humane service. Clearly, this place could use a chaplain.

There were many things I loved about what I learned that afternoon. The bishop was providing a good example of the mission of the church. It was not about hoping people would stumble through the red doors of the local parish. (Really, how likely is that these days?) It was not about expecting people to find their ways into our pews, picking up our special, occasionally precious rituals. It was about going out into the neighborhood, doing what Jesus asked his disciples to do (though I’m not certain what they would do in an airport), doing what Jesus himself did. In a world where it seems nothing is free, it came close to being an unconditional offering.

The airport was one place where a chaplain might really come in handy. I can think of others. A workplace. A dining room table. A hospital waiting room. The line for unemployment insurance. This kind of ministry in the world need not be limited to bishops. Each one of us can take the opportunity to think about where God calls us to be of service, to show love without expecting return, meeting the anxiety and fear of the world with a word of grace and kindness. Or maybe no word at all. Just presence.

Will this Monday in May provide that kind of opportunity? I’m guessing it will. Don’t miss it.

Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (May 16, 2016)

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Everyone has a story

Way back when, as I announced to my boss that I was leaving the ad agency to enroll in seminary, a number of co-workers were surprised. I had been private about my church involvement, not to mention my desire to go deeper in theological study. It was not the kind of thing we talked about around the water cooler or at happy hour. When I broke the news to my boss, who had had a few martinis at lunch that day, I said I was leaving to study theology. He heard geology and said: “I had no idea you were interested in rocks.”

There were a couple weeks where I continued at work. Much to my surprise, almost to a person, folks in the agency came by to talk, closing the office door to share their own experiences (good and bad) with church or religion or the spiritual life. We had worked together for years and never talked about it. In amazing variety, the stories were there in each person.

Years later, a parishioner asked for help in sorting out a question. She was a successful lawyer, in a firm filled with other hard-working folks. They were honorable, moral folks. For the most part, they had no connection with church. She puzzled about that. So she decided to invite a few of them to dinner. There were a few churchgoers added to the mix, but mostly not. With her dinner invite, she offered this heads up: We’re going to have a conversation over dinner. You will be asked to fill in the blank. God in my life:___________________. No one declined the invite. The group met and you couldn’t shut them up. Everyone had a story. The group continued to meet, on a monthly basis, to explore the question. It became a community, in its own way, a kind of church.

These recollections were triggered by an article sent to me last week, entitled: “When you’re called to your life’s work.” It builds on the 2006 Gallup Poll which said that 33% of respondents found that the following statement completely applied to them: “I have had a profound religious experience or awakening that changed the direction of my life.”

The article tells about an Anglican priest in Australia, Dr. Hugh Kempster, who recognized how hard it was for people to talk about those experiences. He started a group called Mystics Anonymous, offering a chance to talk about the life of the Spirit, because as Dr. Kempster said: “Everyone has a story.’

The article tells about a medical student, raised in the Catholic Church, working in a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. One day she heard a commotion at the entrance. An elderly man, dirty, disheveled, drunk, stumbled in, bottle in hand. The staff tried to redirect him to another shelter. The man found the face of this intern and said “Can’t you tell them I have to stay?” That was a turning point. She said: “Where I come from we were always encouraged to look for a Christ in our midst, coming down from the cross and asking for help.” She saw Christ in the elderly man’s face. It led her to a new direction, to dedicate her medical career to work with the neediest, most difficult populations.That was her story.

Augustine said each of us has a God-shaped space inside. Our hearts are restless until that space is filled. This Monday morning, are you aware of that space? Before you tell anyone else, tell yourself the story of that space. How it is being filled? Recall a moment of religious experience or awakening. Then, is there anyone in your life you can talk to about that experience? Is there a way to open the door for that kind of conversation, in ways that are kind and inviting and grace-filled?

Everyone has a story. They are so worth telling.

-Jay Sidebotham

The following message was posted last week by a friend (and hero) named Jim Stephenson. Jim is a composer who is following his calling, using his considerable gifts to bring music to the world. He asked this question on Facebook as a way to get other inspired musicians to share their stories. His question about passion for music translates to other areas of life, including the life of the Spirit. He wrote:
Musician friends:
I was thinking about my passion for music this morning. To be truthful, I don’t share it very overtly (unfortunately). I’m very passionate, but keep it somewhat close-to-the-vest publicly.
But I’d be curious what some of you earliest memories of getting “hooked” are.
For me – it was being a 10 yr-old trumpeter, playing “Russian Sailor’s Dance” and thinking to myself: “how does this guy (Gliere) basically pull off one long accelerando and crescendo throughout the entire piece!?” For me, the ending was way better than rock music. (remember, I was TEN).
Also – a year later, playing Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and LOVING the harmonies in his little brass fanfares.
My gifted friend, Jim, knows that everyone has a story.

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

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

Monday Matters (May 9, 2016)

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A spiritual Fitbit

One year, I gave my wife a vacuum cleaner for her birthday. Bad idea. She actually requested one when I asked what she wanted. But with the wisdom of hindsight, that doesn’t matter. Take it from me: Find another occasion to give someone you love a vacuum cleaner.

Maybe turn about is fair play. I had a birthday recently and my beloved gave me a Fitbit. Strapped to my wrist, it tells how far I’ve walked, how many stairs I’ve taken. It shows my pulse, calorie intake, and how well I sleep. It’s good to know all that, I guess, but the gift conveys a message that I could probably be doing better. One of those growth opportunities.

In the short time I’ve been wearing it, I admit it has made me more mindful. It has made me choose stairs over escalator at the airport. It drove me to choose furthest parking space, not closest. It motivated me to pass on the donuts near the coffee machine at work. No more onion rings. In other words, it is shifting the way I think about health. It has made me more aware, or awake. And it’s made me wonder, maybe because it’s my line of work, what a spiritual Fitbit would look like.

I’m spending a lot of time in the work I’m doing thinking about what makes for spiritual health. As I read doom and gloom statistics about organized religion, mainline congregations and religious affiliation, I’ve come to believe that the spiritual health of a denomination is linked to the spiritual health of local congregations which is linked to the spiritual health of individuals in them. I call it the cellular model. It means that each person who identifies and affiliates with the church (or with the Jesus movement, as our Presiding Bishop calls it) has both the freedom and responsibility to participate in those things that make for spiritual health.

It all has to do with spiritual practice, the word practice a double entendre, an indication of what we do practically, but also in the sense of practice by which we get better, go deeper, grow. It can easily be heard as a message that it’s all up to us, that unsatisfying brand of teeth-gritting religion that feeds the ego and thrives on comparison (Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite.) Spiritual health will acknowledge that temptation and by God’s grace, move beyond it towards awakeness and awareness. Spiritual health will set up habits of gratitude, silence, prayer, study, service. A spiritual Fitbit would be like a coach, commending practices that draw us deeper into love of God, reminding us that we’ve been through a day without offering thanks, or being of service, or finding some way to listen for God’s voice in all the clutter.

One pastor I know invites his congregation to the 10/10 rule, ten minutes of reading scripture, ten minutes of prayer or silence. Those who practice Centering Prayer and other contemplative traditions often recommend 20 minutes of silence in the morning and evening. Forward Day by Day is one way of developing patterns of spiritual health. I know one executive who begins each day with quiet reflection on the values he considers important for the day ahead, and then reviewing at the end of the day the ways he lived into those values. You get the idea.

In our culture we have coaches for all kinds of things: sports, finance, nutrition, management skills, job search, life decisions, relationships. Where are you finding spiritual coaching, the encouragement and challenge to go deeper in your life with God, to practice those practices that open the doorway for that deeper relationship with God?

It’s Monday morning, a good time to start.

-Jay Sidebotham

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air.
-2 Corin. 9:24-26

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
-Hebrews 12:1

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 2:13

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
-2 Timothy 4:7

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

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

Monday Matters (May 2, 2016)

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Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids– blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
-John 5

So help me out here.

I’m plenty supportive of the bracelet, WWJD (What would Jesus do?). The world would be a better place if folks paused to ask that question more often. In this political season, I wish our candidates were spending more time on the question. But the fact is, sometimes the Jesus we meet in the gospels doesn’t do or say what I would script.

That’s probably providential. Case in point: yesterday’s gospel (above), Jesus addresses a man who’d been ill for 38 years. Not 38 minutes (that would be enough to do me in.) Not 38 days or months. 38 years. Jesus approaches and asks: Do you want to be made well?

Really, Jesus?

The gospels are full of stories of Jesus healing people. Sometimes he reaches out to people with a healing touch. Sometimes he responds to a persistent request for healing, someone shouting from the sidelines. Sometimes he heals without seeming to know it (a woman in a crowd reaches out to touch the edge of his robe and experiences healing). Sometimes he heals because faithful friends come forward on behalf of someone else. Good friends. (See Mark 2.) In the story we read yesterday, he asks the man impaired for almost four decades whether he wants to be made well.

Is there any other answer but yes?

Taking the passage at face value, apparently there is some question that this man would wish to be made well. We don’t know much about him. I don’t want to turn this into a blame-the-victim story. But I’m wondering if there is a parallel/parable here for us? The particulars of this man aside, how does this question sound to us: Do you wish to be made well?

It may be that the path to wellness signals change. None of us (especially Episcopalians) are big fans of change. As the social critic Dilbert put it: Change is good. You go first. It’s been interesting to discover in the work we do with congregations, work focused on spiritual growth, that people often don’t expect or want much to be different. There’s not much expectation of such a possibility, especially as far as engagement with the church is concerned.

But parish ministry has taught me at least one thing. Everybody has a need for healing. Those needs surface in a variety of ways: healing of body, mind, spirit, relationship, memory. The needs are individual and corporate and if the current dispiriting political discourse is demonstrating anything, it is that there is a need for healing in our common life.

So this Monday morning, making your way through routine, maybe doing things you always do in the way you always do them, perhaps limited or bound by some particular need for healing, take a simple step. Think about whether you are open to something new. Invite Jesus’ power into that place. See what happens. Take up your mat.

-Jay Sidebotham

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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 (April 25, 2016)

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I learned that the cab driver who drove me to the airport had recently moved to the states from Ethiopia. We talked about that for a while, and then he asked what I was doing in Portland, Oregon. I told him I was participating in a conference of Episcopal Communicators. I found my answer required some unpacking, not only because he did not know English well and I did not know his native language at all. I told him I was a priest. I told him I was giving some talks on how we share our news. He asked: “So you’re a missionary?” My knee jerk reaction, offered to someone raised in Africa, a region subject to the often painful collision of imperial and Christian expansion, was simple: “Well, not really.” When those words came out of my mouth, as so often happens, I wished I could have recalled them. I found myself thinking that I should have said something like this: “Yes I am.” Or maybe even: “Aren’t we all?”

In a couple different settings, recent conversations have gotten me thinking about what it means to be a disciple and what it means to be an apostle, where those two overlap, where they differ. If I were king, I might find every place where the word “disciple” appears in the New Testament and, for a season, change it to the word “student.” That may not capture fully the idea of a disciple (one who follows), but it does help us realize that in the journey of faith, we are called to be learners all the time. Wherever we are on the spiritual continuum, there is more.

The word “apostle” suggests something different. It’s about what we do with what we’re learning. It connotes someone who has been sent, someone given a mission. Anyone who answers that call (your mission, should you accept…) could well be called a missionary. I believe that we can all see ourselves in that great company.

When Jesus met with his disciples, after his resurrection and before his return to heaven, he told them: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” I’ve reflected on that phrase: “As the Father has sent me.” I found myself thinking of how Jesus was sent to the world: to change it, to bring healing, to say that what the world often considers wretched, Jesus declares to be blessed. (Proper attribution: that’s a phrase I heard in a sermon given by our Presiding Bishop at this conference.) Jesus was sent to help us know and show grace, to reveal what is sometimes hard for us to see or believe, that love is at the center. That’s the way we are sent into the world. To do that kind of thing.

That idea of mission, that apostolic vision surrounds us in the Christian community. If it’s your tradition to refer to the eucharist as a mass, know that the word mass (in Latin, missa) really has to do with this idea of mission, of being sent. For those reasons, some have argued that the most important part of the eucharist is the dismissal (Note again the root of that word: missa) when we are sent into the world to love and serve the Lord. Many churches have put this sign over the exit: “The worship is over. The service begins.”

I don’t think we can be too expansive about this. Anyone made in the image of God (i.e., everyone) has the potential to reflect that likeness, and to go into the world to share and show grace. Everyone can engage in that apostolic ministry. Everyone can be a missionary. I know the term has baggage, with coercive connotations. Maybe you can simply see yourself as part of the Jesus movement, listening as much as talking, finding out what God is up to in the neighborhood, bringing with you news of grace.

With all that in mind, how might you be an apostle this Monday?

-Jay Sidebotham

Lord, you give the great commission:
“Heal the sick and preach the word.”
Lest the Church neglect its mission
and the Gospel go unheard, help us witness to your purpose with renewed integrity;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.
 
Lord, you call us to your service: “In my name baptize and teach.” That the world may trust your promise, life abundant meant for each, give us all new fervor, draw us closer in community;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.
 
Lord, you make the common holy:
“This my body, this my blood.” Let your priests, for earth’s true glory, daily lift life heavenward,
asking that world around us share your children’s liberty;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.
 
Lord, you show us love’s true measure:
“Father, what they do, forgive.”
Yet we hoard as private treasure all that you so freely give. May your care and mercy lead us
to a just society;
with the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.
 
Lord, you bless with words assuring:
“I am with you to the end.” Faith and hope and love restoring, may we serve as you intend,
and, amid the cares that claim us, hold in mind eternity; with the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.

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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 (April 18, 2016)

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Jesus told his disciples: Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
-John 20:21

This past weekend, I attended a conference called Missional Voices. It was great. It was ably organized by a group of seminarians, and it left me with great hope for the future, as we explored new ways of thinking about church. I learned a lot, as we talked about the mission of God. I wonder what you think that mission might be.

One priest serving in a southern city told a story about his community. One of the members of the congregation made his home on the streets, sleeping near a bridge in the downtown area. The priest had noticed that this guy was missing from the church for a number of weeks. When the guy showed up again for worship, and they came to the exchange of the peace, the priest greeted him and asked where he had been. The man explained that one night, two guys had thrown him over the edge of the bridge and taken all his stuff. He had been in the hospital recovering from the fall. The priest inquired more about the incident. In the course of the conversation, the man said that the two guys who had thrown him over the edge of the bridge were actually attending the service that night. He wouldn’t tell the priest who they were. He thought the priest would make the two guys leave. The homeless gentleman explained that those two guys needed to stay. They needed Jesus. The priest told us the story to report that he learned something that night, something important about Jesus, something important about the mission of God.

According to the Prayer Book, the mission of the church has to do with reconciliation. Specifically, we are told that the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and others. But the point of this conference was that this reconciling work is primarily God’s mission in the world, ours by extension, our as instruments of God’s work. Story after story reminded me that God’s mission can be fulfilled in many ways. It can be the work of the church, occasionally even the clergy. Who knew? It can be fulfilled by people in the church who are not the leaders in the church. It can be fulfilled by people who have nothing to do with the church. Each one of us created in the image of God, each one of us with a God-shaped space inside us, can do this work. Ultimately, it is God’s work, God’s mission.

Jesus knew this, and taught about it in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, the person who carries out the mission of God (i.e., healing a man who had been attacked and was then ignored by the really religious people of the day) is the Samaritan. He was the outsider, the guy who knew nothing of liturgical tradition, had never been confirmed, had never been to seminary, was not a pledging member of any parish, didn’t know the creed. You get the point.

I come away from this conference mindful of the ways I am called to participate in the mission of God, how I might be a reconciling influence, bringing wholeness where there is brokenness. Lord knows, there’s a sufficiency of brokenness surrounding us. I come away with a sense of commission. How on this Monday morning might I participate in reconciling work?

I come away from the conference mindful of the ways that the church (its members, including clergy like me) often work at cross-purposes with the mission of God, building walls that divide instead of opening doors, setting up barriers to healing and wholeness instead of tearing them down, focusing on judgment more than mercy, on being right more than being righteous. Let’s just call this a growth opportunity.

Mostly, I come away interested in the ways that I might learn from unlikely teachers like this homeless guy tossed over the edge of the bridge. His story teaches about grace and forgiveness. He makes me hopeful that in moments when I find meaning and identity in resentment, I can remember his forgiving spirit, and in some small struggling way fulfill the mission of God.

-Jay Sidebotham

Notes from the Missional Voices Conference:
 
One of the highlights for me was a talk by Christian Kassoff, who leads a congregation in California that focuses on a ministry called Laundrylove. That ministry carries out the mission of God, building community by helping people in need realize the simple (but for some elusive) dignity of having clean clothes. 
 
He told the story of his own conversion, as he moved from a life challenged by substance abuse and a criminal record to leadership in his church. Here’s how he described it:
I used to be a hopeless dope fiend. Now I’m a dopeless hope fiend.
Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.
-Richard Rohr
Authentic spirituality is always about changing you. It’s not about trying to change
someone else.
-Richard Rohr

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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 (April 11, 2016)

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Play ball

Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of 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 errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.
-Francis T. Vincent, Jr., Commissioner of Baseball

Maybe this is why baseball is so popular among clergy. It’s helpful to recognize that errors are part of the game, on field or off. The idea is central to our faith. St. Paul put it this way: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. For me, it finds expression in the promise made at baptism. We promise that whenever we sin, we will repent and turn to the Lord. It doesn’t say “if ever.” It says “whenever.” Maybe that’s why both Navajo and Persian weavers always include at least one mistake when creating their rugs.

How exactly is that good news? For starters, our tradition holds that there is always a way back. So when my favorite editor finds grammatical errors in this weekly message (which she often does), that’s okay. When a reader writes me about last week’s post, indicating the Paul McCartney didn’t write “Let it be” about the Blessed Virgin, but about his own mother, that’s okay. I can learn from that. It’s about progress, not perfection. We embrace the rigorous truth that we won’t always get it right. And how might that be helpful this Monday morning?

First, maybe we can lighten up and recognize that God is not sitting at the divine laptop, waiting for us to mess up, ready to press the “smite” button (an image stolen from a Gary Larson cartoon). Recent reflections at church on forgiveness highlighted the point that often forgiveness begins with forgiving ourselves, letting the hot air out of the hubris balloon that imagines we can always get it right. (Clergy often gravitate toward those balloons.)

Second, it might help us give each other a break. So if someone lets us down, or does us wrong, or cuts us off in traffic, or wittingly or unwittingly breaks our heart, we can work at forgiveness. It is work. Spiritual work. It is not a matter of denying the hurt, or sanctioning the offense, but admitting that we are all just trying to figure out how to play ball.

Third, it may help us focus on how absolutely dependent we are on grace, on the premise and promise that ultimately we are accepted. That is not because we have it all together or always get it right. It’s certainly not a reflection of our ability to bat a spiritual 1000. We are accepted because of the goodness of God’s creation, of which we are a dearly beloved part. We are accepted because God loves us. That love is at the heart of creation.

I’m working at accepting that. Some days, I do better than others. Maybe I’m batting 300. But we can still swing for the fences. Or as St. Paul put it, as he reflected on his own spiritual journey, which had it’s up and downs: Beloved…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

So today, play ball.

-Jay Sidebotham

Wisdom from Brené Brown:
You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.
 
Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.
 
Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.

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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 (April 4, 2016)

3-1Let it be

It happened this year, and apparently it won’t happen again until the year 2157.

That’s the next time that the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and Good Friday coincide. It’s rare that the story of Mary visited by the angel Gabriel occurs on the same day when the story of Jesus’ death is told. Both stories need air-time, so in the wisdom of people in charge of calendar stuff, the observance of the Feast of the Annunciation was transferred to today, April 4.

This Monday morning, let’s see what the story of the Annunciation has to tell us to help us through today. It’s been beautifully rendered by artists over the centuries, with vivid imagination of what an angel might look like. Artists have also rendered Mary’s complicated reaction. For insight into that reaction, read the story in Luke 1:26-38. It says that when the angel showed up, Mary was much perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. No kidding. The angel tells her not to be afraid, a common reaction whenever one of these angels shows up. Easier said than done. Mary asks: “How can this be?” The angel tells her nothing will be impossible with God. And Mary responds with words that have inspired many (including Paul McCartney): “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

The story told in Luke’s gospel is one of many call stories in the scriptures. Like many other Bible characters who hear some sort of call, there is a sense that the person receiving the call might wonder whether the call is a wrong number. Moses did his best to weasel out of God’s call to confront Pharaoh, claiming he was no good at public speaking. Nice try. Samuel had to get the call three times before it sunk in. Isaiah said he was a person of unclean lips. Jeremiah said “I’m just a boy.” When called, Peter told Jesus to depart from him because he was a sinful man. You get the idea.

But there’s something about Mary. For all her pondering and perplexity, she says “yes” to God. A friend and fine preacher once offered a sermon in which she speculated on whether the angel visited other Nazareth girls first. She wondered if others said no, and so the angel moved on to the next house. Maybe that is what Mary models for us, amid the perplexity and fear, to say yes.

And make no mistake. Saying yes has its cost. I have two friends who are both professors who toured Europe with their 8 year old daughter. After visiting many churches and museums, the young girl wanted to know why Mary was never smiling. An astute observation, for the Annunciation foreshadows Good Friday. This year’s coincidence is no coincidence. In Luke 2, aged Simeon told young Mary: A sword will pierce your heart. There was cost with the promise.

But isn’t that the way it is in our lives. At all the crossroads, at every fork in the road, whenever we hear a call, or think we hear a call, there is cost and promise. That’s the message of the Annunciation. That’s the message of Good Friday. That’s a word for us this Monday morning. Can we say “yes” to what God is calling us to do and be, whether that’s a big task or, more likely, a small act of kindness, reflective of the grace we have received. Let it be.

-Jay Sidebotham

The Collect for the Feast of the Annunciation
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Song of Mary: The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.

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

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

Monday Matters (March 28, 2016)

 

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Ordinary resurrections

It’s the title of a favorite book by Jonathan Kozol, describing the lives of children living in one of the poorest parts of New York City. It could have been a depressing story. But in fact, it’s a hopeful witness to the ways that new life and possibility can emerge from apparently hopeless situations. Kozol spent a lot of time studying not only the community but especially the ministry of St. Ann’s Church in the South Bronx. This church has taken the call to pastor the community seriously. Through its work and witness, it has provided promise for many children for decades. Resurrections continue to happen, Kozol claims.

This morning, we move into the Easter season. Easter is more than just a day, which in no way diminishes the glory of yesterday when we welcomed the happy morning in celebration of the first Easter when Jesus was resurrected. It is a day when we claim history pivoted. But it’s more than history. Our tradition affirms that the first resurrection unleashes power for more resurrections, even ordinary resurrections to happen. So we observe Easter not only with a season of 50 days, but in all seasons. Every time we gather for eucharist on Sunday is a little Easter, maybe an ordinary resurrection.

St. Paul spoke about the ongoing power of resurrection when he wrote a letter to a complicated church (aren’t they all?) in the city of Corinth. He wrote to folks who were often in conflict with each other. He called them to live in a new way, to celebrate the variety of gifts they had, to treat each other with honor and love. He said that this call to a renewed common life had something, no everything to do with the resurrection. He spoke of the fact that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, we are of all people the most to be pitied.

The letter to the Colossians, attributed to St. Paul puts it this way: If you have been raised with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ is. In other words, the resurrection changes the way we live now. Easter invites us to think about how resurrections might continue to happen among us.

So use this beginning of the Easter season to look for ordinary resurrections. Where might you see them? They can come in great variety. A new start on a relationship, forgiveness paving the way. A faithful response to an inexplicably tragic loss, a response marked by courage. A brave journey of recovery from the grip of an illness or accident. A new attitude toward a vocation which feels like a dead end, maybe an attitude fueled by gratitude. Churches in the area where I live working together to build a Habitat house, a project which offers the prospect of resurrection for a family. A group of people, even a nation, struggling for justice and peace.

What examples come to your mind?

Resurrection literally means to stand again. We all know something about being knocked down. By God’s grace, through the power that brought Jesus back to life, we believe that dead ends can be turned into thresholds. We can stand again. Even in the ordinariness of our lives we can experience resurrection. It’s enough to make you say “Alleluia.”

-Jay Sidebotham

Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime. 
-Martin Luther
Let every man and woman count himself immortal. Let him catch the revelation of Jesus in his resurrection. Let him say not merely, “Christ is risen,” but “I shall rise.”
-Phillips Brooks
Now let the heavens be joyful, Let earth her song begin: Let the round world keep triumph, And all that is therein; Invisible and visible, Their notes let all things blend, For Christ the Lord is risen Our joy that hath no end.
-Saint John of Damascus

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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.