Monday Matters (December 15th, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, December 15, 2014 

Things are looking up

I spent this past weekend with about two hundred teenagers from the Diocese of North Carolina, an annual event called Bishop’s Ball, marked by tons of energy and thoughtful planning by the teenagers. The theme for the gathering: Look up. I was invited to talk to the group a couple times. As often happens when I give a talk, after all was said and done, I figured out what I should say to them. It had to do with the many ways we use the phrase “Look up”. So, herewith, four examples of what it means to look up. It means…

To inquire (as in to look up something in the library or on the internet.)

If I was asked to translate the New Testament (nobody asked), I would (at least for a while) change every reference to the word “disciple”. Instead of referring to a disciple, I would speak about a learner. Again and again, I’m reminded in the work I’m doing with churches that in the spiritual journey, we don’t know what we don’t know. The promise of Advent is that something new is on the way. How can we seek it out? How can we make sure we never stop learning?

To re-wire (as in to look up someone with whom you have lost contact.)

Whether due to some rift or drift, where do you need to reconnect with someone important in your life? Where does healing need to take place? What may need to change? One of the refrains in the season of Advent is the call to repent, which really means to change direction, to live life in a different way, in a new way. So much of that call has to do with the relationships in our lives. They get broken all the time. They don’t need to stay that way. Is God calling you to take the initiative, to look up?

To admire (as in to look up to somebody, finding inspiration in qualities or actions worthy of emulation.)

Over the weekend, there was lots of conversation about people we look up to, people who call us to a fuller life of faith. Many people spoke about family members, interestingly enough, about grandparents. Many spoke about saints over centuries who have acted with courage, noting that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. A few spoke about Bible characters. We concluded that God provides examples for us to remind us that while not one of us is perfect, we nevertheless are graced by people who model the walk of faith. Who might that be in your life? Give thanks for them. How by God’s grace might you serve as a model, a witness, an exemplar for somebody else?

To aspire (as in to hold on to hope.)

Advent is about hopefulness. Despite gloom and doom statistics about declining mainline denominations, my weekend with these teenagers was inspiring. It was a privilege to be with them, a group clearly committed to an articulation of their faith in word and action. It gave me hope for what lies ahead. While the news about the state of the nation and the world can seem grim, I am inspired by the depth of commitment of people of faith to racial reconciliation, to peace and justice, to healing, to ministry to the poor. Lord knows we need that commitment. Can you identify signs of hope today? It’s an Advent thing to do.

Look up in these last days of Advent. How is God calling you to inquire, to re-wire, to admire, to aspire?

- Jay Sidebotham

God brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. -Genesis 15:5,6

They look-ed up and saw a star, shining in the east beyond them far. And to the earth it gave great light, and so they continued both day and night. -From the First Nowell

When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” -John 6:5

And taking the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd, and all ate and were filled. -Luke 9:16

Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us form the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. -Mark 16:3,4

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (December 8th, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, December 8, 2014 

What people read and need most 

Amazon recently released data indicating the most highlighted passage on Kindle ebooks. Guess which book contains that most highlighted passage? It is indeed that perennial bestseller, the Bible, which may or may not surprise you. Let’s take it up a notch with the next question: Can you guess which passage from the Bible has gotten all that attention? The Ten Commandments? The Beatitudes? John 3:16? The racy story of David and Bathsheba, or the love poems in the Song of Solomon? (Pause to imagine the Jeopardy music playing as you come to your response.)

According to the data, the most highlighted passage is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (text provided below). It’s a passage about anxiety, and what to do about it. No sugar coating. This is not Bobby McFerrin singing “Don’t worry. Be happy!” The passage recognizes that anxiety is part of life. It also recognizes that we are not left alone, not left without resources to respond. Perhaps the popularity of the passage arises from the fact that the passage actually suggests ways to navigate the anxiety. There are indeed pathways.

First, we are called to prayer and petition in the midst of the anxiety. We are asked to ask for help. That is a huge theological, creedal, pastoral faith statement. It says a lot about who we think God is, and how we see ourselves. It indicates that we can’t do this on our own. It calls for that self-understanding, a dose of humility. It indicates a confidence that there is someone listening, some presence, power, person attentive to the prayers and petitions, and that that someone is capable of response in some way. That’s a huge statement. Who can believe it?

Next, we are to pray in a spirit of gratitude, again a big statement of faith, calling us to remember how we have been blessed, to look in the spiritual rear view mirror and to recount the stories of how we have come this far. It reminds us that we are on the receiving end of grace. It calls us to set our anxiety in that context.

Third, we are invited into the peace of God which transcends understanding. Picture this. Paul is writing all this stuff from a first century prison cell. Imagine what such a place was like. He had plenty of reason for anxiety. Yet every other word in this letter (read the whole thing today if you have the time) seems to be about joy and rejoicing. That spirit had little to do with circumstances, with Paul’s situation, the external experiences. Don’t we all know folks who seem to have all the toys and prizes of life but are still totally unhappy? Haven’t you met people who face extraordinary challenges who rise above those obstacles with hope and joy. A woman wrote me last week about anxiety she experienced as a close family member went through surgery. There was a lot that was unknown. There was potential for dire consequences. In the midst of it, she reported being overcome with a sense of peace, even before she knew that the surgery indicated good outcome. Peace beyond understanding.

In this season of Advent, which calls us to the virtue of hope, may this surprisingly popular passage provide pathways to that kind of peace.

- Jay Sidebotham

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 4:6-7, (New Revised Standard Version) 

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. -Philippians 4:6,7 (The Message)

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (December 1st, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, December 1, 2014 

Some thoughts on preaching

Pity the preacher whose gospel text concludes with the words: “Keep awake” as if boredom or even slumber will be the response of the congregation. Such was the plight of this preacher (and countless others) yesterday on the First Sunday of Advent, when the reading came from the 13th chapter of the gospel of Mark (see below). Preaching is challenging enough, as the preacher scales pulpit steps to hold forth “six feet above contradiction.” As Harvey Cox has noted: “The sermon is one of the last places in public discourse where it is culturally forbidden to talk back” (though he made that comment in the days before Twitter). It therefore easily becomes an opportunity for people to tune out. In my own preaching, I strive to apply the wisdom of Mark Twain who said that no sinner was saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon. George Burns described a good sermon as having a strong beginning and a strong conclusion and not much in between. I’m personally guided by the wisdom of Charles Schulz who described cartooning as preaching. A favorite poem by George Herbert is called The Preacher. It compares the homilist to a stained glass window, and begins by asking: “How can a man preach God’s word? He is a brittle crazy glass.” On many Sunday mornings, that is how I feel.

This Monday morning, the first Monday in Advent, the call from Jesus to disciples is to keep awake, to be alert. That can be difficult on Sunday morning in a pew, when sleep deprivation or rambling sermonic thoughts or list of things to do can detract or distract. But keeping alert and staying awake can be even more difficult on Monday morning when routine, whatever it may be, sets us on autopilot. We may wonder if anything could ever be different in our lives, in our world. Mindful of that challenge, many faith traditions call us to mindfulness. In the wisdom of the Anglican tradition, that call gets expressed in the countercultural season we know as Advent. As the secular sector tells us to crank up activity, to get a lot of things done, our church dares us to slow down and be quiet, to be expectant about what God might actually do in our lives.

What would it mean to stay spiritually awake, to be alert to that possibility? It has to do with remembering who we are, and to whom we belong. Worship at its best helps with that. It has to do with paying attention to where we see God at work in the world. A good sermon can help that happen. It has to do with expecting God to do something new. That spirit of expectancy is a responsibility for each one of us. I recently spoke at the convention of the Diocese of North Carolina, led by Bishop Michael Curry, a great Episcopal preacher (No, that is not an oxymoron). His sermon to the most recent General Convention called us to be “Crazy Christians”, which is the title of a book he has written. Perhaps that craziness might come in intentional observance of Advent, in a commitment to slow down and be quiet. Bishop Curry has presented the following vision to his diocese. They are to be disciples making a difference. They are to expect something new. They are to be awake to that possibility.

Don’t think it can happen? Don’t think your life can be different? Don’t think the church, your faith, the scripture can be more relevant? Don’t think that the intractable problems we see around the world can shift? Jesus calls us (his disciples) to be crazy enough to believe that all of that is possible. He challenges us to stay alert, to keep awake for the new thing God will do, to expect something to happen.

Bishop Curry, at the convention last week, reminded us of a sermon given by Billy Sunday, one of the great preachers of the last century, who in 1919 said this: “If the Episcopal Church ever wakes up, look out Satan.” He said: “That moment is near. That moment is here.” Upon hearing Billy Sunday’s sermon, Dr. Ernest Stires, Rector of St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue said: “The church is awake. The church holds a position of power and influence. It must use its power to meet these needs, for the suffering, the wrong of the past is still here today, crying out to us. Children are still being slain by cruel Herods.”  Jesus is calling us, the world is counting on us to keep awake. How will you do that?

- Jay Sidebotham

 Jesus said: ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

-Mark 13:34-37

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (November 24th, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, November 24, 2014

Grace and gratitude

The theologian Karl Barth apparently never had an unexpressed thought, as attested by extensive volumes of theological reflection. Who knows? Perhaps he got paid by the word. He was also wonderfully able to cut to the chase, as attested by an encounter in the early 60’s with a group of Chicago seminarians. Mindful of his propensity for writing at length on almost any subject (I wish he was around now to reflect on contemporary issues), these students basically taunted him to sum up his theology in a sentence. Perhaps if they were asking today, the request would be to sum up his theology in a tweet. Could he do it? Dr. Barth indicated he could provide such a summation. It went like this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

In his Dogmatics, he offered a similar simple insight into the faith, a description of our life with God which seems fitting for this week which includes a national holiday promoting gratitude in the attitude. Please note: I love this holiday for many reasons, and I’m so excited to be with our children in a new home. I’m deeply grateful on so many levels. But face it. We observe this holiday in strange ways. We prepare then consume foods we love until we about near explode, thereby inducing a big old nap. We spend a chunk of time enthralled with the most popular liturgy of our culture: football. Many do battle with other consumers in anticipation of Christmas, vigorous competition such that each year the news will report fistfights (and worse) over sales items, all ostensibly in observance of the birth of our Lord, the prince of peace, born in a manger. Go figure.

Given those observances, perhaps we can pause on this Monday, perhaps each day this week, perhaps each day for the rest of our lives, to focus on gratitude, and to use Dr. Barth’s simple vision of the spiritual life. Here it is:

Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth.  Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo.  Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning. 

This week, carry this passage with you. Begin by reflecting on a time (or two) in your life when you have experienced grace. Did it come from God? Did it come from someone close to you, God’s instrument of grace? Did you see it in the beauty of creation? If you’re having Thanksgiving Dinner with folks, and looking for a way to avoid arguing about politics (Fox news vs. MSNBC: watch out for flying mashed potatoes), maybe you can start your meal by going around the table, telling about a time when the voice of grace stirred an echo, when lightning flashed. Our youth calls those moments God-sightings. Sharing them can be downright transformative.

And then let gratitude flow from that vision of grace, gratitude that infuses your heart and shapes your behavior. Heaven and earth meeting. Echoes of grace expressed in gratitude, as sure as thunder follows lightning. This past week, I had the privilege of leading a conversation about spiritual growth at the 199th Convention of the Diocese of North Carolina. In that conversation, I asked people to identify things that helped them move forward in their spiritual journeys, and things that got in the way. On that second question, one answer struck me in particular. A woman indicated that her journey was stalled when she forgot to be grateful.

That’s what we aim to avoid this coming Thursday. We take a day off to express our gratitude (even if we do so in idiosyncratic ways). That’s what we aim to do each Sunday when we gather for eucharist, a Greek word for thanksgiving. That liturgy includes in the prayer over the bread and wine a portion that describes the things God has done for us, things for which we are thankful. Liturgists call that section anamnesis, which means literally, not amnesia. Not forgetting. Our expression of gratitude need not wait for a national holiday. It doesn’t need to wait for Sunday. It’s why God made Monday. As William Arthur Ward said: “God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say thank you?”

- Jay Sidebotham

 If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough. -Meister Eckhart

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference. -Thomas Merton

When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience. -N.T. Wright

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive. -Thích Nhất Hạnh

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (November 17th, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, November 17, 2014


Spiritual nationality

The pope is at it again. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I pray for this guy because he’s shaking things up, and that’s risky business. In a homily delivered on November 7, he described what he called “pagan Christians.” Offering his spin on the New Testament letter to the Philippians, he reflected on Paul’s challenge to those early Christians. Paul asked: Was their citizenship in heaven or on earth? The new pontiff spoke about religious observance in our own time, those who may attend mass on Sundays but forget about a commitment to the way of Jesus the rest of the week (those for whom Monday may not have mattered in terms of discipleship). He said they were Christians in name only. Pagan Christians. He challenged hearers to think about where they gave their hearts, their allegiance, their loyalty. Asked another way: Where was their citizenship?

The way for someone to check their spiritual nationality, he said, is to ask some questions: “Do I like to brag? Do I like money? Do I like pride?” Alternatively, he said, “Do you try to love God and serve others? If you are meek, if you are humble, if you are a servant of others, then you are on the right path. Your citizenship papers are in order and they are from heaven!”

Here’s my experience, based on what the pope said. I have dual citizenship. I’m sometimes a pagan. A pagan Christian but pagan nonetheless. On occasion, on a good day, by God’s grace, I locate my citizenship in heaven. I sometimes trust. I often don’t. Emily Dickinson put it this way: We believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour. She said that it makes the faith nimble. (Nice turn of phrase, Emily.) But as one preacher put it, I’m often a functional atheist, my attitudes and behavior demonstrating that I don’t really believe God is around or involved or active or relevant. I’m not proud of that. I’m not unaware of it either. Saint and sinner at once, to channel Martin Luther. That’s why grace is such a good thing.

So how would you describe your spiritual nationality? Where are you giving your heart this Monday morning? Where is your citizenship? May God grant us the grace to find our home in heaven, starting this Monday morning with a little heaven on earth. By holy coincidence, last week I came across a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (below), shared with me by one of my spiritual guides. Reflect on this poem as it reminds that we are all in this together, all on the receiving end of God’s mercy.

- Jay Sidebotham 

 Christians and Pagans: A poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1944

All go to God in their distress, seek help and pray for bread and happiness, deliverance from pain, guilt and death all do, Christians and others.

All go to God in his distress, find him poor, reviled without shelter or bread, watch him tortured by sin, weakness and death. Christians stand with God in His agony.

 God goes to all in their distress, satisfies body and soul with His bread, dies, crucified for all, Christians and others, and both alike forgiving. 

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (November 10th, 2014)

3-1MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, November 10, 2014

Of soldiers and saints.

Tomorrow we observe the feast of St. Martin, coincident with national observance of Veterans’ Day. Chalk it up to holy coincidence, since St. Martin was, among other things, a soldier. In his honor, and in honor of all veterans, begin this morning by joining in a prayer of honor and thanksgiving for Veterans (below).

St. Martin’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island was the place I served right after seminary, under the leadership of the Rev. Dan Burke, one of the kindest and wisest priests I have known. Dan was gentle with me when gaps in my preparation for ministry were on display, which was more often than I care to admit. During my time at St. Martin’s, I came to know a fair amount about this saint from the 4th century. Martin of Tours was a soldier who was traveling one day in a snowstorm, on the highway, when he came upon a beggar. Martin raised his sword and cut his own cape in two and gave half of his cloak to the shivering beggar. Martin apparently did not ask if the beggar was worthy. Martin did not worry that he was enabling the beggar. He did not fret that the beggar was scamming him. He just gave him a coat. I don’t know if I could do that (even though I realize in our recent move that I have enough coats to equip a marching band!) but maybe that’s why Martin gets a feast day. The story continues. That night, Christ appeared to Martin in a dream, commending him for his offering. Legend has it that Martin heard Jesus say to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clothed me.”

The gospel for the Feast of St. Martin is the parable of judgment in Matthew 25 (We’ll read it in church on November 26) which declares that we meet Christ in the poor, the hungry, the prisoner. When we minister to them, we minister to Christ. When we ignore them, we ignore Christ. A parable to keep us on our ethical toes. From this passage, we get the baptismal injunction to meet Christ in all persons, even if occasionally Christ comes very well disguised. In honor of Martin today, when you’re out on the highway, out in the world, in whatever turbulence (meteorological or otherwise) be ready to meet Christ in those whose lives are marked by need. They surround us.

One more thing about Martin. His symbol is the goose. Why the goose, you ask. Well after the soldier/beggar encounter, Martin became a monk, such a fine one in fact that he was elected bishop. Like many folks who hear God’s call to the episcopacy, Martin ran in the opposite direction, not wanting the job. He hid in a barn. The honking of the geese gave him away. He went on to have a powerful ministry, so effective that we honor it more than 16 centuries later.

Honor his day in reflection on what God is calling you to do, and especially how God might be calling you to address the needs of a broken world. Who knows, you might meet Jesus in some new way when you do. Wouldn’t that be something? 

- Jay Sidebotham

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

Truly I tell you, as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. -Matthew 25

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (November 3rd, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, November 3, 2014

For a few years, I served at a church in midtown Manhattan. It probably had as much pedestrian traffic as any church on the globe. Only a tiny percentage of the people who passed by the church ever came through our doors, let alone became part of the worshipping community. I’d occasionally meet people who said they walked by the church daily for decades and never ventured in. I often stood at the top of the steps and watch New York go by, people in a grand hurry to wherever. Purposeful New Yorkers, never making eye contact. We wondered how to break through.

One especially warm summer, my colleagues and I decided to hand out glasses of lemonade on the sidewalk, wearing our clerical collars. Many people walked right by. Some were certain there was a catch. Nothing was free. If they took the lemonade, they’d have to give us money, or worse, attend a service. But occasionally, we would engage in conversation. One young woman appreciated the cool drink. She stopped to talk, asking what we were doing, and told me a bit of her story. As she was winding up the conversation, she looked up the steps at the imposing portal and asked: Am I allowed to go in there? I asked what she meant, because I sensed she was not asking if the doors were locked, or what the hours were. She shared that she had not led a particularly puritanical life, that she had not been in a church for a long time, and that the church in her past had not welcomed her. She expected more judgment than mercy. I felt a deep sadness when I really heard her question, a bit of shame as a church professional as I wondered how many other folks were asking the same thing.

Last Monday, I asked people to tell me what in their experience had gotten in the way of spiritual growth. I am grateful for the responses I received (and it’s not too late to offer your own.) Folks talked about the distractions of day-to-day living, the trivia of life that crowds out things of significance. Many looked in the mirror and saw the obstacle, described repeatedly in triune form: Me, myself, and I. The ancient truth of scripture that we try to put ourselves in the place of God emerged once again as a barrier, that old ego, which some tell me is an acronym: Edging God Out.

Too many folks mentioned the church as a barrier. People wrote about the messiness of organized religion, the hypocrisy which caused one person to leave the church for decades, admittedly “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” People described petty competitiveness, jealousies, hierarchical hoops, theological meanderings in the church. Another person noted the church as an institution driven by human nature with its resistance to change: “I struggle to get past the church as the end, to arrive at the church as a means.”

When people tell me that they have bailed on the church because it’s full of hypocrites, I can only say “guilty as charged”. And as a church professional, I often pray this haunting verse from the Psalms: “Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me.” I have experienced woundedness and disappointment from the church. I’ve also caused injury and disillusionment, and for that I ask forgiveness (with fear and trembling).

But in it all, I remain convinced that God wishes to work through the church, that it is indeed a means for God’s presence to be experienced in the world, and in fact that God will do a new thing in the church in days ahead. Later this week, we will observe the Feast of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II. (Talk about a tough assignment!) He is famously noted for describing the church as the only organization on earth that exists for the sake of those who are not its members. In other words, the church is meant for service to the world. We can all identify ways that it fails to do that, ways in which the church insists rather on being served, a collective expression of ego. The church with its failings is an easy mark.

The more difficult pathway is to be in it and help it to live into its divine intention: to be the body of Christ, or more specifically, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. How will you live into that vision this week? How will you grow as part of the body of Christ? Pray for the church, in word and action. Ask God to show you how you can be part of the healing of the church, so that the church can be part of the healing of the world.

- Jay Sidebotham

Gracious God, we pray for thy holy Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provided for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

-A prayer for the Church, from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 816

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (October 27th, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, October 27, 2014

What is spiritual growth?

The work I’m doing these days tries to get people talking about spiritual growth as the priority in congregational life, and in the lives of individuals. As I travel around the church and have conversations with folks (which by the way is really interesting work), I ask questions that sound something like this:

  1. What comes to mind when you think about spiritual growth? How would you define it?
  2. What has helped you grow spiritually?
  3. What has gotten in the way?

I hear a variety of answers, and I have my own, which I’ll share shortly. But before you read any further, take a moment to think about those questions. Take three minutes of quiet (a minute per question) and think about how you would answer those questions this Monday morning. If this is not a good time, like you’re reading this on your smartphone while you’re hang-gliding, or multitasking in a meeting when everybody thinks you’re paying attention to the power point presentation, or otherwise distracted, try this exercise later. Give it some time, and if you feel so inclined, send me an email with your thoughts.

(3 minute pause in reading to answer the questions)

Time’s up. I continue…

There are lots of ways to think about the mystery of spiritual growth, none of them exhaustive. As Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3, when talking about the life of the Spirit: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” At its heart, I think spiritual growth is a relational dynamic, a deepening love of God and love of neighbor. This growth is about conversation, listening, seeking, questioning, giving, receiving. It’s about an open heart and spirit, coming to know someone better. It’s about practice, dedication of time and energy to the relationship. It’s about love.

So I channel my inner Tina Turner and ask: What’s love got to do with it? I defer to the gospel reading we heard yesterday in church, from the gospel of Matthew, a story that appears in three of the four gospels. Jesus is put to the test. He is asked what it means to live the spiritual life. Which one of the commandments is the greatest? He responds that the greatest commandment is two-fold, yet inseparable. It has to do with loving God and neighbor. It’s about the practice of shifting the focus from self to the other. That kind of growth comes with spending time. It comes with going through hard times together. It comes with intentionality, or as some call it, discipleship. And it matters.

I spent last week on the road, attending gatherings in both Texas and New York City, both places where the distressing Ebola crisis has been brought home, dominating the news and triggering fears, some more rational than others. That travel involved time in several airports, which have become monuments to insecurity. It made me realize just how fear-based we have all become, given the many challenges we face together, as a global community, as a nation, as a church, in our individual lives. And I thought of the passage from the New Testament which says that perfect love casts out fear, fear and love set in opposition

Our commitment to spiritual growth, deepening of love of God and neighbor, is not something we pursue just to be good religious folk or nice people. It is a way to respond to the fears the threaten to undo us. It works if we work it. So think about your own spiritual path, past moments of discovery and inertia. Ask the Spirit to guide you into deeper growth, as you practice the love to which Jesus calls us, love that casts out fear, love of God, love of neighbor. Find a specific way to grow today.

- Jay Sidebotham

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:34

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (October 20th, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, October 20, 2014

Signs of the times

“Am I open to God’s surprises? Am I at a standstill, or am I on a journey?” These questions surfaced in a homily preached last week (October 14) by Pope Francis, who reflected on Jesus’ interaction with contemporary religious leaders. The pope said in this sermon that these leaders failed to understand that the law (doctrine, teaching, ritual, liturgy) which they “guarded and loved was a pedagogy towards Jesus Christ.” He said: “If the law does not lead to Jesus Christ, if it does not bring us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead.” Jesus rebuked these leaders for their “closure, for not being able to read the signs of the time, for not being open to the God of surprises.”

This Monday morning, we are called to read the signs of the times. It can be tough reading. These signs include not only any number of bleak global crises of seemingly unprecedented threat. They also include dramatic shifts in attitudes toward religious institutions. (I take it that if you are reading this email you have some interest in that shift.) Last week, the Barna Group, researchers on contemporary religious observance, explored the question of why fewer Americans are attending church. Their study noted five trends stated here in a few words, with some editorial comment from me:

  • A rise of secularization: Nearly half of millenials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared with Gen-xers (40%), boomers (35%), and elders (28%). Get the trend?
  • Less openness to the idea of church: Receptivity to an invitation to church among people who don’t presently attend has dropped from 65% to 47% over the last 20 years. Thanks but no thanks.
  • Churchgoing is no longer mainstream: In the 1990’s, one in seven unchurched adults had never experienced regular church attendance. Now it’s one in four. Never.
  • Expectations of church involvement have changed: There’s been a dramatic increase among those who say they’d rather do something else than attend services on Sunday morning. As one person said, why bother?
  • Growing skepticism about church’s contribution to society:  Almost half of those who don’t attend church couldn’t identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community on the culture. Ouch.

Last week, Jim Naughton reported these findings in his blog Episcopal Café and concluded with a question: How will our church leaders read the signs of the times? To which I add: How will readers of this Monday message read the signs of the times?

For me, a religious professional, results like those indicated by the Barna Group could be depressing and dispiriting. (I hear that the local Starbucks is hiring.) Then I hear words from the Pope about the God of surprises, and recall that we follow a Lord who was resurrected, knowing that resurrection literally means “to stand again.” I suspect that the God of surprises can and will bring new life to the church, and to each of our lives, as we remember that the things we do in church, our religion, our spiritual practices, our acts of charity and service are not ends in themselves. They are intended to lead to Jesus Christ, intended to bring us closer to Christ. That can mean different things to different people. But we each are asked by scripture this question from Jesus: Who do you say that I am? In that question, I hear a call to follow Jesus who helps me know and to show grace more, to receive and give forgiveness more, to serve following his example of service. What do you hear?

I have a feeling that the God of surprises might actually work powerfully through the dramatic (and perhaps depressing) statistics about religious observance, opening a way for us to focus with greater singularity on the center, on the goal. If that happened, it will make the point that new life comes not because of our activity but because of what God does, not because of what we believe, but because God believes in us.

I could be wrong, but I believe that the Pope who speaks of the God of surprises is on to something, as a Pope who continues to surprise us all. Pope Francis gives us a chance to consider resurrection possibilities. This morning, what would it mean to open yourself to the God of surprises?

- Jay Sidebotham

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new. -II Corinthians 5

But the Lord said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness….for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” -II Corinthians 12

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” -Matthew 16

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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

Monday Matters (October 13th, 2014)

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MONDAY MATTERS
Reflections to start the week
Monday, October 13, 2014

We do not lose heart. 

His name was Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, a name almost as distinctive as his biography. He was born in 1831, to a Jewish family in Lithuania, and was preparing to be a rabbi. He went to study in England in his twenties where he ran across a copy of the New Testament. He was taken with the story of Jesus. He converted to Christianity and joined a Baptist congregation. A one-man ecumenical movement, after a while he became a Presbyterian and went to the United States where he enrolled at a seminary in Alleghany, Pennsylvania. After two years doing that, he was led to the Episcopal Church, and studied at General Theological Seminary in New York. Upon graduation, he was sent by his bishop to Japan, and then to China, where he felt called to translate sacred Christian texts into the language of the people he served in Asia. He began by translating the Psalms. Then the Book of Common Prayer. Then the New Testament. Finally the Hebrew Bible. The last years of his life were spent in infirmity. Confined to a wheelchair, mostly paralyzed and unable to speak, he sat at his desk day after day, typing a translation of the Bible using two fingers. He did not lose heart.

I spoke to a friend over the weekend who has been facing health challenges beyond my imagination. Weeks in the hospital and a long, arduous road to recovery. He spoke to me about a sense of gratitude, and how God had much more in store for him. We spoke of mindfulness, and the powerful witness of Thich nhat hahn, who most famously said: “No mud. No lotus.” I love my friend a lot. He is a good friend, and a very good man. I asked how I could help him. He asked for a cartoon. I can do that. I asked how I could pray for him. He responded with a request for prayers for peace, and he again spoke of gratitude, the confidence that God had more in store.

How is that we see the gift of each day, even when the challenges seem overwhelming, like feeling compelled to translate the Bible when you only have use of two fingers? How can we grow in mindfulness? How can we preserve gratitude in the attitude, especially when life seems perilously unscripted? We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, maybe like  Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, or Malala Yousafzai, or brave medical folks attending to the needs of the sick in West Africa, running towards the danger, not away. I’m sure you know others who endure, who persist, who show courage, who do not lose heart, or in the language of St. Paul selected for tomorrow’s feast, who see today’s “slight momentary affliction” as preparation for an eternal weight of glory.

I’ve known a few, like the friend I mentioned. I thank God for the witness of those people in my life. They give me encouragement, which is to say that they give me courage. Is there someone in your life who does that for you? Thank God. Might you be that encouragement  for someone today, even in a small way?

- Jay Sidebotham

O God, in your providence you called Joseph Schereschewsky from his home in Eastern Europe to the ministry of the Church, and sent him to China, upholding him in his infirmity, that he might translate the Holy Scriptures into languages of that land. Lead us, we pray, to commit our lives and talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants any work to do, you also supply the strength to do it; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. -Collect for Joseph Schereschewsky’s Feast

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. -II Corinthians 4

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Jay SidebothamContact:

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