Monday Matters (November 28, 2022)


The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In coming days, Monday Matters will offer reflections on the prayers we say in church on Sunday, the collect of the day. We do this based on the conviction that praying shapes our believing, that what we pray forms us. We do this hoping that the prayers we say on Sunday will carry us through the week.

Turn to the Light

Happy new year!

We begin with grace, not a bad place to start. The prayer offered yesterday for the first Sunday of Advent (printed above) launches a new year in the church calendar. It says right up front that our dependence on grace is the heart of the matter. We rely on God’s free gifts, on love from which we can’t be separated. If we can remember that each day of this coming year, I suspect we’ll be in pretty good spiritual shape. And that gift of grace is just the start, as I channel the wisdom of Anne Lamott who described the mystery of grace as meeting us where we are but refusing to leave us there.

Truth be told, I often almost instinctively resist the foundational nature of grace. I often default to my own teeth-gritting Christianity, the belief that I’m going to arrive at spiritual health the old-fashioned way: I’ll earn it, thank you very much. For too much of the time, I’m not entirely certain that I need to rely solely on grace. After all, God is kind of lucky to have me on the team. So why do we need to ask for grace? The rest of yesterday’s prayer helps us find an answer.

It asks for the grace to cast away works of darkness. We need grace to say no to those things that are drawing us from the love of God. They come at us all the time, from all directions.

One of the great starting points in church life is baptism, when the person being baptized renounces those things, says no to them. The person being baptized is asked to renounce the spiritual forces at work in the universe, a recognition that we contend with powers greater than ourselves. We need grace for that contest. We’re also asked to renounce evil forces in the world, which we witness every day in every news outlet. Then here’s the kicker. Those forces aren’t just out there somewhere. They take up residence in each of our hearts. When G.K.Chesterton was asked to name the source of the problems in the world, he simply said: “I am.” We’re asked to renounce those powers inside of us.

It’s a lot to contend with. We are invited to shed those works of darkness, just as in the early days of the church, a baptismal candidate took off his or her old clothing, went into the water buck naked and came out to be clothed in new, clean white garments. But it’s not just about that to which we say “no.” It’s also about what we affirm.

That’s described in yesterday’s collect as taking on the armor of light, again implying a contest with forces that would threaten to undo us, to steal a phrase from Martin Luther. In baptism, taking on the armor of light can be described in three affirmations. We’re asked to turn to Jesus, to put our whole trust in God’s grace and love, to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. Turn. Trust. Follow. Not a bad program for the new year. We ask for the grace to set out on that new path. And a new year, a new church year is an excellent time to launch out in that way.

Use the quiet of the contemplative season of Advent to do some spiritual inventory, asking for the grace to take that inventory. It can be challenging work. Think about what you need to cast off. What you need to say no to. And think about what you might take on, as you try that armor of light on for size.

I lost a good friend last year, a spiritual advisor with sharp wit, deep faith, and a keen sense of the power of grace. When I’d get all wound up about what was wrong with the world or with the church or with my soul, he would calmly say: Turn to the light. That’s what we all get to do in this beautiful season of Advent.

-Jay Sidebotham

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RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

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Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
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Monday Matters (October 3, 2022)


What happens on Sunday morning is not half so important as what happens on Monday morning. In fact, what happens on Sunday morning is judged by what happens on Monday morning.

-Verna Dozier

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the 10 Commandments be posted in public buildings…I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”

-Kurt Vonnegut

Summing up the Sermon on the Mount

Now when Jesus had finished saying these words, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes.

-Matthew 7:28-29

The two verses printed above show how the gospel writer sums up the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon which has been the focus of these Monday reflections in recent days. There are two things I notice about this summation.

First, I notice that the gospel says that there were crowds that had been listening to Jesus’ astounding teaching. When the sermon was introduced (Matthew 5:1), it seems that Jesus had left those crowds to go to the mountaintop. It was just the disciples that he was teaching in this sermon. By the end of the sermon, the crowds were listening too. Does this matter? Maybe it’s not all that significant, but I take it to mean that the good news has a way of spreading to an ever growing audience. In fact, that is what it’s supposed to do.

I think of the great effect this sermon has had on the world in the time since Jesus first spoke on that mountain. Just one more indication that scripture has transformative power in helping people grow spiritually. Case in point: Leo Tolstoy read the sermon and it changed his life, causing him to take on a life of poverty. Mahatma Gandhi read what Tolstoy had said about the sermon, and it became a key part of his strategy of non-violence, which had liberating impact on the Indian sub-continent. Martin Luther King noted the ways that Gandhi had incorporated the sermon into his political strategy and applied those insights to the non-violent civil rights movement in this country. Again, transformation.

All of that points to the widening influence of this sermon, as it moved from the small audience of 12 disciples on the top of a middle-eastern mountain to change our world. My intent in spending recent months reflecting on this sermon is to see how that sermon can continue to shape our world, shape our individual lives, shape our church. My hope and prayer is that attention paid to each verse in these three chapters (Matthew 5-7) can help us grow, can help us share the good news of God’s love known to us in Jesus, our teacher.

The second thing I notice is the amazement of the crowd, their surprise at the authority Jesus exhibits (much more powerful than the clergy of the day). In many places in the gospels, people listen to Jesus, scratch their heads and say: “Where did he get all this? Where did he come from? How does he speak with such authority?” It raises the question of what we regard as authoritative. These days, we hear a lot about a rise in authoritarianism in our world. But as we note that rise, we may be facing a decline in an appreciation for authority. All kinds of authorities are faced with questioning.

When the gospel says that people thought Jesus was speaking with authority, I imagine them thinking: “This guy knows what he’s talking about.” I imagine them perceiving that Jesus is someone they could trust, someone worth following. I mean, what was it about Jesus that he could walk up to busy fishermen or tax collectors and say “Follow me” and they would get up and do it?

As I reflect on the Sermon on the Mount, there are a number of things that surprise me. Some things strike me as mysterious, border-line baffling. But as I read these words, I pick up on the authority with which Jesus teaches. It makes me inclined to say that the way of Jesus is the way I want to go. As the old hymn goes, I may not know what the future holds but I know who holds the future.

It’s been a gift to spend time reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, bit by bit. I hope that there have been edifying moments. Truth be told, a main reason for doing it was for my own edification, to see how I can draw closer to understanding what Jesus has to say to me today. I’m not entirely sure what comes next for Monday Matters. I’m thinking I’m going to take a few weeks off to think about that. But I trust that we can all continue to see how the way of love, the Jesus movement, intersects with our daily lives.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Monday Matters: September 26, 2022


How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you whom for refuge to Jesus have fled?

Fear not, I am with thee; oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake


Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
-Matthew 7:24-27

George Burns, comic from a few years back, put it this way: The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible. As a preacher, I take his point. And I have often had that point made to me as I stand at the door and greet congregants at the end of the service.

As we come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we note a good beginning (the Beatitudes) and a good ending (today’s passage about foundations). But contrary to what Mr. Burns has to say, there was plenty of good stuff in between. Life changing, history shaping material. At its conclusion, the Sermon on the Mount winds up with a challenge to think about our lives. On what are we building those lives? How would you describe the foundation on which you are building your life?

A priest I admire often tells his congregation that suffering is the promise that life always keeps. Maybe that’s a slightly more dire variation of the saying that into each life some rain must fall. The premise of Jesus’ counsel is that the rain and floods and wind will inevitably happen. That’s not in question. The question is how we will be sustained in those moments.

Are we founded on rock or sand? What would a foundation on rock look like? What does a foundation of sand represent? The great hymn, Christ is Made the Sure Foundation, speaks of a life that finds its stability, its strength in Christ. St. Paul spoke about the importance of being rooted and grounded in love. That stands in contrast to a life built on a foundation that can’t handle the storm and ultimately proves itself insufficient to meet the crisis. We don’t have to look far to find lives built on ever-shifting ground, offering perilous illusion of permanence and stability.

Take some time this week to re-read the whole Sermon on the Mount in one sitting. It’s three chapters (Matthew 5-7). The sermon starts strong, by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which has been translated “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” In the guidance that unfolds before the conclusion is reached, there are all kinds of ways to find a solid foundation. Despite what George Burns had to say, focus on the riches of those verses. Which of those ways speak out to you?

Years ago, when our family was going through a crisis, my mother sat us four kids down and made us begin to memorize the text of the hymn printed above. I thought it was kind of a dumb idea. But she was smarter than I am. Needless to say that was a few years ago. But over the years, the words of that hymn have sustained me, in everything from drizzling rain to torrential downpour to hurricane-force winds. May you find grace to discover a firm foundation, one upon which you can build a life, for this life and the next.

-Jay Sidebotham

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RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
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Monday Matters (September 19, 2022)


He does not believe that does not live according to his belief.

-Sigmund Freud

As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

 -Abraham Lincoln

The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I wore black because I liked it. I still do, and wearing it still means something to me. It’s still my symbol of rebellion — against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas.

         -Johnny Cash

Lord, Lord

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you who behave lawlessly.’
-Matthew 7:21-23

If a preacher like me is not made a little nervous by this passage, maybe enough attention is not being paid. We tend to talk a lot. We work hard at getting the words right. We say “Lord, Lord” in all kinds of ways. In all that chatter, are we doing the will of the Father in heaven?

Evangelicals often say that the key to salvation rests on saying the right thing, articulating just the right statement of faith. Other traditions place hope on words of liturgy said just the right way. I’ve run across preachers and teachers who talk about grace till they’re blue in the face, but practice a religion marked by judgment, ministry that is anything but graceful. Politicians promote religious values and then shape policy that contradicts it. It’s not hard to come up with a list of ways that people say “Lord, Lord” while living lives that say something else.

Perhaps the greater challenge is to think about what it means to do the will of the Father. It’s easy, fun, and often delicious, to point out the hypocrisy in other people (although I find it totally annoying when folks point it out in me). But the more pressing question, and the best way I know to battle hypocrisy is to ask: What do I know of what God wills? Am I focused on that?

I’m starting a list based on what I find in scripture. You may want to add your own ideas.

God wills unity. With divisions in so many parts of society, including those who might say “Lord, Lord,” the gospel of John reveals God’s intention. Jesus prays to his Father and asks that they (his followers) may be one “as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (John 17:21) Jesus doesn’t pray for uniformity or agreement. He prays for something more profound.

God wills healing and reconciliation. With brokenness of relationship on full display in families, neighborhoods, nations and even churches where people rattle off “Lord, Lord,” one of the key themes in the Lord’s Prayer is forgiveness. Many who say “Lord, Lord” can’t seem to let go of resentment (author included). I sense that the intention of the Holy One is that we move on, look forward, look up.

God wills thanksgiving. With widespread deficit of an attitude of gratitude, people who mindlessly repeat “Lord, Lord” often act as if God owes them something, as if God is lucky to have them on the team. I love the verse from the psalm that tells us what God intends: Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me (Psalm 50:24).

God wills inclusion of those on the edges. With migrants now heartlessly shipped around the country as chattel, often by folks who say “Lord, Lord”, a word from the book of Deuteronomy indicates the divine will: For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

God wills love of God and neighbor. Jesus called it the summary of the law. We express the love of God in worship (with our lips and with our lives). We have opportunity to express love of neighbor all the time, using Jesus’ expansive vision of neighborliness found in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The prophet Micah presented it as a three-point plan: What does the Lord require but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) Not a bad mission statement for my life.

God will trust, perhaps the ultimate expression of love of God. Too often, religious folks (the “Lord, Lord” crowd) act as functional atheists, relying on their own resources, their own righteousness. Proverbs 3:5 issues a different call: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

For me, that’s a gracious plenty to work on. While recognizing my own hypocritical behavior, I commit to focus on these holy intentions. How would you describe the will of the Father? How might you focus on that this week, and in the weeks to come?

-Jay Sidebotham

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RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

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Monday Matters (September 12, 2022)


I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:16-19

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Galatians 5:19-23

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:37-40

Fruits and roots

You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
-Matthew 7:16-20

James Forbes, former Senior Pastor at Riverside Church, one of the best preachers I ever encountered, put it this way in a sermon (as best I recollect): It’s about the fruits not the roots.

His point was that what matters is how a life is lived, whether the love of God is brought to fruition in that life. As we come to today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had just finished warning about false prophets, calling for discernment between what is true and what is false. That discernment, he seems to say, will come by looking at the fruits, not the roots. In a few verses, he will continue the theme by saying: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom.”

Too often, we want to focus on the roots. We do it in relationship to religion: What’s your theology? What’s your denomination? To what creed do you subscribe? We do it in other areas of life: Where did you go to school? What’s your zip code? What political party do you belong to? What news programs do you watch? Who are your people?

But our faith indicates that maybe the more important bit of info is not the roots but the fruits. St. Francis of Assisi famously told disciples: Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words. In so saying, he echoed Jesus’ teaching that people would know his followers by the way they showed love to one another. Fruits.

St. Paul wrote a letter to the Galatians, a church that had gotten him hopping mad. In that letter, he sets up a contrast between works of the flesh and fruits of the spirit. Note that he doesn’t talk about works of the spirit. He describes them as fruit. (You can see the list above.) Those fruits grow effortlessly, not the result of works, or what one person described as teeth-gritting Christianity. The fruits are an extension, a reflection, a natural expression of who that person is, someone who has come to know grace in such a deep way that they effortlessly show grace.

They may do so unconsciously. I think of the parable Jesus told later in the gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) about the contrast between sheep and goats brought before the king, who is the judge. The sheep are commended by the judge, because they fed the poor, visited the prisoner, clothed the naked. In so doing, they are told that they had offered those life-giving, loving, liberating ministries to the king himself. The amazing thing is, the sheep did so unconsciously. They ask: Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, sick, imprisoned?

This is not to say that roots don’t matter. A prayer found in the letter to the Ephesians (also above), speaks about the importance of being rooted and grounded in love. Out of that will come fruits that reflect God’s presence and power.

If we are rooted in a mindset that it is all up to us, that we have to prove our worth through our actions, intelligence, income, resume, religious practice, theological or political correctness, those kinds of roots produce fruits that set us apart from one another. Those kinds of roots diminish or even dismiss the power of grace in our lives.

If we are rooted in the love of God, we find our worth, our value, our dignity grounded in the amazing fact that we are made in the image of God and that Christ is present in each one of us and that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever. Those roots will then bear a whole different kind of fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control

Think this week about roots and fruits. Where are you grounded? How is that being expressed in your life? What kind of fruit are you bearing?

-Jay Sidebotham

Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort, or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
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Monday Matters (September 5, 2022)


As we give thanks for the life and ministry and witness of Frederick Buechner, and as we mourn his passing (such a loss), some of his thoughts on telling the truth:

Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in the silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job and Lear and Henry Ward Beecher and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.

from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

False prophets

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
-Matthew 7:15

One of my seminary professors, a mentor (and hero) named Christopher Morse wrote a book entitled “Not Every Spirit.” The title takes its cue from a New Testament passage (I John 4:1: Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.). In that book, he made the point that part of the journey of faith, part of the responsibility of Christians, part of the work of discipleship is to evaluate the spirits at work in the world. It presumes that some spirits work counter to God’s purposes, purposes of love. Those spirits can look innocent, wrapped in sheep’s clothing. Underneath there can be danger. Ravenous wolves.

Dr. Morse also talked about the Christian responsibility to commit not only to what we believe but also to what we refuse to believe. As an example, he noted how the theology of apartheid needed its spirit tested. Followers of Jesus needed to reject it. We can apply those principles to our own time. We need to test the spirits, when so much of current public discourse seeks to wrap itself in Christian cloak, or perhaps more precisely, in Christian costume.

It’s tricky stuff. As I think about who I consider to be false prophets, in my experience, it’s usually folks who differ from me on theological, political or social issues. With that in mind, I need to mention again the wisdom of Anne Lamott who said: You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. So what might be the way to tell the difference between true or false prophet? Perhaps more to the point, in a culture that increasingly distrusts institutions and often speaks of fake news and alternative facts, what is the truth? Would we know a false prophet if we met one?

The Gospel of John provides interesting answers. One of the most riveting moments in that gospel for me is the private exchange between Jesus and Pilate, right before the crucifixion. The conversation ends with Pilate’s question to Jesus: What is truth? Jesus seems like he lets the question hang out there, but he’s said a lot about truth already.

Earlier in that gospel, Jesus said you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. History shows that the message of false prophets often has the opposite effect. Curtailment of freedom stifles the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10.

In John 10, Jesus talks a lot about sheep, and who they follow. He contrasts himself, the good shepherd, to thieves and hired hands (a.k.a., false prophets). He invites followers into relationship with him, describing himself as the way, the truth and the life. He provides a guide to discernment. He said: By this will all people know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another. I was at a gathering recently where we sang: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” I got the idea of making a video, playing that song, showing images of Christians (and other religious folks) in our world who preach and practice anything but the love of God. You don’t have to look hard to find them. (For my part, a look in my mirror might well reveal one of those.). Want to help me make that video?

In the prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus the word is described as being full of grace and truth. We need both. The true prophet can provide both.

In my years in the church, I’ve met wonderful prophets. Some, for all their wonderfulness, have disappointed. Some have done harm, revealed to be ravenous. Which for me is all the more reason to do my level best to just hang out with Jesus, to savor his teaching, to follow his example, to celebrate and imitate his grace, to be in relationship with him (whatever that looks like). In my own journey, the eucharist taken regularly is a way to stick close. Rhythms of prayer and reflection on scripture do that. Service to those on the margin does that. What are the ways you do that? Let this week, the start of a new season, be a time to explore that question, to do that tricky and wonderful work of discernment.

-Jay Sidebotham

Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort, or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 29, 2022)


The story is told of Teresa of Avila, traveling around in missionary enterprise, falling off her cart when a wheel came off. She ended up sitting in a mud puddle, shaking her fist at heaven and saying: “God if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

– C. S. Lewis

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

– G. K. Chesterton

Jesus promised those who would follow his leading only three things: that they should be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.

People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.

– Alan Jacobs in Peter Wehner’s article in the Atlantic, Oct. 2021.

What makes it so difficult?

Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
-Matthew 7:13-14

So how do we square these words from Jesus with the church’s call to radical hospitality, wide open-armed welcome, come-as-you-are, nonjudgmental expressions of faith? What makes the gate narrow? Why is the road hard? Why do few find it? A few thoughts:

It can be hard to believe that grace is true, that at the heart of the universe is love when we are surrounded by callousness and cruelty. It can be even harder to act as if grace is true. We are conditioned to think that life and love are conditional. The notion of something given without condition turns our world upside down. (For Les Miz fans, here’s where Javert jumps off the bridge.) Many are not equipped for that new way of looking at life.

It can be hard, indeed a narrow path, to admit that we have not loved God with whole heart, soul and mind, that we have not loved neighbor as self. It’s easier to buy into the illusion that those shortcomings are not true about us. Maybe those other people, but not us. We don’t want to make amends, to acknowledge our part in the brokenness of relationships.

It can be hard, because the narrow path may call on us to get rid of distractions. That whole bit about the camel going through the eye of the needle suggests to me a camel loaded down with all kinds of possessions, blocking forward movement. Those possessions can possess us. It can be hard to travel light.

It can be hard because if we do embrace the way of love, the path of grace, that can annoy other people. The way of love upsets some people. They can’t stand the light. Jesus said that was true of the most religiously observant people of his day. They were his biggest opponents. In our own culture, as we try to walk in the way of love we may run into opposition, perhaps even from others who claim the name of Jesus.

It can be hard, few may find the hard path because while grace is free, discipleship comes with cost. In an article in the Atlantic (October, 2021), Peter Wehner comments on the state of American Christendom, noting how churches are falling short. He cites James Ernest, editor in chief at Eerdmans, a publisher of religious books “What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure…Catechism, the process of instructing and informing people through teaching, is the source of the problem…There is a great hollowness.”

“Culture catechizes,” said Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor University, interviewed for Wehner’s article. Culture teaches us what matters and what views we should take about what matters. Our current political culture, Jacobs argued, has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing (e.g., television, radio, social media). People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.

On the flip side, many churches aren’t interested in catechesis at all. They focus instead on entertainment, because entertainment is what keeps people in their seats and coins in the offering plate. As Jacobs points out, even pastors committed to catechesis get to spend, on average, less than an hour a week teaching their people. Sermons are short. Only some churchgoers attend adult-education classes, and even fewer attend Bible study and small groups. Cable news, however, is always on. “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week,” Jacobs asked, “and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out? That’s not a problem limited to the faithful on one side of the aisle. “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right,” Jacobs said.

All of which is to say that while grace is free, discipleship can be hard. It can be a narrow way. Have you found that to be true?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer framed it as the difference between costly and cheap grace: “Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

That costly discipleship sounds to me like the narrow gate, the way that is hard, maybe lonely. It’s no wonder that many people who heard what Jesus had to say drifted away. How will we walk that way this week? Can we believe it to be the way of life, even if it’s hard?

-Jay Sidebotham

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RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

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Monday Matters (August 22, 2022)


An Egyptian papyrus (from some time between 664-323 BCE) contains an early negative affirmation of the Golden Rule: “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”

In the Mahabharata, the ancient epic of India, the sage Brihaspati tells the king Yudhishthira: “One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self.”

In the Book of Virtue of the Tirukkarai (c. 1st century BCE to 5th century CE), we read: “Do not do to others what you know has hurt yourself.”

Plato said: “May I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me.”

From Zoroastrian texts (c. 300 BCE – 1000 CE): “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.”

Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE – 65 CE), in an essay on the treatment of slaves: “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.”

Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation; go and learn.”

Sirach 31:15 “Recognize that your neighbor feels as you do, and keep in mind your own dislikes.”

Nike: “Just do it.”

Accept that you are accepted

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
-Matthew 7:12

What makes the golden rule golden?

For starters, it’s golden because it’s not just a Christian rule. It’s wisdom that has surfaced over centuries and across continents, offering deep spiritual truth on display in examples listed above. It’s a golden reminder of the bonds of the human family, affirming that what we have in common outshines the ways we differ. It’s a message we need to hear these days.

It’s golden because it recognizes that religion is fundamentally about relationship. It’s not about rules. It’s ultimately about how we treat each other.

It’s golden because it’s simple. Like the command to love God and love neighbor. Having said that it’s simple does not mean it’s easy. But it provides a pretty quick and easy test for how we’re interacting in the world, in families, at work, in churches, in traffic, in airport security lines, on social media. Or as Jesus said, in everything.

It’s golden because it invites compassionate imagination. Karen Armstrong, interfaith scholar, has said that compassion is the religious virtue common to all world religions. Compassion literally means “suffering with” or “suffering along side.” That calls for getting outside of our bubble and imagining life from another person’s point of view. That’s a challenge standing before each one of us. Think about the person that really bugs you, or worse. What do you know of the circumstances of their lives? What do you know of their story? What motivates them?

If we can’t arrive at answers to those questions through our own imagination, perhaps we’re called to enter into conversation with those folks, those outside of our communities of agreement. It’s a way of living into our baptismal promises that call us to seek Christ in all persons (Really? All?) and to respect the dignity of every human being (Really? Every?). What can we learn that we didn’t know before? When I think about how I want to be treated, I don’t need everyone to agree with me. I do desire that people listen to me. Shouldn’t I offer that to others?

In all of this, it helps to remember a golden rule from Dorothy Day: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

Jesus’ teaching is golden because as Jesus said and as Rabbi Hillel said, all of the law (and the prophets for that matter) are summed up in this principle. The Hebrew Scriptures detailed more than 600 instructions. Many of them were reflections of the culture of the day, now seeming to be irrelevant or occasionally repugnant. But this thing about considering how we would want to be treated is timeless, not at all culture bound.

You may think of other reasons why this rule has been called golden. I suspect that the important thing to do is to see our interactions through this lens, to run them through this filter, to make them pass this test: Would I want to be treated the way I’m treating this person? Take this week as an opportunity to grow in this way of seeing. It’s a daily practice, one we need to put to work in all things, and as a practice, something that we get better at the more we do it.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 15, 2022)


Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in  the Lord and do good; live in the land and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 37:1-4

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?… Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.

-Paul Tillich from The Shaking of the Foundations

Accept that you are accepted

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone? Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him
-Matthew 7:9-11

What is your image of God? Where did that come from? Is it good news or bad news?
There are a host of forces in our world that tell us we’re not enough. Not competent enough. Not smart enough. Not attractive enough. Not rich enough. Not spiritual enough. If you’ve never heard those voices, God bless you. You are fortunate.For the rest of us, a big part of the spiritual journey is reckoning with those voices, navigating the times when we refute or affirm them, when we do our level best to tune them out with any number of distractions, some of which can morph into behaviors that are not good for us.

Sometimes we imagine those voices come not only from people and institutions around us. We sometimes imagine that those voices are God speaking to us. We sometimes imagine a God who gives us stones when we need bread, snakes instead of fish. There’s a lot of religion based on that notion of God. (Read Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hand of an angry God” if you’re looking for an example.)

But the good news of the gospel, if we have the courage to embrace it, is that God accepts us where we are (even if our own parents/community/church won’t). The good news of the gospel, if we have the courage to embrace it, is that God seeks our good, a God in the business of turning stones into bread and not the other way around. Like a loving parent, not a bully or a boss. The good news of the gospel, repeated throughout scripture, is that God is love.
While human beings in moments of depravity can fail to do good to their own children, or even seek to harm them, there is (I believe, or at least hope) a basic sense that a parent seeks the best for the child. Many parents will do anything for their children. That kind of expansive love gives us a glimmer of the love God has for all of creation, for all people.

So if we can wrap our minds around that, how does that change us?

First, in the context of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount it means that we can be free to ask for what we desire. Psalm 37 has become a favorite guide for me. I’ve included portions of it above. It speaks of God’s intention to fulfill our desires. God wishes for us to know joy.

Second, it means that we can move away from fear-based religion. So much religion, in the Christian tradition, and in others, envisions God just waiting for us to mess up, ready to hurl thunderbolts when we step out of our lane, relishing in suffering inflicted on us. Fear is a motivator and can keep us in line, for sure. But Jesus came to show us another way, stretching out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into his saving embrace with a message that perfect love casts out fear. It can be difficult to hear that good word. The voices that tell us we’re not enough can drown it out. But if we can dare to believe it, it changes us. And those around us.

Third and finally, it means that we can be free to show grace as we come to know grace. My experience tells me that people who are animated by fear-based religion end up inflicting that on others, entering into a judgmental frame of mind. Similarly, those animated by grace, who know on some deep level that they have been accepted, can extend that acceptance to others as well.

We live in a grace-starved world, that needs to know God gives us bread, not stones. When we believe that, even just a little bit, we can share it. How might you do that this Monday?

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 8, 2022)

O, what peace we often forfeit.
O, what needless pain we bear.
All because we do not carry.
Everything to God in prayer.
-From the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”


The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
-Soren Kierkegaard


“Help” is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray–with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, “Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.”
-Anne Lamott


Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?
-Corrie Ten Boom

Take it to the Lord in prayer

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
-Matthew 7:7,8

Truth be told, the longer I’m at this business of faith exploration, the more mysterious prayer seems to me. I so appreciate that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, They needed help. Me too.

I feel like I spend a fair amount of time praying, or at least trying to clear my monkey mind so that I can pray. Truth be told, I know I’m often just mulling things over in my mind, a conversation with myself. I sometimes wonder if my prayers go higher than the ceiling. I can forget that my prayers are addressed to someone.

For that reason, I’m grateful for teachers like Thomas Keating, a monk and priest who helped people focus on centering prayer in a world that is definitely off kilter. He spoke of the importance of the contemplative life, of a prayer life, of placing one’s self in the presence of God. Keating cited St. Teresa of Avila who wrote: “All difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause: praying as if God were absent.” Keating adds: “This is the conviction that we bring with us from early childhood and apply to everyday life and to our lives in general. It gets stronger as we grow up, unless we are touched by the Gospel and begin the spiritual journey. This journey is a process of dismantling the monumental illusion that God is distant or absent.”

From another branch of Christendom, I’m mindful of the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus.” It talks about taking it to the Lord in prayer, about the peace we often forfeit because we don’t pray.

Jesus not only taught about prayer, how to do it and how not to do it. (We saw that early in the Sermon on the Mount.) He also modeled a life of prayer by stealing off for times of quiet conversation with God, the one he called Abba or Father, especially at key moments like the night before he called disciples and the night before he was put on trial.

One could easily interpret the teaching on prayer in today’s verses to say that we will get whatever we want, that prayer is like a blank check or three wishes from Aladdin’s lamp. Prayers are not like calling DoorDash and getting a delivery of what you want. God is not valet. But prayer does have the power to change us. And it can change the world.

What I’ve come to love about the people who have taught me about prayer (Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr) is that their focus on contemplation, on a life of prayer, on attentiveness to God’s voice in no way ignores the problems of the world and things that need to get done, the healing that needs to happen. It’s neither pie in the sky, nor retreat.

Rather, the contemplative focus equips people to contribute to the transformation of our world. I think of how Martin Luther King insisted that those participating in demonstrations have daily prayer and bible reading, When John Lewis was attacked on that bridge in Alabama, getting in good trouble, he had a backpack that included the Bible and a book of meditations by Howard Thurman.

So I’m thinking that when we pray, we place ourselves in God’s presence. We may not get what we ask for, which in many cases is a blessing. But we will be changed. Doors will be opened. And we will be brought into a new relationship with God, neighbor and even self. And by amazing grace, our world will be changed.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.