Monday Matters (September 26, 2016)

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Setting intention

In conversation with one of the presenters at the conference we’re hosting next month, a conference about discipleship, that presenter asked a question. Do we have a working definition of the word “discipleship”? The truth is, I had not felt called to arrive at just one understanding, either out of trust that folks would bring their own vision, or out of poor planning, or out of sloth.

What does the word mean to you?

As we talked, I shared how a mentor had linked discipleship with intentionality. I’ve thought that it might be good, for a season, to replace the word “discipleship” with the word “intentionality.” The old church song which begins “I have decided to follow Jesus” came to mind.

Intentionality as spiritual activity shows up in many religious traditions. Around the globe, people speak of being awake. People speak of mindfulness. On the yoga mat, one sets an intention for the practice. (For me, that is often the intention to make it to the end of the class.) Thomas Keating wrote: “In centering prayer, the sacred word is not the object of the attention but rather the expression of the intention of the will.” When we counsel with a couple contemplating marriage, we ask them to sign a declaration of intention, a key milestone in the spiritual journey. Intentionality is key to the spiritual journey.

Consider these witnesses:

In the 18th century, Anglican priest William Law wrote about the early church in his book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: “It was the general intention to please God in all things that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety.”

In that same century, William Wilberforce published a piece called A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. Great title, huh? Wilberforce, whose intentionality led to the abolition of slavery in England, knew about the call and cost of discipleship. He noted discrepancy between religious observance in his day and a call to a deeper intentionality.

More recently, G. K. Chesterton said that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.

Gandhi, who observed the way Christianity was practiced in Great Britain, noted that if only Christians would live according to their belief in the teachings of Jesus, “we would all become Christians.’ From outside the Christian tradition, he noted a lack of intentionality.

You get the idea. This kind of intentionality has, for most of Christian history, been a growth opportunity. It remains so, at least in my life. So let me make this Monday morning suggestion:

Set your intention, just for this day. Imagine how this day might be a day of following Jesus a bit more closely, in some way. And if at the end of the day, upon review, you feel it has made a difference, then try it the next day. And the day after that.

-Jay Sidebotham

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
-Albert Schweitzer
 
 
Many of these thoughts on intentionality (including this quote from Dr. Schweitzer) were brought to mind as I read an essay called “Transformation of the Mind” by Dallas Willard. It first appeared in the Spring 2003 Arbor University Journal

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

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

Monday Matters (September 19, 2016)

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Grace and mercy

Last week, I showed up at the rental car counter, traveling to give a talk about RenewalWorks. I could tell that the woman behind the counter had had a long day. I was sporting my clerical collar, and when she figured out I was clergy, cranky demeanor gave way to a smile. (Sometimes the reverse happens.) She told me she was from a long line of preachers, that she had a degree in divinity, that this job was interim, that she was looking forward to a ministry in the pulpit.

She asked if I was off to preach the word. I said I was, that I would do so as best I could. (Okay, I confess I kind of hoped that based on my answer she might give me a discount, or upgrade me to a black Saab convertible. Didn’t happen.)

Then she asked: And what’s the word you will preach? I gave the answer that popped into my head: grace. I thought it was pretty good that I could come up with something to respond to an unexpected question. But she decided to correct me. She said the word she preferred was mercy.

It got me thinking about mercy and grace, how those two things are alike and how they differ. One commentator said that grace is a matter of receiving what we have not deserved. Mercy is not receiving what we may have deserved. Grace as gift, unmerited favor. Mercy as forgiveness. They’re in the same neighborhood for sure, but not quite the same.

On Wednesday this week, we observe the feast of St. Matthew, tax collector shown mercy by Jesus. He answers Jesus’ call: “Follow me.” (The story of his call is below.) After he answers Jesus’ call, Matthew and Jesus hang out, socialize, fraternize with a bad crowd. Jesus gets criticized by good church folk for doing this. Imagine! He responds to those folks by taking a page from the Hebrew scriptures (Hosea 6:6) saying that what God desires is mercy not sacrifice.

So what does it mean to show mercy and what does it mean to show grace? If we see ourselves in Matthew’s story, if we hear a call to follow Jesus, then part of what we are called to do is to do what Jesus did. To show grace. To show mercy.

Even my dogs know about the fairness index. They get put out of sorts if one of them gets more than the other. When Jesus calls for mercy and grace, it seems to me he’s saying that we need to abandon fixation on the fairness index as guide for our interactions. What is important is grace. What is important is mercy. The woman at the rental car place and I can disagree about which is more significant, but we probably each have a lot of growth opportunity, a lot of room, a lot of space to offer both.

Grace can be a random act of kindness. An over-generous tip. A word of thanks to somebody who never gets recognized.

Mercy can be a moment of compassion. A decision to walk in someone else’s shoes. A determination to listen and understand before speaking and critiquing. Basically cutting someone some slack.

This Monday, where will God open the door for you to show mercy, to show grace?

We can’t show grace and mercy unless we know grace and mercy. Where and when have you experienced grace and mercy? Give thanks and praise this morning for Jesus who comes to us with the grace of unmerited favor and with mercy marked by compassion.

-Jay Sidebotham

And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
-from the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer
 
 
Matthew 9:9-13
 
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

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

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

Monday Matters (September 12, 2016)

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9/12

One day after observance of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, think with me about the meaning of 9/12. The date invites us to consider how we move forward in the wake of things beyond our understanding, to live lives tempered with uncertainty, mystery, loss, sorrow, fear. That’s the challenge of 9/12. My own recollections of Manhattan in the days after 9/11 remind me of that challenge, and remind me specifically of how much we didn’t know.

I remember watching TV at the midtown church where I served. As we saw towers fall, Rabbi Lenny Schoolman, who served on our staff, said that the world would never be the same. Right then, I didn’t really know what he meant.

Several staff members didn’t know where their spouses were all day, didn’t hear from them until late at night. We tiptoed around their not-knowing, because we didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know that it would be fine.

Several days later, a woman called the church to arrange a funeral. She didn’t know what to do because she hadn’t heard from her husband. I told her that we at the church had no precedent for this either. Small comfort, in retrospect.

A man came to my office, the only American employed by a Japanese firm of 15 people. Twelve had died. He survived, and answered the call to represent the families who did not speak English. I was told it was their custom that you could not have a funeral if you did not have a body. We didn’t really know what to do.

We worked around the corner from a fire station which lost nine firemen. Not knowing what to do for them, after Sunday evening service, we had a candlelight vigil to the firehouse. We thanked them. We prayed with them. We gave them home baked cookies.

We did a service for a wealthy businessman. Out of respect to his unchurched family, honoring his agnosticism, the liturgy was shaped to remember someone who was not a person of faith. When we were criticized by “good church folk” for not being religious enough, I didn’t know how to respond.

We did a funeral for two homeless men who had worked in the towers collecting recycling. They were part of a ministry that gave homeless people employment. But we didn’t know how to reach any of their family members. We barely knew their names.

Corporations asked us to provide interfaith services for groups of employees. We had never been asked by a corporation to do any kind of religious service. That was uncharted territory.

We did a service for a policeman whose two young children sat in the front row and looked at me as if I would have an answer because I wore a clerical collar.

Now more than ever, we may not know how to move forward in the face of challenges. They can be private, personal. They can affect all of us. Our tradition, our Prayer Book knows that, so in the Burial Office we read the prayer printed below. We face the challenge of a September 12 world, in which we are called to faithfulness in the wake of all kinds of tragedy, in the wake of dangerously broken relationships. When we can’t understand, we withstand. When we can’t explain, we proclaim. Liturgy, sacrament, tradition, scripture, community sustain in inexplicable, mysterious ways. I’m grateful that is true.

When the Pope says that there is no such thing as a stationary Christian, part of what he may mean is that in all circumstances we are called to move forward, with love in the heart, trusting in the one from whose love we can never be separated. We may not know what the future holds, but we know the one who holds the future.

-Jay Sidebotham

One day, years ago, my daughter told me after church that when I stood at the altar with my hands outstretched, it looked like I was shrugging and saying: “I don’t know.”
 
Help us, we pray, in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting. Amen.
-from the Burial Office in the Book of Common Prayer
 
 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
-Romans 8:37-39
 
 
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
-I Corinthians 13

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

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

Monday Matters (September 5, 2016)

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Labor Day

Only a few national holidays have found their way into the liturgical calendar. Today is one of them, along with Thanksgiving and Independence Day. Labor Day invites reflection on the ways our faith informs our common life. It has led me to reflect this morning on the intersection of faith and work.

It’s not exactly a new subject, because some years ago, I was privileged to be part of a monthly discussion group called Faith@Work. It was led by a few able parishioners who had spent time reflecting on values they brought to the workplace. I always regarded these leaders as on the front lines, while clergy were somewhat cloistered, sheltered. The group, as it reflected on intersection of Sunday and Monday, invited folks from the wider community who had wrestled with these issues to be our teachers.

For one session, Harry Kraemer was invited to speak. Mr. Kraemer is a business leader and teacher of note. I was struck with how seriously he took his faith, how he had developed daily spiritual practices to keep him on track, integrating faith and work. He shared his insights in a book called From Values to Action in which he articulated four principles which I think apply to each one of us, whatever our work situation may be.

1. Self reflection: The ability to reflect and identify what you stand for, what your values are and what matters most.

So let me ask: In what ways do you reflect on the values that matter most to you, your core values, values of the heart? How does such reflection shape your work? Maybe the gift of a day off will afford some time to do that.

2. Balance and perspective: The ability to see situations from multiple perspectives, including differing viewpoints to gain a holistic understanding.

So let me ask: This week, how can you try to look from another point of view or gain a broader view?

3. True self-confidence: Enabling you to accept yourself as you are, recognizing your strengths and weaknesses and focusing on continuing improvement.

So let me ask: What’s your vision of self-confidence? Does it include a willingness to accept that you are accepted, giving thanks for gifts while acknowledging growth opportunities?

4. Genuine humility: The ability never to forget who you are, to appreciate the value of each person in the organization and to treat everyone respectfully.

So let me ask: Who in your life gives opportunity this week to express gratitude and appreciation?

Whatever your work in the world, whether you get paid for it or not, whether you are a leader or not, whether you like it or not, consider these four principles. This Labor Day, offer the prayer our church has crafted for the day (below). Notice the themes in that prayer: Our lives are linked to others. Our work is not just for ourselves. We are to be mindful of aspirations of others. We are to remember those who are out of work, the underemployed, those who are in painfully boring jobs, all in keeping with the principles outlined by Mr. Kraemer.

And read the passage from the Sermon on the Mount selected for today, Jesus’ invitation to reflect on what we treasure, what we value. Take time on this holiday to think about where you give your heart, and how your values can be put into action, how they can be put to work.

-Jay Sidebotham

The Collect for Labor Day
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also….No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Matthew 6

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

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

Monday Matters (August 29, 2016)

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Sunday School lessons

In a week when presidential candidates focused on racial divides, I joined a study group based on Jim Wallis’ book about racism in America. The book is called America’s Original Sin. As I read and reflected, I came away with the feeling that we’re all implicated in the complex of racial division. Said another way, we all have a story to tell. Jim Wallis invites readers to reflect on those stories. I found that the news of the day, the call of our Presiding Bishop to focus on racial reconciliation, and this challenge by Jim Wallis combined to cause me to reflect on early memories of Sunday School, of all things. No offense to my Sunday School teachers, but there’s not a lot I remember from those classes, except watching the clock. I do remember this:

I was about 12 years old. Each person in our Sunday School class, meeting at a church in a New York suburb, got a magazine, a small aspiring-to-be-hip publication for young teens. I remember one particular issue. It included an article by J. Edgar Hoover of all people. It made such an impact that long before I got into graphic design for a living, and many decades hence, I can still picture the layout of that 2 page spread.

In that article, Hoover wrote to this church audience, which I presume was assumed to be predominantly receptive to his message, about the danger Martin Luther King, Jr. posed to our nation. (This article was published before Dr. King made his fateful trip to Memphis.) I remember the claim, not uniquely held by the former Director of the FBI, that Dr. King was a tool of communists, that his Christianity was a front for something sinister and unpatriotic, that he was a person devoid of moral fiber. I remember the vitriolic tone, which might make current candidates blush (or not).

Even at that young clueless age (as opposed to my present older clueless age), I thought if I had to pick between J. Edgar Hoover and Dr. King, I’d go with Dr. King. I wondered what editorial staff called Hoover and said: We need help with Christian formation. I was confused as to why we were reading this in Sunday School. That article shifted something for me, sending early warning signals that I might not belong in that church. I regard it as a milestone in my migration to another tradition, since that article seemed to have little to do with the Jesus movement (to use a phrase floating around the Episcopal Church these days). As I’ve reflected on that article, and the fact that I remember it after all these years, I thought about what a mentor told me. He said: When working with young people in formation of faith, the first and foremost duty is to fulfill the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.

We’ve come distance from the publication of that article. We’ve learned more about Mr. Hoover, now diminished in public perception. We’ve come to regard Martin Luther King as one of the great figures of the last century. Not a perfect human being (who is?) but one worthy of honor, maybe reverence as his work in the world was shaped by the Sermon on the Mount. I’m struck that in most towns of any size around the country, north and south, you now find a Martin Luther King Boulevard, in communities where in another time he might have been arrested for walking on that street. I also recognize as I read this book, and watch the news, and examine my heart, that there is distance to go.

Yesterday, in church, we began our liturgy by praying that we come to know true religion. What do you think true religion is? That prayer is below, along with excerpts from scripture we read yesterday. Those scriptures call us to new ways to think about our life in the world. True to the spirit of Jesus, they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

I believe we are called as disciples as part of our spiritual practice to pastor the community. That begins with introspection, as we consider where we can grow in love of God and neighbor, those two things inseparable. That becomes a broader view, where we explore the brokenness of our world and ask how we may have participated in it. And then we ask, we hope and we pray about how we might contribute to the healing of the world, and of course, how we might teach our children well. It’s amazing what they will remember.

-Jay Sidebotham

The Collect read in church yesterday:
 
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 
 
From the Epistle to the Hebrews:
 
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all…Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.
 
 
From the Gospel of Luke:
 
Jesus said: For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

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

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

Monday Matters (August 22, 2016)

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Being Ananias

I try to read some of the Bible each day. Sometimes I don’t get much out of it. Other times characters come to life and stir my imagination. That happened when I read about Ananias last week.

His name came up in the daily readings as our lectionary makes its way through the New Testament book of the Act of the Apostles. That book tells the story of the early church. If the book were a movie, Ananias would not even be considered for supporting actor. He gets a cameo role at best. He fails to qualify for Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. You get the idea. But without him, or someone like him, the story of the church would be really different.

Here’s a recap of his story which you can find below. Ananias lived in Damascus, at the end of the road where Saul (henceforth referred to as Paul) had a dramatic conversion experience. On that road, Paul became a penitent former-persecutor of Jesus (which is one definition of a Christian, according to the theologian James Alison). Paul was struck blind in the conversion process and stumbled his way into town, where he starts praying. Ananias hears a call from God to go and bring healing to Paul. Ananias wonders if the call is a wrong number, as is true in many biblical accounts of call stories. Ananias knows of Paul’s reputation as someone out to get Christians. It was not safe to be around Paul. Ananias could not believe Paul could be changed. But God’s voice spoke of Paul’s mission. So when God told Ananias to go, Ananias went. He prays with Paul, helps him regain his sight, baptizes him, welcomes him into the community.

I don’t think we hear about Ananias again. But he’s been on my mind and in my imagination. I sense he has lessons for me this Monday morning. Maybe they’ll resonate with you as well:

Ananias says “Here am I.” Somewhere in his inner being there was a willingness to be of service, even if he has no idea what that would look like. In what sense can I say “Here am I” today?

He listened for God’s voice. Somehow he was paying attention enough to hear God ask him to do something totally counter-intuitive. What would it look like if I was that spiritually attentive today? How can I pay more attention? Some call it mindfulness.

He changed his own mind. At first, he was not open to going, but he was on some level a learner. Where do I find the courage and humility to recognize that a course correction might be in order?

He believed Paul could change, or at least, be changed. Do I deny the possibility that others can change? Or is it just easier for me to slot folks into categories?

He is willing to see possibility, no matter how unlikely that potential was. Do I have the trust and the courage to see a threshold where most people see a dead end?

He welcomes Paul, providing a pathway for Paul’s inclusion in the community. He could have tried to get revenge. He could have savored resentment. It was within his rights. He could have set up litmus tests. He could have stood in the way. But he opened the door. Where am I being called to that kind of ministry?

The fact that we know little about Ananias allows us to wonder, in a way that challenges our faith this morning. His story calls us to think about how we might be useful in someone else’s life, for God’s sake.

Who are the people who have been like Ananias for you?

Is there a way that you can be Ananias for somebody today?

-Jay Sidebotham

From Acts 9:
 
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

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

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

Monday Matters (August 15, 2016)

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I have the privilege of officiating at a wedding at the end of this week. It got me thinking about my favorite wedding stories. I’ve got a bunch of them. (A collection will be published upon my retirement.) Here’s one, a kind of a parable:

Before the wedding, I had a long conversation with the photographer, occasional nemesis of officiating clergy. Let’s just say that their mission often differs from the mission of the officiant. We agreed that the photographer would stand in the side aisle, near the back of the sacred space, not move around, not distract from the liturgy.

The procession occurred, a gathering of handsome young people making their way to the chancel steps. I delivered the opening words of the liturgy, several paragraphs about the meaning of marriage. As I delivered them with compelling sincerity, I became aware of a presence looming over my left shoulder. I heard the rapid-fire, digital clicking of a camera. The photographer had moved to stand right behind me, inches away to catch the faces of the couple close up. With him in my personal space, the liturgy continued.

As I invited the congregation to be seated for the readings, I beckoned the photographer to meet me “off stage” in the ambulatory where I proceeded to lose it, expletives included. I was mad. He agreed that he would abide by our agreement for the rest of the service.

I took deep breaths after my tirade, listened for the conclusion of the readings and reached into my pocket to turn my mike back on. Wait a minute. Had it been on throughout my tirade? I wasn’t sure. Had the congregation heard me holler at this guy? How would I know? I couldn’t really ask the congregation, now, could I? What were my options? I could leave. No. that won’t work. I decided that when I returned to the worship space, I would make eye contact with the mother of the bride. If she was smiling, I was okay. If not, I knew Starbucks was hiring.

Turns out I had indeed turned off the mike. The congregation had not heard me cuss. I proceeded to offer my sweet homily about the power of love in human relationships. In my mind, I was still fuming.

This story took place a while ago. But it comes back to me often, a parable with numerous spiritual lessons. I reflect on it, mindful of how close I came to a career ending moment, one that these days would go viral. On one level, there were no winners in my showdown with the photographer. He remains in my mind a jerk, though I’ve forgotten his name. More memorable is the awareness of my own hypocrisy. I almost expected to be struck by lightning as in my homily I rambled on about God’s love.

The story continues to teach me. Here’s one lesson: When people talk to me about the failures of the church, they often say that they can’t be part of church because it’s filled with hypocrites. All I can say (based on this wedding story, and others) is: Guilty as charged. Yet the work of the church goes on. The homily I preached about God’s love got preached, even though the preacher didn’t know enough about that love and was limited in ability to show that love. Maybe in some ironic way, the fraudulence of the preacher underscored the depth of God’s love and mercy and forbearance and grace. Let’s call it accidental preaching.

As I’ve noted before, a church leader I admire has said that he never met a motive that wasn’t mixed. Your spiritual journey and mine, both are marked by mixed motive. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if in each one of us there could be found some measure of hypocrisy.

But we can still proclaim love. On this very Monday. And we should do so in word and action. And we should not be so ego-driven and self-absorbed to allow our own lapses to stop us from doing that. After all, the good news is about God’s faithfulness, not our own.

-Jay Sidebotham

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
-Ephesians 2:8-10
Hypocrites in the Church? Yes, and in the lodge and at the home. Don’t hunt through the Church for a hypocrite. Go home and look in the mirror. Hypocrites? Yes. See that you make the number one less.
-Billy Sunday
Not going to church because of hypocrites is like not going to the gym because of out of shape people.
-found on Facebook

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

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

Monday Matters (August 8, 2016)

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Years ago, in my ministry as parish priest, I was charged with design of a new worship service to be held on Sunday nights. It was meant to be innovative, distinct from traditional Sunday morning services. People would be encouraged to dress casually. The mood would be informal. Sermons would be conversational. We would streamline the liturgy. Music would be eclectic. We would bill it as contemporary.

It took discernment, praying and planning over several months. We weren’t exactly sure how it would unfold, so we did a trial service, a dress rehearsal. I remember the date: October 10. There were a lot of rough edges that night. The service went way too long. Some things were confusing to worshippers. Some seemed kind of cheesy.

So after that first service, we met during the week, made adjustments and offered the liturgy again the next Sunday night, October 17, our official debut. It went better, with notable differences from the first night. I was pleased with it. Pleased until I was greeted at the end of the service by angry worshippers: “That’s not how we did it last week.”

It took one week, one service to forge immutable tradition. It reminded me that we are creatures of habit. How quickly we form patterns of ritual! We’re not wild about change.

Two days ago, we observed the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s a story about change, told in the passage from Luke in the column on the left. Jesus with his best buddies Peter, James and John head to the mountaintop. Something happened up there, something glorious and awesome (in the true sense of the word). It’s scary and wonderful. Jesus gets all radiant (Think Steven Spielberg). Moses and Elijah appear with him (though I’m not sure how the disciples recognized those guys. Nametags?).

Peter, unfettered mouthpiece for the disciples and all of us, thinks it’s grand. He says to Jesus: “Let’s fix this moment in time. We’ll build a shelter, a home, a museum, a religious theme park for you and Moses and Elijah on top of the mountain.” A cloud from heaven intervenes, suggesting that while the moment was indeed marvelous, it was not meant to be fixed in time. The disciples were meant to move.

There are a lot of directions a preacher could go with this story. To me, on this Monday, the story says that in life, in the spiritual journey, nothing is certain but change. We can’t stay where we are. As Pope Francis said in a homily: There is no such thing as a stationary Christian. We may be blessed with extraordinary epiphanies, moments of insight and awe. They are not destinations. They are instruments, leading to the new thing that God has for us, sending us into the world to do God’s work.

This Monday morning, listen to your life. Think about the new thing God might have in store for you. Imagine it. Prepare for it. Are you open to it? It may be a change of circumstances, heading down from the mountain. It might be an interior shift, a movement of the heart, involving forgiveness and healing and grace. We worship a God whose business is apparently to make things new. What will that look like in your journey? Pray for the grace to welcome the new thing God intends. It’s all part of the spiritual adventure.

-Jay Sidebotham

Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
-John 3:3, a portion of today’s reading from the Daily Office
 
 
Change is good. You go first.
-Dilbert
 
 
It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. 
-C. S. Lewis
 
 
Luke 9:28-36
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” -not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

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

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

Monday Matters (August 1, 2016)

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Maybe it comes with the job. I couldn’t help but notice the ways people prayed at both political conventions. There was a good deal of what I call horizontal praying going on. What do I mean by horizontal praying? Though the message is bracketed with a “Dear God” and an “Amen,” it’s really meant to make a point with those hearing the prayer, for example, the prayer at the dinner table: “Dear God, help my sibling, spouse, parent, child to stop being such a jerk. Amen.”

In the past two weeks at the conventions, I heard some beautiful prayers. I also heard some prayers I thought were really political speeches. Some seemed manipulative. A few seemed heretical. After a long time of trying to sort through the nexus of faith and politics, I am finding this election cycle distinctively vexing and perplexing. How about you?

To address my vexed perplexity, I started reading a new book by Miraslov Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz. I confess that Dr. McAnnally-Linz was new to me, but I’ve admired Dr. Volf for many years. His experience as a political prisoner in Eastern Europe, an ordeal he survived with hope and joy intact, gives him lots of credibility, in my humble opinion. He knows a lot about grace.

Their new book is called Public Faith in Action. The two authors move through a number of key issues for our day, offering ethical questions for the reader to consider, suggesting ways that faith might inform these issues, gracefully recognizing that we as disciples live in a world marked by ambiguity. Noting that Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven, the authors suggest that the message of Jesus cannot be separated from our life in political community. We have a public faith. For that reason, I’m hoping their insights will help me make it to election day. We’ll see.

I was struck with one passage in particular. Authors describe the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s, specifically preparations for marchers in Birmingham in 1963. The Southern Christian Leadership organized training for marchers. In order to be permitted to be part of the march, each volunteer had to sign a “commitment card,” promising among other things to do the following:

  1. To pray each day
  2. To meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus
  3. To walk and talk in the manner of love.

In other words, according to the authors, “public engagement with Jesus Christ as the center and norm calls not only for commitment to following Christ, but also for the formation of a certain kind of character.”

This election season calls us to explore public faith in action. We could do worse than to follow the three steps on that commitment card. (I can pray that candidates for political office do the same. Is that a horizontal prayer?) What spiritual practices would be helpful to you, as you think about your public life? What would it mean to have our character as Christians who are also citizens, citizens who are also Jesus-followers, shaped by spiritual practices, backed by spiritual action, offered in a spirit of love.

What would you put on a commitment card?

-Jay Sidebotham

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
-Matthew 6:33
 
Christian faith has an inalienable public dimension. Christians aren’t Christ followers just in their private and communal lives; they are Christ’s followers in the public and political lives as well. Christ must be the center and norm for Christian engagement because Christ and his Spirit are at work, not just in our hearts, families and churches, but also in our nations and the entire world.
 
Jesus’ life and message are unmistakably public, even political, though not in the usual sense of the term. After all, the core of Jesus’ preaching is that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). Whatever else it might be, kingdom is surely a political term….The book of Revelation portrays the final advent of God’s reign as the “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” to be established on earth (Revelation 21:2). We get our word political from the Greek word for city.
-from 
Public Faith in Action
by Miraslov Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz (pp. 3-4)

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

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

Monday Matters (July 25, 2016)

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Take it to the Lord in prayer

Yesterday’s gospel (below) has me thinking about the disciples’ request to Jesus: Teach us to pray. I found myself wondering what those lessons were like, and in what ways prayer can be taught.

At the same time, I realize that the more I wade into this praying business, the more I find myself on the edge of deep mysteries that can quickly make me feel like I’m in over my head, facing waves of questions about how prayer works. Clearly, I could use a teacher.

So I picked up a short book by a monk and bishop and deeply spiritual guy named Anthony Bloom. A holy man. The book is entitled: Beginning to Pray. He makes the point in the very first paragraph that he is just a beginner at prayer. If this guy, near the end of a life dedicated to the spiritual journey, is just beginning, is there any hope for me?

Then I turned to another respected spiritual guide, Aretha Franklin. I was driving around town, thinking about preaching about prayer. I put in a CD (remember those?), Aretha Franklin singing hymns. I found myself replaying one hymn in particular: What a friend we have in Jesus. I’ve heard that hymn played a lot. I’ve heard it played badly. Let’s just say its melody ain’t Mozart. But as she often does, Aretha brought it to life. The way she sang, her ministry of music made me focus on this bit of the hymn text:

Oh, what peace we often forfeit.
Oh, what needless pain we bear.
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.

I thought of how often I forfeit a sense of peace. I thought of the needless pain I bear worrying about stuff. As I watched the political convention, it did not evoke a sense of peace. As I read the newspaper, I am not filled with a sense of peace. As I think about the state of the church, I am not always filled with peace. So I was grateful for the gospel according to St. Luke, the gospel according to St. Anthony, and the gospel according to St. Aretha, which told me, each in their way, to stop forfeiting peace, and build trust, and take it to the Lord in prayer, acknowledging that I am just a beginner.

It doesn’t mean I don’t have lots of questions about prayer. Maybe you do too. Here are a few of mine:

  • If prayer works, why do bad things happen to good people?
    Does the God of all creation really care if I pray?
  • Should I pray if it sometimes feels like I’m talking to the ceiling?
  • What happens if I don’t pray about something? Will it still happen?
  • Should I pray for a parking space?
  • What happens if people at the Republican Convention and people at the Democratic Convention both pray for success?
  • What happens if Chapel Hill fans and Duke fans pray for victory? Yankees and Red Sox? Cubs and Cardinals?
  • How can I do less talking and more listening in prayer?

No easy answers. Deep mysteries. But maybe we don’t need all the answers to just take one step in the journey of prayer. What would that look like today for you? Maybe just sitting for five minutes of silence. For those who are tired of forfeiting peace, it may be worth a try.

-Jay Sidebotham

Luke 11:1-13
 
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
 
And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
 
‘So I say to you, 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. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

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

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