Monday Matters (January 16, 2017)

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St. Peter and St. Paul are two of the most important figures in the New Testament. And I’m not sure they liked each other very much.

Along with everything going on this week, we celebrate this Wednesday (January 18) the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter, recalling the story of Peter’s acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah. A week later, (January 25) we celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, recalling the story of the Damascus road conversion, and Paul’s affirmation of Christ as Lord. Between these two days, we observe the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. It’s particularly ironic this year because it’s hard to recall a time when the nation has been so divided. If social media is any indication (and not fake news), people of faith are divided as well.

Later this week, an interfaith prayer service will be held at the National Cathedral. That’s not the real name of the cathedral. It’s really called the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Sculptures, one at the north tower, the other at the south, depict these two saints. Those two depictions are about as far from each other as possible. The architecture tells the story.

You see, as I read the New Testament, and read between the lines, I wonder how much Peter and Paul liked each other. This was no bromance, no ancient near eastern Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid. It sounds like it was often hard for the two to be in the same room, reminding us that church fights are nothing new. The letter to the Galatians tells how Paul publicly dressed down Peter over the issue of who could be included in the church. The Letter of Peter offers snarky comments about the confusing nature of Paul’s letters. Yet each had a vital ministry in the church. Each had an indispensable calling. Each made a huge difference in sharing the gospel.

For me, unity right now feels like a scarce commodity. I’m struggling with the stance some Christians have taken in this politically charged season, stances that differ from mine, struggling because I am so sure I am right. Even the question of whether a prayer service should be held this week has generated heated division, perhaps more heat than light. What can we say that will guide us faithfully through this week? What’s this week focused on unity all about?

First, the week is about prayer, a good place to start. I’m mindful of the first of the beatitudes, which says: Blessed are the poor in spirit. I’m not always sure what that means, and I’ve been helped in understanding that promise by one translation which renders the first beatitude this way: Blessed are those who know their need of God. We dedicate a week (especially this week) to prayer to say that we cannot navigate this on our own. We need help, big time. Maybe we can all agree on that. How will you weave prayer into this week?

Second, the week is about prayer for unity, not uniformity. We are not all going to agree. If we look for communities marked by full agreement, we’ll end up pretty lonely. On the night before he died, the night before he left his disciples, Jesus prayed for their unity, that they might be one, even as he and his Father were one (see below). Not the same. But united in love. I’m working on that. I’m not there yet. How about you? How will you seek unity this week?

Third, this week is about prayer for unity informed by the life and ministry and witness of Martin Luther King. He was a person of prayer. (See prayer attributed to him below.) He prayed for unity with his lips and with his life. He prayed, dreaming of that “inescapable network of mutuality” by which we are tied to one another in a single garment of destiny. His active prayer life did not keep him from working all the time, and giving up his life, for the cause of justice, protesting and resisting and speaking truth to power. How will you follow his example of courageous and prayerful service this week, praying not only with our lips but with our lives?

Give thanks for the witness of Peter and Paul, flawed human beings used mightily by God. As such, they give us hope.

-Jay Sidebotham

A prayer attributed to Martin Luther King:
 
God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments  of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.
 
 
From the Book of Common Prayer, a prayer for unity:
 
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 
 
 
John 17: 20-23
 
Jesus prayed: “I ask not only on behalf of these (the disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, a
s you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

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

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

Monday Matters (January 9, 2017)

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Danger

Apparently, my loved ones think I need to do more reading. At Christmas, I received a slew of wonderful looking books that now stack up on my bedside table like planes over Laguardia Airport in fog, circling for a landing. The stack is in itself impressive.

I’ve dived into a couple of them, including The Book of Joy, which describes conversations between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The book is an exploration of joy, notable since both these men have faced extraordinary hardship and hatred. Each man, in his own way, seems to rise above it all with joyful spirit. How does that happen?

I was struck with a story told by the Dalai Lama about a monk he knew before the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. The monk was imprisoned and subjected to torture by his captors. “There was a Soviet-style torture and Japanese-style torture and Chinese-style torture, and at this camp they combined them all into an immensely cruel kind of torture.” When the monk left the camp, only about 20 of 130 prisoners survived. The monk told the Dalai Lama that during those 18 years he had faced real dangers. The Dalai Lama thought the monk meant dangers to his physical well-being. The monk meant something different. He said that he was often in danger of losing his compassion for his Chinese guards.

This week culminates in celebration of the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, who took cues from Mahatma Gandhi in battling hateful forces of injustice that confronted, constrained and ultimately killed. Dr. King chose to confront those forces with soul-force, a refusal to strike back in kind, in large part based on a commitment to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (which also guided Mahatma Gandhi). This week couldn’t come at a better time.

We find ourselves in a distinctive season in our common life. It’s no partisan statement to observe that hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise, vitriol from all sides, regard for the other as despicable, dispensable, deplorable, deportable, irredeemable. I have participated in that dim regard for those who see things differently. I sense that the danger to our common life is real. I sense that the danger to my spirit is scary. Is it possible to hold on to compassion?

I’m not just talking about extraordinary circumstances, like a monk having compassion for torturers, or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela confronting lethal opponents with forgiveness. For most of us the dangers of a compassion deficit surface in smaller ways: How can we hold compassion for those we meet all the time, say, in traffic, or in lines at the airport; those who serve us in restaurants; those we meet at the dinner table or the water cooler; those we meet at church who drive us nuts; those who act out in meetings; those whose theology doesn’t square with ours, those whose votes confound and upset us, those who make their appearance in our interior life, in our memories, in heart and mind where we cherish resentments, placing those resentments on the shelves like trophies.

We have teachers available to us, like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, spiritual leaders who held on to compassion but never stopped fighting injustice. Compassion was not passive. They changed the world. I sense in days ahead we will need more teachers like them.

For Jesus-followers, that message of compassion comes not with an embrace of the scripture that says “an eye for an eye”, but with his interpretation that says: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who curse you.” It comes with words of forgiveness.

I recognize the danger. I don’t always have an easy time embracing compassion. I’m grateful for witnesses who show the way. This Monday morning, I’ll do my best to carry with me the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (another joyful spirit), who said; “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

Perhaps that will help me write a book of joy.

-Jay Sidebotham

I refuse to accept the view that [mankind] is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.
-The Dalai Lama

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths.
– Desmond Tutu

May God give you grace never to sell yourself short. Grace to risk something big for something good. Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.
-William Sloane Coffin
Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it’s the sine-qua-non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much to say, what’s the point of having religion if you can’t disapprove of other people?
-Karen Armstrong

Do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
-Psalm 37:9

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

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

Monday Matters (January 2, 2017)

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That was the message on the billboard on I-40. The word “real” was in real big letters.

As I sped by, I couldn’t see who paid for the message. I imagined the sponsor worried that too many folks were not following Jesus’ teaching. Too many not-real Christians around. I also imagined that the sponsors were pretty sure they were real Christians, that they had gotten Jesus’ teaching right, and were following that teaching, which included putting up this billboard. I imagined the variety of political or social concerns that might have motivated sponsors.

The intended effect of the sign, was of course, to make folks think about whether they were real Christians. It worked on me. Driving along the highway, I reviewed the challenging nature of Jesus’ teachings and how poorly I follow them. Jesus said things like “sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Was he kidding? Only speaking metaphorically? He called people to care for the marginlized. I haven’t obeyed that one in any substantive way. He declared harsh judgment on those who ignored people in need. I do that on a daily basis. He taught that we should not judge others (perhaps that we shouldn’t even worry about who is a real Christian) because if we do, we will be judged. He taught that we should love enemies, and do good to those who curse. I’m too often consumed with anger and resentment at those who see things differently than I do. He said we should resolve broken relationships before we come to the altar. I’ve let that one slide. He called us to forgive unlimited numbers of times. I consider it a big deal to offer forgiveness just one time, maybe. He said first shall be last, and vice versa. Try that at customer service lines or in traffic. He said you can’t find your life unless you lose it. Put that in a self help book.

You get the point.

The more I thought about what I know of Jesus’ teachings, and how often I fail to follow them, the more I wondered about what it means to be a real Christian, an odd question for a priest. In oh so many ways, I fail to live up to his teaching of love and grace and forgiveness. And in a season when the New York Times introduces a weekly section devoted to hate crimes in our country, I daresay I’m not alone.

When people tell me that they don’t know if they can be part of the church because the church is full of hypocrites, I can only respond: “guilty as charged.” Mahatma Gandhi, on one occasion, tried to attend a church service, as he was exploring the Christian faith. He was turned away at the door because of the color of his skin. Upon reflection on that experience, he said: “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians!” At another point in his life, he said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” G.K.Chesterton, noted theologian put it this way: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

So what is to be done? Note that the first followers of Jesus were not called Christians. They were called people of the way, suggesting progress not perfection. I came across a passage last week in which Jesus talks to his disciples, teacher guiding students. He said: “By this will all people know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” Maybe that’s all the teaching we need.

Maybe, when all is said and done, there was only one real Christian. We just celebrated his birth. What’s left for the rest of us? Perhaps a New Year’s resolution: Step by step, to be more like Jesus, living into his vision of a community marked by love in all the way that love gets expressed: kindness, compassion, forgiveness, joy, generosity.

His teaching is not easy. But his way with us is marked by grace. We don’t always need to get it right. In fact, we best be careful when we think we’ve gotten it right.

As I contemplate the challenge of being a “real” Christian, in 2017, I’ll try to carry these words from Richard Rohr: “God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good.”

-Jay Sidebotham

Matthew 11:28-30, New Revised Standard Version
Jesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30, The Message
Jesus said: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

The Summary of the Law (Mark 12:29-31) or in other words, Jesus’ teaching in a nutshell:

Jesus said: The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your  God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

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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 (December 26, 2017)

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Inquiring minds want to know. Who is good King Wenceslaus and what’s so good about the guy?

Tip off: As you know from the opening line, his story takes place on the feast of St. Stephen (a.k.a., today) which Anglophiles will know as Boxing Day, which has nothing to do with Muhammad Ali or Rocky or Raging Bull. It is a day when servants were honored with gifts. Let’s put that all together this Monday morning, the day after Christmas, and see what it says about living a life of faith.

Take them in chronological order. St. Stephen, whose story is told in the book of Acts (see a portion of it below) was the first martyr of the church, stoned to death by a mob, St. Paul on the sidelines holding coats for those who cast stones. I imagine St. Paul wished he could do that one over. But Stephen was also first among the deacons, selected by the church to take care of those who were overlooked, given a ministry to those who had been forgotten.

On Stephen’s feast day, 10th century Bohemian Good King Wenceslaus went out when the snow lay round about, deep and thick and even. Here’s the story the hymn tells. In snowy weather, Wenceslaus went to help a poor man, providing food for the hungry soul. Wenceslaus’ page whines about how cold it is, so the King invites the page to follow in his footsteps through the drifts, in fulfillment of a legend referred to by a preacher in the 12th century:

But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched.

Which brings us to Boxing Day, observed in the United Kingdom as a day to give gifts to servants, ostensibly domestics, busy on Christmas Day waiting on the 1%. It is a day to recognize those who serve, and perhaps most especially those who are somehow invisible.

I don’t know how much St. Stephen and King Wenceslaus and Boxing Day are connected, but if they aren’t, they ought to be. They remind us in this Christmas season (remember it’s more than just one day) that Christ is met and known and loved in our encounters with the most vulnerable. Christ is met when we serve. Now more than ever, people of faith will have to look out for those in greatest need, nearby and far away. The Christmas story tells us as much. The starring characters in that story are those who were invisible to those in power. Shepherds on a hillside. Foreign magi. A refugee family looking for shelter. A baby born a king.

Take this day in the Christmas season to say a prayer for those in need, those most vulnerable. Think about those who are invisible, servants in our culture (those who pick up our garbage or recycling, those who wait on us in a restaurant, those who stand on the highway waving signs for post-Christmas sales, those poor souls on the front lines at customer service, those without homes, those whose political allegiances differ, those who watch different news channels, those confined and maybe forgotten in nursing facilities, those without homes or jobs, those who are quietly alone, etc.)

And maybe there’s a way to be a servant like St. Stephen, or to bring warmth in the cold like the 10th century king, or to acknowledge the dignity of someone who serves quietly with a small gift of some sort. Maybe as small as a word of thanks.

My guess is that if you discover that way today, it will be the way of Jesus, and it will make your Christmas merry and bright.

-Jay Sidebotham


From the Service of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer: 
 Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self?
Will you strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being?

 

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7):
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

 

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted; Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
-The last stanza of the carol known as “Good King Wenceslaus”

 

A reading from Matthew (25:40):
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 

Reading recommendations:
Recent New York Times Columns: Nicholas Kristof interview Tim Keller; Peter Wehner writes a column called Humanizing Jesus.

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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 (December 18, 2016)

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Advent questions

I’ve been struck this year with the questions that pop up in the Advent season. I started thinking about this a couple Sundays ago when we read about John the Baptist in prison. He was no shrinking violet, never afraid to speak truth to power (which is what got him tossed in prison in the first place), never afraid to offend his listeners, addressing his congregation as a brood of vipers. Generally not recommended for preachers.

But earlier in Advent, we met him in a prison cell, maybe having second doubts about the choices he had made. I imagine him asking: Was this the cruise ship I signed up for? Was my call a wrong number? He sends messengers to Jesus (not sure how they did that in first century prisons) with this Advent question: Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or should we look for somebody else? (See Matthew 11 for a better telling of this story.)

Later this week, smack dab in the midst of wrapping Christmas presents and decking the halls with yuletide merriment, we observe the feast of St. Thomas, of doubting fame. He questioned whether Jesus was really raised from the dead. Maybe like John, he wondered as follower of Jesus if he had misplaced his hopes. (See John 20 for a better telling of this story.)
Maybe Thomas should be patron saint of Episcopalians, a denomination graced with a knack for savoring questions. If it’s true what Frederick Buechner says, that doubt is the ants in the pants of faith, Episcopalians should have very lively faith.

As we move to the observance of Christmas, questions persist. Mary responds to the angel’s announcement that she’s going to have a baby: “How can this be?” Refugee parents ask: “Is there any room in the inn?” Magi from the east ask: “Where is the child whose star we have observed?” And some time in the next couple days, we may well all sing: “What child is this?”

So I’m wondering on this Monday morning in this last week of Advent about the questions you bring to Christmas. Maybe like John the Baptist, the limits, even confinements of your life make you wonder if there’s hope to be had, a way out, a way forward. Maybe like Thomas you’ve been disappointed in faith, in the church, in people you trusted, making you wonder whether you can give your heart again. Maybe like Mary, you get a glimpse of the outrageous miracle that is Christmas and wonder: “Really? How can this be?”

In the mystery of our biblical tradition, these kinds of questions are welcomed, sometimes downright celebrated. (It would have been so easy to leave them out of the Bible.) It should be said that the questions are not meant as destination, but as catalysts moving us forward toward answers. And those answers do not come in argument. They do not come in theology or philosophy or recitation of creed. They do not come with some quick fix. The answer comes in the form of a person, a helpless, homeless infant actually, whose biblical nickname is Immanuel, which really means God with us.

So celebrate this week, family and fun and food and music and gifts, all of which orbit around that manger to which we bring ourselves, carrying all of our questions and placing them right there next to the gold, frankincense and myrrh.

-Jay Sidebotham


Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
 -Matthew 7:7 from the Sermon on the Mount 
 
Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.
-Voltaire
 
Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.  
-Frederick Buechner
 
Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.
-Henri Nouwen

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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 (December 12, 2016)

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Tune my heart

I have learned much from the teenagers of the congregation where I serve. They are a gift to me. One blessing comes with their music, quite specifically one version of an old time hymn they’ve brought to new life for me. The way they sing “Come thou fount of every blessing” has caused me to hear the text in new ways.

I was recently on a walk in the woods, replaying the hymn in my mind, recognizing that the whole hymn is really a prayer for renewal. (Hymn text below) I stopped on this phrase which I’ve sung a million times, but heard in a new way: “Tune my heart to sing thy grace.”

It made me think about my heart, and not in a cardiologist kind of way. I thought about where I was giving my heart. Was I giving my heart to that which would satisfy my heart, borrowing a question from one of the desert fathers? Was my heart heavy? Distracted? In the imagery of the hymn, was it out of tune? If so, what caused that? And what could be done about that?

Any number of things can cause my heart to go out of tune. Like a musical instrument, a jarring movement can do it, the change and chances of life. Lack of use or exercise can do it. Atmospherics, turning up the heat, growing cold can do it. The affections, the spiritual inclinations that might be considered matters of the heart can be rendered dissonant by resentment, anxiety, boredom, a loss of hope. I confess that news of late has set my own heart out of tune. What’s to be done?

Returning to the observation that this hymn text is a prayer, I suspect the first thing to say is that any tuning, adjusting, recalculating, comes as gift. It is God’s work. So if my out of tune heart is going to be brought to a new place, it must be seen as God’s holy work with which I am willing to cooperate, work to which I am open. Maybe I can’t do the tuning. But I can ask to be an instrument of God’s peace. Maybe I can’t do the tuning. But experience tells me I could probably obstruct it if I was so inclined, or so clueless.

So what are the obstructions in my life? (How much time do you have?) How can I pay attention to the voice of John the Baptist this Advent and think about where I need to repent. Translation: where do I need to change direction, recalculate as Siri would describe it. One place in particular is in gratitude. I can stand to grow in that. Another is in having a heart oriented toward service, not towards what I’m due. Another growth opportunity.

Someone once told me that the best way to understand the mystery of prayer is that it is a matter of aligning our will with God’s will. The call to alignment is just another way of describing the tuning of the heart. That can happen in confession, intercession, silence, song, thanksgiving, praise, service.

We find ourselves in the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the grand celebration of Christmas, good tidings of joy which shall be to all people. In many ways, Advent is a time to tune our hearts to sing the praises first shared with shepherds on that hillside. Take the quiet call of the season of Advent to listen to your heart. Is there a way in which it seems to be out of tune, slightly or significantly? Can you offer a prayer for God gracious activity to tune your heart to sing God’s praise? Can you get specific, naming those things that contribute to dissonance and discordance?

Pray the hymn. Tune your heart. Sing God’s grace.

-Jay Sidebotham


I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through – listen to this music.
 -14th Century Sufi mystic Hafiz 
 
Christian prayer thus becomes much more a merging than a manipulating, much more dancing than dominating, much more participation than partisanship. Those of you who want rain and those of you who want the flooding to stop both dance in the unitive center of the God who holds the rain and the dry land alike. You rest in God, not in outcomes.
-Richard Rohr
THE DIVINE DANCE
 
Come, thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s redeeming love.
 
Here I find my greatest treasure;
hither by thy help I’ve come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home. Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, bought me with his precious blood.
 
Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee: prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above. 



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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.

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“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

That’s the word from John the Baptist in the wilderness. It’s the thing we’re meant to do in Advent. But I’m wondering what that really looks like. It’s different for each one of us. We each prepare the way in our own way.

Case in point: a priest I recently met who told me about his Sunday morning routine. He leads worship at 8am, as takes place in many Episcopal churches. So he arrives at 6am to get ready. He goes into the church by himself, sits in the chair from which he will later preside at the liturgy and prays for a while for the church and for the grace to lead the church. Then he begins to move around the church, in a private procession, stopping at stations along the way where ministry will unfold later that morning.

He goes to the narthex (a.k.a., lobby) where he prays for the ushers and greeters, and their ministry of hospitality. He goes to the choir loft and prays for the musicians who will help people worship, in full knowledge that the person who sings prays twice. He goes to the sacristy to pray for the ministry of the altar guild, as they prepare to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. He prays at the lectern for those who will read scripture. He stands in the pulpit and prays for the preaching that will take place. Then he returns to his seat, says final prayers, preparing the way for the encounter with God in worship.

I’ve had my own routine in preparation for Sunday, but let’s just say it’s not quite that prayerful. It’s been about checking on coffee and bulletins and sound system and lights and signage. The fact is, the way I often have come to church is less like this priest I admire and more about crossing out items on my to-do list. Sometimes it’s more like going to a movie or a concert, hoping that I’ll be entertained or entertaining, that I’ll be pleased or pleasing. Sometimes it’s just what I always do, a mindless/mindful mix, intention drifting into habit. There must be a better way to prepare the way.

How do we set intention for an encounter with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, with the Holy One? How do we prepare the way? One church I know posts tasteful signs around the nave. The signs read: Deep Silence Observed Before Worship. That may not be right for every community, but anyone could tell that the place was preparing the way. Another church I know provides prayers for congregants to say at home, prayers for Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday evening, and Sunday morning before going to church. Again, it’s about preparing the way.

Preparing the way has to do with more than Sunday, for sure. And thanks be to God, it’s not just clergy that do this work. As Verna Dozier, great lay leader in our church, said: “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.” In many ways, Monday through Saturday we are preparing for Sunday. Our words and actions, day in and day out, constitute that preparation.

On this Monday morning in Advent, listen for the voice in the wilderness, John the Baptist saying prepare the way. His loud voice reaches across centuries and continents to you and me, with a reminder that we each can prepare the way of the Lord, getting ready for Christ to come into the world, into our neighborhood, into our church, into our hearts.

-Jay Sidebotham

A favorite Advent hymn:
 
Prepare the Way, O Zion 
Words by Frans Mikael Franzen (1772-1847)
 
Prepare the way, O Zion; your Christ is drawing near! Let ev’ry hill and valley a level way appear.
Greet One who comes in glory, fore told in sacred story. Oh, blest is Christ that came in God’s most holy name.
 
He brings God’s rule, O Zion; he comes from heav’n above. His rule is peace and freedom, and justice, peace, and love. Lift high your praise resounding, for grace and joy abounding. Oh, blest is Christ that came in God’s most holy name.
 
Fling wide your gates, O Zion; your Saviour’s rule embrace. His tidings of salvation proclaim in ev’ry place.
All lands will bow before him, their voices will adore him. Oh, blest is Christ that came in God’s most holy name.
 

 

A favorite New Yorker cartoon:
"Get me the heck out of the wilderness!"

“Get me the heck out of the wilderness!”

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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 (November 28, 2016)

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As I work on my own spiritual life (note: miles to go), and as I talk with congregations about their work in this regard, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a disciple. What are authentic contemporary expressions of discipleship? What does it look like these days?

The word “disciple” means different things to different people. For some, it seems to be a high calling, a holy aspiration. For others, it seems like a way-too-high bar, something that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, an unattainable ought that implies that we’re not quite good enough. What do you make of the word?

Advent, a season which began yesterday, is a season that can help us think about discipleship. I’m grateful to find myself reading a book called Being Disciples by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. It came at a good time for me. (The older I get, the less I believe in coincidence.) As he writes about discipleship, his language echoes Advent themes.

Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a whole lot more than counting the shopping days left. It is a season of preparation for sure, but so much more than fulfilling a gift list or getting holiday cards in the mail. Advent is meant to be a contemplative season, a season of mindfulness, an invitation/exhortation to pay attention, to stay awake, to get ready, to expect something to happen. For those who take the season to heart, it’s swimming against the stream, a counter-cultural movement. I generally find I need some help to maintain focus on the reason for the season.

Which is why I was glad to run across Rowan Williams’ thoughts on what it means to be a disciple. So I’ll shut up and let you listen to him. He writes:

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape.

So let me ask, as Advent begins, are you expecting anything new, or will it be same old/same old? Do you have a sense that in the coming of Christ, the goal of the season, God will have something new to teach you? Are you ready for it? Are you open to it?

Disciples watch; they remain alert, attentive, watching for symbolic acts as well as listening for instructive words, watching the actions that give the clue to how reality is being reorganized around Jesus.

So let me ask, as Advent begins, can you imagine that reality is being reorganized around Jesus? What do you think that would look like? Would you know it if you saw it? Are you watching?

A disciple is simply a learner, and this is what the disciple learns: how to be a place in the world where the act of God can come alive.

So let me ask, as Advent begins, can you think of yourself as a disciple who is always a learner? Are you open to the idea that you might just be a place where the act of God can come alive? In the second century, a Christian named Irenaeus said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Can you expect that kind of revival in your own life? Disciples apparently expect that to happen. Let this season of Advent be a time to focus on your discipleship, and see what happens.

-Jay Sidebotham

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
 
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart. 
 
Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
 
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne
-Charles Wesley
 
 

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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 (November 21, 2016)

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“If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.”

That was just one of the gems offered by our shy and retiring Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry last Friday in his peripatetic preaching. (Pity the poor cameraman trying to follow him.) I was privileged to hear him in Dallas, at a conference called Evangelism Matters. The perhaps preposterous premise of the gathering was that Episcopalians and evangelism go together. Said another way, as Michael Curry demonstrated, an Episcopal evangelist is not an oxymoron.

If you wish to arrive at that point of view, however, you have to suspend prejudice about the word “evangelist”, expunge the vision of Elmer Gantry and contemporary descendants (of which there are plenty), and think about the etymology of the word evangelist. It comes from the Greek word for good news. The church over the years, up to current times, has too often proclaimed bad news, manipulative news, self-serving news, exclusive news. Michael Curry called us to another way. The way of Jesus.

Evangelism has nothing to do with a bigger church, he said. It has to do with a better world. He spoke with energy and eloquence about evangelism, part of God’s work of reconciliation in the world. He spoke about the dream of God, which is that each one of us would live in loving relationship with God and neighbor. Anything else is nightmare. He spoke about finding our way home.

So wrap your mind around the idea that as a follower of Jesus, or at least someone mildly interested in Jesus, you are an evangelist. Said another way, you are called to share good news.

In order to do that, you have to hold some good news in your heart. Not a bad thing to think about in this week marked by a national holiday dedicated to Thanksgiving. Note: This day became an official national holiday during the War between the States, a political season when it was really hard to find any good news. Thanksgiving may not have been top of mind in those days, sometimes referred to as the recent unpleasantness.

At the heart of our religious practice is a service of eucharist, which means thanksgiving. I’m always struck with the narrative of that liturgy, Jesus instituting the ritual meal of bread and wine on the night before he died. I would have been on the first bus out of town. Instead, he gathered with his friends to say thanks, knowing full well what was ahead of him.

Take some time on this Monday morning to think about those things for which you are thankful, those places where good news has touched your life. I know that every one of us is touched by challenge and tragedy and brokenness. I also know that every one of us has something for which we can be thankful. Including the amazing, confounding premise of our faith that God’s love is something from which we can never be separated, that there is no one who is beyond the reach of God’s love, that God’s presence dwells in each one of us.

Once you’ve gotten that thanksgiving in mind, think about how you might share that joy with someone you know this week. That would be such good news. Maybe it’s something you could share over Thanksgiving Dinner. I sense it would be much more edifying than a discussion of current politics. And would probably be better for the digestion.

-Jay Sidebotham

Jesus said… I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
-John 13:31-35
I was taught that [evangelism] meant converting people to the one true religion, namely, my own. Now I believe evangelism means inviting people into heart-to-heart communion and collaboration with God and neighbors in the great work of healing the earth, of building the beloved community, of seeking first the kingdom of God and God’s justice for all.
-Brian McLaren,
in his new book,
The Spiritual Migration
People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them.
-Dave Barry

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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 (November 14, 2016)

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When I started in ministry, a mentor told me: “Jay, you only have to do two things when it comes to Sunday worship. One, keep it to an hour. And two, leave people more hopeful than when they came.” Over the years, I’ve had varying degrees of success with the first one. We clergy do go on.

And I’ve aspired to the second goal, because everybody needs hope. Which brings me to current events:

When I preached on the Sunday before election, I issued a call to gentleness and compassion, because I said that after Tuesday, November 8, half of us would be filled with hope and half of us would tend to despair. It’s dangerous to preach. I didn’t imagine I’d be in the latter segment. Perhaps pride does come before the fall.

Yesterday, I went to church not only because it’s my job. I was also looking to get a dose of hope myself. Here in a state which went red, reaction to election results were mixed between high fives and kleenex. I suspect that’s true in many regions in this close election. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was in the group going through boxes of kleenex, occasionally uttering expletives to be deleted, for reasons I’m glad to discuss off line. I’ve been shaken. I’ve wondered about how to move forward. So yesterday, I went to church. For my job. For my spirit.

I preached yesterday on the collect, printed below, which speaks about scripture. It calls us to go deeper in scripture, in that marvelous progression that asks us to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the words from the Bible. This is one of my favorite collects, surfacing once a year. It reminds us that the point of reading scripture is not to be biblically literate, or to be good at religious stuff, or to be holier than thou, or to use scripture as bludgeon on people who disagree with us. The point of reading scripture is to hold on to hope.

Over and over, the transformative, powerful stories of scripture aim to leave us ever more hopeful. The hope of Abraham and Sarah who wandered and wondered if there would even be a next generation. The hope of Moses’ mother who put her infant child in a basket in the river, trusting him to God’s care. The hope of Israelites enslaved in Egypt. The yearnings of the psalms. The hope of exiles longing for home from Babylonian captivity. Yesterday, we read a passage from Malachi, who spoke of the hope that came with the one risen with healing in his wings, a line included in a Christmas carol. (Hark, the herald angels…) It’s the hope of St. Paul writing from prison where every other word is a call to rejoice. The hope that at times in our lives, it may in fact feel like Good Friday but Sunday is coming.

Hope kept showing up. At one service, a small choir sang an anthem which has sustained me at critical passages in my life. The text: “Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid.” At another service, we concluded with Hymn 665: All my hope in God is founded. It’s a beautiful text, set to a tune composed by Herbert Howells. The tune is called Michael, dedicated to the memory of Howells’ son who died at the age of nine. (The first two stanzas are printed below.) As I sang the hymn, I thought, if this guy can hang on to hope, I guess I can too.

I’m grateful for a day when prayers, hymns and scripture bolstered my heart, offering comfort and perspective and community. I consider it all to be a gift of the spirit by which I was left more hopeful than when I started the day.

On this Monday morning, I’m hoping that the Spirit is leading you in paths marked by hope, so that by the end of the day, you will be more hopeful than when November 14th began. No matter how you voted.

And in case you’re wondering, yesterday, worship was done in under an hour.

-Jay Sidebotham

The Collect read in church yesterday:
 
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 
 
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
Psalm 46:1
 
Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, and the earth was born, from age to age you are God.
Psalm 90:1,2
 
Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid.
Isaiah 12:2
 
All my hope on God is founded, he doth still my trust renew, me through change and chance he guideth, only good, and only true. God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his won.
 
Mortal pride and earthly glory, sword and crown betray our trust; though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust. But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.
 
Stanzas 1 and 2 of Herbert Howells hymn, text by Robert Seymour Bridges.

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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.