Monday Matters (December 10, 2018)

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Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.
– Karl Barth
 
The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.
– Thomas Merton
 
Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.
– Karl Barth
 
Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true.
-Thomas Merton
 
Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.
-Karl Barth
 
Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.
– Thomas Merton
 
To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.
-Karl Barth
 
The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds.
-Thomas Merton
 
Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.
-Karl Barth
 
To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.
-Thomas Merton
 
I haven’t even read everything I wrote.
– Karl Barth
 

Fifty years ago today

How’s this for holy coincidence? On this day, December 10 in 1968, two spiritual heroes died. Karl Barth and Thomas Merton both transitioned to eternal life on the same day in that tumultuous year. They were different from each other. I don’t know if they ever met. They came from different Christian traditions. They died on different sides of the globe. But for different reasons, I was formed by their writing, which reflected their faith and witness. Maybe we all were. We talk in the church about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. These guys were cumulonimbus. Giants.

Karl Barth’s theology was shaped by the horrors witnessed in World War I. Years later, with Hitler’s rise to power, Barth joined the Confessing Church and he was chiefly responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration (1934), one of its foundational documents. In that document, Barth claimed that the Church’s allegiance to God in Christ gave it the moral imperative to challenge the rule and violence of Hitler. Barth was forced to resign his professorship at Bonn due to his refusal to swear an oath to Hitler. In two world wars, Karl Barth saw sin at work. That shaped his theology. But he also believed deeply in grace, the love of God from which we cannot be separated.

In 1941, Thomas Mentor entered the Order of Cistercians, the Trappists, at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. His gifts as a writer were encouraged by the abbot. In addition to lots of translation work, Merton corresponded with people around the world, offering spiritual direction, showing affection for friends outside the community, and demonstrating ability to be fully engaged in the world even though he lived a cloistered life. Merton shaped a generation of faithful folks who sought connection between the contemplative life and action for justice and peace. He came to be a force for peace in a time when our nation was deeply divided by war. He explored pathways to engagement with other faith traditions, part of that work for peace.

Both Barth and Merton, each in his way, helped me see what grace is all about, and that it is all about grace. Even though one was cloistered in academia and the other in a monastery, both taught that a vision of grace does not remove a person from the world, but calls for deeper engagement to work for justice and peace.

Today, we give thanks for their lives, their witnesses, their ministries. We are challenged by their examples to bring the gospel of grace to a broken world. So celebrate their remarkable lives by reading some of what they’ve written (samples included above to pique your interest). Celebrate their lives by asking this question: How does our relationship with Christ shape your response to the needs of the world?

Karl Barth, who apparently never had an unexpressed written thought, did most of his writingImage result for John the Baptist from Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpieceat a small desk in his study in his Swiss home. Probably billions of words. Maybe trillions. Over the desk, he hung a print  of John the Baptist from Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. That piece of art guided his writing. John (that great Advent figure) stands with arm extended, pointing beyond himself to Christ on the cross, where in the words of the hymn, love and sorrow flow mingled down. That was Karl Barth’s work: to point beyond self to Christ. I sense it was Thomas Merton’s vocation as well. How will you and I do that? May that be our work, our vocation this week.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (December 3, 2018)

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A prayer for the season:
 
O blessed Lord Jesus, give us thankful hearts today for thee, our choicest gift, our dearest guest. Let not our souls be busy inns that have no room for thee and thine, but quiet homes of prayer and praise where Thou mayest find fit company, where the needful cares of life are wisely ordered and put away and wide sweet spaces kept for Thee, where holy thoughts pass up and down and fervent longings watch and wait thy coming. So when thou comest again, O blessed one, mayest thou find all things ready and thy servants waiting for no new master but for one long loved and known. Even so come Lord Jesus. Amen.

The Advent Adventure

So we begin the season of Advent, a new year in the life of the church, a counter-cultural season that invites us to slow down and be quiet. That’s easier said than done when the list of things to do lengthens and social commitments increase. I remember the reaction of one colleague at a church where I served. When I’d go around saying how we were supposed to slow down and be quiet in this season, she gave me this “Yeah, right” look, major eye-roll, and whipped out a button that read: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”

At the start of Advent 2018, I was thinking about the relationship between the word “advent” and the word “adventure.” An etymology dictionary indicates that the word “adventure” originally suggested that which happens by chance or fortune or luck. Later, the word came to mean that which is about to happen. It had an element of risk or danger or perilous undertaking, softened by a sense of a novel or exciting incident. An adventure was a remarkable occurrence, maybe even a wonder, a miracle suggesting marvelous things.

Does any of that jibe with your experience? Does it sound like your own spiritual journey, your religious life? What will your version of an Advent adventure look like this year?

Is there an element of expectation about what is coming, as far as your spiritual journey is concerned? Do you have any sense that God might do something new in your life? In the work we do with congregations around spiritual growth (a.k.a., change), I have heard a few Episcopalians say that they don’t expect anything to happen in their spiritual lives, or in their engagement with church. They can’t imagine change in their lives attributable to their faith. They are not against it. They just don’t see it happening. Faith is there as comfort, maybe even ratification of what they’re already doing. But in their minds it’s not about transformation. The Advent adventure invites us to think in a new way, to think that things might change, that we actually might grow.

Is there an element of risk in your spiritual journey? Where does courage come in? Advent is filled with people who take risks. The starring role goes to John the Baptist, who risked speaking truth to power, and lost his head over it, as a party favor no less. He did anything but play it safe. Jesus called him the greatest person ever born. Just think about what both Mary and Joseph risked. What risks do you take for the sake of your faith? A risk for many of us over-programmed types would be to savor silence, to set aside quiet time, maybe just unplug for a bit. Maybe a risk is to take even a small stand for justice and peace, to give to help those in need. The Advent adventure calls us to step out in faith.

Is there any sense of wonder connected with your spiritual journey? What causes you to wonder? If an adventure is indeed a remarkable occurrence, a wonder, a miracle suggesting marvelous things, then Christmas fills that bill. Can we take this time to keep focus on the reason for the season, which is to celebrate the miracle of the word made flesh, God present with us, born into humble surroundings, born into our hearts. Grace has appeared. The Advent adventure calls us to focus on that miracle, mindful of what Albert Einstein said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Take this holy season to ask: In what way can you describe your spiritual journey as an adventure? And then discover your own version of an Advent adventure.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (November 26, 2018)

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 Psalm 109:1-3
 
Hold not your tongue, O God of my praise, for the mouth of the wicked, the mouth of the deceitful is opened against me.
They speak to me with a lying tongue, they encompass me with hateful words.
Despite my love, they accuse me. But as for me, I pray for them.
 
Matthew 5:44: From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
 
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
 
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.
– G.K.Chesterton
 
Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.
– Mahatma Gandhi
 

A blessed CyberMonday

I guess this is the day I’m supposed to shop online. So don’t tell my family, but I found a site that has some cheery season’s greetings on t-shirts, gifts that may well appear under the tree at my house. Again, mum’s the word. Herewith a sample of t-shirt messages that caught my eye:

My wife says I only have two faults: I don’t listen and something else.

I’m not arguing. I’m simply explaining why I’m right.

People say I’m condescending (that means I talk down to people)

I’m particularly taken with that last one about condescension. I’ve been thinking lately about the phrase occasionally heard in my neck of the woods. Often people make some snarky observation about somebody. Then they punctuate cutting, critical comments with the ever-popular “Bless their hearts” as if to soften the blow. It doesn’t.

All of which has led me, in turn, to think about what it means to bless other people. I’m thinking of something beyond gesundheit. How do we bless? And why? A friend recently came to me with a question, a quandary. This person was powerless over her own judgmental spirit against someone in her life. She had no illusion that this other person would change. She needed counsel about how to manage her own feelings. What would you have said to her?

I told her I’d pray about it, which is sort of a way of stalling because I didn’t really know how to answer. You see, it’s a spiritual growth edge for me as well.

As I reflected on her heartfelt question, her desire to be more loving, more like Jesus, the answer that came to me (later) had to do with blessing. What would it mean to pray God’s blessing on the person who triggered judgment? What would it mean to pray God’s blessing on people who have done you wrong? Not in a condescending way, but in a way that wished that person well, that recognized that God loved that person without condition, a person made in God’s image.

I’ve heard for years that a way to navigate ill feeling, hurt, resentment toward another person (justified or not) is to pray for that person. That is not some new, power-of-positive thinking idea. It’s not a gimmick, but it can become a spiritual practice. Every time I read Psalm 109, I’m struck with the wisdom of the author who contended with enemies.  The psalmist admits: Despite my love, my enemies accuse me, but as for me, I pray for them.

Jesus may have had that psalm in mind when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. He told his disciples to pray for enemies. I have a feeling that advice was meant more for the person who was called to prayer, and not so much for the enemy. I suspect, in the final analysis, we can’t do much to change attitudes or actions of others, people we know from work, neighborhoods, relatives, political or religious leaders. That kind of change is God’s work.

But we can come to a new place in our own hearts, in the ways we regard them. It usually begins with some awareness that we have been blessed, graced, forgiven ourselves. Jesus came preaching and practicing forgiveness to show us a new freedom. He came to invite us to a place of blessing, not in some condescending way, but wishing the best, wishing healing and wholeness for those who push our buttons, speaking goodness into their lives, maybe recognizing our own part in broken relationships.

Bless you in your day. Bless you in this holy season. May you and I be a blessing this week. And may all those in our lives, those we love and those who drive us nuts, be blessed.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (November 19, 2018)

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The collect for Thanksgiving Day
 
Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 
Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time.
-Corrie Ten Boom
 
Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.
-C.H.Spurgeon
 
If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.
-Amit Ray 
Om Chanting and Meditation
 
There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.
-Henry David Thoreau
 
All I have needed, thy hand has provided. Great is they faithfulness, Lord unto me.
 

Did you catch the recent interview on the talk show “Faith in Focus“? Stephen Colbert spoke of his shift from atheism to Christian faith. It happened when he was in his early 20’s, working in Chicago. On a cold night someone on the street handed him a Bible, one with an index suggesting particular verses for particular situations. Colbert was at the time dealing with anxiety, so he looked up the verse to address that challenge. He was directed to a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Oddly enough, that passage happens to be the gospel chosen for this coming Thursday, the Feast of Thanksgiving, one of the few secular holidays that has made its way into the church calendar. Here’s the passage:

Jesus says: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear….Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

For Colbert, reading that passage was transformational. He stood on that cold street corner and read the entire sermon. He said he felt lightened. He said his life has never been the same. He now never goes anywhere without a Bible.

I suspect that scripture can have that effect on us as well, and maybe especially in this week. Scriptures chosen for Thanksgiving Day point to a way to move beyond anxiety and fear. I’m guessing that these readings were selected because the offering of thanksgiving in some way counters this kind of worry.

I don’t know how you cope with worries, fears, anxieties. They often get the best of me in most unproductive ways. I often fret in the middle of the night about stuff that will happen the next day. Sometimes those concerns never materialize. Sometimes they come out entirely differently than my anxious predictions. Sometimes they make me unpleasant towards spouse and other people I care about. Sometimes they displace things I should probably be worrying about.

I’m taken with the thought that thanksgiving counters anxiety. Such grateful intentionality often begins with a look in the spiritual rear view mirror, seeing where blessings have come in the past. A common practice in many faith traditions is to list a few things for which one is grateful on a daily basis. One rabbi I know told her congregation to list 100 on a daily basis. Just naming those 100 things, when I’ve tried to do it, crowds out space for anxious thought. If you haven’t tried it, give it a shot this week. See what emerges for you.

And we don’t need to limit thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November. Our principal act of worship, the eucharist, is really a thanksgiving meal. Eucharist means thanksgiving. Every time we participate, we are focusing our lives by giving thanks.

This attitude of gratitude is not denial. It’s not a refusal to admit good reason for concern. It recognizes that hard things come our way. It doesn’t sugar coat the power of those challenges. But it does offer perspective, as a grateful look in the rear view mirror offers a way to look ahead through a much broader windshield, helping us see more clearly where we are and where we are headed, pointing us in a more loving, liberating, life-giving direction.

Blessings in this week devoted to thanksgiving. One of my 100 thanksgivings this week: the opportunity to connect with you on Monday morning, and any attentiveness you extend to my Monday morning ramblings. Thank you. Thank God.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (November 12, 2018)

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A prayer for heroic service:
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 
 
A prayer for the Feast of St. Martin
Lord God of hosts, you clothed your servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice, and set him as a bishop in your Church to be a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy steps, that at the last we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as self?

The coincidence has never been lost on me. Our nation observes Veterans’ Day on the same day that the church observes the Feast of St. Martin, a patron saint of France, born about 330 in what is now Hungary. His early years were spent in Italy. After a term of service in the Roman army, he settled in France, in Poitiers, whose bishop, Hilary, he admired.

According to legend, while Martin was preparing from transition from life of a soldier to life as a priest (i.e., as he considered his life as a veteran), he was approached by a poor man asking for alms in the name of Christ. Martin, drawing his sword, cut off part of his military cloak and gave it to the beggar. On the following night, Jesus appeared to Martin, clothed in half a cloak, and said to him, “Martin covered me with this garment.”

Martin was unpopular with many of his colleagues, in part because of his strong opposition to their repression of heresy. He was an avid missionary to the pagan folk of the countryside, always a staunch defender of the poor and the helpless. The symbol of his ministry is a goose, because when he was elected bishop, he wisely tried to hide from those who would put him in this new job, as challenging then as it is now. He hid in a barn among the geese, whose honking gave away his hiding place. Next thing he knew: consecration.

Martin died on November 11, 397. His shrine at Tours became a popular site for pilgrimages, and a sanctuary for those seeking protection and justice. I think of him as we observe Veteran’s Day, mindful of the service given by people in authority. Mindful of that Utah mayor serving in Afghanistan who lost his life last week and who spoke of the need to protect our freedom to vote. Mindful of that policeman who ran into the bar last week in California to save young lives. Mindful of a firefighter who left his own house in flames to go defend other peoples’ homes. We are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses who show us how to put faith to work in the world, whatever our vocation.

One of my favorite passages in the gospels involves the preaching of John the Baptist, a pretty rigorous spiritual coach. He speaks to the crowd, calling them a brood of vipers, and then charms them into a new way of life. So the crowd answers: What shall we do?

In Luke 3:10-14, John answers. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” Hated tax collectors asked what they should do. Rather than telling them to quit their jobs, he tells them to do their jobs with integrity. “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” Soldiers come to him and ask what they should do. Rather than telling them to quit their jobs, he tells them to do their jobs without abusing their authority. “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Maybe there’s a Monday message in the witness of St. Martin, in the witness of heroic people in our own time, in the witness of John the Baptist. Maybe the message sounds like this: Do the thing you’ve been given to do today with kindness, integrity, justice, mercy. Bring grace to that place. Work for peace. Open your eyes to those around you in need. Maybe you’ll see Christ.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (November 5, 2018)

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 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

-Matthew 5:16

To be a saint is to be human because we were created to be human. To be a saint is to live with courage and self-restraint. To be a saint is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews. Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy.
-Frederick Buechner, from The Magnificent Defeat
 

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
-Frederick Buechner
 
God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.
-Soren Kierkegaard

Vessels of grace/lights of our generation

The last few days provided ample opportunity to think about saints. All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween, a.k.a., sugarfest) led to All Saints’ Day (Thursday), then on Friday, All Souls’ Day, bringing us to Sunday, and one more turn at the Feast of All Saints, observed in church with great fanfare and some of the greatest hymns of our tradition, IMHO.

All of it made me think about what makes a saint, and whether I in fact want to be one too. Religious leaders at the helm of religious institutions are not distinguishing themselves in recent days (Understatement alert). It’s no wonder that “nones” and “dones” are among the fastest growing group of folks in terms of religious affiliation. When people say “I’m no saint,” it may not bespeak humility as much as disclaimer. “Don’t accuse me of being one of those religious types. Don’t link me with that hypocritical or judgmental or puritanical streak.” It brings to mind the wisdom of H.L. Mencken who noted that a puritan is someone who is unhappy because somebody somewhere is having a good time.

Thoughts about saints took me to the Prayer Book and one of the prayers which can be included in the eucharist when we remember a saint. Here’s how the Prayer Book describes a saint, They are vessels of grace and lights in their generations.

So think with me about what it means to be a vessel of grace. Someone at least familiar with grace? Someone who holds or carries grace with them? Someone brimming, maybe overflowing with grace? Who do you know who fills that bill, who lives life in the conviction that all is gift? Give thanks for that person in your life. And then listen to your own life. What kind of vessel are you, am I?

With this image of vessel in mind, sainthood does not come as moral accomplishment, a spiritual A+. Sainthood comes as gift, as grace, as we allow ourselves to be filled with the unconditional love of God, as we remove obstacles to that kind of inspiration. Are we open to being that kind of vessel, being that kind of instrument?

As I toyed with that question, it got me thinking about what kind of vessel I might be. It’s a mixed bag at best. If I’m not a vessel of grace, what else is going on? A vessel for righteous certitude and moral superiority, in terms of theology, ethics, politics, fashion, table manners? A vessel for resentment? A vessel for ego? A vessel for indifference or complacency? The bottom line: I suspect we all are vessels for something. It might as well be grace.

But that’s not all the Prayer Book says about sainthood. It claims that grace is not just for our own enjoyment. A saint is not only a vessel of grace. Saints also serve as lights in their generations. Sainthood is intended to make a difference in the world. The toxicity of discourse in our current political season shows the need for less of that heat and more of saintly light. How do we let that light shine? If I’m not shining a light on my generation, am I adding to the darkness? Am I fogging things up? Do I obscure God’s graceful presence in the world? Sometimes, way too often, I suspect that I do, wittingly and unwittingly.

I end up with a pretty expansive view of sainthood. Sainthood is open to anyone who will be a vessel of grace, and a light in their generation. And that happens Monday by Monday. How will you and I be such a vessel this day, this week? How will you and I be a light to our generation?

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (October 29, 2018)

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You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-45 
an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount
 
 
If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.
-Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
 
 
Excerpts from a recent blogpost from Anne Lamott:
 
Every so often, I mention a book I’ve always thought about writing called  “All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective.”Half the people responding roar with laughter and say “I’d read that.” And half are sort of horrified by either the word “hate” or “Christian.’ …
 
You’re not supposed to hate, because hate is ugly and diminishes the soul of the hater. But if I were to be honest, I’d admit that I could still write the book, about some of our leaders and one really special ex-boyfriend. But I got the miracle. …
 
I believe against all odds, that if we stick together, take care of the poor and the very old, get thirsty people water, including our own worried self-obsessed selves, we can dramatically reduce our viral load. We can be love with skin on. We can be present in barbaric times, and at the same time be nourished by the gorgeous and inspiring things all around us. We can be free.

Loving enemies? Do I have to?

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
-Anne Lamott

A parable, of sorts. I used to drive a lot in Manhattan when we lived there. It’s probably why I have grey hair and contend with high blood pressure. As I would make my way around town, I remember how frustrated I would be with pedestrians who took their sweet time crossing the avenues. I had important places to go. It was especially challenging if I had my clergy collar on, because I had to conceal my irritation. It’s not a good career move for clergy to roll down the window and cuss. But I confess that behind the wheel, some part of me began to regard pedestrians as obstacles to my forward movement, obstructionists, opponents.

But here’s the interesting thing. I might be driving, fuming about these pedestrians. I would then find a parking space and become a pedestrian myself. As I would cross the street, taking my sweet time because I had right of way, I came to resent drivers. There were too many cars in the city anyway. Why weren’t those dinosaurs using public transportation? Drivers, as a class of human beings, became the opposition as I walked city streets. Road rage became pedestrian rage. It was amazing how quickly the “other” could become the object of disdain. My inner capacity for animosity was stunningly nimble.

Recently I was reading Facebook with commentary on this election season. I came across a post that went something like this: This year, it is not democrat vs. republican. It’s not conservative vs. liberal. It is good vs. evil. Somewhere in the recesses of my unholy mind, savoring my extremely informed political opinions, I thought: You are so right. Until I looked again at who had posted this message. It was someone I knew to be on the absolute opposite of the political spectrum from me. I wondered if that person now regarded me as evil. I’m such a nice guy. How could that be possible?

In recent days, I’ve been praying Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. As a newshound, okay, a news addict, I’ve found my heart sucked into the rancor that seems to dominate discourse. I’ve come to recognize my absolute helplessness in the face of that energy. I’m going to need a new heart, I think, especially if the elections don’t go my way. Especially if I don’t get my way. I’m going to need a new spirit. And dare I say, I’m not alone in that need.

In recent days, I’ve been praying Psalm 37: Put your trust in the Lord and do good. Commit your way to the Lord. Be still before the Lord. Do not fret yourself. It leads only to evil. That psalm is a call to trust that God is in control, that I am not, that goodness will win. That love wins.

In recent days, I’ve been asking Jesus for help, as I consider the things Jesus taught. In his most annoying way, he said love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Turn the other cheek. If someone makes you walk a mile, walk two. He was so clear, which is why it’s so irritating. Truth be told, I’d rather cuss at pedestrians, or smack my umbrella on the hood of the car edging into the crosswalk.

This commandment to love doesn’t mean that we don’t care deeply about issues, about healing the brokenness of our world, about speaking and acting on behalf of those on the margins, about calling out barbaric behavior, about the work for justice and peace mandated by our baptism. It doesn’t keep us from weeping for our brothers and sisters at the Tree of Life Synagogue, or laboring to see that such crimes don’t happen again. It does mean that there should be no place for hate in our hearts.

Simply stated, I’m not there yet. But I believe some day I’ll get there, with God’s help, by God’s grace. Maybe that’s what heaven is about.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (October 22, 2018)

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More than one-fifth of respondents admit they have not had a spiritual conversation at all in the past year. Six in 10 say they had a spiritual conversation only on rare occasions – either “once or twice” (29 percent) or “several times” (29 percent) in the past year. A paltry 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly. But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly aren’t faring much better. A mere 13 percent had a spiritual conversation around once a week.
 
According to my survey, a range of internal conflicts is driving Americans from God-talk. Some said these types of conversations create tension or arguments (28 percent); others feel put off by how religion has been politicized (17 percent); others still report not wanting to appear religious (7 percent), sound weird (6 percent) or seem extremist (5 percent). Whatever the reason, for most of us in this majority-Christian nation, our conversations almost never address the spirituality we claim is important.
Jonathan Merritt (@JonathanMerritt) is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing – And How We Can Revive Them

Can we talk?

The rather directive parishioner showed up in my office to inform me that I was coming to her house for dinner. A woman of accomplishment in her profession, an active member of our church, she wanted me to help her solve this puzzle. She worked with dedicated, highly ethical people. They were kind, honest, generous folks. They cared about the pain of the world. And they seemed to have no interest in religious observance. She wondered about that. Why was she so committed to the life of the church and they were not at all committed?

This called for more exploration. So she planned to invite twelve of them to her fancy apartment for dinner to discuss. She would give them fair warning and tell them that there would be a topic of conversation over dinner. They would each be asked to fill in the blank: God in my life…

I was to be there just in case a cleric was needed. She bravely did the inviting, making clear her agenda for dinner conversation, not sure anyone would come. She got twelve affirmative responses. I was nervous. I think she was too, though she didn’t let on. As the dinner unfolded, me and a table full of strangers from varied religious backgrounds, I was amazed. We couldn’t shut them up. Everyone had a story. This one time soiree morphed into an ongoing group that met monthly for several years discussing religious topics. All they needed was someone to give them a chance to speak about spiritual matters.

Our work with congregations asks people about their beliefs, their spiritual practices, the ways they serve in the world. As we speak about these things, we find that often the language of faith is loaded for people who have migrated to the Episcopal Church from other Christian communities. Some as come as refugees. Some seek asylum, as often those folks have been wounded by their traditions of origin. Often the way we speak about faith pushes buttons. I often hear people say: “That’s not my language.”

A wise mentor helped me navigate this. Here’s what he would say to folks when they distanced themselves from particular religious language: “If that’s not your language, what is your language?” He offered a gracious invitation to find words that rang true. It could often be a slow start, but once we got going, it opened up new conversations, life-giving conversations.

Today’s reflections were triggered by a column that recently appeared in the NYTimes, copies of which were sent my way by several people I respect. A small portion of the article is included above. The columnist helped me find the language to say that it’s hard for people to find their language, especially when it comes to things about God.

So having said all this, let me ask: Where in your life are you able to fill in the blank: God in your life….? Where can you talk about that with others?

If you have no such venue, maybe you can be brave and create one. Because the longer I do this work, the more I believe that every one of us has a spiritual story. Each one of us is on a spiritual journey that matters to God so it better matter to us. Everybody has a God-shaped space inside. Our hearts are restless until that space is filled. This week, talk among yourselves about the contours of that space, what it feels like. And talk with someone about where that space is being filled.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (October 15, 2018)

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Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
-Teresa of Avila
 
 
Matthew 5:13-16  
(A reading chosen for St. Teresa’s feast day)
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Discipleship Matters

I’m excited about this day, as I head for a conference we’ve been planning for almost a year. It will be held at Christ Church in Charlotte, a lively and faithful congregation. The conference is called Discipleship Matters. We’re gathering folks to explore what we talk about each Monday in these emails. What does it mean to be a disciple these days? How can we do that with authenticity and generosity of spirit? How can we do that when it’s difficult or perplexing?

We can answer those questions by learning from folks who seem to have figured out something about discipleship. As the Holy Spirit would have it, today is also the day in which the church remembers the life and ministry and witness of Teresa of Avila, saint of the 16th century. Her quotable quotes reach across the generations with wit and wisdom that has nourished me along the way.

Here’s one of my favorite stories. Teresa would go from town to town in her ministry. On one of her journeys, the wheel fell off the cart in which she was riding. She was thrown from the cart and landed in a mud puddle by the side of the road, at which point she shook her fist at heaven, and said in unfiltered prayer: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”

I might nominate her as matron saint of cartoonists, as she prayed: “God save us from gloomy saints.”

She models the power of honesty in prayer, when so often we feel like we have to be polite in addressing the Almighty, as if God can’t handle the truth. One of my favorites: “O God I don’t love you. I don’t want to love you, but I want to want to love you.”

She spoke of prayer as nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God. That’s a wondrous way to describe discipleship.

At one particularly challenging passage in the life of our family, when uncertainty and anxiety were strong, we posted one of her prayers by our door: “Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.” Teresa ministered to us across the centuries.

And she presented a great vision for discipleship, one that elevates expectations, offers challenge, and suggests the great privilege that Christ uses us as his presence in the world. The vision is printed above, and it invites us to think about discipleship as a way of doing Christ’s work in the world, work that needs to be done.

I invite you to join the conversation taking place in Charlotte over the next few days, wherever you may be, by thinking about why discipleship matters (join us online if you can’t be here in person). Why does it matter to you? Please pray for this conference. Pray that we might get new insights into what it means to be a disciple. And take the feast day of St. Teresa as an opportunity to let her teach about discipleship, as you pray with her wit and wisdom, her honesty and hope.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Monday Matters (October 8, 2018)

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 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
-John 12:21

The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside our Church: The
Eucharist
-Mary Oliver

Something has happened to the bread and the wine
They have been blessed. What now?
The body leans forward to receive the gift from the priest’s hand,
Then the chalice
They are something else now from what they were before this began.
I want to see Jesus
Maybe in the clouds or on the shore,
Just walking
Beautiful man and clearly someone else besides.
On the hard days I ask myself if ever will.
Also there are times my body whispers to me
That I have.

One more church sign that was just sent to me yesterday:

America, the donkey and the elephant won’t help. We must turn back to the lamb.

More on Church Signs

Amid the changes and chances of life, I’m grateful for this example of constancy in my journey. It is the ongoing ministry of friends who send me photos of church signs, spotted in travels around the country. It’s a ministry to be encouraged. It’s a ministry open to all. It began as sort of a hobby, when I saw a church sign posted on a trailer, with movable letters like those on movie marquees, bearing this Easter message: The Lord is risen. No Bingo.

Last week, another seasonal greeting came to me by way of an observant friend. The sign read: Fall for Jesus. He never leaves. Earlier this year, I received a collection of photos of church signs that included this timely message: Tweet others as you would like to be tweeted. Another read: Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.

On a recent drive through eastern North Carolina, directed to back roads through small towns because interstates were flooded, I drove by a church sign which read: Jesus is alive. Come into our church to meet him. On the road, I had time to think about that sign, and the ways I would rephrase it. I wasn’t sold on the message.

The fact is: Jesus may or may not be met in church. He may or may not be encountered among really religious people. In fact, in olden days and in current times, the most religious people may provide the greatest obstacle to faith.

The fact is: Jesus cannot be contained in religious space. He spent relatively small amount of time in the temple. When he was there, he had a tendency to rearrange the furniture. That didn’t go over well.

The fact is: Jesus was more likely to be met on the road, out in the desert, at weddings and parties, at a pub, at places he wasn’t supposed to be, with people he shouldn’t be talking to.

Tempted as I was, I didn’t tamper with that church sign. I have too much spiritual work to do on my own life and my own community before I start trying to fix some other church. But that sign, for all its goofy, errant theology, made me think about where it is I would go to meet Jesus.

He is met in scripture. He is met in the bread and wine of the eucharist. He is met in preaching, though I do have a friend who was told as a new rector that she mentioned the name Jesus too often in her sermons. She was told that Episcopalians don’t do that. (Try telling that to Michael Curry!)

In several churches I know, there’s a plaque on the pulpit for just the preacher to see. It reads: We would see Jesus, a citation from the gospel of John noted above . It’s a great aspiration for a sermon for sure. But it’s also a great aspiration for our lives outside of church. What would it mean to focus on that goal this week?

You may well meet Jesus in church. It has been known to happen. But it’s just one of many places for that kind of encounter. In our baptism, we say we will seek Christ in all persons. The implication is that everyone provides an opportunity for that to occur. Matthew 25 tells us that much to our surprise, we can meet Jesus in ministry to the hungry, the imprisoned, those who lack clothing, those who lack health. Too often those people never make it into our churches.

Be ready to meet Jesus this week, wherever that might happen. He shows up in a lot of places.

-Jay Sidebotham

Today is the LAST DAY to register for the  Discipleship Matters Conference

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