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You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

-Matthew 5.14-16

For with you is the fountain of life;  in your light we see light.

-Psalm 36.9

 

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

-John 8.12

Christ is the light that allows people to see things in their fullness. The precise and intended effect of such a light is to see Christ everywhere else. In fact, that is my only definition of a true Christian. A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude or reject anyone.

-Richard Rohr, author of The Universal Christ
This little light of mine

Let your light shine. For some really wonderful reasons, that phrase has been on my mind in the last week. It’s part of Jesus’ coaching of disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. He talks to that group of followers (in my mind, an ancient near eastern version of the Keystone Cops) and says to them: You are the light of the world. What kind of faint, flickering light were they? Even if it’s only the slightest glimmer, he tells them to let that light shine.

You are the light of the world. Not you ought to be. Not apply to be. Not work really hard to be. Not give it your best shot. But be who you are. It implies the amazing grace that there is the glow of God’s image in each one of us. A gift. It’s the amazing truth embedded in the baptismal covenant, the truth that Christ (the light of the world) can be sought and served in all persons. Even the jerks. Maybe even especially them. A friend who leads a church tells me she strives to see Christ in all persons, admitting that sometimes Christ comes very well disguised. As Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote, in her inimitable, expletive-laden way: My experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment than in the sunset. I’m reading Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ. There’s a brief excerpt above, pointing to the light of Christ showing up all over the place. Even in you and me.

I hear Jesus saying to disciples (again, you and me) that if we grasp the notion that we might well be the light of the world, we are to let that light shine. Let the goodness of God’s creation be seen. Implicit in that statement, as far as I can tell, is a caution. While the light of Christ resides in each one of us, there are things we might do to keep the light from shining. It’s not our light. It’s not something we can generate. But it is something we can obscure. Hide it under a bushel? No! Well, maybe occasionally.

What are the things that block the light from shining in and through your life? Deeply held resentment? Withheld forgiveness? The grip of envy or greed? The Prayer Book speaks of things that draw us from the love of God. They come to every life. They come in great variety. For some in our culture, it is simply the tyranny of busy, over-programmed schedules. David Zahl has written an interesting book called Seculosity. In it, he speaks of the things we try to put in place of God, good things to which we turn to prove we are enough. Examples include our commitment to career, parenting, technology, food, politics and romance. In contrast, our faith invites us to embrace grace, to turn to the light, to see the light of Christ and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. And to know that is enough.

This Monday morning, give thanks for the good news that you are the light of the world. You may feel dim, but God apparently does not share that opinion. You have within yourself the brightness of God.

And as you give thanks for the light that is in you, let that light shine, not so others will see how great you are, but so that by the light of your shiny life they will come to see something of the glory of God. Pause and ask the Holy Spirit to show you how to let that light shine this week.

 -Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (October 14, 2019)

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Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often – those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers error to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.

-Francis T. Vincent, Former Commissioner of Baseball

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.

-Salvador Dali

 

Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.

-Brené Brown

Whenever, not if ever

We have a wedding in the family this coming weekend, so that’s on my mind. It’s exciting, though there is the potential for billions of details to obscure the reason for the season. To help me keep my head on straight, I’ve been thinking about the liturgy for the Blessing and Celebration of a Marriage, found in the Book of Common Prayer beginning at page 423. It’s long been my conviction that we come to understand the intent of these liturgies by looking at the prayers in that service. We often say that praying shapes our believing, and the prayers in this service (found on page 429) certainly live up to that.

One prayer in particular always catches my eye. We pray for the couple: Give them grace when they hurt each other to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours. The operative word in that prayer is “when.” It doesn’t say “if.” It says “when,” which means that the couple will invariably hurt each other, as sure as the sun will rise and the invoice from the wedding planner will appear.  But the good news of our faith is that there is a way back. There is a way to start over.

And lest we think this is just about married couples, we find a similar phrase in the baptismal covenant. The second promise asks: Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? We answer that we will, with God’s help. But once again, it doesn’t say “if ever.” It counts on the fact that we will mess up, and celebrates the good news that there is nothing we can do to make God love us less, that there is always a way back.

I suspect we are all familiar with that brand of teeth-gritting Christianity that frets about getting everything right all the time, that golden calf of perfectionism. Newsflash: It’s a particular hazard for religious folks, especially clergy. One of the gifts for me found in scripture is that there are no characters, save our Lord and Savior, who get it right all the time. The heroes of the Hebrew Scripture, the disciples and apostles each make a mess of things. Abraham, Jacob, David each have flaws on full display. The disciples betray, deny, disbelieve, scram. St. Paul, who I suspected battled with the sin of perfectionism, spoke about himself as the chief of sinners.

A good editor could have gone through all of scripture in an afternoon and removed the less flattering portions. But they are preserved perhaps to let us know that perfectionism is a false God. As we recognize and acknowledge that, we have a chance to experience the grace of God. Therein lies the gospel.

Speaking of the impending World Series, I’m reminded of the quote from former Commissioner of Baseball, Francis T. Vincent, (above). He was preaching about  the rigorous truth of the gospel, which does not cover up our shortcomings but also does not let them define us. One friend of mine, who came to faith as an adult, described the gospel this way, harping back to an old bestseller title. He said the gospel sounded to him like this: I’m not okay. You’re not okay. But that’s okay. I tried to unpack that a bit with him, to make sure we never lose sight of original blessing, the goodness of all of God’s creation. But I take his point: It’s okay. All will be well. There is a way back. There is a welcome home party for the prodigal son.

And that recognition and acknowledgement may help us this week. It teaches us to be gentle with ourselves. God does not expect perfection. All God expects is gratitude and love. It teaches us to be gentle with others, to forgive, to cut some slack, to give folks a break. It teaches us to worship, to give thanks for amazing grace that takes us as we are.

 -Jay Sidebotham
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Jay Sidebotham

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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday (October 7, 2019)

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Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my Lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who endure in peace, for they will be crowned.

-St. Francis of Assisi

Blessing of the Animals

The feast of St. Francis of Assisi, observed a few days ago, is often celebrated with the Blessing of Animals, a nod to the saint’s honoring of all creation, his celebration of brother sun, sister moon, his ability to assuage ravenous wolves, to hold the attention of birds of the air with captivating sermons. In my ministry, it’s been my privilege to participate in a number of these services, but one in particular stands out.

In Manhattan, we offered the Blessing of Animals at our evening service. In the darkness, we gathered all kinds of creatures, which was fun. I do recall one stretch limo that pulled up in front of the church. Three small fluffy white dogs, ribbons on their heads emerged, tethered to a butler. They looked like they’d never been outside of their penthouse. They were lovingly carried into the sanctuary and then whisked back to their haven once blessed, though I imagine in many ways their little lives were already pretty blessed.

That same night, after a brief homily marked by barks, the clergy stood at the front of the church to offer blessings. Five priests. No waiting. Congregants lined up the center aisle with their animal companions, mostly dogs, cats, a few caged birds and small adorable rodents. But there was one memorable participant.

At first, in the darkness, it was hard to recognize. A woman approached the clergy, carrying a 4 foot iguana. It was transported in a Snuggly, strapped to her chest. She approached the rector. He referred her to me. He told her that I was the one who covered reptiles. I was intrigued and glad to offer a blessing. There’s a first time for everything. After the service, I did find this woman to ask: “How did you get here?” She responded without a blink: “On the subway.”

I could imagine a church that would say “Dogs and cats and cute rodents, only. No iguanas.” I remain grateful for that New York church which practiced radical welcome and an expansive view of blessings.

Across the centuries, St. Francis teaches us many things. He teaches us about serving the poor. He teaches us about prayer. He teaches us about faith in action. He teaches us about care for creation. He teaches us that we can do all these things with irrepressible joy. That’s quite an enduring legacy. And included in his legacy of lessons: the blessing of all of life. That tradition continues with folks who seem to know something about God.

Here’s a quirky story about a monk. This spiritual leader was invited to teach and preach all over the country. He needed a driver. Monk and chauffeur covered miles on the interstate. The driver noticed that whenever they drove past a dead animal on the side of the road (a.k.a., roadkill) the monastic made the sign of the cross. I know it sounds eccentric, but it made an impression on me. It was a recognition of the sacredness of life, a blessing of that sacredness, even when it involves the least, the lost, the gross, the discarded by the side of the road. In my travels, I’ve begun to imitate this monk. I’ve tried to look for opportunities for blessing. They turn up in the most unlikely places.

This Monday morning, in honor of St. Francis, give thanks for all the blessings of life. Reflect on the ways that you have been blessed. Then think about how you can extend blessing, beginning with the psalmist’s persistent urging to bless the Lord. Share blessings with others, especially those who you might be inclined to dismiss, or those who have been discarded by the side of the road, or those who have done you wrong. Remember the challenge of Jesus who told his disciples to bless those who curse you. If perhaps you’re holding resentment toward someone, send them on their way with blessing. And then offer blessing for all of creation, all good gifts around us.

And as you do, have a blessed day.

 -Jay Sidebotham
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Jay Sidebotham

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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (September 30, 2019)

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A prayer for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, observed today:

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

-Genesis 28

 

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

-John 1

 

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

-Hebrews 13.2

 

Finally, a favorite angel quote:
Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

-G.K.Chesterton
Angels

When I was in college, I went through a period of estrangement from my father. My folks had recently divorced and I was not particularly well equipped to handle that. After a while, it became clear that shutting down the relationship was not the best way to go. I invited my father to come to my college to take me to dinner or something. I waited for him at the gate of my ivory-tower campus with more preppies per inch than any place I’d ever been before.

As I waited with apprehension, a young man approached me and started to talk. He may have been homeless. He was unshaven. Clothes were a mess. He could have used a shower. I was pretty sure he was from town and not a student. My defenses were up. I waited for him to hit me up for money. That didn’t happen. We chatted for a minute or two. Then he asked if he could pray for me. He put his hands on my forehead. All I can say was that I felt power. And then he was gone.

Every now and then someone asks if I believe in angels. I don’t always tell the story, but as I fashion an answer, I remember my encounter with this mysterious person. Maybe it was just some crazy religious zealot who happened to show up. But at a moment when I needed a message that I was not alone, I got that message loud and clear. And when I get asked if I believe in angels, I think of this scruffy guy, who looked a lot different than Fra Angelico imagined angels. I answer that I believe in angels. Can’t explain them. But I do believe.

Angel means different things to different people. That person is an angel = pure goodness. I’m no angel = I have messed up. You’re an angel = you did what I wanted you to do. But the translation of the word is simple and expansive. It means messenger.

The Bible is full of stories of angels who show up at key moments to deliver important messages. Sometimes it takes something extraordinary to deliver a message with full force. An angel bars Adam and Eve from the garden, sending the message that they can’t stay in paradise any more. Abraham and Sarah entertain strangers and come to find out they’ve hosted angels who tell them that in their advanced age, they will be parents. They had thought such a thing was laughable. An angel wrestles with Jacob before he experiences reconciliation with a brother he had cheated. An angel comes to Mary to tell her that her young teenage life was about to change, big time. One or two of them break the news that the crucified Lord was not really dead. And on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we read about angels who fight for right when the world seems to be falling apart.

Maybe we could use some angels right now.

Artists have fun with imagery of angels. This cartoonist enjoys the work of imagination, wondering what they look like. But the real point is that the Holy One seems to find all kinds of ways to get a message across. I take it as a way for us to realize that the gate of heaven is closer than we think, as we read in the book of Genesis (see citation above).

On this feast of St. Michael and All Angels, maybe you can summon up a story about angels. Or maybe you think this is crazy talk. But if you’ve had occasion to get a message from beyond, give thanks for it. Celebrate it. And keep your eyes opened, because you may well have the opportunity to entertain angels without even knowing it.

A minister was once asked if he believed in infant baptism. He answered: “Believe in it? I’ve seen it!” I sort of feel that way about angels.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

Introducing:

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (September 23, 2019)

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Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

-Jesus, telling a parable as recorded in Matthew 13

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

-Jesus, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew 6
 

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

-Paul, writing to the Philippians as recorded in chapter 3
What is important?
 

After one of those tragic incidents in which a small child was left too long in a hot locked car, a commentator, fumbling for words in a moment of unspeakable sadness, said something like this: “To avoid this happening, leave something important next to the car seat where the child is.” Okay, I am increasingly forgetful and often distracted, but I was not the only one to wonder: What could be more important than that child in the car seat? A smart phone? A lap top? Lunch? Gym clothes? A Starbucks card?

What is important?

I’ve been going to yoga classes pretty often, hoping to build spiritual and physical strength and balance, an uphill climb. I’m glad to hide in the back row and I’m reluctant to practice if parishioners are present. Last Wednesday morning, I went to a class. I was the only student to show up. I told the teacher she must have something more important to do than just teach one student. She insisted on having the class. Though I didn’t know her, apparently I was important enough to her.

Later that same day, I was celebrant at our weekly noonday eucharist. Only one person showed up. He told me I didn’t have to do the service. He was sure that I must have something more important to do, partly because I can project an image of someone who is really, really busy. His response made me more committed to leading the service, trusting that Jesus meant it when he said he was present when two or three were gathered. In that moment, I could think of nothing more important to do.

Again, what do we consider important? What is worth doing? What matters? Do we even ask those questions, or do we just tackle the to-do list on auto-pilot, without thought for priority or purpose? These are questions each one of us can ask in our own spiritual journeys, where the tyranny of the urgent often suppresses the meaning of the important. They may be questions that get ignored, especially early on Monday morning.

They are questions for the church to consider, especially with the publication of new statistics that show our congregations dramatically shrinking. It would be easy for church folk, for church leaders, to anxiously panic our ways into all kinds of programs. If we just offered better coffee. If the music were just more snappy. If we started talking about politics or stopped talking about politics. We often think that what is most important in the church is more people in the pews, more names on our mailing lists, more pledging units gathered in our annual campaigns. But maybe a more faithful route is to think about growing hearts, one person at a time.

One of the learnings from the research behind RenewalWorks is that leaders of vital congregations focus first on growing hearts, and not on growing attendance or number of pledging units. That’s a counter-cultural way to live. But I have a feeling it’s the way set forth by Jesus.

He told stories to that effect, like a parable about a crazy shepherd who left 99 sheep to go find one stupid lost sheep who chose to wander. That little stupid lost sheep was important.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus noted all the things we worry about: what we should eat or wear or what college we get into or how fast we are promoted compared to our collegemates or co-workers. He said: Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added unto you. Seeking first the kingdom of God was important.

We all have lots to do.  We’re all busy. Some of what we do is important. Some of it, not so much. May we be given grace to focus on what is most important, which might well be growing in love of God and neighbor.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

 

Register Now!

Leading for Discipleship: A conference especially for those who have worked with RenewalWorks Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Wilmington, NC

Click here for registration and more info

 

Monday Matters (September 16, 2019)

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Psalm 139:1-18:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them-they are more than the sand; I come to the end, I am still with you.

Orientation
 

If it isn’t true, it ought to be.

I find myself saying that about a number of things, and including the origins of the word “orientation.” Maybe some wiser reader can confirm or debunk, but I’ve been told that the word finds its origin, at least in part, from baptismal services in the first centuries of the church.

These services were held on Easter eve, and they went on for a long time. The liturgy included long lists of renunciations, renouncing every imaginable kind of evil in the cosmos, in our social systems, in our hearts. They also included long lists of affirmations, positive and hopeful statements about how the baptismal candidate intends to live. In the Episcopal liturgy, knowing that many Episcopalians don’t have the stomach for really long liturgies, the number of renunciations and affirmations has been reduced. There are three of each. You can find them on page 302-303 of the Prayer Book.

But here’s the deal. I’m told that way back when, in the course of those early liturgies, the renunciations were said in darkness of night, facing west, the place of darkness, the place where the sun disappeared, a place that at that time people imagined was inhabited by barbarians and stupid people.

When they were through with the renunciations, the candidate would pull a 180 and turn to the east. If the timing of the liturgy was right, the sun was just cracking the horizon. With that turn, the baptismal candidate would turn to the light. That was their new orientation, as in facing the orient, the east. It was about choosing a direction. It was about turning to the light.

The word ‘orientation” has many meanings in our culture. It speaks to human sexuality, as we are called to respect the dignity of every human being. It speaks to the way a home or office building is situated on a plot of land. And in September, as schools and churches start, it speaks of programs of initiation and information and explanation, by which people are oriented, by which they can be told how to move in a forward direction.

If this baptismal stuff is true, it speaks of direction, and how we as people of faith are to orient our lives. I thought of this in particular on Saturday when in the daily readings assigned by our church, we read Psalm 139. It made me recall my orientation to seminary a few years ago. We were gathered as an entering class to learn about our three year course of study at Union Seminary in New York. We were excited to be there, a place whose history was marked by theological giants. We were on hallowed ground. We anticipated deep, rigorous, erudite study.

In the course of that orientation, we were addressed by the Rev. James Forbes, preaching professor who went on to serve as Senior Pastor at Riverside Church.  He told us he had orienting advice for us. Since I had been out of school for a while, and was not sure I had the academic chops to cut it, I was all ears.

He said in this orientation session: “I have just one word of advice for you: Memorize Psalm 139. It will change your life.” And I thought, “That’s it?” I grew up in a church where we engaged in lots of bible memorizing and little serious biblical scholarship. I thought he’d tell us to study hard. Memorize?

He told us to let this particular psalm be our guide. Let it orient us, in heart and mind. I did commit it to memory at the time and still remember a lot of it. A chunk of it is included above. I commend it to you. Let it guide you this week and beyond. Let it orient you with the promise that God goes with you, knowing you better than you know yourself. Take some time this week to think about how your spiritual life is being oriented, in which direction you are headed. Like those early Christians on Easter morning, turn to the light, remembering what Jesus said: “I am the light of the world.”

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

 

Register Now!

Leading for Discipleship: A conference especially for those who have worked with RenewalWorks Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Wilmington, NC

Click here for registration and more info

 

Monday Matters (September 9, 2019)

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The Letter to Philemon, recapped:

In the New Testament book, the Letter to Philemon, we eavesdrop on one of Paul’s personal communications. (It’s not usually nice to read other people’s mail, but it seems canonically correct in this case.) Here’s the story in a nutshell (my version). The apostle Paul is in prison and meets up with another prisoner named Onesimus, a runaway slave who may have stolen money from his master, Philemon. Onesimus has some kind of transformation while in prison, under the mentorship of Paul. When his sentence is up, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, not as slave but as friend and brother. Paul not only asks Philemon to accept him, but Paul offers to cover the cost of any loss that Onesimus has incurred. The implication is that reconciliation occurred. Apparently there was a first century bishop named Onesimus. Maybe this was the same guy.  Could be.

A reading from Romans 8:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

September 9, 2019
 

I used to be silently critical of new grandparents who also happened to be preachers. I noticed that as they held forth from the pulpit (that piece of furniture that exists six feet above contradiction), many of them talked way too much about the new addition to the family, as if they had discovered grandparenthood.

Then three months ago, I became a grandparent of an extraordinarily remarkable young person. And let me just say that I think I’ve exhibited remarkable restraint in not sharing at length, every Monday morning, the marvels of this stunning child.

Before he arrived, his parents did something unusual. They asked if we had any suggestions for names. I immediately went biblical. There are a lot of distinctive choices. Zerubbabel. Athaliah. Jeroboam. One day on a long drive, I thought of how few baby boys I’ve known who were named Onesimus. Actually, there are none. I knew that to name a child Onesimus Sidebotham was to invite middle school bullying. So I never put it in the suggestion box. But it’s a great name. It means useful.

I preached on Onesimus yesterday, as he appears in the New Testament letter to someone named Philemon. Apologies to those who heard the sermon, but his story has been on my mind. I gave my version of a recap of what we know about him, printed in the column on the left. Take some time today and read the whole letter. It’s only 21 verses, providing a case study in Christian community. As I thought about this letter’s relevance, there were three things that struck me about his story.

First, it tells us that there is no place that God’s love cannot work. I imagined Paul in prison, slightly obsessive-compulsive missionary, wondering what spiritual entrepreneurial opportunities he was missing as he was in the slammer. What was God thinking? Didn’t God need him to be out and about saving people? But in that place, where church planting was put on hold, Paul mentored one young man. Maybe others. Maybe only him. And maybe that was the reason for the whole time in prison. Is there a place that you think is beyond the reach of God’s love, a place beyond usefulness? It may be a place of challenge or strife. It may be a place of boredom or routine. Could it be that the place where you are right now is the place to which God calls you, the place where God wants you to show and share love? Is that hard to believe?

Second, there is no person God’s grace cannot use. That’s true of Paul, whose early days were spent persecuting the Jesus movement. Quite a turn-around. That’s true of Onesimus, who had done something to end up in prison. That’s true of many biblical characters who hear God’s call and think it’s a wrong number. Moses wasn’t a good speaker. Isaiah had unclean lips. Jeremiah was a kid. Peter was a self-confessed sinner. Mary asked “How can this be?” It may be that you have little idea how God could actually use you. But as Monday morning dawns, I bet there will be all kinds of opportunities in this day to do God’s work. If you can’t think of any, ask the Holy Spirit to show you some.

Third, there is no relationship beyond God’s redeeming power. Paul came to know of a broken relationship between members of the community. He used his influence, his wisdom as an old man, to build a bridge, to heal a relationship, to make a way forward. That’s what the community does at its best, bringing people together. And in the power of the Jesus movement, that kind of healing power can take place in families, in work places, in friendships, in churches, in nations, between races. How might you be Onesimus-ian in that situation? How might you be useful?

When Paul wrote about God’s love in Romans 8, he envisioned that love as bigger than we could ever imagine. You can read a bit of that vision in the verses from Romans printed in the column on the left. Use it as confirmation that wherever you are, whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, whatever mess you face, God’s love has a way of finding a way. Maybe that’s why the first Christians were called people of the way.

You may not want to change your name to Onesimus, but God knows you are useful.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

 

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Monday Matters (September 2, 2019)

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Love and work, work and love, that’s all there is.
-Sigmund Freud
The Collect crafted for Labor Day
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings selected for Labor Day:
-Ecclesiasticus 38:27-32a
-Psalm 107:1-9
-1 Corinthians 3:10-14
-Matthew 6:19-24
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw– the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.
1 Corinthians 3:10-14

St. Paul and Sigmund Freud: Love and work

It’s Labor Day, one of the few national/secular holidays that has crept its way into the church calendar. So somebody somewhere sometime thought that Labor Day has something to do with our faith. What might that something be?

Each year, this holiday (a.k.a., holy day) asks people of faith to think about the work we are given to do, why and how we do it. There are prayers and readings chosen for the day. I’ve printed the collect for the day in the column on the left. Note how it indicates that in our work we are interconnected with others, whatever that work may be.

The readings chosen for the day have a lot to say about work. You might want to look them up. I’ve noted citations in the column on the left as well. A reading from Ecclesiasticus points to the variety of work we do. In the gospel passage, an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges disciples to think about why they are working, and what they treasure. (Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.)

And then there’s a brief passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. He wrote to this community, an unruly group, often squabbling with each other the way church folks still squabble. Nothing new under the sun. As the apostle coaches them, he talks about the work they’ve been given to do. For him, that work in its great variety is a matter of building on a foundation. It brings to mind what Sigmund Freud said about work and love. He said: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

All of which makes me think about our foundations. On what are we building our lives? Freud said that love and work are the foundations, the cornerstones. St. Paul takes it a step further, asking us to consider where love and work find their foundation in the construction of our lives. On what are love and work based?

For those of us swimming in the stream of the Jesus movement, we need to recognize not only that our lives are built on love and work, relationships and effort. In St. Paul’s words, we need to see that our love and work, our relationships and efforts are based on a person we commit to follow. To riff on a favorite hymn: Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone.

So take some time on this day off to think about your own life, about your relationships and about where you apply effort. Think about how love and work provide a cornerstone, a foundation for you. And think about what it means to have Jesus as foundation for love and work. In my early Monday morning meandering, here are a few answers: Christ as foundation means we build our lives on grace. It means we build our lives on service. It means we build our lives on humility. It means we seek to be a peacemaker. It means we attend to the outsider. It means we practice forgiveness, and I do mean practice, because at least in my case, I need to get better at it. It means that we see that love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. It means a new way of life.

Newsflash: There are other foundations on which we can build our lives. Hear what Jesus is saying: Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

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Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel.

Psalm 69:6

 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

Mark 1:1-3

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians 2:13-21

Walls and ramps

What’s your must see TV? For me, it used to be the Muppets, and not just when I was a child. Of late, it’s the segment of the PBS Newshour on Friday, when Judy Woodruff moderates a conversation between Mark Shields and David Brooks. I appreciate her spirit and wisdom. I wish she would give tutorials to every other journalist. And I really appreciate the way these two gentlemen converse, often disagreeing with each other (and of course, with me) and still showing respect, civility, kindness and humor. We need more of that. Lots more. And that has made me particularly interested in David Brooks’ book The Second Mountain. In that book, he describes his unusual spiritual journey. He grew up in a Jewish family in New York and attended an Episcopal school and an Episcopal summer camp. Friends from that camp experience remain among his best and longest lasting. It was fun for me to read because the school he identifies was located in lower Manhattan at the church where I met my bride. And the camp he identifies was a place we would go regularly for retreat. All of which is to say that he has found spiritual home in both Judaism and Christianity. I don’t know many people who’ve done that in the way he describes. As he talks about his own journey of faith, there’s an interesting passage in which he identifies both walls that blocked further spiritual development and ramps that made movement forward possible. Here are the four walls he identifies. First, he notes that religious people often have a siege mentality, a sense of “collective victimhood that moves them from a humble faith to a fighting brigade.” I suspect that’s where the notion of crusades comes from. I bet we’ve all seen it. Second, he notes that religious people are often really bad listeners, failing to meet people where they are, improvising “off-the-shelf maxims and bumper sticker sayings.” It reminds me of my favorite Dave Barry question: “Why is it that people who want to tell you about their religion never want to hear about yours?” Third, he talks about how people often use religious concern to practice invasive care, using the cover of faith to get in other people’s business. And finally, he accuses religious folks of settling for intellectual mediocrity, checking God-given brains at the door. These are walls he has experienced, blocking spiritual growth. I wonder this morning if you identify with any of these or if there are other walls that have stood in the way of your own faith development. Thanks be to God, David Brooks also identifies four ramps that have helped him access a deeper spiritual life. The first for him, perhaps reflecting time hanging around the Episcopal Church, has to do with the power of ritual, the “collective enactments of moral order and sacred story.” Second, he celebrates an unabashed faith, a faith unafraid to express itself. This is something our Presiding Bishop teaches us.  Third, he talks about prayer, admitting that he doesn’t feel very good at prayer, confessing that prayer can often be used to deliver a message to folks we’re with. In our house we call it horizontal praying: “Dear God, help my sibling not to be such a jerk.” But David Brooks understands prayer as an encounter and conversation with God, suggesting the central thought that what we are talking about is relationship. Finally, an on-ramp for him is a deepening spiritual consciousness, a counter-cultural recognition that not everything in life is a matter of material success. I wonder this morning if you identify with these or if you would name other ramps that have furthered your own faith development. Ask yourself this week: What have been the walls and the ramps in my own spiritual journey? Such reflection may call for forgiveness and gratitude. Then think about how you may have functioned as a wall or ramp in someone else’s life. You may need to make some amends on that one. How has your faith community been wall or ramp? And then forgetting what’s behind, take this week as a chance to serve as a ramp to someone in your life. Ask the Holy Spirit what that might be. Opportunities abound.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

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

 

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Monday Matters (August 19, 2019)

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Gratitude as the gospel speaks about it embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not so holy. Is this possible in a society where gladness and sadness, joy and sorrow, peace and conflict remain radically separated? Can we counter the many advertisements that tells us, “You cannot be glad when you are sad, so be happy: buy this, do that, go here, go there, and you will have a moment of happiness during which you can forget your sorrow? Is it truly possible to embrace with gratitude all of our life and not just the good things that we like to remember? Jesus calls us to recognize that gladness and sadness are never separate, that joy and sorrow really belong together, and that mourning and dancing are part of the same movement. That is why Jesus calls us to be grateful for every movement that we have lived and to claim our unique journey as God’s way to mold our hearts to greater conformity with God’s own. The cross is the main symbol of our faith, and it invites us to find hope where we see pain and to reaffirm the resurrection where we see death. The call to be grateful is a call to trust that every moment of our life can be claimed as the way of the cross that leads us to new life.
Henri Nouwen, from an article called “All is Grace,” Weavings, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1992

All is grace

An intriguing irony of the gospels: the best teachers are not the really religious people of the day. Lessons come from a good Samaritan, an ostracized woman delivered from demons, a hated Roman centurion, a Canaanite mother referred to as a dog, a foreign leper, children regarded as worthless in that society. They know and show what it means to have a relationship with God while the clergy du jour stumble along cluelessly as blind guides. Jesus himself, born a homeless refugee, incarnates God’s presence with us. So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised these days if we’re taking moral lessons not from the most popular Christian preachers, but from sports and entertainment figures, including late night TV comedians. Such lessons came to me last week as I watched Anderson Cooper interview Stephen Colbert. I commend it to you. Many of you have probably seen it already. One clergy friend pondered showing the interview in lieu of Sunday sermon. These two guys talked a lot about the political situation, subject of another column. But what captured my interest was Colbert’s rich theological insights into the human experience of suffering, something I suspect we each know something about. As one of my mentors used to tell his congregation: “Suffering is the promise life always keeps.” A bit bleak, perhaps, for a Monday morning. But tell me it isn’t true? Colbert knew loss from an early age, his father and brother killed in a plane crash. He recently wrote a condolence letter to Anderson Cooper, who had experienced his own loss. I think that’s what triggered the interview, in which Colbert said: “The bravest thing you can do is to accept with gratitude the world as it is, to love the thing that I most wish had not happened,” Colbert had asked: “What punishments of God are not gifts?” When pressed to explain, he said: “It’s a gift to exist. It’s a gift to exist,” Colbert, slightly changing emphasis in the retelling. “And with existence comes suffering. There is no escaping that. I guess I’m either a Catholic or a Buddhist when I say those things.” There’s more: “If you are grateful for your life…then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for. And then, so what do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it is like to be a human being if it is true that all humans suffer.” Colbert went on to say that this is partly why he is a Christian, because in Jesus, God comes to suffer among us. In several places in the gospels, it says that Jesus regarded the people with compassion, a word which literally means “suffering with.” Karen Armstrong says that word is at the heart of all great religious traditions. That’s something for which we can give thanks. Scripture calls us to give thanks in all things. That doesn’t mean we don’t wish bad things hadn’t happened. But the difficult things, which we all know something about, can become a bridge, creating deeper connection with God and neighbor. Going back to the gospels, I imagine that the best teachers were those who knew suffering. Give thanks in all things? It reminds me of a college friend, who ended his religion papers with the acronym SOKOP: Sounds okay on paper. Easier said than done. That is certainly true when it comes to gratitude in the face of suffering. All of this, it seems to me, must be our own interior work. A person of privilege like myself can only tell myself to be grateful in the limited suffering I’ve experienced. Mostly rich people problems. I can’t tell that to people who become deathly ill with no warning, to toddlers put in cages, to parents separated from children, to spouses widowed after gun violence, the list is unending. I can only enter into the counter-intuitive dynamic by which greater human community is gained through loss. It’s a message of resurrection. It’s Easter after Good Friday. This week, may we each be given grace to act on the challenging scripture from I Thessalonians (5:18): In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

Register Now!

Leading for Discipleship: A conference especially for those who have worked with RenewalWorks Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Wilmington, NC Click here for registration and more info