Monday Matters (August 6, 2018)

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The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life

Turn
Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus

Learn
Reflect on scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings

Pray
Dwell intentionally with God each day

Worship
Gather in community weekly to thank, praise and dwell with God

Bless
Share faith and unselfishly give and serve

Go
Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus

Rest
Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace and restoration

Calendar alert: Today, August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Read this great story (Luke 9:28-36) and see how the disciples came to see Jesus at the center.

Finding the center

I’ve been praying for healing for Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, who had surgery last week. Understatement alert: I’m not alone in those prayers. I’ve also been praying in thanksgiving for his leadership, and the challenge he recently put to Episcopalians and any others who are interested.

At the convention of the denomination last month, he invited folks to commit to the way of love, the way of Jesus. That way is outlined in seven spiritual practices which you can find at this website: www.episcopalchurch.org/explore-way-love.  I’ve also included them above. Their goal? To help people move to a Jesus-centered life.

It’s very much in line with the work we do with RenewalWorks, which begins with an online inventory asking people about their own spiritual life. Based on answers, the research indicates four stages of spiritual growth along a continuum. These four stages are: Exploring, Growing, Deepening and Centered.

More than 2/3 of Episcopalians indicate that they are in the first two stages: exploring or growing. For those who are centered, percentages are in the low single digits. Despite the small numbers, we hold that centeredness as a goal, as we seek a Jesus-centered life.

So what does it mean to be so centered? Eastern religious traditions may have lessons for us. Focus on balance, silence, intention and core strength contribute to centeredness. Contrast that with the distractions we find in our ADD culture. In our context, what would a Jesus-centered life actually look like? Find here a few suggestions. (You may add more):

A Jesus-centered life means listening to Jesus’ teaching, being his student. It’s spelled out, in summary fashion, in the commandment in the Hebrew Scripture. Love God. Love neighbor. Simple, but not easy.

A Jesus-centered life means acting the way he acted. We have a relative who lives in town who regularly calls in the morning and asks “How can I help you today?” That’s a Jesus thing. Service.

A Jesus-centered life means giving the way he gave, with a generosity of spirit extended especially to those who have been excluded or pushed to the margins.

A Jesus-centered life means forgiving the way he forgave. That’s a hard one for me, because I treasure resentments like trophies.

A Jesus-centered life means taking it to the Lord in prayer. I marvel that Jesus repeatedly went off to pray to the one he called his Father. If he could take that time in his limited three year ministry, when he had a world to save, maybe we can do that too.

Summing up, a Jesus-centered life means living in gratitude for the grace of the word made flesh, the God of creation stretching out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into saving embrace.

My spiritual advisor (a.k.a., my spouse of 33 years, bless her heart) tells me that the word “ego” is really an acronym which means “edging God out.” Whether we admit it or not, I think much of our striving is motivated in pursuit of a me-centered life. It takes practice to live otherwise. Even the most altruistic has got ego gratification at work, or at least as temptation. (As I have previously noted, one of my mentors confessed: “I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.”) But that should not keep us from moving along the spiritual continuum toward a more centered life, centered on Jesus.

Think this week about what a Jesus-centered life looks like for you. Along the way, ask yourself whether it is something you wish to pursue.

-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 (July 30, 2018)

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
-Romans 12:1-10

The Honor Challenge

In the mornings, it’s been my practice to start the day with Jay’s stream-lined version of Morning Prayer, which includes prayers, reading and thinking about the scripture passages assigned in a daily lectionary. Sometimes I run across passages that really speak to me. Sometimes I’m befuddled. Sometimes unmoved. Sometimes I run across passages I would have omitted. (Thank goodness no one put me on that committee.)

In recent weeks, we’ve been reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, as it celebrates the wideness of God’s mercy, the amazing grace that is far more expansive than any of us religious types like to admit. That letter has been at the heart of renewal in the church over the centuries, precisely because it celebrates the love of God from which we can never be separated.

Its final chapters (12-16) represent what I call the “so-what” factor, implications for living that come as our response to amazing grace. As I read those chapters last week in my early morning fog, one particular line stood out for me. I’ve been thinking about it over the past few days, and I’d like to share it with Monday readers. As Paul speaks to the church, calling them to live out the grace they have received, he issues this challenge: Outdo one another in showing honor. It almost sounds like a competition. Figure out ways to honor each other.

It got me thinking about that old-fashioned word “honor.” It can easily get co-opted, its meaning cheapened in a culture where we talk about honoring a credit card or a coupon. Other traditions often reveal a better handle on the idea. I remember visiting a Native American reservation, and attending a potluck dinner for the community, a long table abundantly spread with great food. After grace was said, I expected the many children in the community to be the first through the line. Much to my surprise, without instruction from anyone, the eldest in the room, some assisted by canes and walkers, went through the line first, an outward and visible sign of a culture that honored its most senior members. Quite a difference from our youth-centered culture which often relegates seniors to the margins. Out of sight, out of mind.

In the liturgy for the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, the word “honor” looms large. It shows up in a couple places, but for me, most significantly in the exchange of rings as the soon-to-be married couple say to each other: “With all that I am and all that I have, I honor you.” It’s not a commitment to a set of rules. It’s not a contract. It’s a commitment to another person. It’s a covenant by which the best is sought for the other.

That call to honor is implicit in promises made at baptism, inviting us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Does it really mean all? It calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. Does it really mean every?

I can’t say that I always understand what the Apostle Paul was thinking, but I have a feeling that kind of covenantal relationship is what he hoped for when he challenged the Roman church members to outdo one another in showing honor. It is indeed a counter-cultural approach in a world that asks “What’s in it for me?” or “What have you done for me lately?”

What would your interactions look like this week if you embraced St. Paul’s challenge, if you tried to outdo one another in showing honor? What would it mean in your office? In your home? In your church? What would it mean to honor the people who wait on you at a store or restaurant? The pushy driver trying to cut into your lane? The relative whose political point of view makes you nuts?

Take the challenge. Outdo one another.

-Jay Sidebotham

Coming attractions: Please note that the entire Episcopal Church will be invited to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans during the season of Epiphany (January and February 2019), as the second round of the Good Book Club, organized by Forward Movement and endorsed by the Presiding Bishop. Fasten your seat belts. Romans renews.

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

Monday Matters (July 23, 2018)

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The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Mark 6

Rest a while

A recent poll indicated that nearly half (47%) of parents say that they share fewer meals with their family than when they were growing up. 43% say that they have fewer family meals now than they did five years ago. 57% of parents say that when they do eat a meal together, family members are distracted by technology. I suspect we’ve all been at a restaurant and looked over at another table to see a family together, each on the phone, maybe even texting each other. Maybe that’s your family. It could be mine. (I’ve been known to send an email from my office upstairs to my wife working downstairs.)

In our work with congregations, we find that a busy schedule can be one of things that gets in the way of spiritual growth. We’ve learned that being busy with stuff at church is no guarantee of a deeper spiritual life. In fact, that kind of busy-ness can be an obstacle, an impediment, even an off-ramp.

And while there is no mention of smartphones or social media in the Bible, which is a mercy, the gospel reading we heard in church yesterday does have something to say on the subject, once again proving that scripture is a lively word.

There’s this interesting line in the reading from Mark, printed above, which says that Jesus invited the apostles to a retreat. He called them to a quiet place. Many were “coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” I suspect every generation thinks it’s the busiest, the most overworked, the one facing greatest schedule demands. For whatever reason, the apostles were busy being busy, with no leisure even to eat. To my mind, as someone who rarely misses a meal, that is busy. Circumstances were of course different than ours. Maybe they had no leisure to eat because they lived at subsistence level. Maybe they didn’t have leisure to eat because they were scrambling to find money to buy food.

But I’ve always taken this passage as timely. When I get all flipped out about a crowded calendar, I recall that there’s nothing new under the sun. I think of all the times Jesus goes off by himself to pray, to rest. How did he have time to do that? He had a world to save. I imagine Jesus looking at the way we live, regarding it with compassion, seeing us coming and going, as we make life choices that forfeit time to sit and (literally or figuratively) have a meal. The gospels tell us that Jesus looked on the crowd who were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. That could be us.

When I served in midtown Manhattan, at a church on a busy avenue, with as much pedestrian traffic in front of it as any church I know, I used to stand on the top steps at rush hour and watch people go by. On a good day, I’d pray for them. The words from the gospel, the description of harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd seemed to fit that New York crowd. Sure, many were accomplished. Many were wealthy. They still looked like sheep headed in a lot of directions.

As I noted, our work on spiritual growth has indicated that the busy-ness of our lives can impede spiritual growth. People claim that they simply do not have the time to gather for worship, or to sit quietly each day, or to engage in ministries to help people in need. With work now accessible 24/7, with stores open all the time, with sports practices round the clock, we probably do need greater intention about time for retreat, reflection, stillness, peace.

I’m taken with the call of our Presiding Bishop to commit to practice the way of love. At the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, he invited Episcopalians to seven practices that help people move toward a life centered on Jesus. (You can learn more about this invitation and read about these practices at www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love.)

One of those seven ways: A call to rest. Just like Jesus’ call to come away to a deserted place and rest a while. Maybe summer is a good time for you to do that. Maybe it’s a good time to look at your calendar and consider whether you are busy being busy. Maybe you feel harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. If any of that is true, maybe you need to hear Jesus say to you: Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (July 16, 2018)

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A favorite hymn text about the church: Hymn #51 in the 1982 Hymnal

We the Lord’s people,
heart and voice uniting, praise him who called us out of sin and darkness into his own light, that he might anoint us a royal priesthood.

This is the Lord’s house, home of all his people, school for the faithful, refuge for the sinner, rest for the pilgrim, haven for the weary; all find a welcome.

This is the Lord’s day, day of God’s own making, day of creation, day of resurrection,
day of the Spirit, sign of heaven’s banquet,
day for rejoicing.

In the Lord’s service
bread and wine are offered, that Christ may take them,
bless them, break and give them to all his people, his own life imparting, food everlasting.

Summer reading assignment

Ah, July in Texas. What a great idea!

Actually, it was great. I’ve just come back from a small gathering in Austin. About 1000 bishops and deputies, and a host of others like me showed up for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Our time together was marked by lots of meetings (What’s church without meetings?), lively conversations, healthy debate, shared learnings, great fellowship, joyful reunions, vats of guacamole, and compelling liturgy, including preaching by our Presiding Bishop and others. I continue to give thanks and praise to God for the ministry and witness of Michael Curry, who inspires us with the loving, life-giving and liberating message of Jesus.

All of it got me thinking about the church: What is the church really about? What is it for? Is it an institution whose time has come and gone? Does it have a future?

We should always be asking those questions. A mentor put it this way. In every generation, the church needs to ask whether it is doing and being what it is called to do and be. Statistics indicate a transitional time for the church in our culture. That makes some folks anxious or fearful. I take it as opportunity to think creatively about our call. This guiding question for me in my ministry comes from Brian McLaren: Is the church a club for the elite who pretend to have arrived or a school of disciples who are still on the way?

The vision of church as school, the belief that a synonym for disciple is student with Jesus as instructor leads me to give a summer reading assignment. For the next few Sundays, our lectionary will offer selections from the New Testament letter to the Ephesians. It has become one of my favorite books, as it speaks of the mystery, marvel, miracle of the church. It speaks of blessing, inheritance, hope and call. Mostly it speaks of grace and how we respond to it.

Take this summer to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest what this letter has to say about the church, and your place in it. I believe the whole letter can be summed up in these few verses,

Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

These verses tell us that it begins with God’s grace, that our place in the community is not a reflection of our spectacular religious achievement, but is the outgrowth of original blessing. Our life in the church only makes sense as we see that all is gift. How would this week shift if you carried with you this notion of amazing grace?

It goes on to say that we are given gifts for a purpose. We are God’s workmanship, the result of God’s creativity, created for good works. How would your week shift if in whatever you do, you recall that you are God’s creative work, intended for expressions of gratitude and generosity, the response to grace?

It goes on to say that God has called us to a new way of life. God has prepared a way for us, good works in which we are meant to walk. How would your week shift if you woke each morning and asked God to show you clearly the path God would wish you to walk?

There will be no written book report on your summer reading (although if you want to send your comments to me, I’d love to see them). Rather the report will be your life, as people see your good works and give glory to God in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (July 9, 2018)

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Proverbs 11:17

Those who are kind reward themselves, but the cruel do themselves harm.

Luke 6:35,36
Jesus said: But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Colossians 3:12
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

I Corinthians 13:4
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant.

And then there’s this from the Dalai Lama whose birthday was last Friday:
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.

The Courage of Kindness

I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing the movie about Mr. Rogers. A goofy comedy or something with themes Jurassic or Jedi would have interested me more. But we heard good things about the movie, and my spouse (way more spiritual evolved than I am) really wanted to see it. So I went. Good husband award.

I was surprised by how it moved me. For someone like me who overly indulges in the toxicity of 24/7 news, it provided an antidote that fed the spirit. The movie is aptly titled “Won’t you be my neighbor?” That’s something I can imagine Jesus asking.

Not that I was asked, but I could suggest an alternative title for the movie. It would be “The Courage of Kindness.” Other members of my family had apparently paid more attention to Mr. Rogers over the years. For me, the movie served as introduction. The little I had known about his show had left me unimpressed with its unpolished simplicity, its quiet, slow pace, its fairly crude production value. As Saturday Night Live demonstrated, it was easy to mock.

I hadn’t realized how brave Mr. Rogers was. He saw a need and followed his instincts to offer a show that was not in the least flashy, a show which so clearly affirmed the dignity of children, a show that took children seriously. In a gentle way, he addressed issues of racial segregation. He spoke honestly about exclusion, about family break-ups, about violence, about death. In the face of all that, he preached grace, the inherent value of each person. I left the movie impressed with the powerful courage of his kind of kind spirit. Who knew?

It made me think about how much we need the courage of kindness in our world. So I cracked open my Bible and was surprised at the number of times the virtue of kindness comes up. I listed a few references to kindness above. One in particular strikes me: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. (Ephesians 4:32) I read in that a call to live life mimicking the kindness of Christ, who called the children to himself when adults were trying to silence the children or shut them out. Jesus took the children in his arms. He blessed them.

Speaking of blessings, a number of years ago, I was introduced to a blessing which I use at the conclusion of liturgies, a blessing which has spread widely. It goes like this:

Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind. And God’s blessing be with you.

It’s remarkable how many people relate to this blessing. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the rigorous realism that life is short. It may also be that phrase: Make haste to be kind. We could do worse than to wake up each morning and think about how soon kindness can be demonstrated. Opportunities abound.

Our culture is experiencing a drought of kindness. The crudeness of politicians and pundits tempts us to respond in kind. The spirit of Jesus invites us to another way. Jesus said: Don’t respond in kind. Be kind. Treat each other with grace and forgiveness. Affirm the dignity of all persons, especially children.

What would it mean this week for you and me to make haste to be kind? What might it look like to share that spirit not in the reluctant way I went to the movie, but recognizing that there is remarkable power when we practice the courage of kindness.

-Jay Sidebotham

Note to readers:
I wrote this post after I saw the movie last week. Then on Friday, I read an excellent column by David Brooks, published in the NY Times, all about the meaning of this movie. I commend it to you. I wish I’d written it.

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

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

Monday Matters (July 2, 2018)

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Churches should always be two things simultaneously: schools for saints and hospitals for sinners. On the good side, they ought to be schools, helping to draw out of us our best, teaching us the skills and practices that helps us in imitation of our Lord, to be humble, loving and wise. At the same time, in an acknowledgement of the broken place where each of us starts, it ought to be a hospital. There is much sickness in us that needs to be healed on our way to sanctity and it will take time. In any church, we are always going to be surrounded with other recovering sinners like ourselves. Among the great gifts we can give each other is to release the temptation to grumble at each other’s brokenness.
-Christopher Martin
The Restoration Project, a wonderful book published by Forward Movement. Buy it.

Pray for the church. Pray for our country.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

This is one of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book (page 816). It’s a prayer for the holy catholic church, which I take to mean the church around the world in all its diversity, everyone from Baptist to Presbyterian to Pentecostal to non-denominational to Roman Catholic to Orthodox and my personal fave, Episcopal, to name just a few.

What I love about the prayer is how it begins with rigorous realism, the recognition that the church always stands in need of renewal and reform, maybe even resurrection. It’s a reminder that the institution is not an end in and of itself. It is an instrument for people to come to know the love of God powerfully and graciously expressed in Jesus. It’s a reminder that the church exists to remind the world that love is the way. The prayer acknowledges that the church sometimes does that well, and sometimes, not so much. When it falls short, as it often does, the church needs to change

And we all love change, right?

This prayer has been on my heart as many people wing their way to Austin for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Austin in July. Good idea. The convention will meet from July 5-13. Join me in prayers for this gathering. I’m praying that it will be an occasion where the church grows in its ability to share the news that love is the way.

This prayer has also been on my heart in this week that includes Independence Day, a civic holiday included in the church calendar to give thanks for our nation. There is much to give thanks for in this noble experiment called the United States. There is much to love about our country. And we have a lot to work on. We could apply this prayer to our nation, praying that we will be filled with truth and peace. We can most certainly pray that where there is corruption or error or anything amiss, that we can move forward together.

This week provides opportunity to think about the character of our nation, as the occupant of the Oval Office asks us to consider what makes a nation great. As I think about families being divided, that question has triggered my recollection of what Nelson Mandela said: The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children. As I think about toddlers in cages, I think about what Doestoevsky wrote: The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

The fact is, we have work to do as a church and as a society. Join in prayer for our church gathered in Texas to figure out what it means to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.

And join in prayer for our nation, as divisions mount. Use the collect for Independence Day if that is helpful. It’s printed below. We have much to celebrate in our common life, in church, in nation. We’ve got a lot to work on.

The Collect for Independence Day

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (June 25, 2018)

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How will you observe the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, a.k.a. his birthday?

Bake a locust and honey cake. I hear it’s delicious. John the Baptist thought so.

Go to work dressed like John the Baptist. Camel’s hair may not be summer attire, but it will be sure to spur conversation.

Read the scriptures chosen for his feast day. Here they are:

  • Isaiah 40:1-11
  • Acts 13:14b-26
  • Psalm 85
  • Luke 1:57-80

Give thanks for someone in your life who points to Christ, to grace and love breaking into the world.

Think about how this day you will point beyond yourself to Christ in the world.

What’s your point?

Today, June 25th, the church observes the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, one of the most eccentric characters in the Bible. And that’s saying something because there are a lot of eccentric characters in the Bible. Happy birthday, John!

We celebrate his birthday right near the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. In contrast, we celebrate the birth of Jesus when days are the shortest. I’ve been told that is not accidental. It’s a way for the calendar to preach, reflecting a story told in the Gospel of John. This may only be of interest to church geeks, but here’s the story:

People came to John the Baptist and asked about his relationship with Jesus. There’s some sense that people wondered if John was the one they should follow. Maybe John was the long awaited messiah. In response to the question, John does what he always does. He points beyond himself to Christ. He has this to say about Jesus: He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

The calendar acts that out in this simple way. The days that follow John’s birth shorten in length, while the days which follow Jesus’ birth lengthen. I can’t vouch that this is true. They did not consult me in calendar composition. But if it isn’t true, it ought to be. And it makes it worth our while to consider what John’s example means for us this Monday morning.

At one point in the gospels, Jesus described John the Baptist as the greatest person ever born. He doesn’t say that kind of thing about many people. Most of the disciples were quite often knuckleheads. So I’ve wondered what was so great about John the Baptist.

Let me venture this answer. John, a person of remarkable gifts and magnetism, knew who he was and knew who Jesus was. And he knew those two things should not be confused. He was no shrinking violet and he had a powerful ministry. A lot of ego strength for sure, willing to take on the political and religious authorities. It eventually cost him his head.

But he also knew that there was a power, a presence greater than himself. He chose to have his ministry be one of witness and service, preparing the way of Lord, pointing beyond himself to Jesus, to God present among us, and especially present in the suffering of the world.

In the history of Christian art, John the Baptist is often depicted with arm extended, index finger pointing towards Christ, often to Christ on the cross. With that depiction, John the Baptist becomes spiritual coach for each one of us, inviting us to figure out how to do the same. How will our lives point beyond ourselves to God’s presence in the world, meeting the suffering of the world? Asked another way: What’s our point?

Use John the Baptist’s birthday to reflect on your own life. To what does your life point? What might you do this Monday that would direct someone’s attention, maybe someone’s affection towards Christ? Asked another way, where can you point to grace breaking into the world?

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (June 18, 2018)

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Jesus said: 
You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.
-John 5:39 
(New Revised Standard Version)
 
 
Jesus said: You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!
-John 5:39 
(The Message)
 
 
What makes the church, your congregation and mine, different, utterly essential, without equal, unique? Let me venture a response:
A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.
-Will Willimon
Shaped by the Bible

What does God want from us?

What’s our lens?

Years ago, I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful young couple. The groom-to-be was a child of folks in my church. The bride, a confirmed atheist, with no church background, gracefully agreed to a church wedding as concession to her beloved. They were bright, engaging and interested in lots of conversation before their wedding. Our pre-marital counseling sessions led to lively discussions about religion, probing questions aimed in my direction about how faith made sense in today’s world, especially given the hypocrisy of the church (to which, by the way, I could only reply: Guilty as charged).

After the wedding, the couple gave me a gift to remind me of those conversations. It was a book entitled: “The Bible Tells Me So: The Use and Abuse of Scripture.” You can get the point of the book from the Table of Contents. A sampling of chapter titles:

How scripture was used to endorse slavery
How scripture was used to endorse the abolitionist movement
How scripture was used to deny ordination to women
How scripture was used to promote ordination of women
How scripture was used to challenge the environmental movement
How scripture was used to support the environmental movement.

On the cover of the book, a quote from Shakespeare: “Even the devil can quote scripture,” a reference to the temptation of Jesus where Satan and our Lord joust by citing scripture passages. All of this comes to mind because of the way scripture is being used in the heart-wrenching discussion of separating children from their parents on our southern border, a defining moral crisis for all of us if ever our nation faced one.

It raises questions for me, because I’m convinced that engagement with scripture is key to spiritual vitality in individuals and congregations. So how do we read scripture? How can scripture be cited in support of such opposite positions? I suspect each of us develops our own canon within the canon, our own set of scriptures that ratify what we already think, the way we gravitate towards favorite cable news channel. But the marvelous and mysterious mosaic we call the Bible, this scriptural symphony speaks with many voices. It speaks about revenge and about forgiveness. It speaks about taking up a sword and about turning swords into plowshares. Given all that, how does scripture guide us in times like these?

It’s a challenge of an adult faith. Jesus battled over how to read scripture, not only with the devil, but with leaders who sought to use scripture for their own political advantage. (Nothing new under the sun.) In the Sermon on the Mount, he quoted laws of the Hebrew Scripture this way: You have heard that it was said, but I say to you. He expanded on ancient laws in a way that always tilted towards grace, mercy and love. In one confrontation, he told his opponents “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have life. But they are witnesses to me.”

And what is that witness? You heard it in the famous wedding homily: Love is the way. That’s the lens we need as we read scripture. (John Calvin described the scripture as a set of spectacles.) When in doubt, choose the pathway that leads to grace, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness? Try out this lens: If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.

To be clear: For those who use scripture to justify separation of parents from children, the lens seems to me to be tragically obstructed, clouded or cracked. Maybe the lens cap is still on.

The Bible, in all its complexity and contradiction, is a story of grace, God reaching out to us, God reaching out to include those on the margins, persistently, inexorably, so that in the end, love wins.

At a gathering last week over dinner, our group spoke about whether we had ever heard God speak to us. One gentleman talked about his journey of faith. He said he never felt good enough. He recalled at one time offering this simple prayer: “God, I’m not perfect.” He said that as he uttered that prayer, he heard a voice say to him: “It doesn’t matter. I want you.” I find that divine desire throughout the pages of the Bible, said to you and me and all God’s children. All God’s children.

Said another way:
Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.

-Jay Sidebotham

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

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

Monday Matters (June 11, 2018)

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Romans 12:1-2  
(The New Revised Standard Version)
 
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.
 
 
Romans 12:1-2 
(The Message)
 
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life-your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life-and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

What does God want from us?

It’s a question I’ve asked at various times in my life. Maybe you have asked it as well. Jesus got asked the question. In response, he reached back into the scriptures he knew and said it’s simple but not easy. It’s one thing but really two. It’s about love: love of God and love of neighbor. In quiet time last week, I was reading the psalm du jour and this verse struck me. I’ve read it before, but it caught my attention in a new way. Here it is:

Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me. Psalm 50:24

I started kicking around the phrase “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” I remembered that on Sundays, when we offer prayer over bread and wine, we often say that we are offering our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. The more I thought about the phrase, the more paradoxical, perhaps oxymoronic it seemed. How do sacrifice and thanksgiving go together?

Look up sacrifice in the dictionary and it’s not a pretty picture. Verbs and nouns suggest something gets killed. It’s bloody. It’s violent. At best, it’s not a whole lot of fun. Even in baseball, somebody loses so somebody else wins. A dutiful parent or spouse or child speaks of the sacrifice he or she has made. It can at times suggest resentment, a teeth-gritting relationship. Where’s the good news in that?

So think with me about what it means to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving? Your response, opinion, guess is as good as mine, but here are a couple thoughts:

Maybe it’s intended to have an ironic twist, a paradox for those of us who think we have to earn God’s grace or favor or approval. For all of us spiritual over-achievers, what would it means to say that the only thing we have to give is our thanks? That is all God wants from us. As the psalmist says, God doesn’t need us to bring us a bunch of cows. Those cows already belong to God. What God seeks is an attitude of gratitude.

Maybe there actually is a dimension of sacrifice in thanksgiving. Maybe we are called to sacrifice our own ego, as we recognize that all we have is gift. There’s an element of dying in that, offering our selves, the kind of language Paul used in Galatians when he said “I have been crucified with Christ.” or in the passage from Romans included below. It’s the kind of language we use in baptism that says we die to self in order to arrive at new life.

Maybe we need to scrap dictionary definitions and shift our thinking so that sacrifice doesn’t mean deprivation or suffering or hardship or violence. Maybe it doesn’t meant that we have to kill something, but rather that our sacrifice can be life giving, life affirming. It suggests the holiness that comes with saying thanks, the holy life that comes with living in mindfulness of all good gifts around us.

These are just some random Monday morning thoughts prompted by a familiar phrase that struck me as if I’d not seen it before. Take this week as an occasion to continue to play with the phrase, in your mind and heart and spirit. Find what it means for you to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Discover what your offering of gratitude might be 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

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

Monday Matters (June 4, 2018)

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Then Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
-Mark 2
 
 
 
A Prayer attributed to St. Francis
 
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
 
 
 
A prayer for humanity

May I be a guard for those who need protection,
A guide for those on the path,
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood,
May I be a lamp in the darkness,
A resting place for the weary,
A healing medicine for all who are sick,
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles,
And for the boundless multitudes  of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening,
Enduring like the earth and sky,
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.
 
-Shantideva
Indian Buddhist sage
700 A.D.
 
(Note: This would not be a bad prayer for religious institutions)

Sabbath

When I started in ordained ministry (clueless young priest as opposed to clueless aging priest), I sought counsel of a rector I respected, asking how to navigate this new life. The advice as I recall had to do not with work but with not working. He said that he was vigilant in making sure he observed Sabbath each week. Obviously, not Sunday, but another day of rest.

He said it was important because on a weekly basis it reminded him that he was not his work. His identity would be found beyond title or job description. I can’t say I heeded his advice very well throughout my career. (Note major eye-rolls from my family as they read this) I was better in some seasons than others. But his advice came to me yesterday when the readings in church focused on the Sabbath.

Observance of the Sabbath is one of the most important religious institutions in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is noted in the opening verses of the Bible, when after God had completed the work of creation, declaring it to be very good, God rested. Apparently, if that kind of down time was good enough for the Holy One, it’s probably good enough for us. The commandment to observe the Sabbath sits near the top of the list of the Ten Commandments. We’re meant to keep it, observe it. How come?

I think it’s because it says something about who we are, and who God is. Maybe that’s true of all religious institutions, customs, liturgies, scriptures, hymnody, clergy. They are not ends in themselves. They are instruments, signs pointing beyond themselves, intended to remind us of God’s identity and our own.

A sign of my age: I remember a time when Sabbath as religious institution had more buy-in in our culture. A day of rest. No shopping. No movies. No soccer practice. (Acolyte scheduling was definitely easier.) No smart phones or lap tops allowing us to work 24/7. Those days are not coming back, but it seems we’ve lost something. Perhaps what we’ve lost is a window into our own identity, a sense of who we are. Perhaps we’ve lost a sense of who God is, a sense discovered when on a regular basis we stop and recognize a higher power. We are reminded that all is grace.

Jesus spent a lot of time challenging religious institutions of his day. On a day when no work was to be done, Jesus performed miracles. He wasn’t supposed to do that. Was he just trying to shake things up? Maybe. But it seems to me he was reminding people what religion and ritual and spiritual practice are all about. They are occasions, woven into the pattern of our lives, to recall something about who God is, and who we are.

More specifically, they are occasions to recall that God is love, and we are called to show that love. All the time. 24/7. In and through and occasionally in spite of the institutions we set up. The Sabbath (like other religious institutions) is meant to serve the cause of God’s mission in the world. Not vice versa.

What Jesus seems to say about God’s identity revealed in the Sabbath is that showing love and working for healing are way more important than following rules or traditions. And as far as our own identity is concerned, we are meant to be ever open to mercy.

This is not to say that the Sabbath is not important. It is to say that it is not an end in itself. It’s an occasion to know God better, as we see something of God’s identity, and our own. If institutions stand in the way of healing and mercy, they become obstacles not instruments. I fear for the obstacles religious people (clergy like me) put in people’s way.

What does your religious observance, your spiritual practice say about who God is, and who you are? What can we do to make our religious communities, our spiritual lives windows of mercy, instruments of peace, conveyors of grace? How can our institutions, our rules and habits, our liturgies reflect what our Presiding Bishop repeats: If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about 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

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