Monthly Archives: December 2016

Monday Matters (December 26, 2017)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham

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


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


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


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


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


Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.

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

Monday Matters (December 18, 2016)


Advent questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham

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


Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.

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

Monday Matters (December 12, 2016)


Tune my heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham

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


Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.

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


“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham

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


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

“Get me the heck out of the wilderness!”


Jay SidebothamContact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.

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