Monthly Archives: August 2018

Monday Matters (August 27, 2018)


Some of the greatest hits of the Book of Job:

Job 1:21
He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 5:7
Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.

Job 5:9-13
God does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number. God gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields; God sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. God frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. God takes the wise in their own craftiness; and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.

Job 19:25-26
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.

Job 23:10
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.

Job 38:1ff
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.

Job 40:1-5
And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Then Job answered the Lord: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”

If I were to say, “You must feel like Ezra, Nehemiah or Ezekiel,” I’m betting most folks would have little idea what I meant, no idea who these biblical characters were. But I’ve discovered over the years, in all kinds of situations, that if I say: “You must feel like Job,” people know exactly what I’m talking about.

Biblical literacy may be sliding in our culture, but Job remains a character with whom many people identify. Even if we don’t know all the particulars of Job’s story, the challenge of why bad things happen to good people surrounds us, whether we’re watching the news or hearing the stories of neighbors or listening to those sitting across from us at the dining room table or reflecting on our own lives.

Alfred Lord Tennyson described the Book of Job, the 19th book of the Bible, as the greatest poem of ancient or modern times. We’re reading it these days in the Daily Lectionary found in the Book of Common Prayer. (If you want to hear some of it, find a local church offering Morning Prayer on a daily basis.) The book is bracketed by brief narrative passages describing how Job got into his predicament and then how he got out of it. But in the middle, the guts of the book, we find poetry that so moved Tennyson and others, conversations between Job and friends, then conversations between Job and God.

The three friends go down in biblical history as profiles in discourage. They start out okay, sitting in silence for seven days with their beleaguered friend, a commendable ministry of presence. But after a while they can’t take the silence any more. They open their big mouths, which often gets us in trouble. They offer advice and explanations. “Your suffering is your fault.” “Your suffering is your children’s fault.” “You should have done something different.” These friends reveal the difficulties we have when we encounter suffering. We wish to make sense of it all. We nervously want to find an explanation. Basically, we talk too much.

I’ve been helped in reflection on the mystery of suffering by a teacher, J. Christiann Beker who wrote a short book entitled Suffering and Hope: The Biblical Vision and the Human Predicament. Dr. Beker, a theologian and biblical scholar, wrote from the perspective of his time in a slave camp in Holland during World War II. He claims no tidy answers to ancient questions. He notes that the Bible speaks in varied voices on the problem of evil. Sometimes suffering can be explained. Sometimes not. Sometimes it’s the result of human activity. Sometimes it can be redemptive. Often, it is simply mystery. In all of it, Beker affirms that, in the end, love wins. Hence the hope. It’s a call to faithfulness when life makes little sense. Have you ever needed to answer that call?

I’ve been told that in the face of inexplicable suffering, we’re called to withstand when we can’t understand. We’re called to proclaim when we can’t explain. Our withstanding proclamation can best be summed up for me in the language of Paul’s letter to the Romans: Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Another mentor offers this slightly gloomy assessment: Suffering is the promise life keeps. In a culture that seeks to numb us to the effects of pain, to put it at a distance, to rationalize it, our faith calls us to face the rigorous truth that pain comes to each of us, and that God is present with us in that challenge.

As our church reads these days from the Book of Job, grapple with the notion that God is present with us in the suffering we face. Can you believe that? See if you can hold on to the promise that love wins. And if you have a friend who is suffering in some way, great or small, you don’t need to say a lot. But it sure would be great if you could show up.

-Jay Sidebotham

P.S. The Early Bird discount to register for the Discipleship Matters Conference expires on Aug 31st!  Register now and join us for an enlightening conversation about discipleship and spiritual growth


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



Monday Matters (August 20, 2018)


O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever.
Let Israel now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let the house of Aaron now say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
Let them now that fear the Lord say, that his mercy endureth for ever.
-Psalm 118:1-4

Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God: for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and selfishness that have chilled his faith.
-Thomas Merton

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
-Mahatma Gandhi, after being refused entrance to a church in Calcutta because he was not from preferred caste

Lord Have Mercy

The prayer of 4th century St. Chrysostom concludes the service of Morning Prayer. It’s a beautiful statement of the power of prayer, written by someone revered by our church. But just about every time I say it, I’m reminded of the fact that the author of this prayer also wrote homilies attacking the Jewish community, sermons brimming with his day’s version of anti-semitism.

Episcopalians owe a great debt to Martin Luther, who inspired Thomas Cranmer as Cranmer assembled the Book of Common Prayer. Luther launched a much-needed reformation in the church and left a legacy of focus on God’s unconditional love, salvation not by our efforts but by the prevenient grace of God. But he also wrote hateful rants against his Jewish neighbors, vile material that often come to mind when I hear “A mighty fortress is our God.”

I was raised in a church with people steeped in scripture, people with deep prayer life. Yet as I reflect on my long life, among my vivid memories are numerous explicitly racist comments and attitudes from those same folks.

One of my earliest memories of Junior High Sunday School is a newsletter from some Christian publishing group that included an article by J. Edgar Hoover excoriating Martin Luther King, claiming he was a communist. I was young but I knew something was out of whack.

All of this came to mind as I shared the tears of a news commentator as the grand jury released results of its investigation into the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. It described the abuse of more than a thousand children. I wonder how you reacted to the news. Was it news?

I learned recently that a pastor I admire resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct, inappropriate behavior in the sacred workplace. The Me-Too movement came to a church that taught me a lot.

All of it could be enough to make this priest a none (i.e., one of those folks in our culture who claim no religious affiliation). On any given day, we could find reason to make that move. All of it makes me realize that if we’re not outraged, we’re not paying attention. All of it calls into question the power of our faith. Is it as transformative as we say?

Of course, we can fall back on Luther’s line that we are saints and sinners at the same time. And I don’t mean to cast stones. We Episcopalians have built our own glass houses. I feel pretty certain that my foibles are probably neither newsworthy nor remarkable, but let me assure you they are there in full force. I know the dark places in my own heart where one could find racism, jealousy, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, indifference, resentment, schadenfreude, hankering for revenge. We need not go into detail. I generally keep them pretty well hidden. Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of spiritual work to do.

That is part of what draws me to St. Paul, and the letter he wrote to the Romans, where he said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He meant all, including and perhaps especially the most religious people of his day. Maybe he was preaching to himself. I also sense that he realized that there’s not that much difference between the best and the worst of us. What St. Paul knew, as he called himself the chief of sinners, is that the mercy of God is bigger than any of our shortcomings. The mercy of God binds the human community. Again, it includes all. It makes me realize why Jesus might have felt that the notorious sinners had more open ears to his message than did the really religious people of his day.

So what keeps me from becoming a none? I still believe that the church at its best can be an instrument to speak of mercy in a world that needs to hear that word. In the meantime, it’s a call to any of us who consider ourselves spiritual or religious to surrender any sense that we’re better than anybody else. And to cling with confidence to the one who modeled sinlessness. And to hold on to the hope that he will carry us to that day when we shall be where we would be, when we shall be what we should be, things that are not now nor could be then shall be our own.

-Jay Sidebotham


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

Monday Matters (August 13, 2018)


Offer these prayers each day this week. They have both been set to music, so feel free to sing along:

I am weak but Thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long, As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee, Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee, Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Thro’ this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares? Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er, Time for me will be no more; Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.

Day by day, day by day, O, dear Lord, three things I pray:
to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly,
follow thee more nearly, day by day.

The prayer of
St. Richard of Chichester

Finding the center

Monday, August 13, 2018

Just a closer walk with thee

Last week, my attention was directed to a Pew Research report, dated August 1. It explored why Americans do or don’t go to religious services. It’s timely material for any of us in mainline denominations who note dramatic decline in membership. Gatherings of clergy often brim with anxiety about these trends, without a clear understanding of how to respond. Over the years, my own response has involved streamlining services, trying to be more contemporary, working on extravagant welcome, providing free parking, serving really good coffee. I wish I’d known about this research.

The Pew research report put it this way. More than any other reason, people say that they attend religious services in order to get closer to God. A majority report that when they attend services, they do indeed experience that greater closeness.

I want to hold that report along side another bit of research, a Gallup poll published last April, which asked what people wanted when they came to church. A quote from that report: “What was the top reason people gave for why they attended worship? Music? Volunteer opportunities? Nope. The top response was sermons. “Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” and “Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” were nearly tied at 76% and 75% respectively.” People want to grow in their relationship with God. Duh.

I’ve participated in church services, indeed I’ve presided at church services that made me feel closer to God. I will also confess that I’ve participated in and presided at services that I suspect made God feel more distant, for me and others. Sometimes we just bore people.

So think this week about what it might mean to be closer to God. What does that look like? When in your life have you made movement towards that closer relationship with God? What caused that to happen? Was church part of that experience?

I don’t have the street cred of Pew Research, but here’s my own anecdotal reporting after talking with a lot of Episcopalians. The most common answer that I get for what drew people closer to God was some experience of suffering or crisis. In those times, people turned to the community for support and guidance, peace and prayers, teaching of ancient wisdom.

Ironically, when I ask what caused God to feel more distant, I could get the same answer. Suffering or crisis. I served in Manhattan in 2001. We noted an uptick in attendance after 9/11, a sign that people were looking to get closer to the Holy One in the midst of things beyond understanding. As parish priest, aware of who showed up on Sundays, I also noticed a number of people who stopped coming to church because their loss felt too great.

To move closer to God means to know God better. It’s about relationship. When the church is living into its vocation, doing what it is called to do, being what it is called to be, it provides pathways for this kind of spiritual growth, this kind of connection. The church can also get in the way. I’m personally wrestling right now with the ways that church leaders (including yours truly) fall short, leaders who disappoint, leaders who get in the way of spiritual growth.

So perhaps in spite of the foibles of clergy (again, yours truly included), we are called to focus on what helps people grow closer to God. Take this week to imagine what that might be for you. Ask God to show you what a next step might look like. Then dare to take that step.

-Jay Sidebotham

Here are links to the two research reports cited in this column:

Why Americans Go (and Don’t Go) to Religious Services



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

Monday Matters (August 6, 2018)


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

Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus

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

Dwell intentionally with God each day

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

Share faith and unselfishly give and serve

Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus

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:  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



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