Monthly Archives: January 2021

Monday Matters (January 25, 2021)

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-he is Lord of all.
-Acts 10:34-36  (St. Peter’s vision of unity)
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 

-Galatians 3:26-28 (St. Paul’s vision of unity)

A prayer for the Unity of the Church (p. 818, Book of Common Prayer)
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Sometimes, it’s crystal clear that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church calendar. Today, January 25, we observe the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. It concludes a week that began on January 18 with the feast of the Confession of St. Peter, which tells about the time when Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah. The week between these two stories, these two celebrations is called a week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In case you haven’t noticed, unity seems to be on our minds these days, not that we necessarily know how to get it.

Let’s not miss the fact that these two characters, Peter and Paul, bracket this week. They had things in common. Both were capable leaders, innovators, spiritual entrepreneurs. Both had pretty strong ego strength. Both knew failure. Peter denied Jesus. Paul persecuted members of the Jesus movement. The New Testament indicates that they had run-ins. (Church fights are nothing new.) Paul publicly accused Peter of hypocrisy. A letter attributed to Peter notes that some of Paul’s letters were hard to understand. The two guys agreed to disagree, Peter having a mission to those in the Jewish community, Paul directing attention to Gentiles.

With all that, these two pillars of the early church illustrate something about unity. Their unity was not uniformity, not even agreement. I’m not sure they even liked each other that much. But with the help of these two characters, Peter without unexpressed thought and Paul without editor, we can learn something about what unity means, not only in our church, but in our families and workplaces, in our nation and world. According to them (see verses above) unity is about welcome and inclusion, about the wideness of God’s mercy which we hopefully reflect in our lives. Hopefully.

I suspect we all have indelible impressions of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Not the epiphany I was looking for. Particularly unsettling to me were the number of people in that crowd who indicated that what they were doing had something to do with Jesus. If that’s what the Jesus movement is about, count me out.

In response, I felt an urgent need to seek another understanding of what it means to be a Jesus follower. I picked up a book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. He talks about how those who feel disenfranchised (people on all sides of the political spectrum these days) easily resort to fear, deception and hate. We’ve seen all of those in our politics. Thurman says that hate emerges in a situation in which there is “contact without fellowship. “

The ways that lack of fellowship gets expressed need not be as egregious as attacking our capitol, setting up a noose for the Vice President in Jesus’ name. We might ask, for instance: Where does road rage come from? When I’m driving (without my collar on) I can declare someone to be a total idiot, or worse, simply because they drive too slow or hog the left lane or fail to use a signal. I would never do that if I were in the passenger seat with them. Social media allows people to say things they would not otherwise say, not that I would ever participate in such. We retreat into silos of class, race, theology, liturgy, politics, taste which allows us to other-ize folks and feel somehow more secure, more in touch with our “inheritance.” Contact without fellowship.

So a week of prayer for Christian unity is timely, a reminder, a recognition of the importance of relationship, not only with God but with each other. It calls us to the wideness of God’s mercy. Where are the growth edges for you in this? Maybe a lack of fellowship is hampering, hindering relationships in your household, in your neighborhood, in your church. Maybe it’s broader than that. Howard Thurman notes that in the course of our lives, our response can be fear, deception or hate. But he suggests an alternative, the way of Jesus, the way of love, which is the focus of his last chapter in his book. It is God’s work, but it begins in each one of our hearts.

So this week, ask God to create in you (and me while you’re at it) a new heart. If it helps, use the prayer for unity printed above. Then reach across the aisle, whatever that looks like in your life.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (January 18, 2021)

On Friday night, Jan. 27, 1956. Martin Luther King slumped home, another long strategy session under his belt. He found Coretta asleep. He paced and knocked about, his nerves still on edge. Presently the phone rang, a sneering voice on the other end: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” King’s fear surged; he hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table. Here was the prelude to King’s most profound spiritual experience, described in his book, Stride Toward Freedom.
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
-as described by John Dear in the National Catholic Reporter January 7, 2006

Holy Sense

Recently, the church calendar introduced me to the life and witness of Harriet Bedell. (Apparently, I skipped the class that taught about her.) After studying at the New York Training School for Deaconesses, she became a missionary-teacher among the Cheyenne in Oklahoma. In 1916, she was sent to Alaska, ending up serving as a teacher and nurse at St. John’s in the Wilderness at Allakaket, 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle, sometimes traveling by dogsled to remote villages. In 1932, hearing about the plight of the Seminoles in Florida, Bedell used her own money to reopen a mission among the Mikasuki Indians. She worked to revive their traditional crafts. The arts and crafts store they established greatly bolstered the local economy. Bedell continued her ministry of health care, education, and economic empowerment until 1960 when Hurricane Donna wiped out her mission.

That’s what caught my attention. Writing from coastal North Carolina, I occasionally hear folks refer to hurricanes as acts of God. I dislike the term. I thought about this woman, about the devoted labor that went into her decades of ministry, wiped out in a day by a storm. How did she keep going? How does one make holy sense of such a thing?

Another story: A family friend was a theology student, proficient in languages, including biblical Greek. A few decades ago, after studies were completed, she answered a call to go to the Sudan. She spent 13 years working there in a remote village with a group of people that had never had access to the Christian scriptures. She learned their language. Painstakingly over those 13 years, she translated all of the New Testament. She was forced to flee in a time of political upheaval. All her translation work was destroyed. No flash drive. No cloud. Gone. How does one make holy sense of that?

Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist, spent time in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, reporting on her work. After wrapping his mind about what the work entailed, he wondered how she could continue. The depth of poverty in Calcutta was overwhelming. Her efforts, noble as they were, seemed insignificant. Muggeridge asked: How do you keep going? How could one make holy sense out of what she was doing?

Mother Teresa answered: God calls me to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

On this day when we remember Martin Luther King, we might ask how he kept going. How easy it would have been for him to stay in the pulpit in his prominent church, remaining at home with family. It might seem that all his work was swept away in a second on the balcony of that Memphis hotel. How do we make holy sense of that? How did he keep going? Maybe there’s an answer in the story excerpt above.

These days, we face a mountain of coincident crises: record pandemic deaths, economic challenge, scandalous inequality, racial divide centuries old, political upheaval, political and religious leadership fails, democratic values under attack. On top of that, in each of our own lives, we know that suffering is the promise life always keeps. A friend speaks of personal tsunamis. How do we keep going? How do we make holy sense?

Perhaps this morning, on this particular holiday, in this new year, we can focus on what it means in our own lives to simply be faithful, even if it doesn’t mean being successful. Where is that a challenge? Where might there be an opportunity? Can we faithfully remember that God is with us in that experience?

Maybe that can help us make some holy sense of crazy days.

                                                             -Jay Sidebotham

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Next call: February 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Dr. Dwight Zscheile, professor at Luther Seminary
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Monday Matters (January 11, 2021)

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt.
-Psalm 123.4
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way,  over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret-it leads only to evil.
-Psalm 137:1-8
During the past ten years, Mississippi as a society reached a condition which can only be described, in an analogous but exact sense of the word, as insane.
-Walker Percy in 1965

Guidance from another time

From family and friends, I received a bounty of books this Christmas. I’m eager to read them all, now stacked on my bedside table, backed up like planes circling LaGuardia for a landing. As I write, I’m halfway through Jon Meacham’s book entitled His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.  

This weekend, after watching too much news about the events in Washington, I retired to continue reading Meacham’s book. Dog-eared page led me to the chapter which begins by recounting the bombing of the church in Birmingham in the midst of the civil rights movement. Four young girls died after hearing a Sunday School lesson on this subject: The Love That Forgives. As I read this account of that event which is said to have altered the course of our history, I did wonder how much had actually changed. Last week’s image of the confederate flag marched through the capitol cannot be unseen. A gallows with a noose was set up outside the Capitol. Too many searing images.

Those images and what they reveal about who we are make it hard for me to know what to say this Monday morning. So I’ll turn it over to Mr. Lewis and Dr. King to learn from the way they responded to the desecration of that holy place in Birmingham. The circumstances differ, but I sense there are lessons for us as we navigate the desecration of another kind of holy place, the U.S. Capitol. I believe that Mr. Lewis and Dr. King provide guidance, as they fought for justice and peace, refusing to back down to evil, daring greatly, getting in good trouble, risking everything, all the while guided by principles of nonviolence, by the Sermon on the Mount, by prayer to the God of the exodus, by the spirit of Jesus, by the way of love.

Mr. Meacham reports that the bombing gave the debate over nonviolence new resonance. There were questions of whether the guiding principles of non-violence could do any good. They were fighting with love and the haters were using dynamite. Mr. Lewis recalled: That was always a question during the movement. After the church bombing, after so many violent episodes, people would say, “How can nonviolence defeat violence? The Klansmen don’t go to funerals. We’re the ones who go to funerals. But we couldn’t give up. Violence was not an option for us- not if we wanted to prevail, not if we wanted the Beloved Community.”

Dr. King preached at the funeral for three of the four girls. He said: “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city…And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of human personality.”

I don’t know how these men found their grace and courage. I don’t know how they found strength to hold onto faith. I’m not sure how they kept hope alive. I’m pretty sure I would have folded or fled. But they kept on. They suffered for it. We are better for it. They speak to us from one crazy decade to another, calling us to find a way to move towards beloved community.

Is there something, even a small thing, you can do this week to move toward that place? If so, just do it. If you can’t think of anything, pray for God’s spirit to show you a way, to show you the way. And echo the prayer of the psalmist: Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.

                                                             -Jay Sidebotham

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We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
Next call:  This Wednesday, January, 13th, 7pm ET
Guest: Lisa Kimball, Ph.D. Associate Dean of Lifelong Learning and the James Maxwell Professor of Lifelong Christian Formation at Virginia Theological Seminary
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Monday Matters (January 4, 2021)

Philippians 3:10-14
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. 
II Corinthians 5:16-20
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 

Remember to forget

It’s been said that in the journey of faith, we don’t need to be instructed as much as reminded. Holy remembering runs as a thread through our tradition. The people of Israel are called to remember Abraham, a wandering Aramean, to remember the Exodus, to remember God’s provision in the wilderness. When we gather for eucharist, the prayer over bread and wine always includes reflections on God’s goodness expressed in the past, a section called anamnesis. Not amnesia. Not forgetting.

I often find in my own life that the best way to move forward is to check out the spiritual rearview mirror, recalling how God has acted in the past. As a community, we need to reckon with ways we have fallen short and done great wrong, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation. There is holy remembering for sure.

But there is also holy forgetting. As we leave a particularly challenging year, I’m mindful of what we need to leave behind. These thoughts were triggered not only by the calendar, but by a lecture I read given by Walter Brueggemann (awesome theologian and biblical scholar and wise human being) in 2015. The talk was one in a series on memory. The title of this presentation: Nostalgia and Obligations to Forget.

He speaks of a mandate to forget old wounds, noting that most of us are masters at nourishing old wounds that we do not ever want to be blotted out. He cited a pastor named Janos Pasztor who at a gathering of clergy was given 90 minutes to tell his story, to talk about his engagement with the Hungarian Church. After his time was up, he had only gotten to 1300 AD. He required more time. Nothing had been forgotten in that church.

Brueggemann then spoke of a time he was in Macedonia with a friend who said “I wish all Albanians were dead.” When asked why, he said that in the year 938 AD, they burned his church down. Brueggemann cited the Lost Cause narrative of the Old South, a matter of remembering too much too well. He noted that we are all tempted to locate our deep hurts and to dwell there.

I visited one church which over 100 years earlier had merged two congregations, one for wealthy folks, the other for less affluent workers. Upon merger, each church had brought a processional cross, one grander than the other. 100 years later it was still the case that the grander cross from the more prosperous church always, I mean, always, came first in procession. Try to change that and trigger a big old church fight.

When my mother, now departed, was in her early 60’s, she received a letter from a friend she knew growing up. My mother hadn’t seen her in four or five decades. Out of the blue, this woman wrote a letter and said: “I want you to know I forgive you for how you hurt me when we were growing up.” My mother had no idea what she was talking about, and so had not been troubled by it. Clearly this woman had been letting this injury swirl around in her head for years. I ached for that wasted energy, the damage to her poor spirit. I wished for her release.

For me, each year brings a New Year’s Resolution to let go, to give up resentments, to practice forgiveness towards others and myself. Let’s just call it a work in progress. I resolve to embrace the wisdom of Anne Lamott who says forgiveness is giving up the hope of a better past. I need that freedom, so I often pray Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart. I can hold on to resentments with the best of them. It’s a perilous loop. I can live in the unreachable past of how I might have been a better parent, child, pastor, friend, boss, employee, citizen. I pray now for our over-heated political system as we lurch from one injury to another, animated by a partisan spirit of retribution. “We’re doing this because your party did that.” Is there a way to break the cycle?

St. Paul wrestled with his own history of persecuting the church, in an ongoing struggle. He occasionally talks about his past, his sins and successes. In one of his most helpful passages, he says that forgetting what lies behind, he presses on toward the goal of knowing Christ. He keeps his eyes on that prize.

I want to try to do that in 2021. Any interest in joining me in that adventure? Ask yourself as the new year begins: What do I need to remember? What do I need to forget?

                                                             -Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
Next call:  January, 13th, 7pm ET
Guest: Lisa Kimball, Ph.D. Associate Dean of Lifelong Learning and the James Maxwell Professor of Lifelong Christian Formation at Virginia Theological Seminary
Join us via Zoom video conference