Monthly Archives: February 2021

February 22, 2021

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.
-Genesis 12:1-4a
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 
-Hebrews 11:8-10

Looking Forward

These days, my daily prayer list has expanded to include prayers for a grandchild expected to arrive later this year (and of course, for her parents). In my prayers for her, I’ve found myself imagining what her life will be like. What will the world be like when she is 30? When she is 60? Will she live to be 120?

This wondering about the next generation was prompted as I read a book by Yuval Noah Harari, entitled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He writes: “If you lived in China in 1018, you might know that by 1050 the Song Empire might collapse, the Khitans might invade from the north, and plagues might kill millions. However, it was clear to you that even in 1050 most people would still work as farmers and weavers, rulers would still rely on humans to staff their armies and bureaucracies, men would still dominate women, life expectancy would still be about 40 and the human body would remain exactly the same. For that reason, in 1018 poor Chinese parents taught their children how to plant rice or weave silk; wealthier parents taught their boys how to read the Confucian classics, write calligraphy or fight on horseback. It was obvious that these skills would be needed in 1050.”

He continues: “Today we have no idea how China or the rest of the world will look in 2050. We don’t know what people will do for a living, we don’t know how armies or bureaucracies will function, and we don’t know what gender relationships will be like. Some people will probably live much longer than today, and the human body itself might undergo an unprecedented revolution thanks to bioengineering and direct brain-to-computer interface. Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050.”

The author speaks about how we educate young people for what’s next. I’m wondering how we prepare them spiritually.

Perspective on the future has always been a matter of seeing through a glass darkly. A year into Covid-tide, I sense that truth more than ever. In the past, looking through foggy lens, I have been sustained and guided by the story of Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. It’s reported in scripture that they answered a call from God, leaving what they knew for something they didn’t know at all. They launched out not knowing where they were going.

They become important teachers in this particular season. We’re making up what it means to deal with COVID. Many of us thought this would be over a year ago. Apparently, we were mistaken. Many people remain uncertain about the ways they will do their jobs in days ahead, if they have jobs at all. The Episcopal Church and other mainline congregations face trends that make it questionable that the church will continue as it has for generations. Covid has only accelerated change and deepened uncertainty about what’s next. That’s true for our society. That’s true for the various communities to which we belong, large and small. That’s true in each of our lives.

Which leads to the adage I heard as a child: I may not know what the future holds but I know who holds the future. I’m pretty sure that the world of my 30 year old granddaughter will be vastly different. I bet she’ll think that much of what we did was quaint at best, perhaps ridiculous. Maybe she’ll regard what we have done as inexplicable, even reprehensible, for any number of reasons.

But as I pray for her, I do believe that she and her generation can still be guided by the one who holds the future, the one whose nature is grace, the one said to be with us till the end of the ages. Call me crazy, but I believe, that as Abraham and Sarah walked by faith, so as her adventure unfolds, she will be held in those loving arms. I pray she will always know that those loving arms surround her.

-Jay Sidebotham


RenewalWorks: Connect
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for our monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
Next call: March 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Rev. Doyt Conn, Rector, Church of the Epiphany, Seattle.
Join us via Zoom video conference

Monday Matters (February 15, 2021)

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.

Deep peace of the shining stars to you.

Deep peace of the Son of peace to you.

-Iona Community


I watched too much news last week, specifically video of the attack on the Capitol. It played over and over. I watched over and over. Too many times, I confess. I came to a place where I thought to myself: We need peace. Maybe you feel that way, too. Not just because of the insurrection, but because the pandemic, related economic struggles, partisan and racial divisions around the nation and around the dinner table all conspire to rob us of peace. So what do we know about peace?

What I was hungry for was more than just the absence of conflict, as important as that may be right now. We need more than truce or stand-off. We need to do more than just move on.

I started thinking about the Hebrew word for peace, shalom (שׁלום). I’m told it’s derived from a root denoting wholeness or completeness. It’s not limited to the political or social domain. It’s more than the absence of war and enmity, the absence of quarrel and strife. It’s been described as a moral value, a cosmic principle, a divine attribute. It’s about healing. Three things occurred to me about the healing process. See what you think of them.

First, it is work for each of us. When Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” in the Sermon on the Mount, he described it as something we are called to do, as part of the Jesus movement, as part of the kingdom come. Desmond Tutu, who knew something about the need for peace, wholeness, completeness, said: “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” So let me ask on this Monday morning, what work of peacemaking lies before you? How might that work suggest not only an absence of conflict, but also a move toward wholeness suggested in the meaning of shalom? And let me ask, since we begin a week that includes Ash Wednesday, how have we each stood in the way of peace? How have we participated in unholy disruption, in thought, word or deed? How can we turn from that (i.e., repent)?

Second, with Desmond Tutu’s comment in mind, we admit that it can be hard work. On a Sunday recently, a clergy colleague preached a fine sermon in which he referenced the Epiphany hymn about the call of the disciples, a hymn with text by William Alexander Percy. The first stanzas describe the cost of discipleship, the challenges facing the first disciples. The final stanza describes the hard work of peacemaking. It goes like this: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing the marvelous peace of God.” Have you ever had to exchange the peace on a Sunday with someone who drives you nuts, or someone who has hurt you? At times, it seems to me to be highly inconvenient and even annoying that the peace is embedded in the liturgy. You can’t move forward without it. I don’t always want to do that work, thank you very much. But we’re not given the option of only exchanging the peace with our best buddies. So let me ask on this Monday morning, where is peacemaking hardest for you? In your family? In your church? In your workplace? In your role as national or global citizen?

Finally, on some level, it’s God’s work in which we participate. Among the many fruits of the Spirit listed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3:23ff) he includes peace. When I do my best to console a family who has suffered great loss, I pray that they will be granted the peace that passes understanding. So we join with St. Francis asking to be made an instrument of God’s peace. Not our own, but God’s. We say “The peace of the Lord be with you.” Not our own, but God’s. And we pray for that one thing, the marvelous peace of God. So let me ask on this Monday morning, and as Lent begins, how will you invite God’s grace and power into your peacemaking “work?”

If it all feels overwhelming, or out of reach, if the news of the day makes peace seem unimaginable, take to heart what Jesus said to his best friends on the night before he was tortured and executed. On a night when peace might be hard to come by, he said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

-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: March 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Rev. Doyt Conn, Rector, Church of the Epiphany, Seattle.
Join us via Zoom video conference

Monday Matters (February 8, 2021)

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
-Romans 8:38, 39
What happens for us and in us through Christ has two sides to it: in Christ we find God, and we find ourselves in Christ. This is the true God: the one who in Christ takes the way of suffering to the point of death on the cross, so as to reconcile this faithless and torn world to himself; the one who takes on himself death in profoundest forsakenness so as to comfort all the forsaken through his love; the one who becomes poor so as to make the poor rich. In Christ, God himself comes to us and reconciles us with himself. And that is our true self: our sins, which cut us off from the source, the wellspring of life, are forgiven. Our enmity is overcome. God reconciles us, and we are reconciled. God loves us, and we are beloved.
-Jurgen Moltmann From his book, Jesus Christ For Today’s World

What difference does Jesus make?

There are a few ways to pose the question.

I recall a sermon I heard when I was a teenager. The preacher asked the congregation: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? At the time, I heard the question in a shaming way, but I’ve held on to it anyway, as a way of personal spiritual assessment. What is the evidence? Has it all made any difference?

A few years later, when I served as rector, I remember a speaker who framed the question this way: If your church disappeared from your community, would the community notice it was gone?

Last week, one of my spiritual guides, Dwight Zscheile, Professor at Luther Seminary, spoke to a group of us about cultivating communities of hope. He put the question this way: What difference does Jesus make? 

It was a way of asking us to explore our core identity as a church, the community committed to following Jesus. He noted all kinds of reasons people come to church: the joy of social connection, aesthetics like music and art, a vehicle for good works in the community, satisfying performances akin to an interesting lecture or swell concert. All good things. But are they at the core? How are they distinct from other offerings available in our culture?

He said that the core is revealed in the 8th chapter of Romans, where Paul affirms that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, a love that will not let us go, a love that meets the longings and losses we face. The core is transforming grace. When that love is embraced, it answers the question about the difference Jesus makes.

There are various ways to express the same question. You may have other variations in mind. Basically it asks why we do what we do. Why do we commit time, talent and treasure to a spiritual community? What does it have to do with hope? How do we come to see a difference in our lives? How do we participate in making a difference in our world?

I read a recent interview with another one of my spiritual guides, Marian Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington. It’s an interesting time for that job, for sure. The article noted that the good bishop has not been shy in calling for policies that reflect Jesus’ call to care for the least of these.

For her, that has involved listening to Jesus, following Jesus, and not simply depicting the Jesus of our own choosing. In other words, letting Jesus make the difference in us. She said that if your Jesus always agrees with your politics, you’re probably not reading deeply enough into Jesus. At the same time, she does not believe that justice and societal issues are optional for clergy. They are embedded in our faith. And she admits that it doesn’t matter how articulate a bishop is if she doesn’t have behind her strong vibrant congregations who are making a difference in their communities.

Making a difference. In Bishop Budde’s words, it’s about leading with Jesus. That means to me allowing Jesus to make a difference in our lives. That will look different for each of us. Bishop Budde’s context, her vocation leads her on a certain path in these extraordinary times for our church and nation. Yours and mine will reflect our own context, our own vocation.

But wherever and whoever we are, we are called to ask on this Monday morning: What does leading with Jesus look like for us this week? What difference does Jesus make in our lives? What difference does it make in our church? Is there evidence of any transformation? If our church went away, would anyone notice?

Not bad questions to ponder as Lent approaches. Maybe you can prepare for that holy season with thoughts and prayers about these questions, however they are framed for us, however they touch our hearts.

-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: March 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Rev. Doyt Conn, Rector, Church of the Epiphany, Seattle.
Join us via Zoom video conference

Monday Matters (February 1, 2021)

We have not loved you with our whole heart…
-from the Confession
Purity of heart is to will one thing.
-Soren Kierkegaard
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. 
Psalm 139:1-6
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Create in me a clean heart

I’ve been blessed over the years, in service in churches, to follow clergy who provided great foundation for work I felt called to do. Even after they left, they continued to be my teachers. There was always the challenge of big shoes to fill, but always a gift to follow folks who knew what they were doing. At the church where I served in the diocese of Chicago, I followed two folks who went on to be bishops (bless their hearts). Two fine people. Two faithful priests. Two gifted leaders.

George Councell went on to be Bishop of New Jersey. He left a great legacy, including this wonderful line applied when he was raising money for a new neighboring Hispanic community. He told the congregation; “The good news is we have the money. The bad news is, it’s still in your pockets.” He knew the tensions we all live with, God and mammon tugging at us. I’ve used that line shamelessly. Feel free to borrow it if you need it.

Alan Gates followed George, and went on to become Bishop of Massachusetts. He left this bit of teaching, passed on by many in the congregation. He repeatedly told groups: “I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” I’ve used that shamelessly as well, not only in official capacity but in reflection on my own spiritual journey.

I thought of mixed motive when I recently read Psalm 51, which we’ll hear in a couple weeks as part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The verse that struck me and prompted me to remember Alan Gates’ line comes from that psalm: Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.

That psalm is by tradition attributed to King David, simultaneously faithful king and sketchy creep. He’s not alone in scripture in that complex portrait. Abraham and Sarah, parents of faith, had shining moments of faithfulness but also engaged in duplicitous motives less than pure. St. Paul wrote letters speaking of his own embrace of grace. But if you read between the lines, it’s hard not to get the impression that he thought he was something kind of special. Jesus spoke to Pharisees and said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” For me, one of the most stirring biblical examples of this dynamic is the nameless man described in the gospels (see Mark 9) whose son is in need of Jesus’ healing power. Jesus asks if the man believes. The man responds: “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” Ever feel like that?

In the history of the church, Augustine (famous for his ambivalent prayer: Give me chastity but not yet.) spoke of the church as corpus per mixtum. Wheat and weeds living side by side. That may be true of the church. That may be true of our hearts. Maybe that’s what Martin Luther had in mind when he said that we are saints and sinners at the same time. You get the picture. So what do we do about it?

Contending with mixed motives, we begin by admitting they are there, as if we could pretend otherwise.

Then we decide that purity of heart is a worthwhile objective. It’s entirely possible we are happy to live with the ambivalence. My own heart is a smorgasbord of motives, love and resentment and retribution and people-pleasing and assorted visions of success.

Recognizing all that, a movement toward purity of heart (a work in progress) is captured in the call to love God with all of our being and to love neighbor as self. While there’s not a day in my life that I do that fully, my prayer is that I can move in the direction, with aspiration for love as my sole guide.

So we ask for a clean heart. We can’t do this on our own. A movement toward purity of heart is something God does in us. If it ever happens, it will indeed be a miracle, a grace. If it ever happens, maybe that will be heaven. Maybe this week, you can take a step in that direction.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

-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: February 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Dr. Dwight Zscheile, professor at Luther Seminary
Join us via Zoom video conference