Monthly Archives: September 2021

Monday Matters (September 27, 2021)

If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.
A great man is always willing to be little.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on thing and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
-Philippians 2:5-8

Blessed are the meek

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
-Matthew 5:5

Someday, probably after retirement, I’ll write a book of tales from my ministry, stories of weddings, funerals, comments at the door of the church after a sermon, and encounters with search committees.

Here’s a sneak preview from one encounter with a group looking for a new rector. Midway through a very nice dinner at a quiet restaurant, a member of the committee asked me: “So, Jay, how do you respond when people tell us that you’re a wimp?” I recognized it as a rather shrewd question from a smart guy, tricky to answer, not unlike the question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” As I recall, I had two immediate thoughts. 1. Guilty as charged. 2. Waiter, can we have the check. I withdrew from that search process soon after that dinner.

Not that this filterless interviewer hadn’t hit on a truth, let alone struck a nerve. I’ve gotten over it. Really I have. Like many clergy, I live to please people. I hate conflict. And I might even rise to self-defense by quoting from the Sermon on the Mount, about the blessedness of the meek.

But that’s not available to me, because I’ve come to believe that being meek and being a wimp are not the same thing, no matter what our culture thinks of meekness. Too often this verse has been used to encourage people to be a doormat for Christ, and perhaps especially, to ask people who have been oppressed or marginalized to accept that fate. That does not seem to me to be the way of Jesus.

So what are we to make of meekness? It’s always interested me to read the description of Moses, the greatest leader of the Hebrew Scriptures. He’s the model of liberator, someone who found the courage to stand up to Pharoah and orchestrate the exodus, someone who dared to believe that the waters of the Red Sea could part, someone who led the children of Israel through the desert, navigating challenges to his authority. So how do the Hebrew Scriptures describe this guy? In the King James Version we read: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3) A recent lectionary selection from the New Testament letter of James sent this: “Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (James 1:21)

I don’t remember many sermons, including my own. But decades ago I heard a sermon on this teaching of Jesus, given to a congregation filled with powerful people in our nation’s capital. The preacher described meekness as power under control. It is that quality of humility which Frederick Buechner describes this way: “True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.”

As we think about meekness in terms of power under control, it becomes a stewardship issue. What do we do with what we’ve been given? Do we use it for our own sake, for self-promotion, or to diminish others? Canon Stephanie Spellers, in her book The Church Cracked Open, speaks of the call to stewardship of privilege. I suspect all of us experience some kind of privilege. In the global context, the fact that we read this column online means we have more than many. If we have more than one pair of shoes, we’ve got more than most. Blessed are the meek who have privilege, whatever form it takes, and who use it for good.

And what is the measure of such blessedness? They shall inherit the earth. Again, I’m not entirely certain what that means. It’s subject to wide-ranging interpretation. But give this a try. Blessed meekness has to do with living in the world as God intended, with a right sized understanding of who we are and who God is, and with a commitment to use what we’ve been given for good. Try living in the world that way this week. I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I suspect our world could use more and not less meekness.

-Jay Sidebotham

Episcopal Church announces ‘My Way of Love for Small Groups’ resource for spiritual growth

Responding to a hunger for deeper discipleship among Episcopal congregations, creators of the My Way of Love initiative announce an upcoming new spiritual journey guide, video and other materials designed for small groups.

“My Way of Love for Small Groups” expands on the individualized spiritual journey laid out in My Way of Love and offers step-by-step guidance, scriptures, prayers, and reflections for nine weekly group gatherings. The resources will be available in early October; a sample can be found at this link online.

“Participating in ‘My Way of Love for Small Groups’ is a great community builder and especially appropriate for smaller congregations,” writes Jay Sidebotham, founder of RenewalWorks, in the guide’s introduction. “We believe you’ll find it to be a great process for a vestry study, undergirding confirmation classes, informing a teaching series in youth group, or as part of a standard Bible study or prayer group.”

Read the full news release

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (September 20, 2021)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.
-II Cor. 1:3-5
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.
-William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.


Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.
-Dylan Thomas

Blessed are those who mourn

Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
-Matthew 5:4

Near the end of her life, I visited my grandmother in the hospital. I still picture her diminished state, that small body in such a big hospital bed. We talked about her life. Although she was in her mid-80’s, what she wanted to talk about was her son who died when he was five years old, when she was a young mother. She didn’t talk about the other three sons she raised so well, their vibrant lives. In her closing days, she remembered that particular loss. I realized that she had been in mourning over all those decades. It explained for me a bit of the sweet sadness I always saw in her eyes.

When I watched the 9/11 memorial service last week in lower Manhattan, and felt the heaviness of heart in recollection of my time in New York in those days, I listened to several thousand names being read, interrupted by brief tributes from relatives. Again and again, those relatives spoke of their lost loved ones and said, after 20 years: “We think about you every day.”

I suspect there are few who do not know what it means to mourn. We all know what it means to suffer loss. It’s a pain widely experienced, one that lingers. In his sermon, Jesus promises comfort. It’s a fitting follow-up to the promise of blessing for those who are poor in spirit, because mourning is really a matter of addressing a hole left by loss. It may defy understanding, but in the midst of it, Jesus promises blessed comfort.

What kind of comfort did he have in mind? Perhaps it was the comfort St. Paul speaks about at the beginning of a letter to the Corinthian church (See excerpt above). The psalmist speaks of the God who is present as refuge and strength. A favorite hymn speaks of Jesus who is all compassion, which literally means suffering along side. God, the Holy Spirit, is also described as the comforter, the one who comes along side. There is a promise of holy comfort, which is a blessing.

And God places us in community so that we can be present to comfort each other, so that as St. Paul says, we may comfort those around us with the comfort we have come to know in God’s gracious presence. Many times, when I’m trying to offer comfort to someone, I recall what was helpful to me when I was comforted. We pass it on. As we know comfort, we show comfort.

And the mourning Jesus focuses on may not simply be about the losses we feel in our own lives. It may also be about the losses that surround us, mourning for the state of the world, feeling its pain, the pain of refugees and asylum seekers, of victims of COVID, of those who care for them, the pain of victims of hurricanes and earthquakes, the pain of those subjected to racial hatred.

Where have you experienced mourning? Maybe you’re in the thick of that valley right now. How will you navigate that this week? How can you invite God, the holy comforter into that experience?

And then take a look around. Who do you know who carries such a weight? Can you be an instrument of blessedness that offers comfort? If you’re not sure how to do that, ask God to show you the way. It’s something disciples are called to do. And while you’re at it, say a prayer for those folks.

It will be a blessing. You will be a blessing.

-Jay Sidebotham

Ready to help your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (September 13, 2021)


How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: ‘What is my poverty?’ Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! ‘How blessed are the poor,’ Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty. We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land where our treasure is hidden.
– Henri J.M. Nouwen

There is a God-shaped vacuum in every man that only Christ can fill.
-St. Augustine

There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.
-Blaise Pascal

Poor in spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
-Matthew 5:3

Bad dad joke/priest joke alert: The young priest was told by his mentor: “Here’s the secret to a good sermon. You need a really good opening, and a really good conclusion, and not much in between.” You can try that out on your local cleric. Let me know how that goes. Thanks be to God, that secret doesn’t apply to the sermon before us, the Sermon on the Mount. But it is worth considering the way Jesus kicks off this sermon, according to Matthew.

He speaks first about the blessedness of poverty in spirit. If you ran across the phrase “poor in spirit” in some other context, what would come to mind? Maybe it suggests depression or dejection. Maybe it suggests a lack of enthusiasm, as in lack of team spirit, for which you might call Ted Lasso, not Jesus. Maybe it suggests joylessness, often associated with religious people, as in H.L.Mencken’s observation that a puritan is someone who is upset because someone somewhere is having a good time. In reflection on this first of the beatitudes over the years, I confess I haven’t always been sure what is meant by poor in spirit. I’ve heard a bunch of sermons (probably given some) that are all over the map and not entirely illuminating.

What I have found helpful is the rendering of this verse in some paraphrased versions which read something like this: Blessed are those who know their need of God. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether that’s excessively free translation, but if it’s not true, it ought to be. If we think of those in need of God, that’s something to which many people can relate.

St. Augustine and later Blaise Pascal noted that there’s a God shaped space inside each one of us. Augustine said that our hearts are restless until we rest in God’s presence. In the work we’ve done with congregations through RenewalWorks, we’ve noted the potent reality of that restlessness, an eagerness to grow in spirit driven by the sense that there is more.

And that’s a good starting point. Our liturgy knows that, as our daily services start with confession, recognizing ways we’ve fallen short, recognizing that we come together with our own spiritual deficit, not denying it or hiding it but noting it is there. Though it manifests itself in great variety, it is who we are. And the good news, is that this deficit is met with abundant grace.

In the eucharist, we come to the table after we have confessed, seeking to be reconciled to God and each other, recognizing that that is something we all need to do.

The first two steps in AA highlight a recognition of powerlessness over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable, and a coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

So we begin Jesus’ sermon with a statement of blessing for those who fall short in this way. Why is that a blessing? Perhaps because it is critical in stepping into the kingdom of heaven. In the coming weeks, we’ll note a variety of ways to experience blessing. When you look up the Greek word, it is translated as happy or fortunate. Maybe lucky. I’m glad the word blessed is used. It’s not always a happy moment to recognize that we are poor in spirit, that we need help. Sometimes we refer to it as a come to Jesus moment. It may not always feel fortunate.

But it is key to moving forward on a pathway of blessing. The great part is that it immediately places us in the kingdom of heaven. It’s not some arrival far off in the future. The kingdom of heaven can begin right now when we not only recognize that we need help, but also when we note that help is available. The psalmists knew that. Case in point: Our help is in the name of the Lord (Psalm 124.8). The people who clamored to get close to Jesus knew that. In the gospels, perhaps the folks who didn’t know it were the ones that presumed that they were already rich in spirit, thank you very much. They were those who thought God was really lucky to have them on the team.

Think this week about why the sermon on the mount begins in this particular way. Think about your own life, and when you’ve been in touch with what it means to be poor in spirit. And if you find that mysterious phrase resonates with your experience, see it not as judgment or failure but as occasion for grace to abound, an opening for all kinds of blessings in days ahead. It’s just the beginning.

-Jay Sidebotham

Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Is my church too small for RenewalWorks to work?


We are sometimes asked the question: is my congregation too small to do RenewalWorks?

Experience has shown us that RenewalWorks process is most productive for congregations with average Sunday attendance of 45 and up. However, we know that no congregation is too small to focus on spiritual growth and we have some great resources for smaller congregations to share with you.

My Way of Love is a joint project with RenewalWorks and Presiding Bishop Curry’s office. It begins with each parishioner taking a very short online survey (based on the RenewalWorks spiritual life inventory). Each participant then receives an email with a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for growing spiritually and the opportunity to sign up to receive a personalized 8-week spiritual growth program via email tailored to where they are currently in their spiritual journey.

Churches have gathered small groups and even challenged their whole congregations to take this inventory and then spend some time together reflecting on their personal results. Participants can meet weekly to share their experience of the program: What are they finding new, exciting, troubling? Which suggestions are they implementing to deepen their spiritual lives?

Bishop Curry recently did the My Way of Love himself and loved it! (He discussed it with Scott Gunn, Forward Movement’s executive director.)

Although the email program is personalized for each participant, the group sharing creates a way for the overall church to come together around the idea of spiritual growth.  More information can be found here:

The best part is—it’s free, a gift from Forward Movement and the Episcopal Church.


The second program we suggest for small groups and small congregations is Revive. This discipleship program is the perfect gift to offer the lay leaders who have poured out so much in service to your congregation. Revive is about transformation through spiritual formation. In just 10 months, this small-group program transforms leaders of practical church ministry into confident spiritual leaders who love God and participate in Christ’s ministry.

Thanks to the videos and extensive facilitator and participant guides, there is little prep work for the facilitator and can be convened online through zoom or in person.  The cost is $50 for a small church.

It is a beautiful program and participants report that it really changes their lives and causes them to grow spiritually in love of God and neighbor.

Information on Revive can be found here:

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help congregations of all sizes foster a culture of spiritual growth, and by spiritual growth, we mean growing in love of God and neighbor. Please contact us if this mission resonates with you, we would love to be a resource in this journey.

Monday Matters (September 6, 2021)


The renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount. It is high time people banded together to do this.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
-Kurt Vonnegut
I shall not be overcome; God is with me. My awareness of God’s Presence may sound like magic. It may seem to some to be the merest childlike superstition, but it meets my need and is at once the source of my comfort and the heart of my peace.
-Howard Thurman
For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light.
-Psalm 36:9
And now, what is my hope? O Lord, my hope is in you.
-Psalm 39:8


Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
-Matthew 5:1,2

Over the summer, I posted something on social media about prayer. In response, a person I don’t know offered an edgy description of his own spiritual journey. He said that he used to pray to God. He gave up on that because sometimes he got answers, and sometimes he didn’t. He decided to stop praying to God and instead he started praying to Joe Pesci. He said he got exactly the same results. That led him to conclude that prayer was over-rated, and most certainly not efficacious.

I’ve thought about his comments for several reasons. For one, I did appreciate his clear if pointed take on the spiritual life. I don’t agree with it and it’s not my experience of prayer. But it shows he takes it seriously. I prefer that to the point of view that regards spiritual practice as something sweet, regarded with complacency, hardly transformational, maybe a quaint social custom, hobby or extracurricular activity, or a box to be checked.

I also have thought about his comments because from time to time, I can find myself wondering if any of this could possibly true. Do I really believe that all of my life unfolds in the presence of the Holy One? All of it? That when I pray, a great personal cosmic force listens? I suspect I’m not the only one who has prayed fervently for something and not gotten the answer I wanted, or any answer at all. Do I really believe that love is at the center of everything? After I read the newspaper? Do I really believe that the creator of the universe became a person who walked this earth? Do I hold onto faith for nostalgia’s sake, wishing it were so but recognizing that evidence can point in the opposite direction, most especially when I look at the ways Christians treat other people?

Am I alone in these wonderings?

I could be wrong but in the end, I actually do believe that grace is the word. Not only that it is true, but that it is our hope. Maybe our only hope. If we give up on grace, we’re sunk. I hold on to Jurgen Moltmann’s question: Where would we stand if we did not take our stand on hope? So maybe I don’t believe 100% of the time, maybe sometimes I’m a functional atheist, but I join the prayer of the guy in Mark 9 who said “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” I fall back on a favored, savored Emily Dickinson quote: “We believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour. It makes the faith nimble.”

My summer break from writing each week gave time to think about how amazing grace really is. I was blessed with the help of authors like William Stringfellow, Richard Rohr, Howard Thurman, Alexander Schmemann, Stephanie Spellers, and, God love him, Trevor Noah. I was renewed in my interest in what it means to be part of the Jesus movement. So what I propose to do for the coming weeks is to take a close look at what Jesus taught, hopefully with fresh eyes. Specifically, for the next bit of time, I want to use the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as a window into what Jesus had in mind. Even more specifically, I want to focus on what Jesus intended for disciples, since according to Matthew, that was the audience for this sermon. And when he talked to them, he talks to us.

I don’t presume original insight. I’m no biblical scholar. I simply want to take these teachings, a bit at a time, offer my reflections as invitation for you to offer yours, and then to think about those insights as you make your way through a week. Tune in if that sounds interesting. Feel free to tune out if it doesn’t. That’s why God made unsubscribe.

We begin today with the first two verses of Matthew, chapter 5. We read that Jesus gathers disciples on a mountaintop for teaching (an echo of Moses providing teaching from Mt. Sinai). As we make our way through the next weeks, let Jesus be the teacher. See what it’s like to be his student, a learner, which after all, is what being a disciple is all about.

I don’t know about you, but these days, I need Jesus to be my teacher.

-Jay Sidebotham

Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys?  Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…

The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog