Monthly Archives: August 2022

Monday Matters (August 29, 2022)


The story is told of Teresa of Avila, traveling around in missionary enterprise, falling off her cart when a wheel came off. She ended up sitting in a mud puddle, shaking her fist at heaven and saying: “God if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

– C. S. Lewis

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

– G. K. Chesterton

Jesus promised those who would follow his leading only three things: that they should be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.

People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.

– Alan Jacobs in Peter Wehner’s article in the Atlantic, Oct. 2021.

What makes it so difficult?

Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
-Matthew 7:13-14

So how do we square these words from Jesus with the church’s call to radical hospitality, wide open-armed welcome, come-as-you-are, nonjudgmental expressions of faith? What makes the gate narrow? Why is the road hard? Why do few find it? A few thoughts:

It can be hard to believe that grace is true, that at the heart of the universe is love when we are surrounded by callousness and cruelty. It can be even harder to act as if grace is true. We are conditioned to think that life and love are conditional. The notion of something given without condition turns our world upside down. (For Les Miz fans, here’s where Javert jumps off the bridge.) Many are not equipped for that new way of looking at life.

It can be hard, indeed a narrow path, to admit that we have not loved God with whole heart, soul and mind, that we have not loved neighbor as self. It’s easier to buy into the illusion that those shortcomings are not true about us. Maybe those other people, but not us. We don’t want to make amends, to acknowledge our part in the brokenness of relationships.

It can be hard, because the narrow path may call on us to get rid of distractions. That whole bit about the camel going through the eye of the needle suggests to me a camel loaded down with all kinds of possessions, blocking forward movement. Those possessions can possess us. It can be hard to travel light.

It can be hard because if we do embrace the way of love, the path of grace, that can annoy other people. The way of love upsets some people. They can’t stand the light. Jesus said that was true of the most religiously observant people of his day. They were his biggest opponents. In our own culture, as we try to walk in the way of love we may run into opposition, perhaps even from others who claim the name of Jesus.

It can be hard, few may find the hard path because while grace is free, discipleship comes with cost. In an article in the Atlantic (October, 2021), Peter Wehner comments on the state of American Christendom, noting how churches are falling short. He cites James Ernest, editor in chief at Eerdmans, a publisher of religious books “What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure…Catechism, the process of instructing and informing people through teaching, is the source of the problem…There is a great hollowness.”

“Culture catechizes,” said Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor University, interviewed for Wehner’s article. Culture teaches us what matters and what views we should take about what matters. Our current political culture, Jacobs argued, has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing (e.g., television, radio, social media). People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.

On the flip side, many churches aren’t interested in catechesis at all. They focus instead on entertainment, because entertainment is what keeps people in their seats and coins in the offering plate. As Jacobs points out, even pastors committed to catechesis get to spend, on average, less than an hour a week teaching their people. Sermons are short. Only some churchgoers attend adult-education classes, and even fewer attend Bible study and small groups. Cable news, however, is always on. “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week,” Jacobs asked, “and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out? That’s not a problem limited to the faithful on one side of the aisle. “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right,” Jacobs said.

All of which is to say that while grace is free, discipleship can be hard. It can be a narrow way. Have you found that to be true?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer framed it as the difference between costly and cheap grace: “Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

That costly discipleship sounds to me like the narrow gate, the way that is hard, maybe lonely. It’s no wonder that many people who heard what Jesus had to say drifted away. How will we walk that way this week? Can we believe it to be the way of life, even if it’s hard?

-Jay Sidebotham

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Monday Matters (August 22, 2022)


An Egyptian papyrus (from some time between 664-323 BCE) contains an early negative affirmation of the Golden Rule: “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”

In the Mahabharata, the ancient epic of India, the sage Brihaspati tells the king Yudhishthira: “One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self.”

In the Book of Virtue of the Tirukkarai (c. 1st century BCE to 5th century CE), we read: “Do not do to others what you know has hurt yourself.”

Plato said: “May I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me.”

From Zoroastrian texts (c. 300 BCE – 1000 CE): “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.”

Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE – 65 CE), in an essay on the treatment of slaves: “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.”

Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation; go and learn.”

Sirach 31:15 “Recognize that your neighbor feels as you do, and keep in mind your own dislikes.”

Nike: “Just do it.”

Accept that you are accepted

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
-Matthew 7:12

What makes the golden rule golden?

For starters, it’s golden because it’s not just a Christian rule. It’s wisdom that has surfaced over centuries and across continents, offering deep spiritual truth on display in examples listed above. It’s a golden reminder of the bonds of the human family, affirming that what we have in common outshines the ways we differ. It’s a message we need to hear these days.

It’s golden because it recognizes that religion is fundamentally about relationship. It’s not about rules. It’s ultimately about how we treat each other.

It’s golden because it’s simple. Like the command to love God and love neighbor. Having said that it’s simple does not mean it’s easy. But it provides a pretty quick and easy test for how we’re interacting in the world, in families, at work, in churches, in traffic, in airport security lines, on social media. Or as Jesus said, in everything.

It’s golden because it invites compassionate imagination. Karen Armstrong, interfaith scholar, has said that compassion is the religious virtue common to all world religions. Compassion literally means “suffering with” or “suffering along side.” That calls for getting outside of our bubble and imagining life from another person’s point of view. That’s a challenge standing before each one of us. Think about the person that really bugs you, or worse. What do you know of the circumstances of their lives? What do you know of their story? What motivates them?

If we can’t arrive at answers to those questions through our own imagination, perhaps we’re called to enter into conversation with those folks, those outside of our communities of agreement. It’s a way of living into our baptismal promises that call us to seek Christ in all persons (Really? All?) and to respect the dignity of every human being (Really? Every?). What can we learn that we didn’t know before? When I think about how I want to be treated, I don’t need everyone to agree with me. I do desire that people listen to me. Shouldn’t I offer that to others?

In all of this, it helps to remember a golden rule from Dorothy Day: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

Jesus’ teaching is golden because as Jesus said and as Rabbi Hillel said, all of the law (and the prophets for that matter) are summed up in this principle. The Hebrew Scriptures detailed more than 600 instructions. Many of them were reflections of the culture of the day, now seeming to be irrelevant or occasionally repugnant. But this thing about considering how we would want to be treated is timeless, not at all culture bound.

You may think of other reasons why this rule has been called golden. I suspect that the important thing to do is to see our interactions through this lens, to run them through this filter, to make them pass this test: Would I want to be treated the way I’m treating this person? Take this week as an opportunity to grow in this way of seeing. It’s a daily practice, one we need to put to work in all things, and as a practice, something that we get better at the more we do it.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 15, 2022)


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; live in the land and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 37:1-4

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?… Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life…It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.

-Paul Tillich from The Shaking of the Foundations

Accept that you are accepted

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone? Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him
-Matthew 7:9-11

What is your image of God? Where did that come from? Is it good news or bad news?
There are a host of forces in our world that tell us we’re not enough. Not competent enough. Not smart enough. Not attractive enough. Not rich enough. Not spiritual enough. If you’ve never heard those voices, God bless you. You are fortunate.For the rest of us, a big part of the spiritual journey is reckoning with those voices, navigating the times when we refute or affirm them, when we do our level best to tune them out with any number of distractions, some of which can morph into behaviors that are not good for us.

Sometimes we imagine those voices come not only from people and institutions around us. We sometimes imagine that those voices are God speaking to us. We sometimes imagine a God who gives us stones when we need bread, snakes instead of fish. There’s a lot of religion based on that notion of God. (Read Jonathan Edwards sermon “Sinners in the hand of an angry God” if you’re looking for an example.)

But the good news of the gospel, if we have the courage to embrace it, is that God accepts us where we are (even if our own parents/community/church won’t). The good news of the gospel, if we have the courage to embrace it, is that God seeks our good, a God in the business of turning stones into bread and not the other way around. Like a loving parent, not a bully or a boss. The good news of the gospel, repeated throughout scripture, is that God is love.
While human beings in moments of depravity can fail to do good to their own children, or even seek to harm them, there is (I believe, or at least hope) a basic sense that a parent seeks the best for the child. Many parents will do anything for their children. That kind of expansive love gives us a glimmer of the love God has for all of creation, for all people.

So if we can wrap our minds around that, how does that change us?

First, in the context of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount it means that we can be free to ask for what we desire. Psalm 37 has become a favorite guide for me. I’ve included portions of it above. It speaks of God’s intention to fulfill our desires. God wishes for us to know joy.

Second, it means that we can move away from fear-based religion. So much religion, in the Christian tradition, and in others, envisions God just waiting for us to mess up, ready to hurl thunderbolts when we step out of our lane, relishing in suffering inflicted on us. Fear is a motivator and can keep us in line, for sure. But Jesus came to show us another way, stretching out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross to draw us into his saving embrace with a message that perfect love casts out fear. It can be difficult to hear that good word. The voices that tell us we’re not enough can drown it out. But if we can dare to believe it, it changes us. And those around us.

Third and finally, it means that we can be free to show grace as we come to know grace. My experience tells me that people who are animated by fear-based religion end up inflicting that on others, entering into a judgmental frame of mind. Similarly, those animated by grace, who know on some deep level that they have been accepted, can extend that acceptance to others as well.

We live in a grace-starved world, that needs to know God gives us bread, not stones. When we believe that, even just a little bit, we can share it. How might you do that this Monday?

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 8, 2022)

O, what peace we often forfeit.
O, what needless pain we bear.
All because we do not carry.
Everything to God in prayer.
-From the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”


The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
-Soren Kierkegaard


“Help” is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray–with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, “Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.”
-Anne Lamott


Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?
-Corrie Ten Boom

Take it to the Lord in prayer

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
-Matthew 7:7,8

Truth be told, the longer I’m at this business of faith exploration, the more mysterious prayer seems to me. I so appreciate that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, They needed help. Me too.

I feel like I spend a fair amount of time praying, or at least trying to clear my monkey mind so that I can pray. Truth be told, I know I’m often just mulling things over in my mind, a conversation with myself. I sometimes wonder if my prayers go higher than the ceiling. I can forget that my prayers are addressed to someone.

For that reason, I’m grateful for teachers like Thomas Keating, a monk and priest who helped people focus on centering prayer in a world that is definitely off kilter. He spoke of the importance of the contemplative life, of a prayer life, of placing one’s self in the presence of God. Keating cited St. Teresa of Avila who wrote: “All difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause: praying as if God were absent.” Keating adds: “This is the conviction that we bring with us from early childhood and apply to everyday life and to our lives in general. It gets stronger as we grow up, unless we are touched by the Gospel and begin the spiritual journey. This journey is a process of dismantling the monumental illusion that God is distant or absent.”

From another branch of Christendom, I’m mindful of the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus.” It talks about taking it to the Lord in prayer, about the peace we often forfeit because we don’t pray.

Jesus not only taught about prayer, how to do it and how not to do it. (We saw that early in the Sermon on the Mount.) He also modeled a life of prayer by stealing off for times of quiet conversation with God, the one he called Abba or Father, especially at key moments like the night before he called disciples and the night before he was put on trial.

One could easily interpret the teaching on prayer in today’s verses to say that we will get whatever we want, that prayer is like a blank check or three wishes from Aladdin’s lamp. Prayers are not like calling DoorDash and getting a delivery of what you want. God is not valet. But prayer does have the power to change us. And it can change the world.

What I’ve come to love about the people who have taught me about prayer (Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr) is that their focus on contemplation, on a life of prayer, on attentiveness to God’s voice in no way ignores the problems of the world and things that need to get done, the healing that needs to happen. It’s neither pie in the sky, nor retreat.

Rather, the contemplative focus equips people to contribute to the transformation of our world. I think of how Martin Luther King insisted that those participating in demonstrations have daily prayer and bible reading, When John Lewis was attacked on that bridge in Alabama, getting in good trouble, he had a backpack that included the Bible and a book of meditations by Howard Thurman.

So I’m thinking that when we pray, we place ourselves in God’s presence. We may not get what we ask for, which in many cases is a blessing. But we will be changed. Doors will be opened. And we will be brought into a new relationship with God, neighbor and even self. And by amazing grace, our world will be changed.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 1, 2022)


Luke 10:1-12

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way; I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on that person, but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.

Pigs and pearls and us

Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.
-Matthew 7:6

Today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount offers some tough talk from Jesus. His colorful language suggests that the lives of disciples unfold in the presence of opposition, resistance or indifference, perpetrated by folks compared to dogs and swine. Have you ever felt like that is what you’re up against?

Jesus makes the point that as the disciples live in the world, as they offer what they have as followers of Jesus, as they share what they consider to be good news, they may not be well received, to put it mildly. It echoes what Jesus says when he sends out his disciples (see above). He tells them to extend peace to communities they visit. If their word of peace is accepted, awesome! If that peace is not accepted, move on. Shake the dust off of feet. Don’t try to compel agreement. Ah, if only the church throughout its history had bought this idea.

So today we read about pearls before swine. The pigs simply don’t recognize the value of the pearls. Holy gifts to dogs. All the dogs know how to do is fight.

What does this say to us this morning? We’re living in rancorous days. I don’t remember a time when people would say I can’t go on vacation or have dinner with family or friends because they watch a different cable news show or embrace a different candidate. Courtesy of television and social media, we retreat to communities of affirmation and agreement. We navigate parallel universes, with completely different perspectives, and facts which we pick and choose. Given all that, how do we move forward?

First, Jesus tells his disciples (us) that they (we) are not always going to be well received, as much as we people-pleasing clergy would like for that to happen. So let that go.

Second, Jesus suggests that we may not find ourselves able to change other people’s minds. Beyond that, it suggests that that is not our job. We are not the ones who can cause folks to value what they don’t value. Changing people’s hearts and minds is God’s work, not our own. Posting on social media may be fun, even delicious, but all we are called to do is be faithful. We can indeed be instruments in transformation, but when that happens, it most likely happens through the witness of our lives and not our compelling arguments.

Third, for me it’s a call to humility accompanied by trust that God is in charge. We are not in charge, and we are especially not in charge of what other people think. We have a gracious plenty tending to our own thought processes, our own opinions.

Which makes me wonder about Jesus’ instructions. I’ve always read it as faithful disciples meeting faithless pagans. I’ve always placed myself in the faithful disciple camp. But as I thought about this, I wondered how I’m like those swine, not even noticing pearls set in front of me. I wondered how I might be like those dogs, eager to tear somebody else apart, even if only in my imagination. Do I really value the pearls of God’s grace set before me, the limitless forgiveness, the beauty of nature? Do I growl too much? How might the change come to me, or am I stuck in the pig sty of my own focus, my own agenda, my own resentment that keeps me from recognizing pearls?

It may be helpful to recall a time when pearls were presented to you and you changed your mind. I’m old enough to recall when women were first ordained to the priesthood in the church. I remember conversations with people who thought that the ordination of women was a bad idea. But something amazing happened. People changed their minds, not because they were argued into it, but because they began to see women function in the role of priest. I remember someone saying: “I’m not in favor of women’s ordination, but our parish priest (a woman) is awesome. I’m so glad she is leading our church. I’m so glad she was ordained.”

Maybe that person could have been argued into acceptance of what I thought was a grand idea. But what changed that person’s mind was a relationship, witnessing a faithful and loving ministry. Maybe that’s all we can do, all we are called to do. Be faithful in our witness to good news. Share the grace we’ve come to know. And let the Holy Spirit handle the rest.

I so look forward to the day when I will be able to do that.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.