Category Archives: Monday Matters

Monday Matters (June 20, 2022)

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Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion,
My constant friend is He;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.
I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
For His eye, his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me

For the birds

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
-Matthew 6: 26

I went to seminary well past adolescence, but you wouldn’t know it based on my behavior. In the most somber theology classes, I’d sit in the back row and as I took notes, would often draw cartoons in the margins, usually about my professors. Pretty soon, I was not alone in the back row, as peers would look over my shoulder and giggle. They were so immature.

Another antic grew from the time I spent in the impressive library at Union Seminary. I came across a book called “Bird Walk Through the Bible.” It detailed all the times birds were mentioned in scripture. I was so taken by this book that I figured out a way to include it in every bibliography in every paper I wrote. I remembered that significant theological opus as I read today’s verse from the Sermon on the Mount. When teachers would ask me why I included the book in my bibliography, I would refer them to Matthew 6.26. Clearly, Jesus thought that birds have something to teach us. What might that be?

Let me take a stab at it. Jesus seems to notice that the birds of the air don’t exhibit the kind of anxiety that human beings do. They rise above it. That carefree quality apparently has something to do with them knowing their value. They trust that God is providing for them. Thus they can get on with their high-flying lives. Jesus wonders: Aren’t we at least as valuable as those birds? Jesus asks us to think about our own value, our own worth.

How do people speak about their value? For many folks, knowing their value has to do with work, with compensation or title or positive feedback. For some, value comes from the possessions or investments or the zip code in which they reside. Some people derive a sense of value from their families, their parents or their children. In his book, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael J. Sandel notes how in our culture value is equated with level of education. Many people who embrace all kinds of disenfranchised groups are unkindly dismissive of those without college educations. Education as a value.

Even when we screw up, we are given opportunity to think about our value. Brene Brown frames it in terms of the difference between shame and guilt. She says that shame is a focus on self. Guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad” (i.e., of little value). Guilt is “I did something bad.” With guilt, there’s still a sense of value. We are redeemable.

Given all that, where do we as people of faith find value? What would it take for us to live with the carefree attitude of the birds of the air, in a time when the news can crank up anxiety in unprecedented ways? I suspect it comes with a sense of our identity as persons created in the image of God. It comes from our baptism, as we note in one of the baptismal promises that we are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons. That phrase “all persons” includes us. How do we embrace our value indicated by the belief that Christ is in each one of us? Another baptismal promise calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. How do we embrace that notion that each one of us is sealed with a God-given dignity?

Once we’ve wrapped our minds around that aspect of our value, we are then free to recognize the value in others. I’m aware in myself of the anxiety that can preclude a life lived in the freedom of the birds of the air. It comes from my need to establish myself as more valuable than somebody else. More valuable in the work place. More valuable in the family system. More valuable in the church (of all places).

Jesus says to let all that go and fly free, to remember who we are. A child of God. A friend of Jesus. A temple of the Holy Spirit. Maybe as much as we are called to remember who we are, we are called to remember whose we are. Again, in baptism, we say that the person being baptized is marked as Christ’s own forever. Now that’s value.

-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 (May 2, 2022)

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Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
-Matthew 6:13 (from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the New Testament)

 

Keep us clear of temptation, and save us from evil.
– Matthew 6:13 (from J. B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament )

 

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil (from the Book of Common Prayer)

 

From Scott Peck’s book reflecting on the problem of evil. The book is entitled “People of the Lie”

 

Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself as well as from others than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture

 

Evil people hate the light because it reveals themselves to themselves. … They will destroy the light, the goodness, the love in order to avoid the pain of self-awareness. … evil is laziness carried to its ultimate, extraordinary extreme.

 

Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.

Rescue us from evil

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
-Matthew 6: 13

We say that praying shapes our believing. So what does this line of the Lord’s Prayer say about what we believe? Along with this line in the prayer which draws our attention to the reality of evil in our lives, I found myself thinking of the baptismal service, and what it says about what we believe about evil.

While baptisms in the Episcopal Church often include an adorable (perhaps clueless) infant in some fancy lace get up, safely doused with a tasteful and limited amount of water, and lots of silver vessels, the service also explores the topic of evil. That says to me that any serious consideration of discipleship, any serious attempt to put faith to work in the world calls for a realistic recognition that we contend with evil. In the liturgy for baptism (p. 302 of the Prayer Book), we renounce evil as it shows up in three particular ways.

First, we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. Images of red, horned, tailed creatures bearing pitchforks aside, as we pray about evil, we recognize a spiritual power that comes to us as tempter. Jesus met that presence in the desert, tempting Jesus to worship something not worth worshipping. I’m told that Margaret Mead had a strong influence on shaping this baptismal service in the 1970’s. While some folks who worked on this service wanted to eliminate language about Satan (“Nobody believes that stuff anymore!”), she said that while some church folk might not believe in Satan, anthropologists do. She argued (successfully) for this language to be preserved in the service. My own take: we dismiss this kind of spiritual force at our own peril.

Second, we renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. I read that as evil in the social and political sphere. G.K. Chesterton said that the doctrine of original sin is one of the few Catholic beliefs that can be confirmed by each day’s headlines. He wrote: “The Church’s doctrine of original sin is the only part of Catholic theology which can be really proved.” Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant, called original sin “empirically verifiable.” News of late confirms those points as we see those powers at play this morning in Mariupol for sure. But we don’t have to look that far. In recent history, from my point of view, that kind of power showed up when leaders decided to separate children from their parents on the southern border, without bothering to keep track of either parents or kids. I see those powers at work in our nation’s history of slavery and the genocide of indigenous people. It surfaces in forces of materialism, racism, any number of isms. Where do you see evil surfacing in our common life?

And here’s the kicker, the truly annoying part. As Pogo said: We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us. The third renunciation speaks of sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. We recognize evil in each of our hearts from which we need to be delivered. It’s that coldness of heart, the schadenfreude that feels good when something bad happens to someone else, like smiling while driving on an interstate when cars are stuck in miles long traffic on the road headed in the opposite direction. It’s that hubris that causes us to play God, when we need to tap into the wisdom of Anne Lamott who told her readers: The difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you. I thank God that my inner most thoughts are not projected on a screen. It would be ugly to have my all that on full display. Scott Peck put it this way: The major threats to our survival no longer stem from nature without but from our own human nature within. It is our carelessness, our hostilities, our selfishness and pride and willful ignorance that endanger the world.

So we pray for help, knowing that Jesus went through his own time of trial. We pray knowing we can’t face this on our own. We ask for help, maybe echoing the words of the psalmist: Create in me a clean heart. We pray believing that we have not been left alone in the struggle. What a friend we have in Jesus, who knows our every weakness, so we take it to the Lord in prayer. And we pray in the Easter season rejoicing in the conviction that redemption happens. We pray believing that love wins. May God grant us grace to let all those prayers guide us in this coming week.

-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 (April 4, 2022)

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Your assignment, should you accept:

 

Write a few sentences about what it means to you that God is addressed in prayer as a parent.

 

Write a few sentences about how you envision heaven. A city in the clouds? A frame of mind? An eternal weekend with relatives you don’t particularly like? A never-ending church service? The ultimate place of healing of relationships?

 

Write a few sentences about how you understand what it means to hallow something.

 

Write a few sentences about your hopes for a world in which God’s name would be hallowed.

 

If you take up this assignment (all may, none must, some should), no need to show it to anyone. But that might be exactly what you want to do. It may be a moment of accountability that will help you grow in spirit, and help you in your observation of Holy Week, and help somebody else.

 

So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.

Homework

Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
-Matthew 6: 9

I have a friend who told me he would only come to my bible study if there was no homework. He probably won’t like this Monday Matters.

After one of her first sermons in a new church, a friend got a call from a parishioner to offer feedback on her sermon. The caller commended the preacher, but said that her frequent references to Jesus in her sermon was not the way they talked in that church. Let that sink in.

I was reminded that in our work with congregations, we find that many Episcopalians define themselves in terms of what they are not, and more to the point, who they are not. As we discuss questions of faith, they will often tell me that that is not how Episcopalians speak. When that happens, one of our wise counselors tells folks: “If that’s not your language, what is your language?”

We’ve been reading Jesus’ teaching about prayer. It could be easy to focus on the things we’re not supposed to do in prayer, e.g., make it showy, make it a public spectacle, go on and on. As we continue in reflection on the Sermon on the Mount this morning, we find that Jesus gets very specific about how we should pray. He offers what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer included in every liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer.

In Luke’s gospel, the Lord’s Prayer is offered in response to the disciples’ request that Jesus teach them to pray. The disciples ask for a prayer, noting that John the Baptist had given his disciples a prayer. (Luke 11.1) It seems like that prayer given to those disciples was a mark of their identity, a sign of who they followed, a sense of who they were. There are other prayers that do that kind of thing. The Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr, provides a sense of identity for the recovery movement. The prayer attributed to St. Francis (“Make me an instrument of your peace…”) provides identity to any number of communities. Is there a prayer that reflects your identity?

With that question in mind, let’s dive into the Lord’s Prayer, bit by bit.

Our Father: The prayer begins by noting who we are talking to. The prayer implies at the outset that this is about relationship, a relationship of a particular kind. It is not the prayer of king and subject, slave and master, employee and boss, judge and defendant. It’s the personal relationship of parent and child. And while in our broken world the parent-child relationship is not always marked by love and care, can we presume that Jesus intended the most loving, gracious relationship, maybe like the father in the parable of the prodigal son?

In heaven: It’s a prayer that speaks of location, offered to a Father in heaven. That says to me that heaven is not some far off place, but much more accessible than we might think. I have a feeling we’ll talk more about how we understand heaven next week.

Hallowed be thy name: On one level, it’s a declarative statement, a way of acknowledging God’s holiness, God’s greatness. We can translate the word hallowed as set apart as sacred, or consecrated. When I studied at Union Seminary, I learned of an Old Testament professor so deeply honored by students that they took off their shoes and left them in the hallway outside the lecture hall to honor this holy man. How much more might we honor the God of creation?

(As something of an aside, I heard of a child in one of our parishes who thought the prayer began: Our Father which art in heaven, how did you know my name? Maybe that child really knew something about the mystery that calls us to this hallowing.)

There’s another way to read this prayer to hallow God’s name. It’s an expression of hope, that God’s name would be increasingly hallowed in a world where that is not the case. I can’t help but think that if God’s name were hallowed among all people, however that name is understood, that our world would be in a better place. That is not necessarily a prayer for people to become religious, because it seems that some of the most religious people are the ones who miss the boat, in Jesus’ estimation. It’s simply a prayer that all people will recognize that our common life unfolds in the presence of a power greater than ourselves, a power whose character is love.

Take this upcoming week as a chance to get ready for Holy Week. Reflect on your own relationship to God, your vision of heaven, your understanding of hallowing God’s name, what it would mean for our global community. If you feel so inclined, take on the homework assignment in the column on the left as a way to prepare for this important week in our common life.

-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: March 28, 2022

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Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.

 

Prayer is not about saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to pray now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see I’ve made a notation here to pray at 2:15.’ It’s about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. …
My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, “I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,” that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, “It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,” it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.

 

So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.

Empty phrases

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
-Matthew 6: 7,8

In recent readings of Morning Prayer, a few words that I’ve read many times hit me like I’d never heard them before. Does that every happen to you? We begin the confession by saying: Most merciful God. I got to thinking about what it means to begin that liturgy, to begin my day, to live each day in the awareness of the presence of a merciful God. For much of the time, I’m a functional atheist, imagining I can bring God into the picture when I want, when needed. The rest of the time, I’ll run things, thank you very much.

My prayer life exhibits that interest in being in control. (Hear the gospel according to Anne Lamott: What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.) We sometimes approach prayer as filibuster, talking endlessly, repeating words somewhat mindlessly, not doing a lot of listening, thinking God will pay attention to us because we talk a lot or craft the language well. We sometimes approach prayer as shopping list, putting in our order like Doordash, waiting to have wishes fulfilled. God as valet. We sometimes approach prayer with magical thinking, a celestial Aladin’s lamp. Often we end up disappointed when wishes are not fulfilled. All of which is to say that there lots of ways for our prayers to be empty phrases.

Jesus spent a fair amount of time praying. He also spent a fair amount of time teaching about prayer, presumably because we need it. He was mindful that there are some ways to pray that are less edifying, some ways that we pray that are more about us than anything else, resulting again in prayers filled with empty phrases.

So how can we come to greater fullness, less emptiness in our prayers?

We can begin by keeping it simple, confident that we actually don’t have to clue God in to what’s going on. In my work in the church, people often feel incapable or unqualified to pray in front of others. That’s why clergy get called on to offer the prayer in a group setting. I found one simple way to get around that. It’s about filling in the blanks:

I thank God that….

I ask God that…

If you’re feeling stuck in your prayer life, you might want to see if this simple approach helps. Anybody can do it.

The call to simplicity in prayer is what I love about Anne Lamott’s description of what it means to pray. Echoing Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, she says you don’t need tons of words. In fact, you only need three: thanks, help and wow.

Thanks: Meister Eckhardt said that “if the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Expressions of thanks in all circumstances place us in a frame of mind where we recognize God’s gracious activity in our lives, in our world. What are you thankful for this morning?

Help: It’s a matter of recognizing our absolute dependence, which is how Paul Tillich described faith. It’s the recognition that we can’t do it on our own, that our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. Where do you need help today?

Wow: We often fail to notice miracles around us. Here’s Anne Lamott’s take on it: “It’s sort of like when the Wizard of Oz — when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it’s like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, ‘Wow!’ So where’s the wow factor for you this Monday?

It can really be quite simple, however we pray. Our hearts can be moved into deeper relationship with God in silence, through music, with polished collects of the Prayer Book, with fumbling syntax, with sighs too deep for words, with tears as we consider the brokenness of our world. It’s all offered in the confidence, the amazing grace that a relationship with God is accessible and worth pursuing, and that God knows what we need before we ask. A bit more from Ms. Lamott: “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”

God aims to provide what we need, as loving parent. Let’s ditch empty phrases and the filibuster and the wish lists and aim to offer prayers with fullness and simplicity. And love.

-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: March 21, 2022

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And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for fifteen minutes of fame! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.   

          Matthew 6:5-6 (The Message)

 

The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. They pursue it even during times of spiritual dryness, when there is no social or experiential payoff.
Timothy Keller

Do good

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
-Matthew 6:5-6

Those of a certain age may remember a scene from “Sound of Music” when the Von Trapp children have been hazing the new governess, Maria (Julie Andrews) on her first day. They were so mean. When they all sit down for dinner, Maria is invited to say grace, a prayer during which she references the unusual ways she has been welcomed into the household. One by one, the children dissolve into tears of shame. A classic example of what I’ve heard described as horizontal prayers.

Such prayers sound something like this: “Lord, I pray that my sibling will stop being such a jerk.” “Lord, I pray that this particular vestry member will have the humility to see how ill-informed his opinion is.” “Lord, I pray that all of us around this dinner table will come to appreciate the Christian point of view on (name the social issue).” You get the idea. It seems that according to Jesus, people using prayer (or any religious practice) in this way is one mark of hypocrisy, masking our own agenda behind piety, bless their hearts.

These days, I hear all kinds of reasons why folks don’t go to church, why there has been a dramatic increase in the number of nones (no religious affiliation) and dones (those who have bailed). I can see reasons why organized religion loses appeal.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, recently commissioned a survey to explore what people think about Jesus. It’s called the “Jesus in America” study. He said of this study: “We are encouraged that the research shows Americans still find Jesus compelling (editorial comment: phew!) but we also see that the behavior of many of his followers is a problem, and it’s not just certain Christians. It’s all Christians.”

The study included questions about what people think about the church. Christian respondents described Christians as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful. Non-Christians had a different perspective. The characteristics they identified were judgmental, self-righteous, arrogant and, you guessed it, hypocritical. This squares with one of the most common reasons people tell me they have given up on church. They say that they don’t go to church because it’s just filled with hypocrites. To which I respond: “Guilty as charged.”

Jesus spent a lot of time contending with hypocrites. A lot of his most charged exchanges were with really religious people. That should give pause to those of us who are clergy, among others. As a result, the really religious people of Jesus’ day were among those who worked hardest to get rid of him.

As I try to understand and embrace his teaching, I sense his fundamental desire for people to have a deep and authentic relationship with God, a relationship that would be sustaining and joyful. I think he recognized that one of the things that get in the way is worrying about how we come off, how we appear, what other people think of us. I’m not sure it’s possible for us to avoid that.

But perhaps it’s possible if we try his experiment, taking our prayers to some quiet place where we get to realize that prayer is simply a conversation between us and God (an amazing, miraculous privilege when you think about it). It’s similar to the experiment we explored last week, giving alms/doing good in secret, in privacy, so we can be liberated from public opinion, so we can be liberated from the seductive power of our own ego. (After all, we can think of ego as an acronym: edging God out.)

All of it is a way for us to come to a deeper relationship with God, which is key not only to love of God, but also key to love of neighbor, and ultimately key to love of self. Grab some quiet prayer time this week. See what happens.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect is an online conversation series presented by RenewalWorks to hear from thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.

A Story of Transformation
Thursday, March 24th, 7-8pm EDT | Zoom

We hope you will join us to hear how one church’s focus on spiritual growth has transformed its congregation. 

We invite you to an intimate discussion with Rev. Greg Bezilla of Holy Trinity Church in New Jersey, on how RenewalWorks focused his leadership and the parish on deepening their love of God and neighbor. He will discuss what concerns initially encouraged him to embark on RenewalWorks in 2018 and how the church worked to implement the RenewalWorks’ Leadership Team recommendations over the subsequent 3 years. In Fall 2021, Holy Trinity returned to RenewalWorks as a way to measure those efforts. Their results were indeed different and included growth in many important measures.

We are excited to share an interview with this church’s leadership discussing their inspiring journey of rejuvenation. Please join us.

We hope you can join us for this Zoom gathering. Click here to sign up for RW: Connect emails and you will receive the link to join the webinar the day before.

Monday Matters (February 28, 2022)

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In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
-Matthew 5:48 as rendered in The Message

 

Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Matthew 5:48 as rendered in the Common English Bible

 

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
I John 1:8

 

On this sacred path of radical acceptance, rather than striving for perfection, we discover how to love ourselves into wholeness.
-Tara Brach

Perfection

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:48

Once again, in response to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, I’m looking for wiggle room. Be perfect? The older I get, the more elusive that seems.

Here’s how I begin to make sense of it. There’s a fundamental difference between this call to be perfect and the drive for perfectionism. In religious circles, as parents, as professionals, there’s a drive to get everything right. That leads to one of two results. Either we get bummed out at inevitable shortcomings or we succumb to pride that imagines God is lucky to have us on the team. Neither are particularly attractive. Or edifying.

The Greek word used in this verse for perfect is transliterated as teleios. Translations of that word include the English word “perfect.” Alongside that, the word suggests being complete, whole, full grown, mature. In John’s gospel, in Jesus’ prayer for disciples, the word is used to reflect his request that his disciples be made completely one (John 17:23). In Luke’s gospel, the word is meant to suggest work that is finished or fulfilled (Luke 13:32). I’m reminded of how the idea of salvation expressed in scripture can be seen as a move toward wholeness.

It’s hard to read the whole Bible and conclude that Jesus expects us to be perfect in terms of getting it right all the time, in terms of never sinning. He was clear-eyed about human frailty. He was surrounded by the Keystone Cops disciples who demonstrated that frailty in oh so many ways. But he still called them to wholeness, toward spiritual maturity, growth toward the integrated oneness reflected in the character of God.

There are plenty of voices showing us the perils of perfectionism. In her book on writing entitled Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott points out those perils: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Brené Brown, in a book called The Gift of Imperfection, writes: “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

But as Jesus talks to disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, as we eavesdrop on that conversation, we are meant to take it to heart, to try to put it to work in our lives. As we begin the season of Lent, a season of course-correction enlightened by self-examination, what are ways we can do that? What are ways we can move toward wholeness?

We begin by identifying those places where we don’t feel whole. Those are gaps where the light can shine through. Once we’ve got some insight into those growth opportunities, we can take steps toward wholeness, with healthy striving. That comes with practice, which suggests not only putting things into action. It also suggests that we get better, we grow, we mature, we move toward wholeness. In my own journey, those practices include reflection on scripture, quiet time in prayer, especially expressions of gratitude, service to those in need, and to the best of my ability, forgiveness. I’m wondering what practices have helped you grow in this way.

I love the bumper sticker: PBPGINFWMY. Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet. As we journey towards wholeness, towards salvation, may we find grace in the belief that God is with us. God is at work in us. Perhaps in spite of us. But we are not alone in it.

-Jay Sidebotham

 


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Join the September 2022 cohort of congregations on the journey of discipleship.

A lawyer approached Jesus, putting him to the test with this question: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ response was simple, if not easy. He said it was about love of God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love of neighbor as self.

That singular emphasis on love of God and neighbor provides the foundation for RenewalWorks, a ministry that focuses on spiritual growth by deepening love of God and neighbor in the lives of congregations, in the lives of ministries that animate those congregations, and in the lives of the individuals who bring life to those ministries.

When the details of life press in, parishes, like individuals, can inadvertently move away from this singular, simple focus on discipleship to the more mundane but necessary actions of running a church. RenewalWorks brings the focus back to Jesus’ response to the lawyer.

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Monday Matters (January 31, 2022)

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Jesus said: “And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
-Matthew 5:33-37, from THE MESSAGE, a paraphrase of the New Testament by Eugene Peterson

 

Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
-James 5:21

 

For in him (Christ) every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God.
-II Corinthians 1:20

What we say

Jesus said: “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

– Matthew 5:33-37

At the church I attended as a kid, there was a member of the parish, a church lady who in my recollection was a self-appointed spiritual guide, pious in a particularly unattractive way. She and my mother were chatting one day at coffee hour, and another woman approached. This woman shared some challenges going on in her life. The church lady responded: “You know, I pray for you every day.” This woman left. The church lady turned to my mother and said: “Who was that woman?”

In my vocation as church cartoonist, I’ve done a series about what people say to the preacher at the door as they leave church. The theme: What they say. What they mean. After my preaching, I’ve had people say: “Nice chat.” I take it to mean “I didn’t pay all that much attention.” “I stuck with you the whole time” means “You’re usually either boring or hard to follow.” When they say, “You’re getting much better as a preacher” means “You don’t stink as much as you used to.” “Interesting interpretation” means “Where did you come up with that one? Where did you go to seminary?” Some years ago, on a Sunday when I preached on a difficult passage, a visiting seminarian told me “Nice try.” That was only 15 years ago. I’ve worked through it. Really, I have.

You get the idea. Church folks don’t always say what they mean, bless their hearts. Let me know how you’ve heard or said such things.

As we move through the Sermon on the Mount, exploring Jesus’ take on traditions, after reading about murder and adultery, we come to a passage about oaths and vows. A lot has been written about what he meant, whether he had specific practices in mind. I’m not sure, because there is a lot of talk throughout scripture about the importance of taking vows and oaths.

Reflection on this passage led me to think about the ways we speak. When we recite the confession, we admit falling short in thought, word, and deed. Today’s bit of teaching from Jesus asks us to focus on how that happens with our words. Our words say a fair amount about how we relate to God and how we relate to each other.

In terms of how we relate to God, Jesus warns about swearing by heaven, etc. It strikes me that he’s addressing an attempt by human folk to control God, which does not rise to the level of proper reverence for the holy presence. It’s magical thinking, with a dose of hubris, implying that we can invoke God’s activity in a controlling way.

I’m always moved by interaction with Jewish brothers and sisters who resist even writing the name G-d. Compare and contrast to the practice of Jesus as buddy, God as co-pilot. Is our speech, especially in worship, guided by the realization that every aspect of our lives unfolds before the creator who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves? Do we take the Lord’s name in vain, tagging on pious sentiments as if they were a seal of approval, or a secret password? Are we functional atheists, never acknowledging that every moment of our lives unfolds before the presence of the creator? Do words of the liturgy become routine, suggesting boredom with it all, perhaps the most egregious offense?

In terms of how we relate to each other, are we authentic in what we say? The letter to the Ephesians speaks of speaking the truth in love. Like the church lady, who in cluelessness revealed hypocrisy, we may fall into the trap of a smoke screen of pious talk, which is why I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Jesus’ teaching, which I’ve reprinted above.

Join me this week in thinking about how we use our words, how we speak to God (i.e., pray), how we speak of God, how we speak with each other, those close to us, those who work with us, those in church with us. Is our speech marked by humility and authenticity? Can we say what we mean, letting our yes be yes? Join me in the challenge of seeing how this particular piece of the Sermon on the Mount serves as our guide to a more Christ-like way of speaking, a more Christ-like way of being.

-Jay Sidebotham

Good Book Club to start 2022 with Exodus

Start the new year with a renewed spiritual practice of reading God’s Word. Forward Movement, with support from partners from around the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, will celebrate the time of Epiphany with a new round of the Good Book Club by reading the first half of the Book of Exodus.

Exodus recounts the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We hear the great stories of Moses, from his discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter on the bank of the river to the burning bush to his presentation of the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we encounter God’s covenant and explore the grand theme of redemption.

This year, we have a bonus time of scripture engagement: the Good Book Club will dive into the first twenty chapters of Exodus from Epiphany, January 6, to Shrove Tuesday, March 1. For those who want to keep reading, we’ll offer a daily reading guide and an overview of the second half of Exodus. That reading period will conclude on Easter.

The full schedule, including the list of daily readings is available at www.goodbookclub.org.

Sign up to receive updates on Exodus.

Joining the Good Book Club is easy: Open your Bible and start reading!

Monday Matters (January 17, 2022)

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Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such 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.

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Cost and promise

Jesus said: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

-Matthew 5:29, 30

What gets in the way of your spiritual growth?

Over the past years, as we’ve worked with congregations, we’ve posed that question and gotten a lot of different responses. The church can obviously get in the way. Folks often tell me that the church has let them down, that it’s just full of hypocrites, to which I can only reply: “Guilty as charged.” One study indicated that busy schedules impede a deeper relationship with God. Others have given up hope that anything could ever be any different. Some, like me, admit that our lives are filled with competing interests, that devotion to the life of the Spirit competes with other goals and purposes and vocations, e.g., work, success, approval. Love of God is usurped by love of something else.

As we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount, today we come across another rigorous (to put it mildly) passage from Jesus, making me grateful I’m not a biblical literalist. Jesus says that if your eye (the way you look at things) or your hand (the way you grasp at things) cause you to sin, get rid of them. One way to think about sin is to describe it as brokenness in relationship with God. Jesus shows that obstacles to deeper faith, a deeper relationship with God and neighbor are nothing new. He invites disciples, you and me, to get rid of obstacles in the spiritual journey.

I hear Jesus say that we should put first things first (Seek ye first the kingdom of God), that we should make sure the main thing (love of God and neighbor) remains the main thing, that in the words of the Civil Rights movement, we should keep our eyes on the prize. And that often comes with a cost.

Jesus sets a high bar for disciples, not just in this passage but in others. He says that if you want to find your life you have to lose it. Unless a grain of wheat dies it can’t come to life. He asks: What’s the benefit of gaining the whole world if we lose our soul? As he traveled with disciples, he repeatedly told them they were on the road to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die, and they along with him. It’s a marvel they followed at all.

He didn’t hide the cost of discipleship. It reminds me of wise advice I got from a bishop who said that as we journey through life, discerning choices, there is always cost along with promise. That may be what Jesus is getting at, in a most graphic way. What cost have you encountered in your spiritual journey? And what’s the promise?

For many of us, we’ve arranged things so that the cost of discipleship is low. We haven’t had to give up much. But today’s passage asks us to take a hard look at those things in our lives that stand in the way of a deeper life with God and to get rid of those things. They may well be very good things. We need eyes and hands. But Jesus calls us to take a gut check, a fitting thing to do on a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., someone who knew a lot about the cost of discipleship.

In a 2019 article in Christianity Today, a biblical scholar named Dante Stewart wrote about King’s vision of discipleship: “King lamented that much of American Christianity “often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion.” Sanctioning slavery, war, and economic exploitation, “the church has preserved that which is immoral and unethical.” He concludes that “the church must acknowledge its guilt, its weak and vacillating witness, it’s all too frequent failure to obey the call to servanthood.” If the church in any place and any time fails to recapture its prophetic zeal, “it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

God sends people like Dr. King to push us to count the cost, to see what we are called to lose in order to gain the kingdom, in order to realize beloved community. It’s hard work. There’s the cost. It’s life-giving, liberating, loving work. There’s the promise.

I invite you to observe this holiday, this holy day, by thinking about your own spiritual journey. What is getting in the way of full expression of your love of God and neighbor? Perhaps with more pertinence, how, in the spirit of Dr. King, can you move out of your comfort zone to do something for the cause of justice and peace? How, in the spirit of Dr. King, can you claim the promise of the power of love at work in the world, even if it comes with a cost?

-Jay Sidebotham
Note: Here’s a link for the article I referenced if you want to read it as part of your holiday observance:
https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/january-web-only/martin-luther-king-day-exemplar-hope-tribute.html You might also want to read Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail.

Good Book Club to start 2022 with Exodus

Start the new year with a renewed spiritual practice of reading God’s Word. Forward Movement, with support from partners from around the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, will celebrate the time of Epiphany with a new round of the Good Book Club by reading the first half of the Book of Exodus.

Exodus recounts the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We hear the great stories of Moses, from his discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter on the bank of the river to the burning bush to his presentation of the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we encounter God’s covenant and explore the grand theme of redemption.

This year, we have a bonus time of scripture engagement: the Good Book Club will dive into the first twenty chapters of Exodus from Epiphany, January 6, to Shrove Tuesday, March 1. For those who want to keep reading, we’ll offer a daily reading guide and an overview of the second half of Exodus. That reading period will conclude on Easter.

The full schedule, including the list of daily readings is available at www.goodbookclub.org.

Sign up to receive updates on Exodus.

Joining the Good Book Club is easy: Open your Bible and start reading!

Monday Matters (December 20, 2021)

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Luke 2:46-55: The Song of Mary
And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,  according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

We interrupt the regularly scheduled programming (i.e., reflections on the Sermon on the Mount) to celebrate news of great joy which shall be to all people (i.e., the last days of Advent and the Christmas season. We’ll return in the new year to reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, when by way of coming attractions, the theme will be Jesus’ reflections on lust and adultery.Thought that might grab your attention.

With that in mind, let me pose this question for today:

What song do you sing?

What song are you singing this last week of Advent, as Christmas begins? Widening the lens, what song do you sing with your life? I’ve been told that you are what you eat. Let me suggest a corollary: You are what you sing. The fact is, everyone has a song. What does that distinctive song say about who you are, and what you hope to be?

The question is prompted by the music of this season, everything from holiday earworms (which we’ve been hearing since Labor Day) to the hopeful hymns of Advent to Christmas carols which in text and tune lift us to new appreciation of the wonders of God’s love. And a day after the Fourth Sunday of Advent, when the Magnificat was read in church, we think about Mary’s song, what it said about her, what it has to teach us.

Among the cast of characters in the Bible, Mary stands out as the one who heard God’s call and didn’t make excuses, or didn’t suggest that God had the wrong number. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of perplexity and pondering with this young girl who gets unexpected news. But she responds with openness to God’s intention for her, a devotion that will span her life, taking her all the way to the foot of the cross and beyond, as she joins with the disciples after the resurrection. In that way, she serves a model for those of us who seek, however haltingly, to be part of the Jesus movement.

Think with me about the opening line of her song: My soul magnifies the Lord. What do you make of the use of the word: magnify? It is not to say that somehow Mary’s soul makes God greater, in the ways that a magnifying glass functions. Rather, I believe that what Mary is sharing is her own expanded vision of God’s greatness, a glimmer of the divine character that exceeds her previous imagination.

And what is the character of that greatness? It is the love that came down at Christmas, the love from which we can not be separated, higher and deeper and broader than the measure of the mind. She sees God’s greatness in God’s heart for the “least of these,’ in the feeding of hungry, in lifting up the lowly, in strengthening those who stand in need of such power. As Covid is resurgent, maybe that’s all of us. That holy greatness provides the content for the song she sings.

How about you? Ask yourself this week where you see the greatness of the Lord. The song you sing in this season may say a lot about who you are, about where you give your heart, about what God has to do with it. As you sing this song, it has the power to shape your relationship with God. As we sing our songs of praise for amazing grace, our identity is formed and we are drawn in to deeper relationship with God and with each other.

Music is in the air, for sure. Add to it your own song of praise, offering that song in word and thought and deed.

-Jay Sidebotham


Good Book Club to start 2022 with Exodus

Start the new year with a renewed spiritual practice of reading God’s Word. Forward Movement, with support from partners from around the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, will celebrate the time of Epiphany with a new round of the Good Book Club by reading the first half of the Book of Exodus.

Exodus recounts the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We hear the great stories of Moses, from his discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter on the bank of the river to the burning bush to his presentation of the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we encounter God’s covenant and explore the grand theme of redemption.

This year, we have a bonus time of scripture engagement: the Good Book Club will dive into the first twenty chapters of Exodus from Epiphany, January 6, to Shrove Tuesday, March 1. For those who want to keep reading, we’ll offer a daily reading guide and an overview of the second half of Exodus. That reading period will conclude on Easter.

The full schedule, including the list of daily readings is available at www.goodbookclub.org.

Sign up to receive updates on Exodus.

Joining the Good Book Club is easy: Open your Bible and start reading!

Monday Matters (November 1, 2021)

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For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
-Hymn 287

All Saints

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
-Matthew 5:10-12

William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury once said: “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.” So here’s a holy coincidence. We come in our weekly series to this beatitude which speaks of those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And it happens to fall on All Saints Day, one of the great feasts of the church. On All Saints Day, we celebrate a great cloud of witnesses, especially those who knew the greatest persecution, whose lives ended in martyrdom for the sake of the gospel.

On this day, we often sing a song of the saints of God. When I hear that hymn, I think of a presentation I heard from a nurse who had spent time serving in another country. At a time of civil unrest, a number of Christians were being treated in her hospital. Soldiers burst in and dragged these Christians from their beds, took them out and shot them. In the presentation I attended, the woman reflected on the phrase from that hymn: “One was slain by a fierce wild beast.” I had often thought of this as a quaint, sweet, perhaps irrelevant hymn about having tea with the queen or something. It took on new meaning as she spoke of how she encountered that wild beast in the form of those soldiers.

At a bible study I led years ago, we had a steady, faithful crowd. One of our members asked if he could bring a friend. I said sure. This quiet, slight guest sat silently through our hour-long discussion. The passage before us was about persecution that comes to disciples. We talked about how we as people of faith experienced persecution. Friends and family and co-workers making fun of us. A conflict between church and a sporting event. Towards the end of the study, the guest asked if he could speak. It turns out he was a clergyman from Africa. A gang, part of a movement opposed to the Christian faith, had kidnapped him, taken him out of the city, handed him a shovel to dig his own grave. At gunpoint, looking down at that hole in the ground, he was told to renounce his faith. He stood face to face with a wild beast. This tiny man refused. For whatever holy reason, the kidnappers put down their guns and let him go.

At another bible study, ten years ago, a young man sat as a guest with a group that met weekly. The gathering is described in a book I just finished, entitled “Grace Will Lead Us Home.” It’s about the massacre at the Charleston church, Mother Emmanuel. That wild beast of a young man radicalized by white supremacists took the lives of those saints. They were saints blessed by families who witnessed to God’s life and love through their forgiveness. Into that horrific situation, something of the blessedness of the kingdom of God surfaced.

So we hear of blessings for those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Sometimes religious people are persecuted but it’s because they are being jerks in one way, being arrogant or close-minded, using the gospel to feed their ego. I believe Jesus is talking about something else, about taking a stand for God’s ways in a world with devil’s filled that threaten to undo us, to borrow language from Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.”

As you think about this beatitude, have you ever experienced persecution for righteousness’ sake? Is so, how so? If not, why not? Do you know people who have? Was it a blessing? A cause for rejoicing? Maybe we’ve escaped persecution because we keep our faith under wraps. A preacher in my youth once asked: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?” No need to go looking for trouble, but pray for those who face persecution right now. And if that’s you, know that you are not alone in the struggle. And if it’s not you, think about what you’d be willing to give up for sake of God’s righteousness.

-Jay Sidebotham


Please join us Thursday, November 4th at 7pm Eastern

RenewalWorks: Connect with Jerusalem Greer and Jay Sidebotham
to discuss My Way of Love for Small Groups

Join our RenewalWorks: Connect email list to receive more details and the Zoom link