Category Archives: Monday Matters

Monday Matters (November 28, 2022)

3-1

The Collect for the First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In coming days, Monday Matters will offer reflections on the prayers we say in church on Sunday, the collect of the day. We do this based on the conviction that praying shapes our believing, that what we pray forms us. We do this hoping that the prayers we say on Sunday will carry us through the week.

Turn to the Light

Happy new year!

We begin with grace, not a bad place to start. The prayer offered yesterday for the first Sunday of Advent (printed above) launches a new year in the church calendar. It says right up front that our dependence on grace is the heart of the matter. We rely on God’s free gifts, on love from which we can’t be separated. If we can remember that each day of this coming year, I suspect we’ll be in pretty good spiritual shape. And that gift of grace is just the start, as I channel the wisdom of Anne Lamott who described the mystery of grace as meeting us where we are but refusing to leave us there.

Truth be told, I often almost instinctively resist the foundational nature of grace. I often default to my own teeth-gritting Christianity, the belief that I’m going to arrive at spiritual health the old-fashioned way: I’ll earn it, thank you very much. For too much of the time, I’m not entirely certain that I need to rely solely on grace. After all, God is kind of lucky to have me on the team. So why do we need to ask for grace? The rest of yesterday’s prayer helps us find an answer.

It asks for the grace to cast away works of darkness. We need grace to say no to those things that are drawing us from the love of God. They come at us all the time, from all directions.

One of the great starting points in church life is baptism, when the person being baptized renounces those things, says no to them. The person being baptized is asked to renounce the spiritual forces at work in the universe, a recognition that we contend with powers greater than ourselves. We need grace for that contest. We’re also asked to renounce evil forces in the world, which we witness every day in every news outlet. Then here’s the kicker. Those forces aren’t just out there somewhere. They take up residence in each of our hearts. When G.K.Chesterton was asked to name the source of the problems in the world, he simply said: “I am.” We’re asked to renounce those powers inside of us.

It’s a lot to contend with. We are invited to shed those works of darkness, just as in the early days of the church, a baptismal candidate took off his or her old clothing, went into the water buck naked and came out to be clothed in new, clean white garments. But it’s not just about that to which we say “no.” It’s also about what we affirm.

That’s described in yesterday’s collect as taking on the armor of light, again implying a contest with forces that would threaten to undo us, to steal a phrase from Martin Luther. In baptism, taking on the armor of light can be described in three affirmations. We’re asked to turn to Jesus, to put our whole trust in God’s grace and love, to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. Turn. Trust. Follow. Not a bad program for the new year. We ask for the grace to set out on that new path. And a new year, a new church year is an excellent time to launch out in that way.

Use the quiet of the contemplative season of Advent to do some spiritual inventory, asking for the grace to take that inventory. It can be challenging work. Think about what you need to cast off. What you need to say no to. And think about what you might take on, as you try that armor of light on for size.

I lost a good friend last year, a spiritual advisor with sharp wit, deep faith, and a keen sense of the power of grace. When I’d get all wound up about what was wrong with the world or with the church or with my soul, he would calmly say: Turn to the light. That’s what we all get to do in this beautiful season of Advent.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

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.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (October 3, 2022)

3-1

What happens on Sunday morning is not half so important as what happens on Monday morning. In fact, what happens on Sunday morning is judged by what happens on Monday morning.

-Verna Dozier

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 10 Commandments be posted in public buildings…I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”

-Kurt Vonnegut

Summing up the Sermon on the Mount

Now when Jesus had finished saying these words, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes.

-Matthew 7:28-29

The two verses printed above show how the gospel writer sums up the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon which has been the focus of these Monday reflections in recent days. There are two things I notice about this summation.

First, I notice that the gospel says that there were crowds that had been listening to Jesus’ astounding teaching. When the sermon was introduced (Matthew 5:1), it seems that Jesus had left those crowds to go to the mountaintop. It was just the disciples that he was teaching in this sermon. By the end of the sermon, the crowds were listening too. Does this matter? Maybe it’s not all that significant, but I take it to mean that the good news has a way of spreading to an ever growing audience. In fact, that is what it’s supposed to do.

I think of the great effect this sermon has had on the world in the time since Jesus first spoke on that mountain. Just one more indication that scripture has transformative power in helping people grow spiritually. Case in point: Leo Tolstoy read the sermon and it changed his life, causing him to take on a life of poverty. Mahatma Gandhi read what Tolstoy had said about the sermon, and it became a key part of his strategy of non-violence, which had liberating impact on the Indian sub-continent. Martin Luther King noted the ways that Gandhi had incorporated the sermon into his political strategy and applied those insights to the non-violent civil rights movement in this country. Again, transformation.

All of that points to the widening influence of this sermon, as it moved from the small audience of 12 disciples on the top of a middle-eastern mountain to change our world. My intent in spending recent months reflecting on this sermon is to see how that sermon can continue to shape our world, shape our individual lives, shape our church. My hope and prayer is that attention paid to each verse in these three chapters (Matthew 5-7) can help us grow, can help us share the good news of God’s love known to us in Jesus, our teacher.

The second thing I notice is the amazement of the crowd, their surprise at the authority Jesus exhibits (much more powerful than the clergy of the day). In many places in the gospels, people listen to Jesus, scratch their heads and say: “Where did he get all this? Where did he come from? How does he speak with such authority?” It raises the question of what we regard as authoritative. These days, we hear a lot about a rise in authoritarianism in our world. But as we note that rise, we may be facing a decline in an appreciation for authority. All kinds of authorities are faced with questioning.

When the gospel says that people thought Jesus was speaking with authority, I imagine them thinking: “This guy knows what he’s talking about.” I imagine them perceiving that Jesus is someone they could trust, someone worth following. I mean, what was it about Jesus that he could walk up to busy fishermen or tax collectors and say “Follow me” and they would get up and do it?

As I reflect on the Sermon on the Mount, there are a number of things that surprise me. Some things strike me as mysterious, border-line baffling. But as I read these words, I pick up on the authority with which Jesus teaches. It makes me inclined to say that the way of Jesus is the way I want to go. As the old hymn goes, I may not know what the future holds but I know who holds the future.

It’s been a gift to spend time reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, bit by bit. I hope that there have been edifying moments. Truth be told, a main reason for doing it was for my own edification, to see how I can draw closer to understanding what Jesus has to say to me today. I’m not entirely sure what comes next for Monday Matters. I’m thinking I’m going to take a few weeks off to think about that. But I trust that we can all continue to see how the way of love, the Jesus movement, intersects with our daily lives.

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

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.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (September 19, 2022)

3-1

He does not believe that does not live according to his belief.

-Sigmund Freud

As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

 -Abraham Lincoln

The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I wore black because I liked it. I still do, and wearing it still means something to me. It’s still my symbol of rebellion — against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas.

         -Johnny Cash

Lord, Lord

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you who behave lawlessly.’
-Matthew 7:21-23

If a preacher like me is not made a little nervous by this passage, maybe enough attention is not being paid. We tend to talk a lot. We work hard at getting the words right. We say “Lord, Lord” in all kinds of ways. In all that chatter, are we doing the will of the Father in heaven?

Evangelicals often say that the key to salvation rests on saying the right thing, articulating just the right statement of faith. Other traditions place hope on words of liturgy said just the right way. I’ve run across preachers and teachers who talk about grace till they’re blue in the face, but practice a religion marked by judgment, ministry that is anything but graceful. Politicians promote religious values and then shape policy that contradicts it. It’s not hard to come up with a list of ways that people say “Lord, Lord” while living lives that say something else.

Perhaps the greater challenge is to think about what it means to do the will of the Father. It’s easy, fun, and often delicious, to point out the hypocrisy in other people (although I find it totally annoying when folks point it out in me). But the more pressing question, and the best way I know to battle hypocrisy is to ask: What do I know of what God wills? Am I focused on that?

I’m starting a list based on what I find in scripture. You may want to add your own ideas.

God wills unity. With divisions in so many parts of society, including those who might say “Lord, Lord,” the gospel of John reveals God’s intention. Jesus prays to his Father and asks that they (his followers) may be one “as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (John 17:21) Jesus doesn’t pray for uniformity or agreement. He prays for something more profound.

God wills healing and reconciliation. With brokenness of relationship on full display in families, neighborhoods, nations and even churches where people rattle off “Lord, Lord,” one of the key themes in the Lord’s Prayer is forgiveness. Many who say “Lord, Lord” can’t seem to let go of resentment (author included). I sense that the intention of the Holy One is that we move on, look forward, look up.

God wills thanksgiving. With widespread deficit of an attitude of gratitude, people who mindlessly repeat “Lord, Lord” often act as if God owes them something, as if God is lucky to have them on the team. I love the verse from the psalm that tells us what God intends: Whoever offers me the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors me (Psalm 50:24).

God wills inclusion of those on the edges. With migrants now heartlessly shipped around the country as chattel, often by folks who say “Lord, Lord”, a word from the book of Deuteronomy indicates the divine will: For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

God wills love of God and neighbor. Jesus called it the summary of the law. We express the love of God in worship (with our lips and with our lives). We have opportunity to express love of neighbor all the time, using Jesus’ expansive vision of neighborliness found in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The prophet Micah presented it as a three-point plan: What does the Lord require but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) Not a bad mission statement for my life.

God will trust, perhaps the ultimate expression of love of God. Too often, religious folks (the “Lord, Lord” crowd) act as functional atheists, relying on their own resources, their own righteousness. Proverbs 3:5 issues a different call: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

For me, that’s a gracious plenty to work on. While recognizing my own hypocritical behavior, I commit to focus on these holy intentions. How would you describe the will of the Father? How might you focus on that this week, and in the weeks to come?

-Jay Sidebotham


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

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.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort, or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 29, 2022)

3-1

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


Interested in RenewalWorks for your parish? Learn more about how RenewalWorks works!

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.
Churches can launch as part of a fall or spring cohort, or go on their own schedule.  Sign up now!!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (August 22, 2022)

3-1

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 8, 2022)

3-1
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)

3-1

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.

Monday Matters (July 18, 2022)

3-1

Psalm 37:1-10

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.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

Judgement Day

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. –
-Matthew 7:1,2

From a column that appeared on July 8 in the NY TIMES, a guest essay by Anne Lamott on the subject of prayer, as a reflection of her relationship with God:

I will have horrible thoughts about others, typically the Christian right or the Supreme Court, or someone who has seriously crossed me, whose hair I pray falls out or whose book fails. I say to God, as I do every Sunday in confession: “Look — I think we can both see what we have on our hands here. Help me not be such a pill.” It is miserable to be a hater. I pray to be more like Jesus with his crazy compassion and reckless love. Some days go better than others. I pray to remember that God loves Marjorie Taylor Greene exactly the same as God loves my grandson, because God loves, period. God does not have an app for Not Love. God sees beyond each person’s awfulness to each person’s needs. God loves them, as is. God is better at this than I am.

Anne Lamott has also noted that the difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you. All of which brings us to Jesus’ wisdom in today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Apparently knowing us quite well, he speaks about the ways we judge others. We obviously make many judgments on any given day. We have to make decisions. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about.

So what do you think he’s after in this passage? What does it say about us when we judge others? What does it say about those others whoever they may be, i.e., the people we judge? What does it say about what we think about God?

Take them in order. First, what does our propensity for judgment say about us? Have you ever heard someone say: Who am I to judge? It’s a little like someone saying: Bless your heart. There’s always more behind the statement. Who am I to judge, but let me tell you why I think that person is off track. Let me tell you why God should be upset with that person. There’s a gracious dose of hubris implicit in judging. It suggests we see ourselves doing God’s job for God. Here’s the problem: We don’t know as much as God knows. We don’t love as much as God loves.

Then what does it say about how we regard others? What does it mean if we find ourselves passing judgment on others? It can only mean that we think on some deeper level that we are better than those people, a particular temptation for religious folks. It can’t help but bring division. Jesus suggests that the spirit that inclines us to judge others will come back to bite us. The judgment we give will be the judgment we receive. If that’s the field we choose to play on, we will undoubtedly get smacked with judgment ourselves.

Truth be told, it seems that judging other people probably does little to change other people. Have you ever really “won” a political argument or made headway on social media? All that that kind of judgment does is damage community. Once we get into the mode of judging, it can be hard to know where to stop. Pretty soon, we’ve ended up judging everyone around us.

I recognize in myself a potent judgmental streak. I think about where that comes from. I can get really judgmental about the people and communities and ways of thinking that made me judgmental. Talk about a loop! As Anne Lamott prays: Help me not be such a pill.

Finally, what does our judgment say about how we regard God? It implies that God is not up to the task, that God can’t be trusted to be the ultimate judge, that maybe we know better than God does. It implies that we think that the unconditional forgiveness at the heart of the gospel is not really all that unconditional, that it depends on our own judgments, that we become final arbiter in some way.

So what do we do? We recognize we’re all in this together, that every one of us could be judged, that every one of us needs mercy. We each and all need to be given a break. On a regular basis, it helps to give thanks that mercy has come our way. It can be work, it can involve discipline to do that, but it’s worth the trip, even though it’s much more delicious to judge. But as noted, while I’m actually quite judgmental, I have a sense that if I could stop or curtail judgment, I would enjoy life more. I would enjoy relationships more. I would experience greater freedom. I’d be less of a pill.

Psalm 37 has been a help to me in moments when I feel inclined to judge. Portions of that psalm appear above. When I get on my high horse, it helps to turn it over to God, remembering the psalmist’s call, the warning to refrain from fretting about others. It leads only to evil.

-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 (July 11, 2022)

3-1
Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation
-St. Paul, II Corinthians 6.2

 

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.
-Henry David Thoreau

 

Tomorrow is tomorrow. Future cares have future cures. And we must mind today.
-Sophocles, Antigone

 

Every instant of our lives is essentially irreplaceable: you must know this in order to concentrate on life.
-Andre Gide

 

We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.

 

Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

 

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
-Annie Dillard

On this day the Lord has acted. We will rejoice and be glad in it.
-Psalm 118:24

Now

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
-Matthew 6: 34

In a time in which change swirls around us, as institutions and norms we once thought immovable begin to shift, it’s comforting to know one thing that remains constant: 8am worship in Episcopal churches. From week to week, decade to decade, in some places generation to generation, same folks, same pews, same words.

I had my own taste of such immutability at my church in Chicago. An elderly parishioner attended our 8am service every week. Every week. If she wasn’t there, I knew she was ill and I would call her. Each and every Sunday, this 90 year old woman would greet me at the door after the service with these words: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift, which is why we call it the present.” I think she wanted to make sure I got the message. While it may have the scent of Hallmark card, I took it to heart, as reflective of the wisdom in today’s verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

It’s the wisdom of the recovery movement that encourages people to live a day at a time. It’s the wisdom of the practice of yoga, in which one steps on a mat and suspends reflection on the past or plans for the future, an exercise in being present.

It is not easy to live each day at a time. We find ourselves caught between the what-ifs of our past, and the what-ifs of our future. It takes faith to focus on what is set before us in the present, to see the ways we can be faithful in each and every moment. My brain (a.k.a., my monkey mind) is often hijacked by regrets over the past or anxiety about the future. That keeps me from attending to what is right in front of me. It takes faith to give thanks for the gift of each day, to see each day, even stormy days, as loaded with possibility, as a stage set for God’s work in me and among us, as the very next immediate concrete way to follow Jesus.

When I find it challenging, I think back on an ecumenical service I would lead on a regular basis at a nursing home. Some people could make their way to the chapel without assistance. Others arrived in wheelchairs. A few reclined on gurneys, unable to move their bodies. Some were alert and attentive to my insightful homilies. Others snored. While the liturgy was sort of generically protestant to accommodate the crowd, we always ended with this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

If those folks could pray for the day, taking it as it comes, a day at a time, I was inspired to do the same. I’m especially taken by the phrase that calls us to face each day gallantly. Monday, July 11. You are given this day. How will you live into it most fully, most faithfully, most joyfully, most courageously? How will you do so gallantly?

I close with wisdom from Annie Dillard. She reflects on writing, but what she has to say applies to the daily writing of the story of our lives:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Have a blessed day.

-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 (July 4, 2022)

3-1

Selections from the readings chosen by the church for the observance of Independence Day:

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.
-Deuteronomy 10:18

 

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.
-Psalm 145:8,9

 

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
-Hebrews 11:16

 

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
-Matthew 5:43-45

Happy Fourth of July

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the gentiles who seek all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
-Matthew 6: 31-33

As we observe Independence Day, a celebration of our nation, we coincidentally arrive at the point in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus asks us to think about the kingdom we seek. His teaching implies that there might be several kingdoms calling to us at once, grabbing hold of us, pulling us in different directions. Ever feel that way?

Apparently aware of these forces, Jesus tells his disciples to put first things. Keep the main thing the main thing. Seek first the kingdom. So I’m wondering for starters how the image of the kingdom of God strikes you. Is it something from another time and place? Does it help to speak about the Rule or Sovereignty or Reign of God? In my mind, we’re talking about a sphere of influence. That place where God’s graceful intention for all of creation is fulfilled. It’s the fulfillment of that line in the Lord’s Prayer that says “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s why the gospels seem to regard the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God as interchangeable.

I found myself thinking about the kingdoms calling to me these days. Where am I giving my heart? What sphere of influence holds sway over me? The empire of our work and vocation, our family relationships and commitments, our sense of achievement and worth? On this holiday, there is certainly the kingdom represented by our national identification, love expressed in patriotism. That can be a beautiful thing, a cause for celebration and gratitude on a day like today. There’s much to be thankful for this day.

But I’m still processing the images of insurrectionists carrying Christian images into the Capitol on January 6, self-proclaimed patriots leading prayers and toting Bibles as the Capitol was stormed. Russell Moore, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that when he saw a “Jesus Saves” sign displayed near a gallows built by rioters, “I was enraged to a degree that I haven’t been enraged in memory. This is not only dangerous and unpatriotic but also blasphemous, presenting a picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ that isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ and is instead its exact reverse.”

Years ago, Upton Sinclair said: When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. Recent developments in our civic life make me realize the perilous persistence of the conflation of nationalism and American Christianity. It underscores the importance of saying Jesus is Lord instead of saying Caesar is Lord (Caesar or his modern counterparts).

And what kind of Lord is Jesus? He is that Lord who came to serve and not be served (Mark 10:45). He came to tear down dividing walls not build them (Ephesians 2:14). He came to stretch out arms of love so that in him there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).

With that in mind, how do we as people of faith keep first things first, especially on this holiday. Start, as always, with prayer. Independence Day is a liturgical feast, as we pray that God will bless America, as we give thanks for so many blessings. We also ask, in the words of a national hymn, that God will mend our every flaw. There’s ample room for that kind of healing work.

And then we consider the various kingdoms that lay claim on us, and seek to have them align with the Kingdom of God. By holy coincidence, readings chosen by our church for Independence Day (excerpts in the column on the left) give wonderful insight into what the Kingdom of God might look like here on earth. When partisanship heightens our emotions, we hear Jesus speak of a kingdom marked by love of enemies. When we may be led to believe that our kingdom needs to be defined by who is not in it, we hear from the Hebrew Scriptures that we are to welcome the stranger. When we feel disconnected from others, we hear a call to compassion. We read from the letter to the Hebrews about the great characters of the Old Testament. They longed for a better country. All of those are ways to seek God’s kingdom first. Jesus promises that if we do that, the rest will fall in place.

Perhaps the hope for our nation in troubled times is to seek first the kingdom of God. Let us pray in word and action for that. Maybe it’s the hope for each one of us as individuals as well. Take this week to think about what it means for you to put first things first.

-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.