Category Archives: Uncategorized

Monday Matters (June 27, 2022)

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How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

-Isaiah 52.7

 

O heavenly Father, who hast filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies. Christ our Lord, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

 

Do you want to do something beautiful for God? There is a person who needs you. This is your chance.
There is a thing you can do but I can not and there is a thing I can but you can not; so let us make something beautiful for God.
-Mother Teresa

Being considerate

And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
-Matthew 6: 27-30

Consider the lilies, with the glory they effortlessly show. This bit of wisdom is a whole lot more than simply stopping to smell the roses (although that’s an excellent thing to do). In the call to consider the lilies, we’re asked to learn from them, to gain wisdom from them, to imitate them. It’s a call to notice beauty and to celebrate it.

First, we notice beauty as gift. As the collect above indicates, God has filled the world with beauty as an act of grace, one that helps us grasp a power greater than ourselves, one that reveals the holy character as loving attention, one that simply brings us joy. Beauty itself, clearly holy intention in creation, is also there to be our teacher. And so we hear the refrain from the psalm that we are to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Recognizing that holy beauty is indeed key to our worship.

Second, we notice beauty as lens. It provides a way to look at the world around us, appreciation of nature for sure. It also includes the ways we look at each other. I recently came across a photographic study which showed how people reacted when someone told them they were beautiful. Pre-comment, sullen. Post-comment, glowing. It struck me because I’m spending time on crowded subways these days. I have felt called to pay attention to other people in the car. I sometimes will get out my small sketch pad and draw them. Slightly risky, but it’s my way of considering the beauty in each person (not unlike the dignity in each person). Not because they are attractive in any movie star way, or because they are dressed particularly well, but simply because they are. They are beautiful.

Third, we notice beauty as offering. Note that the second prayer above talks about the gifts of musicians and artists who help us glimpse beauty. My own faith journey has been deeply shaped by those gifts as well as architectural beauty. I’m grateful for those who made that possible, for their offerings. Offerings of beauty are not only located in liturgy and sacred space. I’m mindful of the ministry of Mother Teresa who said that her life goal was to offer something beautiful for God. (As a work of art, her ministry was the moral equivalent of the Sistine Ceiling.) My offering will never rise to that level, but I appreciate her sense that we each and all can do something beautiful for God. She once described herself as a pencil in God’s hand, revealing her openness to God’s will for her life. Nice image.

Newsflash: There’s a whole lot these days in our world that is not beautiful. There’s a whole lot to make us worry. That’s why the call to consider beauty and upon consideration to extend it is so important. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, it takes faith to see the beautiful in our grace-starved world, a world that seems to grow more mean-spirited by the minute. It’s a world that can easily make us anxious, a world that can make us think we are not beautiful enough, that we need to work harder and longer and better to solve the things that cause us angst. Truth be told, that over-functioning will not ultimately do the trick. But it seems to me that Jesus is telling us that we can navigate the anxiety with an expression of gratitude and hope that beauty will grow.

We worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness in the conviction that God cares and God provides. Be on the lookout today for beauty. Don’t let the ugliness dominate us. Consider the lilies. Consider how your faith is deepened by attentiveness to that which is beautiful.

-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 (June 13, 2022)

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I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?

 

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

 

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

 

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

 

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning,
and sang.

 

-Mary Oliver

Worry

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
-Matthew 6: 25

Our musical stroll down memory lane continues. Last week, Bob Dylan: “You gotta serve somebody.” This week, Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Great tune. But as life philosophy, does that work?

We come to a portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus reflects on anxiety, a recognition that it is part of the human experience, maybe especially for disciples. Jesus says: Do not worry about your life. Sometimes I think that’s all I do. I’m wondering, as I reflect on times when I’ve been gripped by worry, how helpful it is for Jesus to simply say: Do not worry.

Note that the verse begins with the word “therefore.” I’ve been told that whenever we see that word in scripture, we need to ask: What is the therefore there for? Well into the sermon, what have we heard that equips us for freedom from worry, from anxiety?

We heard the beatitudes, which tell us that even amid worrisome and challenging times, we can have a sense of blessed hope, the promise of the inheritance of God’s life. We’ve heard challenges to get clear about how we worship. Are we worried about what other people think of us? We’ve heard a call to seek God’s kingdom first, to have that as priority and trust that everything else (including our worries) will fall in place. We’ve heard calls to put trust in God, to live in closer relationship with God.

How can we exercise the kind of trust that allows us to live with less worry? When Jesus invites us to live free of worry, he doesn’t say that it will be easy. He does say that we will not be left alone. I don’t know about you, but I am well aware that I am unable to find freedom from worry on my own. I need help.

Which brings us to the message of this season. Coming off of the Feast of Pentecost, we learn that the Holy Spirit is sent to us, helping us address those things that make us anxious, those things that make us worry, those things that drive us nuts, those things that push our buttons, those things that cause us to fear. The Holy Spirit comes as paraclete, which literally means one who comes along side of us. The Holy Spirit comes as advocate, holy presence on our side, holy presence that has our back. The Holy Spirit comes as comforter, which implies that we need comfort. The Holy Spirit comes as guide and teacher, which implies that we need to be shown a way forward.

I’ve been thinking this week of ways that we can invite the Spirit’s help in all of this. I often find it helpful to look in the spiritual rear-view mirror and see the ways that God has acted in the past, even when I didn’t know it was happening. It provides a bit of a track record that helps me relax.

I sometimes find an attitude of gratitude can be helpful, counting blessings, recognizing that the things that keep me up at night are often problems I don’t really need to worry about.

I sometimes find it helpful to think of people who seem free of anxiety, folks who really have something to worry about, taking these folks as models. I think of the New Testament story of Paul and Silas singing hymns all night in prison. I think of the irrepressible joy of people like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, who each faced some of the greatest cruelty that human beings can dish out.

Finally, on days when I have a bit of perspective, I realize that there’s not a lot of productivity in worry, as I hear that life is more than food or clothing, or job title, or zip code, or investments, or reputation, or education, or great sermon review.

So perhaps the best way we can address worry is to say, to pray: Come, Holy Spirit. Try it when faced with worries great and small. Claim the power present along side of us, power around us as advocate, comforter and guide.

-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 (June 6, 2022)

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You may be an ambassador to England or France.
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance.
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world.
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

 

You may be a construction worker working on a home.
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome.
You might own guns and you might even own tanks.
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody .
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody .
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody .

 

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride.
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side.
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair.
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

 

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk.
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk.
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread.
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king sized bed.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody yes indeed.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

-Bob Dylan

You gotta serve somebody

No one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
-Matthew 6: 24

Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Brooklyn on May 24, 1941. He grew up to be a singer and songwriter more commonly known as Bob Dylan. Of late, for health reasons, he’s been low-profile, but he has been a major figure in popular culture for more than 60 years, with songs that became anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960’s. Simple greatness, in my humble opinion.

As tends to be the case, a long life like his involved a number of stages. For Mr. Dylan, that included a season which began when he converted to an evangelical Christian faith. That experience resulted in the kind of fervor often found among new converts. It shaped his music in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. It won him a bunch of Grammys.

He produced several albums that reflected his new-found faith. One song in particular always strikes me when I run across the verses from the Sermon on the Mount before us this morning. The song’s refrain: You gotta serve somebody. The song has many stanzas. I’ve included just a few above. But I find myself this morning wondering if you think the premise is true. Do we really have to serve somebody?

A culture that celebrates the mythology of rugged individualism may not warm up to this idea. But let’s kick it around. Does everyone of us live our lives in service to someone or something? The list of potential masters, those people or things we serve, can be long. Purchased politicians bend to the will of those who donate the most money to their campaigns, even when it violates personal convictions or professions of faith. Clergy tailor homilies to avoid offending big donors, even if it mutes inspired voice. Teenagers twist themselves in knots to please the in-crowd, or to fulfill images media provides. (Newsflash: adults do that too.) We slavishly try to live up to expectations of parents, children, neighbors, employers, jumping through all kinds of hoops to get the nod.

To make it all the more complicated, we may find ourselves bifurcated or trifurcated or multifurcated (I’m making up words here) as we try to please the many voices calling to us at the same time. It can get tiring. It can be crazy making. In the end, it can prove to be unfulfilling.

Jesus knew this about us. His answer was simple. He said: Follow me. Stay close. Do what I call you to do. Do what I do. Love God and love neighbor. Put first things first. Seek first God’s kingdom and the rest will fall in place. That may mean that we recognize that we’re not in charge, often a painful realization for those of us who toy with the idea of being masters of our universe.

In the mystery of our faith, we discover our fullest, richest identity when we get the service piece down. Augustine captured that idea in his prayer which said that we serve Christ in whose service is perfect freedom. In other words, we find a life of freedom when we serve the one who came to serve. What does that look like in life?

With an eye on recent history, maybe it means choosing communal responsibility over independent rights, changing our thoughts on masks or guns or any other prerogative. Maybe it means listening more and opining less when we meet someone who disagrees with us. Maybe it means opening our eyes to those nearby and far away who might be hungry or homeless or lonely, and doing something about those desperate situations. Maybe it means looking around at those closest to us each morning and asking: How can I help you today?

We will always face multiple vocations. We go to work. We need money. We deal with expectations of others. We have aspirations. But perhaps we are being called to place all of those potential “masters” in the context of discipleship, i.e., the way we follow Jesus. What would it look like this week to take a step in that direction, to make that our goal?

-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 30, 2022)

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Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

(Philippians 4.8)
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name given to Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2.5-11)

You are what you see

The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If, then, the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
-Matthew 6: 22-23

I hear Jesus saying that you are what you see. Or maybe that you become what you look at. Do you think that is the case?

On the one hand, we have the chance to make choices about where we give our attention, about what we see. The wisdom of Albert Einstein comes to mind. He said: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” We can choose, in a way that goes well beyond simply looking at the glass half full or half empty.

A friend attended a conference where the leader offered this exercise: Write the story of your life from three perspectives, as hero, victim and learner. Every one of us has the raw material to see our lives in these three ways. We all, at some point, fancy ourselves hero. The world and the Lord are lucky to have us on the team. We all, at some point, have been injured by someone (and we’re pretty good at remembering those). We all, at all times, have opportunity to learn something new. It depends on how we see things, how we see ourselves. In many ways, we become what we see.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he talks about choosing where we give our attention. (See verses above.) Earlier in the letter, he tells this community to let the mind of Christ rule in their hearts. That strikes me as another way of saying that we can choose the way we look at life. As you think about where you get your news, your entertainment, your updates on friends, your advice, what are you choosing to see, to look at, to watch? Those choices shape us. Are those choices healthy?

Truth be told, some of us with unhealthy vision feel powerless to do anything about it. Our blindness does not feel like a choice. We need help from a power greater than ourselves. Think of the number of times Jesus addressed blindness, granting vision for the first time to those stuck in darkness. One of the lengthiest of these stories is told in John 9, where Jesus heals a man born blind. Disciples want to know what the man did wrong to be blind. Jesus says that is the wrong question.

From that encounter, we hear Jesus say: “I am the light of the world.” That says to me that healthy vision will come as we tap into relationship with him. He will show us the way, giving grace to help in time of need. As the psalmist said: “Your word is a lantern to my feet, a light along my path.” In our tradition, Jesus is that light-giving, life-giving word made flesh.

John 9 also tells us that there are those of us who may just prefer blindness. Jesus comes under criticism from religious leaders. He uses that encounter to make the point that some of the most religious people of his day were blind guides. It’s just one of the several places where he comes down on folks who pretend that they see but really don’t see much at all.

Such willful blindness is not limited to biblical times. Just think about the news since last Monday, revealing the darkness in our body politic. With the heaviness on all of our hearts in the wake of another senseless shooting, some leaders turn blind eye to the woefully exceptional American experience of mass shootings, more than 220 this year, way more than any other nation on the globe. Religious leaders in the largest Protestant denomination in the country have turned a blind eye to sexual abuse for decades. Every week, we collectively turn blind eye to divisions caused by persistent systemic racism and widening economic disparity. This kind of blindness is not just a communal experience. With blinders on, we practice it as individuals, with indifference to needs around us in our families, neighborhoods, churches, communities.

Jesus calls us to look at life another way, expressed by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as he concluded his communication to the church after the shooting in Buffalo two weeks ago: “Even amid tragedy, even when manifestations of evil threaten to overwhelm, let us hold fast to the good. It is the only way that leads to life. As you gather with friends and family, and in worship on Sunday, pray for the strength to hold fast to the good. Yet we must also strive for good, and as citizens demand that more can be done to protect our elders, our young people, and our children from such horror.”

I am grateful for his vision. It’s healthy and healing. We sure do need it now.

-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 23, 2022)

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If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.

Colossians 3:1,2

 

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before Jesus and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not defraud. Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Mark 10:17-22

 

Love people. Use things. The opposite never works.
-the Minimalists

Where is your treasure?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
-Matthew 6: 19-21

We hear this passage each year on Ash Wednesday, as it launches the season of Lent, a time for self-examination. The punchline to the gospel reading about the connection of treasure and heart hits me hard every time. It swirls around in my head, often in an unsettling way.

Jesus really knows how to get to us. With his statement about treasure and heart, we are called to take the following questions through the season of Lent, and beyond. We’re called to ask: Where is our heart? What do we really treasure?

Our treasure may be stuff: Fine collectibles. Savings, investments and assets. Highly valued toys. Our treasure may be less tangible. Our reputation, relationships or resume. Our pride at accomplishment. Our distasteful sense of being better than somebody, anybody.

Jesus’ challenging words make me think about related counsel from a desert father, Abba Poemem. To his students, he offered this timeless challenge: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart. Which leads back to the question: Where are we giving our hearts?

I found myself wondering if what Jesus was really saying was that we do not always own our treasures. We may think we do, but often, they own us. They shape us. They make us behave in ways we would not otherwise behave.

Case in point: The history of slavery in our nation. Clearly, many people over those centuries knew it was horrific, that what they were doing was out of line with God’s intention for all people. But slavery was key to the economic health of the nation at the time. That sense of treasure made people behave in ways they would not have otherwise behaved. It made people make excuses, twist logic and deny fact to hold on to wealth. Change was not in the cards. I’m wondering in what ways do we do the same things these days. Any thoughts?

Above, find the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man. It says Jesus loved this guy. That is not said of every person Jesus encountered. Not that he didn’t love them all, but there was special affinity here. As the young man asks what was required of him, he shared the ways he’d done all the right things, checked all the boxes. Jesus says there’s just one thing more. If he wanted to follow Jesus he needed to shift his treasure, surrendering his material possessions. He needed a change of heart that meant thinking in new ways about his treasure.

The young man can’t make the shift. He goes away sad. Jesus is sad. The whole thing is sad, as sad as the many ways that we give our hearts (our souls, our minds, our strength) to that which will not satisfy our hearts, to things that will not remain, to things that are not good for us.

While there’s plenty of challenge here, there’s also opportunity. It begins with gaining clarity about where our treasure lies. There are a number of measures we can consider. Start with a look at credit card statements. Look at calendars. They may not tell the whole story, but they offer insight into where we’re giving time, talent and treasure.

When it comes to where we locate our treasure, a lot of us diversify. We are pulled in many directions. That may be a good investment strategy, but when we take it to the level of what we worship and who we follow, we may uncover competing vocations calling to us. We can be about everything and about nothing. How can we gain more focus in what we treasure?

Later in this sermon, Jesus will say seek first the kingdom of God, with the promise that all the rest will fall in place (my paraphrase). I’m feeling like the answer to all this is to think each day about how we can with gladness and singleness of heart give our heart to the kingdom, the rule, the reign of God. How can we give our heart to the way of love articulated by Jesus, that which will satisfy our heart? Jesus promises that when we do that, everything else we need will be added. Dare we believe it?

Let me close with two brief parables to chew on today: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and reburied; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44, 45)

-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 16, 2022)

3-1
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.
Colossians 3:1,2

 

If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

 

Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in Him a source of sustenance beyond food.
Dallas Willard

 

The best of all medicines is resting and fasting.
Benjamin Franklin

Fasting

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
-Matthew 6: 16, 17

Fasting is all the rage. In many corners of our culture, we’ve come to realize that this ancient practice, part of many faith traditions, is a good idea. In the Christian tradition, fasting is often associated with giving something up for Lent. It may simply suggest deprivation. Truth be told, at least in my own experience, the practice of fasting in Lent can be a bit like beating your head against a wall. It feels so good when you stop. It can also become a matter of spiritual pride, a competitive sport. Being holier than thou easily slides into being more miserable than thou.

Jesus recognized that fasting was part of the spiritual practices of his culture. He saw its value. He began his ministry in the desert, going without food for forty days. I can barely skip a meal. He also recognized that like all kinds of spiritual practices, it can go off the rails as ego creeps in. (Remember: ego is an acronym for edging God out.)

We’re well past Lent. Right now may be a great time to consider what fasting is all about, free of seasonal obligation. It’s not about earning a spiritual merit badge. It’s about taking a look at our lives, at what we value, and what we might do without for a period of time in order to get clarity about what matters. Looking at it that way, assume that no one has any idea of the contours of your fast. Look inside yourself and think about what you might want to give up, maybe for an evening, or a day, or a month, or a season.

Maybe you want to go one day a week without checking social media, or take a break from screen time. That’s not to denigrate these ways of connecting with others or getting work done. It’s simply a way to say that it shouldn’t take over our lives. And it allows us to notice things we may have missed.

Maybe you want to have a day free of news, however you get the news. That’s not to say it’s unimportant to be informed. It’s a Christian duty. But a break from the news might just do some good for the soul, and offer some perspective.

Maybe you want a day of fasting from cussing. That may help you see how powerful speech can be, for good or ill.

Maybe you want a day free of complaining. We all have something to complain about, but how would the rest of the week be changed if we decided to accentuate only the positive for one 24 hour period.

Maybe you want a day free of comforting things like chocolate or Merlot or potato chips, a way to remember that billions of people in our world never get those small pleasures.

Maybe you want to skip a meal, or two, or three. That’s not a diet plan, though it does have health benefits. But it can help us pray for those who have no choice in skipping meals. There are people like that in all of our neighborhoods, not to mention our global village.

Maybe you choose a day without coffee…wait a minute…let’s not get carried away….

Here’s the deal: Nobody else needs to know when you fast. Jesus seems to indicate that if we sense that others need to know, we’ve missed the point. This is not about sitting in the city square in sackcloth and ashes. It’s about a regular check-in assessing the things we value, and focusing on the following:

  • Gratitude: Fasting gives us a chance to count our blessings.
  • Compassion: Fasting gives us a window into millions around us who face deprivation.
  • Clarity: Fasting gives us a chance to see what is really important, really essential.
  • Worship: Fasting gives us a chance to deepen our relationship with God, to trust that all that we need will be provided.

I invite you to. consider some non-Lenten way to put this spiritual discipline to work in your life. Let the practice be just between you and God.

-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 9, 2022)

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Matthew 18:21-35

 

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

 

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him, and, as he could not pay, the lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

More on forgiveness

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
-Matthew 6: 14,15

Does this really mean that when we withhold forgiveness from others, God withholds it from us? Is this a quid pro quo?

In today’s verses from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus underscores what he has already said in the Lord’s Prayer: forgiveness matters. In the gospels, he sets a high bar. (Just take a look at the passage above.) We are to forgive someone seventy seven times, which basically means that there are to be no limits to our extension of forgiveness.

I’m mindful that many people have experienced traumatic injury that makes this strong call to forgiveness tough. Maybe beyond possibility. I can only imagine how hard this might be for some.

Speaking for myself, I’m loaded with limits on how much forgiveness I will extend. I consider the worthiness of the person I consider forgiving. I wonder if I can trust the person not to injure me again. I want accountability and occasionally I want revenge. Some folks seem to be simply irredeemable jerks, undeserving of forgiveness. Forgiveness in their cases would amount to enabling. Am I alone in feeling this way?

Jesus may be simply describing a spiritual dynamic, the reality that we can’t really embrace the fact that we’re forgiven if we’re not willing to forgive other people. But there is also a prescriptive dimension to his teaching, because the Jesus movement is at its heart a ministry about forgiveness. We can’t be part of that movement if we’re not working on forgiveness on a pretty extravagant level.

And if we decide not to forgive someone else, what does that say about us?

It says that we claim to know more about human relationships than God does. Or maybe that we have higher standards than God does. Or maybe that we are a better judge than God is. Or maybe we think that the injuries we’ve experienced are more egregious than what God experienced, the one who went to the cross. If the God of creation is willing to forgive us, for things done and left undone, in thought, word and deed, how can we withhold forgiveness?

It suggests that our own experience of forgiveness has had limited impact on us. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus notes the difference between someone who had been forgiven a great deal, and someone who had been forgiven less. (Luke 7:26-50) It becomes a matter of the heart, as we are deeply moved with love when we really embrace the amazing grace that we are forgiven, accepted, loved.

It ignores the fact that without forgiveness, relationships will remain unresolved, and probably broken. The withholding of forgiveness gets us stuck. It blocks a path forward. A refusal to forgive may indicate that we’re uninterested in moving forward. Indeed, it focuses our energies on the past. It may suggest that we’ve grown comfortable or familiar with our resentments. Maybe we even treasure them. The devil we know and all that.

The Jesus movement is at its heart a ministry about forgiveness, beginning with the news that we have been forgiven. It’s not about perfection. Just take a look at the disciples. Our participation in the Jesus movement depends on our ability to hear Jesus say to us, with arms stretched out on the hard wood of the cross: Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.

In church, before we come forward to receive bread and wine, we confess our sins, including our lack of love for neighbor as self. We can move forward in relationship, in communion, because forgiveness has been declared. In baptism, we find the promise that when we mess up, there is always a way to repent and return to the Lord. There’s always a way to come back. We can be part of opening that way for others. And really, if God opens the door for us to find our way back, where do we get off shutting the door on those who stand in need of our forgiveness?

Will God fail to forgive us if we don’t forgive others? Jesus seems to say that. That’s a hard one for me to wrap my mind around, especially when some injuries to people are so profound and traumatic.

So this Monday morning I’ll have to trust that God will do what is right, and just, and loving. Meanwhile, what is clear to me is that as a follower, a student, a disciple of Jesus, I need to work on the most expansive vision of forgiveness I can muster. Deep down, I know that on the occasions when I’ve been able to do that, I feel freer.

-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 25, 2022)

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Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
-Matthew 6:12 (From The Message, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the gospel)

 

Forgive us what we owe to you, as we have also forgiven those who owe anything to us.
-Matthew 6:12  (From J.B. Phillips paraphrase of the gospel)

 

To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
-C.S.Lewis

 

Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
-Mark Twain

 

When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines upon you.
-Jon Krakauer,  Into the Wild

 

Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.
Henri J.M. Nouwen

 

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.\\
Nelson Mandela

Enjoy your forgiveness

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
-Matthew 6: 12

Earlier this year, a good friend and spiritual advisor went to be with Jesus. It was always his life goal to be close to Jesus, but I do miss him. He was a great person and a quite successful ad guy. In addition to the award-winning creative work he did for his agency, he lent his talents to churches and non-profits, furthering their missions with wit and wisdom. He did this kind of work for his church in Manhattan. As they charted a course forward through a strategic planning process, he and his team came up with a tagline for the church. The tagline? “Enjoy your forgiveness.” I think of my buddy often, and especially thought of him when we came to this line in the Lord’s Prayer which has to do with forgiveness.

What do you make of it? When it comes to forgiveness, do you think there’s a quid pro quo here? Will we only be forgiven if we forgive others? We can read the prayer that way. Jesus told parables that seemed to warn of forgiveness withheld to folks who had themselves received forgiveness but had denied it to others. I’ll have to admit that such an interpretation makes me a little uneasy. I know there are folks I find really hard to forgive. Some folks I don’t want to forgive. The injury they inflicted actually helps shape my identity. I hang on to the injury. I can get comfortable with that brand of victimhood.

Maybe Jesus’ prayer is more descriptive than prescriptive. Maybe Jesus is not saying “You better forgive or else.” Maybe he’s describing something true about forgiveness, that if we really embrace the fact that we have been forgiven, it will be as natural as the sun coming up to forgive others. We’ll recognize how foolish and unproductive it is to withhold forgiveness, to savor resentments. We’ll see what a waste of mental and spiritual real estate it is to refuse to forgive. Mark Twain put it this way: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

Here’s the deal, as I see it. Everybody has a need to be forgiven, by God and by other people. Each day, I fall short of loving God with whole heart and soul and mind. Each day, I fall short of loving neighbor as self. Sometimes that’s true even before my feet hit the floor when I wake up.

And everybody has a need to extend forgiveness. We all have been done wrong, by those we love the most and those who don’t like us much at all. We all have been done wrong by family members, co-workers, clergy and congregants. You get the idea.

And everybody has a need to seek forgiveness. We’ve all inflicted injury on others, wittingly or unwittingly. We may have blocked out the awareness of those interactions, but they are there.

To sum up, we’re all in this together.

So how does this part of the Lord’s Prayer shape not only our belief, but our way of life in the world? How might it guide us this week? I suspect it begins by getting in touch with the amazing grace that we have been forgiven. As Rob Bell says, “There’s nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Sounds a lot like St. Paul, who said in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Spend some time this week thinking about the fact that whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve been, whoever you are, you are on the receiving end of God’s love. Forgiveness is available in abundant supply. Amazing.

And if and when that sinks in (sometimes I don’t or won’t or can’t realize it), think about just one way you can extend forgiveness. Think about one person to whom you can extend forgiveness, in your heart, and maybe in conversation with them. And once you’ve done that, ask God to bless that person. Then move on to somebody else (at your own pace). If that’s hard to do, maybe think about the ways others have forgiven under extreme circumstances. I have in mind the forgiveness in evidence in South Africa after apartheid, or among the Amish after children were shot, or in Charleston after that horrific attack on a bible study. Or maybe at the foot of the cross where Jesus extends forgiveness to his executioners.

When it comes to forgiveness, it’s easy to think it’s all about guilt and judgment, shame and shortcoming. Maybe we can shift and see forgiveness as path to freedom, indeed something to enjoy. As Desmond Tutu said, there’s no future without forgiveness. Maybe we can enjoy forgiving others as much as we can enjoy having been forgiven. What would life look like this week if we simply celebrated forgiveness?

-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 18, 2022)

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Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer now dead,and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”
— Kurt Vonnegut, The New Yorker, May 16th, 2005

Enough is enough

Give us this day our daily bread.
-Matthew 6: 11

We’ve just wrapped up the season of Lent, which leads to a hearty Alleluia. That season is compared to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. They can be a cranky bunch, and especially when they get hungry. I can relate.

In one of their numerous complaint sessions with Moses, they say they have nothing to eat. Moses takes the matter up with the Lord. The next morning, manna appears, a white substance that is somehow like bread. (The name “manna’ literally means something like “what is this stuff?’) It’s just one of the ways that God provides for them on their journey. Each morning there’s a new supply. Folks were invited to gather what they needed for that day. But if they tried to take more than they needed for the day, tried to save it for tomorrow, the manna spoiled by the next morning. This daily bread was a test of their confidence that God would give them what was needed each day, that there would be enough each day, in that day. They had to believe it was enough.

I’m imagining that experience of the children of Israel may have been on Jesus’ mind as he offered the Lord’s Prayer. The children of Israel were formed as a people in that challenging wilderness process. It can seem like they were never satisfied. (I sometimes refer to them as the “What have you done for me lately?” crowd.) It sometimes seems that whatever was provided for them was not enough. Thank God we’re not like them.

So we learn from them that the anxiety that there won’t be enough is nothing new. If you have ever experienced it, what to do? It’s something with which I wrestle, so here are some practices I’m working on. Not that I’ve figured this out. After all, I did use the word “practice.”

Gratitude: Always remembering to give thanks for what I’ve been given, to count blessings. If it’s helpful, make a daily list of five things, ten things. One rabbi I met had her congregation strive for 100 things a day. If we spent our days thinking about that, it would crowd out room for a good chunk of our anxieties.

Contentment: Listening to what St. Paul has to say on the subject: I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

Acceptance: Admitting that we are where we are. I know I’ve written in the past about an 8am parishioner in her 90’s, who greeted me at the door each and every week by saying: Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, which is why we call it the present. I guess she thought I needed to learn that. So here we are. Move on from that place.

Service: One of the great stories about scarcity and abundance is the feeding of the 5000. No one knew how the crowd would be fed. There was not enough. Five loaves and two sardines are presented. They are multiplied into a feast with plenty of leftovers. One interpretation is that Jesus miraculously made all that food. Another interpretation is that people had actually brought some food and stopped hoarding and started to share it once they saw that the young boy gave his bag lunch. When we think about hunger in the world (in fact in our own cities) the issue is not that there is not enough food. There is plenty of food to feed everyone. We just need to get better at sharing.

Courage: A mix of bravery and love (courage is related to the French word for heart). It can call for courage to trust that God will provide. It can call for counter-cultural courage to say we have enough. Enough said.

I don’t know if any of these practices will help. I’m working on such things. Some days I am more successful than others. But I do believe we might all be better off if we could recall that enough is enough. Maybe that’s why Jesus wanted us to pray about 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 (April 11, 2022)

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Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:15

 

(Jesus sends out the disciples, saying:)
Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you. Luke 10:9

 

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.
Luke 11:20

 

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Luke 17:21

 

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
John 18:36, 37

On earth as it is in heaven

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
-Matthew 6: 10

ILOL. IMHO. LMK. ROFL. These text abbreviations are child’s play compared to my favorite: PBPGINFWMY. Translation: Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet.

When we started RenewalWorks, a ministry with congregations, I told people there was an invisible tattoo on my forehead which read (in elegant typeface): Work-in-progress. I’ve been told that at some point I have to stop calling the work a pilot project. These thoughts were prompted by today’s line from the Lord’s Prayer. After addressing the one whose name we seek to hallow, we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It suggests a holy work-in-progress. God is not finished with us yet. I’m grateful for that.

I once had a young child ask me a question after I preached a sermon on heaven. He asked: Is heaven a place or a feeling? I fumbled through a typical Episcopal answer, like “It’s both.” Or “What do you think?” But whatever, however, wherever it is, it is its advent for which we pray.

The Lord’s Prayer suggests that heaven is the place where God’s will is completely done, where all that resists God’s gracious will has been set aside. In my limited imagination, it is the place where we will finally be able to fulfill the great commandment to love God with whole heart and soul and mind, and to love neighbor as self. Talk about a work in progress. In my imagination it is the place where relationships that have been broken can be healed. Where does your imagination take you?

I take it as holy coincidence that we come to this part of the prayer as we begin Holy Week. The week is filled with questions about what kind of kingdom we’re looking for, what kind of king Jesus might be. Jesus spoke a lot about the kingdom (random sampling above), and he spoke in mysterious ways. It is coming. It is here. It is out there. It is within. It is very much a work in progress, as parables indicated, often with mysterious beginnings and small starts like a mustard seed growing into a tree expansive and inclusive enough to provide a place for all the birds of the air. All of them.

In Jesus’ last days (which we observe this week), all kinds of questions about his kingship surfaced, beginning with the procession on Palm Sunday, when crowds hailed him as king. Pilate asked point blank: Are you a king? Jesus responded: My kingdom is not of this world. It’s not what you’ve been expecting. Those who ridiculed and tortured Jesus made fun of his claims to kingship. They didn’t understand. In the end, Pilate insists on a sign on the cross that declares that Jesus is a king.

And so we sing: The king of love my shepherd is. The kingdom for which we pray is marked by love. As Michael Curry repeats: If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. The cross that stands at the end of this week shows us what love looks like. Words of compassion, forgiveness, hope and trust are spoken by Jesus in that crucial moment, with arms stretched out on hard wood to draw us into his saving embrace.

Take this Holy Week as an opportunity to pray for God’s kingdom to come, on earth as in heaven. The news of the day tells us we are not there yet, in oh so many ways. That prayer can be offered not only with our lips but with our lives, as we realize that we are indeed a work in progress, that we have left undone those things that we ought to have done. In each day there are opportunities to grow in love of God and neighbor, a step at a time, a step closer to heaven. Holy Week is a grand time to take those next steps.

-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.