Category Archives: Uncategorized

Monday Matters (October 11, 2021)

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Matthew 18:23-34
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Lord have mercy

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
-Matthew 5:7

When Shakespeare wrote that the quality of mercy is not strained, it’s apparent he never got stuck in traffic. When I’m driving, and find myself in the wrong lane, I seek the mercy of other drivers to let me in. It is sometimes forthcoming, sometimes not. I’m grateful when I receive mercy. Yet when I’m in the correct lane, and some clueless bozo tries to squeeze into my lane, I only grudgingly let them in, usually with some thoughts about their ineptitude as a driver.

So today we talk about receiving and offering mercy, strained or not. There’s probably no better way to explain this beatitude then to share the parable Jesus told about a man who received mercy and then failed to show mercy to someone else. (That story is included above.) It suggests a dynamic implicit in the Lord’s prayer, which is basically that our asking for forgiveness is somehow related to our willingness to offer forgiveness. Our demonstration of mercy is connected to our receiving mercy.

So how might we grow in our capacity to be merciful, when often that goes against our instincts? As far as I’m concerned, showing mercy can at times take some work. It can call for intention. As I thought about that kind of intention, a few thoughts came to mind, triggered by Jesus’ parable, thoughts about what it takes to be merciful.

First, remember a time when you have been shown mercy. What did that feel like? Was it something you felt you deserved, or did it simply come to you as an act of grace, showered down on us to continue to channel Shakespeare? If it came to you as grace, as gift, how did that feel? Was it a joy or were you like Javert in Les Miserables who couldn’t bear that he was in a position where he was dependent on someone showing him mercy. He took it as an indication of weakness. He literally could not live with this view of the universe.

Second, if you find yourself being asked to show mercy to someone who has somehow done you wrong, take a deep breath and put yourself in the place of that person, the one asking for mercy. What is going on with them? What causes them to act as they did? Maybe that involves a conversation about the offending act. Maybe that calls for nothing more or less than prayer for that person. That can often be a way to get to mercy.

Third, consider whether the offense that calls you to show mercy is something that you actually need to work on in yourself. Maybe I’m the only one who has experienced this, but sometimes when I get worked up about something somebody has done, when something really irritates me about another person, I find after a bit of reflection, or perhaps some feedback from folks I trust, that I’m guilty of the very thing that makes me want to withhold mercy. Funny how that works. Sort of funny.

The bottom line: we all need to have mercy shown us. So if we want to know mercy, we need to show mercy. While I believe that is true, I also find it kind of annoying. Which is where the work comes in. If you do nothing else to try to live into this beatitude, think about the wideness of God’s mercy, wider than the sea. Celebrate the love of God broader than the measure of our minds. Ask God to help in that process, which may well be why in the liturgy we repeat, again and again: Lord have mercy.

-Jay Sidebotham


Please join us November 4th at 7pm Eastern

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

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

Monday Matters (October 4, 2021)

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The righteous wisdom of St. Francis on his feast day:

We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.

 

If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.

 

No one is to be called an enemy, all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm. You have no enemy except yourselves.

 

While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where these is hatred, let me sow love.

Blessed are the meek

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
-Matthew 5:6

In the blessing printed above (the beatitude before us this morning), Jesus builds on his first beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit. As we discussed a few weeks ago, here’s another way to think about what it means to be poor in spirit: Blessed are those who know their need of God. It’s a blessing on those who are in touch with the God-shaped space inside each one of us.

So how will that space be filled? Today we hear that it has to do with righteousness, a word that calls for some unpacking. I’m wondering what associations you have with that word.

It’s easy to think of righteousness in moralistic terms. A righteous person does all the right things, toes the line, checks every box, a spiritual over-achiever, on the spiritual dean’s list. Ever met one of those? Not always the most attractive types. It’s easy for a righteous person to morph into a self-righteous person, like the guy in Jesus’ parable who looks at the tax collector and says: Thank God I’m not like that person. It’s also easy to think of righteousness as a matter of being right, which in religious circles often means that somebody else must be wrong, a prideful frame of mind that can be so toxic.

I have been helped along the way by the way St. Paul uses the word “righteous.” He saw it as a matter of relationship, about being rightly related to God, to others and to the world. The Greek word (transliterated as dikaiosune) can also be translated as justified. As an art director, I always connected that with justified type, which is a way of saying that type on a page has been set in right relationship. It has been aligned.

Jesus announces blessing on those who seek that kind of alignment, who hunger and thirst for those kind of relationships. Presumably, they realize they haven’t achieved it yet. Jesus came to help us with that process of alignment, or perhaps more accurately, with that realignment. At the church where I’m serving, as we have contemplated emergence from COVID, we have adopted wisdom from the Milwaukee Airport. At that airport, after you go through TSA, with socks and belts and watches and wallets and bags all over the place, there’s an area set aside by a big sign that reads: Recombobulation Area. In oh so many ways, we could use that kind of space right now. Maybe the beatitude should read: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for recombobulation.

And thanks be to God, on this particular day, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, we have an amazing model of someone who did that. He has been called the most admired and least imitated of all the saints. He speaks to us of righteousness, in the sense of being rightly related to God, to creation, to others, to himself.

He lived in loving relationship with all of creation, brother son and sister moon, negotiating and calming menacing wolves, preaching to the birds. (That’s why on his day, we have blessing of the animals. One year I blessed a big iguana who arrived at church in a snugli, having traveled to church with his owner on the subway.) Francis lived in loving relationship with others, taking on a life of poverty in order to serve those his society deemed as least, living out the sense of the Greek word for righteousness translated as justice. He lived in loving relationship with God, as he hungered and thirsted to be a channel of God’s peace. Not his own peace, but God’s peace. He lived in loving relationship with the church, as he answered Jesus’ call from the cross: Rebuild my church. And as a saint remembered over the centuries for unbridled joy, it seems to me that he arrived at right relationship with himself.

Thank God for his life and ministry and witness. Let’s see this week if we can not only express our admiration for him, but also find ways to imitate him. Let your creative imagination go to work: How can you be an instrument, a channel of God’s peace this week? Do you hunger and thirst for that kind of life?

-Jay Sidebotham


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

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

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

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

Read the full news release


RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (September 27, 2021)

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

Blessed are the meek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham


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

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

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

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

Read the full news release


RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (September 20, 2021)

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

-J.R.R.Tolkien

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

Blessed are those who mourn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham


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

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

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (September 13, 2021)

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

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

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

Poor in spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham


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

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

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (June 28, 2021)

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I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 
-Philippians 3:10-14

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
-Ephesians 4:11-16

Pointing to Christ

Days are as long as they will be all year. It’s great, isn’t it?

I don’t mean to be a downer, but from here on in, the days get shorter. I’m told there is liturgical significance to this. The Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist took place a few days ago (June 24), near the summer solstice, just when the days are beginning to shorten. Six months later, we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, after which days begin to lengthen, bit by bit. That says something about the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, an interesting relationship for sure. Each had lots of disciples. Each had a powerful public presence. Each lived out a dynamic call from God. Each sought to usher in the reign of God.

But their relationship can be summed up in one verse from the Gospel of John (3:30). John the Baptist is asked about who he is and who Jesus is. He responds, speaking of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (just like the length of days after John’s birth). It’s a witness to the character of John the Baptist, a person of considerable ego strength who also understood humility as right-sized self-awareness. In Christian art, John is often depicted with extended arm and pointing finger. Where does he point? To Christ, and often to Christ on the cross. It’s not about him. In that way, he becomes a guide for us. What would it mean for our lives to point to Christ? We can do it in thought, word and action. We can do it in the affirmation that love wins. We can do it by seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

A few years ago, I was ordained on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Sure, it was a date convenient for the bishop, but it was also a day that was important to me because John the Baptist provides an amazing example for ministry. He points to Christ. And that is something I aspire to in ministry, which includes writing these Monday messages.

Which brings me to this bit of news for weekly readers. Starting on July 1, I’m going to take a break from writing each week. I’ve been doing it for about 10 years. I’ll take July and August as a time to refresh and recalculate and reflect on this weekly message. I’ll think about whether the messages have run their course, whether there might be a new direction, whether I should just keep on keeping on. Right now, I’m planning on starting up again in September for anyone who is interested.

I’m honored beyond belief that people have actually read these pieces. I’m well aware that some of my messages have been more coherent than others. It’s been helpful for me to write them for the sake of my own clarity about the mysteries of our faith. A friend who taught composition to college freshmen told me about a time when a student came up and said he had a great idea for a story. The teacher said: “You don’t have an idea for a story until you put it down on paper.” Thank you for the opportunity to put ideas down “on paper”, to share with you each Monday morning.

This break from writing Monday Matters coincides with a shifting role with RenewalWorks. The ministry will now be directed by my two colleagues (Loren Dixon and Samantha Franklin). I’m excited to see what new vision they bring to this work. I will continue to be engaged, serving as advisor and consultant, helping with RenewalWorks as they see best.

As I take a break, let me express my hope that in the work I’ve done, both writing on Mondays and also my work with RenewalWorks, there has been some kind of pointing to Christ. As Alan Gates, predecessor at my church in Illinois (and now bishop of Massachusetts) said: “I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” I confess that I wrote in part to gratify ego that someone would actually read them. Folks have often been generous in kind comments. Ego is always part of the picture. Got to watch that. My wife tells me that ego is an acronym. It stands for edging God out.

Having admitted that, we can all make our best efforts to point to Christ, even if there are mixed motives. Thanks be to God for the model of John the Baptist, who was clear about who he was and was clear about who Jesus was (and knew there was a difference).

Let me leave you with this question: How will you point to Christ this week? This summer? How will you do that in thought, word and deed in all the days ahead? See you in September.

-Jay Sidebotham


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

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

RenewalWorks – Digital Catalog

Monday Matters (June 14, 2021)

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Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

-Psalm 51

 

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

-Luke 19:1-10

 

I think God is wanting to be known. And my experience of God wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset.

-The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber

 

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
– Anne Lamott

Judgement

I’ve been spending a bit of time in New York City of late, which is great. And it has reminded me of an experience I had when living there a few years ago. The observation came on occasions when I was driving a car in the city. I remember coming to an intersection with a green light. I intended to make a turn. Invariably, as I sought to make the turn, there would be a pedestrian taking his or her sweet time to cross the street. I guess it was their right, annoying as that felt. After all, they had a walk signal. There was nothing to do but wait, despite cars behind me beginning to honk. I remember thinking how inconsiderate pedestrians (as a group of human beings) were in New York. Didn’t they realize they were holding up traffic? Couldn’t they pick up the pace? Did they think their slow pace was more important that other people’s schedules, specifically mine?

Then I would park the car and instantly become a pedestrian. Role reversal. And when I came to an intersection, I would take my sweet time crossing the street, even if it frustrated drivers and elicited honking. It was my right. I remember thinking how inconsiderate drivers were (as a group of human beings). And why were they driving anyway? Too good for a bus or subway? Didn’t they care about their carbon footprint?

All of which is to say that I noticed how easy it is for me to make judgments about other people. Beyond that, it is easy for me to regard the other as opponent. In many ways, it’s my default position. I suspect I’m not alone in that. Weirdly, in my case, in a matter of minutes, I became the person I had previously viewed with disdain.

Travel of all kinds will do that, whether it’s in an airport or in traffic. Road rage shows that to be true. If I’m late for a plane, I’m angry if they don’t hold the door open for me. But if I’m on time for the plane, I’m angry if they hold the door for someone else who should have been on time. If I’m made to wait a little bit on line at a store, I can make all kinds of judgments about the capabilities and character of the person behind the cash register. Maybe Covid has exacerbated the crankiness. But it’s always been there.

A similar dynamic happens on social media. It’s easy to express anger, irritation, fueled by some prejudice, some broad stroke perspective on the other. There’s often a thoughtless, thuggish character to these communications, even among church folk. Our political system does that on steroids these days, fueled by news channels that paint in broad strokes. It happens in churches of all places. We make judgments about people of other denominations, theological slants, liturgical preferences, worship styles, dress codes. All of these tensions and divisions happen at least in part because there is no real meaningful human interaction, no relationship, no place for empathy, no effort to listen, no practice of compassion (which literally means suffering with). As St. Paul asked: who will deliver us?

My observations from the streets of New York remind me of what Jesus said in the king’s English: Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye shall judge, ye shall be judged. (Matthew 7:1) If we live life in a judgmental frame of mind, we may well find judgment visited upon us.

But is there an alternative? The baptismal covenant helps. Seek and serve Christ in all persons. Respect the dignity of every human being. The teaching of Jesus, echoed throughout the New Testament, helps. That teaching issues a call to love not only our friends but our enemies.

Remember the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who apparently ripped off a lot of his neighbors. (The story is printed in the column on the left.) He met Jesus and his life turned around. But as Jesus grabbed lunch with Zacchaeus, the religious leaders of the day criticized, judging Zacchaeus and Jesus in the process. Jesus responds: He, too, is a son of Abraham.

What would it all look like if we could view each other, in traffic, in church, in households, in the body politic, if we could treat each other as Abraham’s children, each and all of us flawed, each and all of us blessed by God? Can you join me in working on that this week?

-Jay Sidebotham


RenewalWorks: Connect is a monthly online conversation series with Jay Sidebotham, Director of RenewalWorks and other thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.
Our monthly conversations will resume in September. Recordings of past sessions can be viewed here. Past presenters include:
  • Doyt Conn
  • Dawn Davis
  • Ryan Fleenor
  • Jerusalem Greer
  • Scott Gunn
  • Chris Harris
  • Rob Hirschfeld
  • Edwin Johnston
  • Lisa Kimball
  • Tina Pickering
  • Tim Schenck
  • Stephanie Spellers
  • Claire Woodley
  • Dwight Zscheile

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (June 7, 2021)

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An excerpt of a poem by Howard Thurman

Our little lives, our big problems – these we place upon Thy altar!
Brood over our spirits, Our Father,
Blow upon whatever dream Thou hast for us
That there may glow once again upon our hearths
The light from Thy Altar.
Pour out upon us whatever our spirits need of shock, of lift, of release
That we may find strength for these days –
Courage and hope for tomorrow.
In confidence we rest in Thy sustaining grace
Which makes possible triumph in defeat, gain in loss and love in hate.
We rejoice this day to say:
Our little lives, our big problems – these we place upon Thy altar.

The Collect for the Holy Eucharist, p. 252 in the Book of Common Prayer

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved

As a Christian, I am called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given.

As those who are chosen, blessed, broken and given, we are called to live our lives with a deep inner joy and peace. It is the life of the Beloved, lived in a world constantly trying to convince us that the burden is on us to prove that we are worthy of being loved.”

‘You are the Beloved’, and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – ‘You are the Beloved.”

What did you miss?

Yesterday in church, we observed the Feast of Corpus Christi. It’s a good follow-up to Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, with its focus on God’s holy presence with us in the eucharist.

Yesterday in church, I celebrated the eucharist for the first time in too many months. That was after 30 years of celebrating the eucharist multiple times each week. It was moving to stand at the altar again. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it, or how important it was to me. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous about stepping into that presiding role again, wondering first if I would remember what to do, and second, wondering if I would melt.

We can never forget the pain inflicted by this pandemic over the past months. First and foremost, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Months ago, on my office wall I hung a copy of the front page of the NY Times the day they printed just a portion of the names of the first 100,000 who died. It was shocking. I didn’t want to get used to that shock. We’re now approaching 600,000 in this country and countless more around the world. Taking that all in is beyond comprehension. Stop right now for a moment of silence in remembrance.

And that is only one aspect of the loss. Children have lost a year of school. I suspect they’ll always be affected by that loss. Children in communities that lacked resources have been especially hard hit. Brave healthcare workers and others who kept us going will be shaped by this experience. There’s been widespread economic upheaval. As I walk the streets of New York, so many livelihoods have been taken away. Amidst it all, it has been a year of racial reckoning that causes us to realize how much we are missing as a community

Amidst the loss and longing, there are lessons. There are glimpses of what we have come to see as important. Community. Kindness. Care. There are discoveries about what we have missed. There are glimpses of new and deeper meanings that I hope will bring me to a new place in the days ahead. What have been those discoveries for you? For me, one of them is appreciation of the eucharist in my own spiritual life.

As I was thinking about the eucharist, my thoughts turned to the four verbs in the liturgy. The bread is taken, blessed, broken and given. (For a beautiful, wise and gracious exploration of these verbs, pick up Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved.)

I have missed taking the bread. In the eucharist, we place something basic, everyday at the center. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can learn to see all of life as something we can offer to God for holy transformation.

I have missed blessing the bread. In the eucharist, we ask God to bless that very basic thing, to make it holy. It is God’s work. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can learn to see all of life as an opportunity for God’s blessing. Perhaps we can extend that blessing to others, especially those who drive us nuts or wish us ill.

I have missed breaking the bread. In the eucharist, we recognize that God works in us in our brokenness, in our need for healing, a need that is universal. After Covid, as we come back, maybe eyes will be opened wider to the brokenness that surrounds us, and see that crack as a place for God’s light to shine through.

I have missed giving the bread. In the eucharist, we share that which is taken, blessed and broken. After Covid, as we come back, maybe we can grow in generosity. As the liturgy for ordination puts it, we nourish God’s people from the riches of God’s grace. Not our own grace, our own magnificence, but the boundless grace of God, broader than the measure of our minds.

Take time today to think about what you’ve missed. Maybe it has to do with your spiritual life, in one way or another. Maybe not. As you reflect, say prayers for those whose loss has been greatest. Then take time to think about what you’ve learned. This kind of reflection is a way of citing what we value. Those lessons provide opportunity for hope, as we make our way back into community. It’s hope that this season of brokenness will lead to new life, that it will be blessed and shared, as in the words of Howard Thurman, we place our lives and problems on God’s altar.

-Jay Sidebotham


Hybrid Church: A Way Forward

Join us for a conversation with the Rev. Tim Schenck
Wednesday, June 9 from 7-8pm EST

We’re all figuring out how to move forward, as we shift from the social distancing that has marked the past year and a half. What will the next chapter look like for our churches? How will we as church leaders navigate days ahead? What will we hold onto? What will we let go of? What have we learned? What will be different from the past? What will be the same?

We’re grateful that the Rev. Tim Schenck has agreed to be our presenter. He brings a distinctive mix of wit and wisdom to everything he does, and we’re excited that he will lead us when we meet on June 9.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (May 31, 2021)

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Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of 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

What do you think?

I came across a verse last week which I’d never noticed before: “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.” (Psalm 119:37) Centuries ago, I don’t know what the psalmist had in mind when writing about what was worthless to watch. Maybe the psalmist was predicting contemporary entertainment, social media, 24/7 news channels. Your guess is as good as mine.

The verse caught my eye because there’s a lot floating around which is available to watch, but that is probably not worth watching. There’s a lot floating around that is not edifying, to borrow a New Testament phrase. It may be okay, but it doesn’t build up. It’s not constructive. What we watch, what we pay attention to, what we think about shapes who we are. Don’t just take my word for it. Consider various scriptures.

Proverbs 23:7 for instance: “For as (a person) thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount put it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) St. Paul coached the early church to think about what they think about: “Finally, beloved, 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.”

Those truths have been picked up by others. Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “You are what you think all day long.” William James said: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Jean Yves Leloup, writing about monkey-mind as part of his discussion of the spiritual dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity wrote: “The ego is like a clever monkey, which can co-opt anything, even the most spiritual practices, so as to expand itself.” Even Winnie the Pooh got into the act: “Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?”

Think about what you think about. Think about what you watch. Is it worth it? Is it worthwhile? How is that shaping you? Maybe our culture’s focus on mindfulness has to do with setting an intention about where we give our interior life. We all have to decide what’s going to occupy our thinking. It’s easy to let that interior life be a place where resentments and grievances incubate. It’s easy to let anxiety dominate our thought waves. It’s easy to give into images that are not healthy or holy, let alone satiable. Toxicity abounds these days, easily accessible, at our fingertips. But we are not without options.

As St. Paul invited early Christians to focus on what is pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, we can always turn our thoughts to praise. Worship is really a matter of worth-ship. We can always turn our thoughts to thanksgiving, finding the healing power of an attitude of gratitude. We can always turn our thoughts to good intention towards others, even those who’ve done us dirt. Maybe St. Paul told us to pray without ceasing as an alternative to plotting revenge on the jerk who just cut us off in traffic. In all of life, we have the chance to turn our attention to the mind of Christ (see above). We have agency in this. And if we feel like we need help in this, we’re told that such help is available as well.

In Psalm 51, the psalmist asks God to create a clean heart, to renew a right spirit within us. As Jesus addressed the anxiety which comes our way, he reminded us to consider the lilies, the birds of the air, in other words, pay attention to something worth watching. (Matthew 6) As St. Paul contemplated the grace of God, he invited early Christians to a renewing of their minds.

Think about what you think about this week.

-Jay Sidebotham


Hybrid Church: A Way Forward

Join us for a conversation with the Rev. Tim Schenck
Wednesday, June 9 from 7-8pm EST

We’re all figuring out how to move forward, as we shift from the social distancing that has marked the past year and a half. What will the next chapter look like for our churches? How will we as church leaders navigate days ahead? What will we hold onto? What will we let go of? What have we learned? What will be different from the past? What will be the same?

We’re grateful that the Rev. Tim Schenck has agreed to be our presenter. He brings a distinctive mix of wit and wisdom to everything he does, and we’re excited that he will lead us when we meet on June 9.

RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.

Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.

Monday Matters (May 24, 2021)

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Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 
Luke 10:25-32

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” 
John 21:4-7

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.
-Viktor Frankl

The other side

The familiar story of the Good Samaritan came up in the daily lectionary last week. I tried to read it as if I’d not read it before. In doing so, I thought about who I would identify with most in the parable. The inconvenient truth was that I’m probably most like the Priest and the Levite who saw the man who’d been beaten and left to die. They saw the man and kept on going, for whatever reason. In my attempt at fresh reading, the phrase that came to me were the words: They passed by on the other side. That was their choice.

Who knows why they kept going? Maybe they were scared. Maybe they were concerned about religious defilement. Maybe they were really busy, an important church meeting to get to. Jesus didn’t seem interested in explaining why they did what they did. He just puts it out there. They passed by on the other side. That was their choice.

I recognize how I do that, not only in passing by people seated on the sidewalk or standing at an intersection, asking for money, though I do that often. There are other people I pass by, for all kinds of reasons. That passing by on the other side, a mark of privilege, can be an expression of indifference to the suffering of the world. It can be an unwillingness to engage. It can be an expression of fatigue. Problems are too grand or intractable or numerous. It can be an expression of fear. It can be an exercise in protecting boundaries. “I’ve done enough. I’m a priest, for God’s sake.”

I was bothered by the choice implied in those words “on the other side.” Where else had I heard those words? Here’s a slightly random connection. Related words surface in the end of John’s gospel when the resurrected Jesus shows up on the beach, scrambles some eggs for the disciples and gives those hapless fishermen some advice about how to do their jobs. (Note: The gospels never record the disciples catching anything without Jesus’ help.) The disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus tells them: Cast your nets on the right side, in other words, on the other side of the boat. They choose Jesus’ way and catch more fish than they know what to do with.

So I began to wonder, as I compared these two stories: Is Jesus calling us right now to cast our nets on the other side? We’re coming out of Covid-tide, probably fatigued, maybe fearful. In some respects, like the disciples, what we’ve been doing is not working so well. We may have been tempted like the disciples to go back to old ways, even if we weren’t very good fishermen.

These two stories present us with a choice. Going back to the Good Samaritan parable, choosing the other side may mean that we can stay in our safety lane, stay in our bubble, get to our next item on the to-do list without interruption. In that story, the other side means a pathway that dismisses or denies the needs that surround us. That may come out of a place of privilege, fatigue or fear. Where are you tempted to choose that path, for whatever reason?

Or we can hear a call to choose the other side to which the resurrected Jesus calls us. We can cast our nets for something different, something brave, something that bears fruit. As we come out of Covid, we don’t need to do what we always have done. We can hear Jesus’ invitation to something new, something beautiful for God. Where do you hear an invitation to that path this week?

-Jay Sidebotham


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

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