Monday Matters (April 20, 2020)

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There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice, which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.

There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior; There is healing in His blood.

For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more simple, we should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord.

Souls of men! why will ye scatter like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts! why will ye wander from a love so true and deep?

But we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness with a zeal He will not own.

Was there ever kinder shepherd half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us come and gather at His feet?

 

-Excerpts from poem (and hymn text) by Frederick William Faber (1814-1863)

Lord have mercy

We often pray: Lord, have mercy. I’ve often thought we don’t have to ask God to have mercy. That’s part of the deal. That’s in the character of the Holy One. We just need to see it, to recognize it, to remember it.

Last Friday, in Morning Prayer, we read Psalm 136, which covers the history of just about everything in the Hebrew Scriptures. Each verse (there are 26 of them) lists something God has done, and then calls for the response: God’s mercy endures forever.

At the end of that morning service, there’s the General Thanksgiving (p. 101 in the Book of Common Prayer) which asks that we be given an awareness of God’s mercies. That phrase always stops me. Spiritually speaking I can tend to be more clueless, more forgetful, more indifferent than aware. So maybe the spiritual challenge for this week is awareness, a particular challenge in times when there seems to be more judgment than mercy.

There are synonyms for awareness.  We can speak of mindfulness. We can speak of intentionality. The eucharistic prayer refers to a technical Greek liturgical term: anamnesis. Literally, not amnesia. Not forgetting.

So what do you think it means to grow in awareness of God’s mercies? Perhaps it begins with an attitude of gratitude, giving thanks in all things, even in this crazy and difficult season. This is where awareness as intentionality, perhaps even stubborn willfulness, may matter. What one, five, ten, fifty things can you be thankful for today? Note as you try this spiritual exercise if it shifts anything for you?

Maybe awareness of mercies means putting ourselves in the place of someone in greater need than we are. Now more than ever, we live in our bubbles. Yet the fragility of life, the vulnerability of those in need of medical care or food or funds or companionship screams at us. Maybe that awareness can manifest not only in our lips but in our lives, with creative acts of kindness as we remain sequestered. What might you do to show mercy, as God is merciful?

Maybe awareness of mercies calls us to look at that part of ourselves that honestly is not sure we need mercy, thank you very much. It’s that part that bristles at confession or Lenten discipline of repentance, that part that wants to let God know how lucky God is to have us on the team. Check out the parable Jesus told about a Pharisee and tax collector at prayer (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee (perhaps ancient version of an Episcopal priest) gives thanks that he’s not like that loser sitting in the back pew. The tax collector simply asks for mercy. Guess which one Jesus said went away justified, set in right relationship to God?

We are reading the Gospel of Matthew at our church this Easter season, as part of the Good Book Club (Go to www.goodbookclub.org for more info). This week’s reading includes the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), which begin by saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit. I am helped by another translation that renders the verse: Blessed are those who know their need of God. That knowledge, that intention, that awareness seems to be critical to a life of blessing.

And if there is any silver lining to this strange season, perhaps it will be a recognition of our own need of help from a source greater than ourselves, our dependence on others, our dependence on the Holy One. Maybe idolatrous illusions of independence and self-sufficiency can subside for the sake of beloved community, where we care for each other, rather than attack each other or blame each other as together we experience that God’s mercy endures forever. Maybe we can live our lives animated by mercy and grace, not judgment or fear, acting on the belief that in the end, love wins.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Consider this great resource for personal spiritual growth during this pandemic (when many of us find ourselves sheltering in place).

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (April 13, 2020)

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Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.

-Frederick Buechner

Christ is risen!

We give thanks for the gift of Easter that runs beyond our expectations,
beyond our categories of reason, even more, beyond the sinking sense of our own lives.

We know about the powers of death, powers that persist among us,
powers that drive us from you, and from our neighbour, and from our best selves.

We know about the powers of fear and greed and anxiety, and brutality and certitude, powers before which we are helpless. And then you – you at dawn, unquenched, you in the darkness, you on Saturday, you who breaks the world to joy.

Yours is the kingdom…not the kingdom of death,
Yours is the power…not the power of death,
Yours is the glory…not the glory of death.
Yours…You…and we give thanks for the newness beyond our achieving.

Amen.

-Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven Rooted in Earth 

The Lord is risen indeed

Stating the obvious, this has been an Easter like no other. Yet for those who might be interested in authentic observance, perhaps some kind of reenactment of the first Easter as described in the gospels, maybe this year we are closer to that first Easter than we might imagine. The gospels have no record of great crowds in churches, arriving at worship early to assure a seat, glorious choral music, flowered crosses, pithy, passionate, life-changing sermons, resplendent Easter dinners, perfected fashion statements, spectacular haberdashery, let alone chocolate, bunnies or egg hunts.

What actually took place on that first Easter?

Social distancing.

Disciples cower in a room behind locked doors, afraid they might be next. A few women go early to the tomb before the crowd is out on the street. While there are hints of the beginnings of celebration and rejoicing, the predominant emotional responses include fear, doubt, confusion. Even when the risen Jesus is in their midst, disciples don’t quite get it.

Those emotional responses sum up a lot of the way that we go through life. Maybe this year, we feel a bit more like those first century disciples than like participants in some Fifth Avenue Easter parade, with all the frills upon it. And while I can’t wait for this virus to go away, it may bring with it a gift of recognizing what Easter is really about. By God’s grace, there may be some learning.

For while we need celebration and festivity and joy, and while the news that Jesus is alive is the best news our church has to offer, we all navigate life, especially these days, with fear, doubt, confusion. And that’s precisely where Jesus meets us. In our own woundedness, our vulnerability, our fear, all palpable in this crisis, Jesus comes showing us his wounds as well. He could have come in demonstration of political power or religious vindication or liturgical pageantry or a reprise of triumphant entry into Jerusalem. That was not his way.

Instead, in private encounter, he speaks Mary’s name and she recognizes him, as he begins to mend her breaking, grieving heart. He breaks bread with two Emmaus-bound disciples and they see him in that simple meal, when their deep disappointment had clouded vision. He doesn’t berate Thomas for skepticism but shows a simple pathway to belief, inviting him to worship. He forgives Peter’s three-time denial giving Peter a chance for a three time-expression of love. All that happens on that first Easter.

Which brings us to the ways we observe Easter. You may have noticed that clergy often get cranky with people who show up at church just for Christmas and Easter. I confess that it used to bug me. I’d find all kinds of passive-aggressive ways to make the point. (I’m quite good at that, by the way.)

But there is a point to be made. Christmas is not really understood unless you see it in the context of a corner of an oppressive empire where a refugee family finds no place to stay and a monarch wants to kill all the male children. In that context, joy to the world is pretty powerful. Love wins.

Similarly, the joy of Easter is not fully understood if it hasn’t involved the way of the cross, the observance of Good Friday, walking that path of challenge and suffering that comes to each of us, particularly acute right now for many. Again, love wins. It may well be too early to open up the economy, but I think Easter comes at the right time.

Because that’s where Jesus shows up. Right in the middle of our mess, showing by his wounds that he knows what woundedness is all about. Easter is where Jesus stands up, which is what resurrection means: to stand again. (He’s a stand up kind of guy.) And because he did that, our faith tells us that we can stand up too, and we can give others a hand to help them stand up too.

Put that all together and it presents a very good reason that we can now finally say “Alleluia” even from a distance.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (April 6, 2020)

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The Collect for Monday in Holy Week:

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week:

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Wednesday in Holy Week:

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

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Jay Sidebotham, Church Pension Group

At sundry times and in diverse manners, members of congregations where I’ve served have pointed out my growth opportunities. Some have done so with considerable energy. I have in recollection a guy who wanted to know what I was thinking in scheduling Holy Week and Easter in the middle of the local school’s Spring vacation. Hadn’t I even checked the calendar?

The fact is, it never occurred to me in 30 years of ministry that anything might interrupt our most holy week. We observe it when calendar tells us. It’s non-negotiable. Maybe it’s a failure of imagination, but I had no idea what could be so important to change that. I’ve always been committed to keeping the church up and running come what may. (Maybe it’s a point of pride, even hubris.) I’ve walked to church in several feet of snow. I’ve held services in the dark when power outages knocked out electricity. I’ve overcome roads closed by downed wires and even led worship without my morning Starbucks. 9/11 did not stop us from having services. So it feels odd (to say the least) to enter this Holy Week from a social distance, church locked, services online.

A friend commented about this season: This is the lentiest Lent I’ve ever lented. If Lent is a season about giving things up, we’ve knocked that one out of the park (Sorry if that’s a painful metaphor for grieving baseball fans). The current multi-faceted crisis calls for us to give up a lot. It will undoubtedly teach us many things. Like Lent, compared to times in the wilderness, it is a season of both challenge and formation. We will come out different on the other side.

So what might we learn? As we come to the end of Lent, think about what it means that the season calls us to self-examination. As we strip away much of normalcy, daily trips to classrooms and workplaces, casual interaction with friends, dinners at restaurants, gatherings in churches, we may gain insight into what really matters to us, where our priorities lie. We may find out what we really miss. We may find out what we didn’t need after all. As we contend with anxiety and fear, as we face needs for physical and emotional healing, as we pray for brave souls on the front lines of this war, we may gain insight into where we place our trust. We may grow in compassion for those who contend with deprivation 24/7, 365 days out of the year. Take some time this week to reflect on lessons for you and your community.

And as we come to the beginning of Holy Week, we can wrap our minds around the ways we will observe it. I’m pretty sure that however we do that, it will be different than in years past. It may be observed in isolation. It may be observed online. If on some level, we are not feeling the challenge and the pain of what our world is going through, then I suspect we’re probably not paying attention. So even at a distance, we turn to the liturgies of our church, the prayers and stories from scripture to be our guide as they have guided others through the wilderness in the past.

The collect for this Monday in Holy Week (included above, along with others) invites us travel the way of the cross. That cross is different for each one of us. Can we travel that way? The collect for Tuesday invites us to see a way of life in an instrument of death, the cross. Can we embrace that vision? The collect for Wednesday invites us to endure suffering for the glory that will come. Can we keep our eyes on that prize? Let these prayers shape our believing as we walk through this Holy Week, one like we’ve never experienced before.

A friend had to break the news to her grandchildren that she would not be traveling to be with them for Easter, and that they might not be able to celebrate Easter at church. The young granddaughter responded: “Well I guess Jesus is just gonna stay dead this year.” So let me say to this young faithful friend, and remind myself, that while we might not be together on Easter (just like the first disciples who were practicing social distancing behind locked doors), Jesus does not stay dead. We will experience his loving, liberating liveliness in new and unexpected ways, thanks be to God.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 30, 2020)

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The wound is the place where the Light enters in.

-Rumi

There is a crack in everything God has made.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen

To be a monk is to have time to practice for your transformation and healing. And after that to help with the transformation and healing of other people.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 

-Matthew 10:1

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

-Revelation 22

Healing Prayer

I don’t know if you have this experience, but as someone who has been hanging around the church for a while, I’m continually surprised with the ways that words I’ve said over and over, hymn texts I’ve sung a million times, familiar passages of scripture come to life, striking me as if I’ve never heard them before. I confess (spiritual shallowness alert) that it can become routine. I can get bored or distracted. My mind can wander in worship. And then a phrase will come to life and grab my attention. I take that to be the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit, breathing new insight into old forms, maybe even resurrecting them.

Some of you know that in response to the current health crisis, and my own self-quarantining, I’m leading online Morning Prayer on weekday mornings (You’re welcome to join us weekdays on St. James’ Parish, Wilmington Facebook page.) It’s been a hugely helpful spiritual exercise for me this Lent. Though I can’t see or hear those on the call, I sense their prayers and presence, as we spend time each morning praying for healing in this unprecedented season.

I’ve said Morning Prayer maybe six bazillion times…not a boast, just an observation…but what has struck me anew since we started this discipline is the couplet from the suffrages (where officiant and people pray responsively). It’s taken from Psalm 67: Let your ways be known on earth, your saving health among all nations. As the global maps on TV show us contending with this crisis in almost every region, we are praying each morning for God’s saving health among all nations.

Reflect with me on those words. What do we mean by God’s saving health? The phrase is redundant. Salvation is about healing. It is about being made whole. It is the work God does. It is the work Jesus came to do. It is the work passed on to the church.

And maybe that healing work is a way to describe everything the church is called to do, healing of body, mind, spirit, memory, relationship. Healing as peacemaking. Healing as the work of social justice. Healing as priorities set forth by our Presiding Bishop, himself a healer, calling us to racial reconciliation, creation care and proclamation of good news.

It’s mysterious work for sure, for all kinds of reasons. For starters, healing is not the same as cure. Why are some fervent prayers apparently answered and others are not? That goes on my list of questions for the pearly gates. Then there’s the mystery of why this kind of suffering is allowed at all. And all of it is made more complicated by bad theology, those crazy, craven corners of Christendom which regard this crisis as God’s judgment, or seeks to blame this crisis on others, foreigners or people with different political or social points of view or whatever serves their purposes.

We live with the questions, seeing through a glass darkly as St. Paul noted. In the meanwhile, we’re asked to think about how we might be healers this week, in these unusual days in which we live. It’s a ministry accessible to everyone, because everyone can pray, even if it’s the eloquent one-word prayer: help! We pray for God’s saving health to be known among all nations. And we allow our prayer to turn into action. Support for hospital workers. Donations to fund meals for school kids. Phone calls to those who are anxious or alone. Agitating advocacy to make sure our leaders are on their game as healers.

Carry with you today these questions posed by wounded healer, Henri Nouwen: “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 23, 2020)

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Dear People of God:

The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy  Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of  notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

-From the liturgy for Ash Wednesday page 264 in the Book of Common Prayer

Invitation to Lent

My wife sometimes tells me I would have made a good monk. I don’t know if that’s compliment or complaint. I am finding that social distancing is not as challenging for me as it might be for some of my more extroverted colleagues. It does strike me as strangely appropriate that we contend with all of this in the season of Lent. So here we are. Here’s what we’ve been given. So the persistent faith question: What will we do with what we’ve been given?

The season of Lent has specific intentions, articulated in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. The officiant invites people to the observance of a holy Lent (included above). I’ve been thinking about those intentions, reflecting on how we respond to them in this particular, peculiar, perilous season:

Self-examination: Unsettling global events have a way of driving self-examination. Add to that isolation and we have time and space to reflect on our own lives. What do we value? What is important? Where are we giving our hearts? We see too many examples of the unexamined life. Case in point, from the shores of Florida as hordes of revelers flocked to the beach. One told a journalist: “If I get Corona, I get Corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” I don’t mean to pick on the kid. I just wonder if he holds up any kind of mirror for me.

Repentance: One of the challenges of school closings is that we have millions of kids who won’t have meals otherwise. How did that happen in a country of such prosperity? This is just one example of the need for a collective change of direction, which is what repentance is all about. Where else do we hear the call to repentance, as a community and as individuals? How can we turn from a life focused on self and move in the direction of a life focused on others?

Prayer: As I said last week, in times like this, prayer should be first response, not last resort. A friend told me that her pastor once said from the pulpit that he had gone through a personal crisis and had tried everything. Nothing worked. So he decided to pray about it. A last resort, perhaps a rare moment of candor from clergy, the admission that in many ways, for much of the time, we are functional atheists. What would it mean to recognize God’s presence in the thick of this current mess? What would it mean to talk with God about that, a lot? To draw on strength beyond ourselves, the kind of help we now need? To pray without ceasing, as St. Paul advises.

Fasting: In Lent, that can mean going without food, booze, sweets. Maybe some fasts will be presented to us without our choosing. We may find that some things we considered to be necessities of life suddenly aren’t so important. The New Yorker cartoon shows the guy forced to work at home. Caption: It’s true. All those meetings could have just been emails!

Self-denial: Self-quarantine is just one example. It’s no fun, especially for those non-monks among us. But if ever there was a time to get ourselves out of the way and focus on others, focus on the greater good, this might be it. What might we give up for the sake of others? How might we orient our energies towards workers who lost their jobs? What creative, compassionate responses can we offer for people who work in hospitality industries? What can we do for folks under the radar: elderly living alone, homeless under the bridge, parents losing sleep in the middle of the night over unpaid bills, health workers lacking equipment they need? The list goes on.

Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word: You don’t have to dig deep to find biblical stories that parallel our current crisis. I don’t simply mean the various plagues visited on biblical peoples. I think of the oppression of the Pharaohs, the exodus through the wilderness, exile from homeland, the way of the cross, the persecution of the early church. The psalms are filled with stories of folks who feel like God has abandoned them. In other words, what we experience has been experienced before, in varied form. And God was present in it all.

Can you see how the intentions of the Lenten season correspond to this moment? As grim as it may seem, as cloudy the future, as people of faith, we can withstand when we can’t understand. We can proclaim when we can’t explain. And here’s what we proclaim this Monday morning: People of faith have made the journey through this kind of thing before. They came to realize, as we will, that they were not left alone in that journey. They discovered that dead ends can indeed become thresholds. And as Julian of Norwich said, as her ministry unfolded in the midst of plague, they knew that in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 16, 2020)

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Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God

Here we receive an invaluable practical lesson in the art of prayer, and prayer, be it remembered, is our only means of returning to our communion with God.

The great essential for success in prayer…is that we first attain some degree of peace of mind. This true, interior soul-peace was known to the mystics as serenity, and they are never tired of telling us that serenity is the grand passport to the Presence of God.

It is serenity, that fundamental tranquility of the soul, that Jesus refers to by the word “peace”, the peace that passes all human understanding. The peacemakers spoken of in this Beatitude are those who make or bring about this true peace or serenity in their own souls, for it is they who surmount limitation and become actually and not merely  potentially the children of god.

As long as there is fear, or resentment, or any trouble in your heart, that is to say, as long as you lack serenity, or peace, it is not possible for you to attain very much.

Excerpts from Emmet Fox’ book THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

Blessed are the peacemakers

Jesus said: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

In 1993, Yasir Arafat, Palestinian leader and Yitzhak Rabin, leader of Israel, met on the White House lawn to announce a peace agreement. Here’s what I remember: Mr. Rabin looked pained in the process. He noted that you don’t make peace with friends. You make peace with your enemies, with those who oppose you, maybe those who hate you. Peacemaking is work. Hard work. It ultimately cost Mr. Rabin his life.

There are lots of ways to think about peacemaking. It’s something to consider in this extraordinary season, with our focus on health issues. How will do the hard work of peacemaking? What will it take to manage the understandable anxiety that has a grip on us? How do we move to peace of mind?  Will that be hard to do? Does our faith have anything to say in this moment?

I’m mindful of all the places in scripture where we’re told to live free of anxiety and worry. Is that naïve? Pie in the sky? Bobby McFerrin singing “Don’t worry. Be happy”? Again and again, the biblical record points to peace of mind in the most anxiety producing situations. In the book of Isaiah (26:3) we read: You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. In the book of Lamentations (3:22-24), the prophet Jeremiah makes this claim: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,”therefore I will hope in him.” These prophets do the hard work of peacemaking, issuing a call to faith when exile loomed large, and anxiety was a most reasonable response.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “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?” He cites the birds of the air and lilies of the field as models of life free of anxiety. This preached by a man who knew his journey headed for the cross, in a gospel written at the end of the first century after Jerusalem had been destroyed and the church experienced persecution.

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This was not written from the splendor of fancy rectory or academic ivory tower but from a prison cell.  Imagine what such a place was like in the first century? What would it take to be a peacemaker in those circumstances, to speak of rejoicing and gratitude and not worrying?

This week, how can we be peacemakers, specifically making peace in the face of our own anxiety and the anxiety surrounding us? Is such a thing even possible? Like peacemaking between Rabin and Arafat, it will take work. It’s counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. It doesn’t mean we ignore or minimize the health crisis. It’s real. It’s big. Perhaps unprecedented. It doesn’t mean it will be easy or free of pain.

It does mean that the witness of scripture is that people discover the peace of God in the middle of the storm (and we’re in one now). That takes faith, trust, confidence that while we may not know what the future holds, we know the one who holds the future.

I’ve been thinking of the line of the hymn: “O what peace we often forfeit, o what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” For people of faith, this is time to claim the power of prayer, not as last resort, but as first response. We are called to engage in healing prayer, to pray for our leaders, to pray for those who care for those who are sick. Our prayers are not withdrawal from the problem. They are not denial. They indicate the intention, the hard work of trust.

Then we allow our prayers to guide our action in the world: reaching out to the most vulnerable and fearful, helping those facing hardship because of changes in their work situation. Maybe in your social distancing you can send a note each day to someone who is alone, or reach out by phone or Facetime or email or text. Maybe you can support (directly or through your representatives in government) those in need, for instance, students who depend on schools for meals, workers who scramble for child-care.

It may be hard to be a peacemaker in this moment, to overcome anxiety with trust in God. In many ways, it’s a leap of faith. And that’s the work before us this week. Thank God we’re not alone in this.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 9, 2020)

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And as John the Baptist watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

-John 1:36-39

For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy burdened,” he assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.

-Brennan Manning

To be a disciple

Scott Gunn, fearless and creative leader of Forward Movement, speaks often about the mission of the organization he leads. He knows that many people think of it as a publishing business. Others think of it as a pamphlet business. Others think of it as that marvelous exercise known as Lent Madness, a particular, perhaps peculiar (dare I say screwball) invention of Scott and his buddy, Tim Schenck, to teach us more about saints. I suspect all of the above are true.

But at heart, Scott says that Forward Movement is a discipleship business. As we make our way through the season of Lent, I’m mindful that perhaps that is the business not only of Forward Movement but of the whole church in its varied expressions, always and everywhere addressing these questions: What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? How do we become such? Are we actually interested in having that happen, or is at all just a little too religious?

As I say, this Lenten season has given me ample opportunity to think about all this. Our church in small group is reading a beautiful (and succinct) book by former Archbishop Rowan Williams. I commend it to you. He’s a disciple of significant brain power. This simple book opens with the following description of disciples. Being a disciple means two things:

  1. That what we do, how we think, speak and act is open to Christ
  2. As church, that we continue to be a learning community, growing in depth of love of God and neighbor

An interesting summation. I wonder how it strikes you. It means, first of all, in all of life, being open to Christ. I see that openness in the ways Jesus called his disciples. This past weekend, our youth met in retreat around the theme of the three words Jesus said to would-be disciples when they expressed curiosity. He said: “Come and see.” This old ad guy can only think of the ancient commercial with this punch line: “Try it. You’ll like it.”

That is the kind of openness we read about yesterday at church when Nicodemus comes to Jesus (John 3) with his own questions about the spiritual life. Nicodemus wonders how someone like him, who has been around the block a few times, can possibly be born again. He begins a journey that ultimately led him to one of the most precious and holy acts of devotion in the Bible (John 20). He and Joseph of Arimathea take the broken body of Jesus off the cross and place it in the tomb (ready for resurrection), a courageous act of worship, marked by bravery and love, which after all is what courage is all about.

In Mark’s gospel in the daily lectionary, we’ve been reading about the call of Jesus to his disciples. It’s even more succinct than “Come and see.” He simply says “Follow me.” Quite remarkably, fishermen and tax collectors do it, instantly changing course, launching a journey marked by openness in everything they did to Christ.  So this Monday morning in Lent, take a spiritual selfie and note the degree to which you are open to Christ in your life. What are the obstacles to that happening?

And then think about that second dimension of discipleship, being part of a learning community, knowing that the word disciple relates to being a student or a learner. Wherever we are in the journey, there is always more for us to come to understand. The mysteries of God’s ways in the world know no limits in depth or breadth. God’s love extends beyond our understanding or imagination, for sure. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn more about it. Use this season, use your church as a place to take the next steps of discovery as you hear Jesus say to you this morning: “Come and see,” as he gets right in your face and lovingly says: “Follow me.”

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (March 2, 2020)

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He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap.

In the daytime he led them with a cloud and all night long with a fiery light.
He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.

He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”

-Psalm 78:13-19

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness

-John Muir

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken.

But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.

-Frederick Buechner

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-Thomas Merton

Can God set a table in the wilderness?

It’s one of the persistent images in scripture. Moses spends 40 years in the wilderness before he is called to liberate the children of Israel from Pharaoh’s oppression. Once delivered, after marching through the Red Sea, the children of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness, tracing a rather circuitous route. Israel in exile sought a path home through the wilderness, a trackless waste with no cell phone or GPS.

Episcopal Church Memes
(Cartoon by Dan Reynolds)

The voice of John the Baptist was heard crying in the wilderness. And immediately after his dramatic baptism replete with heavens opening, doves descending and divine voices booming, Jesus is driven in the wilderness by the Spirit where he is tested by the devil, as we read yesterday in church. The season of Lent, now underway, is compared to several of these stories, a time spent in the wilderness, wandering and all the while wondering in the language of Psalm 78: Can God set a table in the wilderness? Good question.

The fact is, we don’t need the Bible to tell us about wilderness experience. I suspect we all know something about it, even those who are not exactly outdoorsy types. Some of my wilderness moments came in densely populated urban settings, lots of people around but no one around.

Wilderness can come when we enter uncharted territory. Wilderness can come when we contend with isolation. Wilderness can come with all kinds of experience of deprivation. Wilderness can come in response to a crisis of health or finances or employment or relationships or meaning. Wilderness can come with the sense of abandonment that accompanies grief. Just a few examples, illustrating wisdom I’ve shared before from one of my mentors who told his congregation: Suffering is the promise life always keeps. We’re all way too familiar with wilderness.

The church, again, presents Lent as a journey through the wilderness, a time marked by challenge. At the same time, for Moses it was the place where he received his call via a conversation with a burning bush. It was the place where the children of Israel were painstakingly formed as a nation. It provided a pathway home for a people in exile. It was the venue for John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Messiah. And it launched Jesus in his public ministry.  So the answer, sometimes hard to believe, is that God can indeed set a table in the wilderness. In other words, it is a place from which something new can emerge.

Think of a time when you have felt like you were in the wilderness. What was that like? What brought you through? What did you learn?

The fact that we make our way through this season of Lent together means that on some level, we are all experiencing wilderness. As you navigate this journey, make it more than a season to just feel deprived, to feel more miserable-than-thou. See what God might have to teach you in this time. Ask for that kind of teaching. Put yourself in a place to hear that teaching. Maybe some quiet time each day. Maybe some reflection from people you think have wisdom. Maybe some act of kindness, accompanying someone else on their wilderness journey.

The children of Israel discovered that God could indeed set a table in the wilderness. Perhaps we can discover that too this week.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (February 24, 2020)

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Psalm 51

1     Have mercy on me, O God, according to your
loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

  2     Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.

  2     For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.

  4     Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.

  5     And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment

  6     Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.

  7     For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

  8     Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

  9     Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

10     Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.

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

12     Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.

13     Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

Lent: A matter of the heart

Copyright © 2020 Church Pension Group Services Corporation

Lent is upon us. How did that happen? Okay, I may be a church geek, but I spent time over the past few days looking at the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, getting ready for the 40 days. Have a look (p. 264 in the Book of Common Prayer). There’s a lot in there to serve as guide for the upcoming season, and for all of life.

There’s an opening invitation to Lent which helps us think about what we might think about for the next 40 days: self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, scripture engagement. There are scriptures that describe the kind of religious observance God seems to find interesting. (Hint: It has a lot to do with helping those in need.) And there’s the challenge put forth by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He said: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Lent asks us to think about what we treasure, where we give our heart, mindful of the desert father who said: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.

No doubt, there’s a complexity to the season. It’s a lot more than simply an effort to be more miserable than thou. It does indeed call us to repentance, to acknowledge ways we’ve messed up. We are all familiar with these. At the same time, the season celebrates new life. The word Lent I’m told has some kind of connection to an ancient word for Spring. It’s a season for spiritual growth. It’s a season not only of challenge but formation. So in the course of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, after ashes have been administered, the congregation turns to Psalm 51, a psalm which captures the many dimensions of the season of Lent. (see above) Here’s what struck me about that psalm over the past few days.

It has everything to do with the heart. The psalmist recognizes the way he has messed up. Tradition has it that the psalm reflects the regret of David in the wake of his murderous, adulterous, duplicitous interactions. Some hero of the faith! The psalmist understands that God knows all about that. On some level, the psalmist believes that God’s grace is sufficient to rise above all that.

The psalmist asks:  Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. It’s a reminder, as springtime approaches, of one of the reasons for the season: new life. Wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, whatever secrets we harbor, whatever shame we harbor, needless pain we bear, peace we often forfeit can be brought to this season. It’s a chance for a new start.

The biblical record indicates that it’s never too late to begin again. Abraham and Sarah, who practiced their own deceptions, didn’t start a family until they were in their 90’s. Jacob, chief biblical creep who swindled his brother and tricked his blind father, became father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses became a leader after 40 years in exile, prompted by his own murder of an Egyptian. And then there’s David, who despite the mess he’d made, was regarded as the greatest king of Israel.

As Lent begins, do a spiritual check-up on your heart. How is it doing? Where are you giving your heart? Do you need to begin again? That’s God’s work, thank God. And because it’s God’s work, that new heart is always a possibility. Always. Let that new heart, that new start be your prayer for this holy season. And take to heart the final words of the psalm, that at the end of it all, there is the promise of joy, the product of God’s bountiful spirit.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

RenewalWorks for Me is a wonderful resource for a spiritual check-up and guided practices to deepen your faith. Try it as your Lenten practice!

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org

Monday Matters (February 17, 2020)

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Some wisdom from Abraham Lincoln:

I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

My concern is not whether God is on our side, my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

There are no bad pictures, that just how your face looks sometimes.

I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a man could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.

No man is poor who has a Godly mother.

I laugh because I must not cry, that is all, that is all.

What would Abraham Lincoln tweet?

We lived in Washington, DC, for a few years when our children were young. During that time, I discovered the Lincoln Memorial, which I came to regard as a thin place (i.e., distance between heaven and earth is thin), a holy place. I wanted to share it with my kids, so I took my young son there. We had to park far away. I had to carry him part of the way. Lots of steps. When we got to the top of the stairs, let’s just say he was not particularly impressed.

He was not quite old enough to take in what moved me so deeply. Not only the history of those steps. In the walls of the memorial are etched the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, a succinct speech offered in the middle of the war between the states. The speech reveals a person of faith, a person who knew his Bible, a humble leader, a man of prayer trying to figure out what faith meant in a time of division, when religion was used to justify diametrically opposed points of view. Sound familiar?

On this President’s Day, I invite you to spend a few minutes with this remarkable address. Google the whole thing. And since I have the microphone, let me share a few choice passages:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nation.

I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would have to say today? This Monday, imagine our world, our nation, our election process, our workplaces, our homes, our schools, our churches, our hearts as places bearing malice toward none and charity for all. Imagine public discourse that reflects this spirit. We can dream, can’t we? After all, others have dreamed on those Lincoln Memorial steps.

We may feel we have no impact on divisions brought by politicians or pundits or preachers. At times, all I feel we can do is offer the Serenity Prayer, and change what we can for a more perfect union, reflecting our better angels. And we can begin with our own hearts, and with those who cross our paths, and with those we are called to serve. We can ask for the grace to interact with malice toward none and charity for all, so that brokenness can be healed. That would be a great way to observe this holiday.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

Resolving to deepen your spiritual life in 2020?

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.

Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org