Monday Matters (December 21, 2020)

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If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
-Jeremiah 20:9

So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge;  for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
-Acts 4:18-20

 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!  For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
-St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (9:16-18)

What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet, what can I give Him? Give my heart.
-Final stanza of “In the bleak midwinter”

Getting to yes

So did Mary have a choice? Could she have said “Thanks, but no thanks”?

We debated that question at a bible study last week, in reflection on the story of the annunciation. It brought to mind a fine sermon I heard years ago. The preacher (named Mary of all things. Did she know?) posited that the angel Gabriel may have knocked on a few other Nazareth doors before finally finding someone who would say yes. Let’s be clear. The scriptures don’t indicate whether that’s true. But it raised for me a question about how we respond to God’s call. We tout free will, freedom of choice, our own agency. But we could ask: do we have a choice?

Mary’s encounter with Gabriel is only one in a long series of holy callings described in scripture. Often the response indicates that the person hearing the call believes God has the wrong number. Moses heard the call via the burning bush, and asked: “Who am I to take on the Pharaoh? I’m not as good a public speaker as my brother by the way. Try him.” Jonah heard the call to go east and headed west as soon as he could. A rich young ruler wanted to follow Jesus. Jesus said: “Great. Give away your possessions and come on.” The young man went away sad. Isaiah heard the call and declared himself a person of unclean lips. Peter heard Jesus’ call and said to Jesus in response “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Jeremiah heard the call and said “I’m too young.” Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, heard the call and said “I’m too old.”

Mary, in contrast, after understandably admitting some puzzlement (Gabriel, run that by me again,) soon said, “Here am I” believing that with God all things are possible.

Did Mary have a choice? I’m not sure. Sometimes scripture indicates that the people who are called by God see no other pathway. I put a few examples of that holy compulsion in the excerpts above. The first disciples, St. Paul and his companions, the martyrs of the early church answer the call even though it got them in a mess of trouble. Life could have been, would have been so much easier. It’s been true ever since. Martin Luther said “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Abraham Lincoln said he was driven to his knees in prayer because he had nowhere else to go. John Lewis, a modern day witness, crossed the bridge and got in good trouble.

As we move from Advent to the Christmas season, I’m wondering how you have responded to God’s call in your life. It may be a nudge to do something small, like reaching out to someone in the grips of loneliness amidst covid-tide. It may be a major shift in your life’s commitments as a new year starts.

Questions of call can be found all over the Christmas story. Was it a choice? Was there no other way? Mary could have simply said “I don’t think so.” Joseph could have cancelled wedding plans. Shepherds could have attributed the angels’ appearance to too little sleep or too much wine. Magi could have noticed an unusual star and said, “How interesting” and kept on with royal duties. Instead, for each of these characters the response was yes, perhaps a road less taken that has made all the difference.

As we come to the celebration of Christ’s birth, we note that God’s grace has appeared, a great gift. This Christmas, how will you say yes to that gift? How will you find room for it in your “no vacancy” life? How will you give thanks for it, with your lips and with your life? Is it simply unthinkable to say anything but “yes”? Perhaps answering such questions can provide insight into the reason for the season. That is my prayer this morning for you and for me.

-Jay Sidebotham


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What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
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Monday Matters (December 14, 2020)

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Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

-Matthew 5:16

‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

-Matthew 25:37-40

He must increase, but I must decrease.

-John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, John 3:30

 

Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.

-Albert Schweitzer

 

Turn to the light.

-Scott Carlton

Trash talk

My daily routine involves an early morning walk, time for quiet, orientation to the day, and some prayer. It’s a privilege that part of that daily walk can take place on the beach, thanking God as the sun rises again, thanking God for the gift of another day. As it’s gotten colder, the number of people on the beach is reduced. A couple weeks ago I was walking on the beach and I saw only one other person. A tall young man in a wetsuit with a surfboard emerged from the dunes and headed across the wide beach to the ocean.

Our paths came close to intersection as he reached the shore. I was close enough to see that he put down his surfboard. He leaned over and picked up a couple pieces of trash on his pathway on the beach. He stood up and looked around. He saw that a good couple hundred yards away there was a trash can. He left his board and walked all that way to deposit the trash. I thought of how easy it would have been to leave the trash where it was. It wasn’t a lot. I realized that I too often have just passed by litter (literally and figuratively). It has caused me to begin to carry a plastic bag in my pocket on these morning walks, ready to pick up any trash I see. I began to shift the way I behaved because of what I saw this young man do. He was a witness to me.

(I should say that my wife, who is more spiritually evolved than I am, has been picking up trash on our beach walks forever. We have teased her for it. Funny how we sometimes we don’t let those people closest to us to be our teachers. That’s probably a topic for another column. Sorry, honey.)

This beach encounter, perhaps another Advent parable, made me think about witness. This young man didn’t notice that I noticed. We spoke no words. I doubt he was thinking: “I’ve got to convince this guy to pick up trash.” Chances are slim that he’s a subscriber to Monday Matters, able to read this story. He just was doing what he thought was right, just doing good, for no reason except goodness. There was no one except me around to pat him on the back.

In case you haven’t noticed, in our world these days, there is ample opportunity to do good. St. Francis said we should preach the gospel at all times and use words if necessary. That doesn’t get us off the hook from speaking of our faith, being able to explain why it is in fact good news. But it does recognize that the ways we live in the world, the ways we treat each other, the ways we treat God’s creation, speak volumes. The ways we live in the world have the potential to bring change.

On Sundays in Advent, we’ve been hearing about John the Baptist. His whole life and ministry was a matter of witness, pointing beyond himself to Christ, to love breaking into the world. He obviously didn’t care what people thought of him. He was all about pointing to the light. We heard yesterday in church that John was not the light but came to bear witness to the light. And we read about him because in all of his eccentricity (and he gives new meaning to the word “eccentric”), he models what it means to be a witness.

Goodness surrounds us. Where do you see it? Are you noticing, watching, expecting, staying alert to it, even if it’s just a faint glimmer, a small effort? That’s sort of the deal with Advent. Who are the people that have been a witness to you, showing you how to live in the world? How have you been changed by their witness? Think of a moment when you saw someone do good. Maybe thank that person for the moment. At least, thank God for that person. Then consider opportunities before you to be a witness on this day, December 14. Someone might just notice. Or not. But ask the Holy One to place before you this day that chance to do good.

Advent calls us to watch, to be alert. For Jesus’ sake, how can you be on the lookout for goodness?

-Jay Sidebotham


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  January, 13th, 7pm ET
Guest: Lisa Kimball, Ph.D. Associate Dean of Lifelong Learning and the James Maxwell Professor of Lifelong Christian Formation at Virginia Theological Seminary
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (December 7, 2020)

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Love bears all things, believe all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
-I Corinthians 13

 

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

Church fights

Turns out jolly old St. Nicholas wasn’t always so jolly. The saint who we celebrated yesterday allegedly punched the heretic Arius in the nose at the Council of Nicea (325 AD). A good old church fight.

In my time, I’ve witnessed a few church fights. I bet you have too. There have been fights over social and political issues, for sure. Fights over liturgy and language and leadership. Fights over money, for sure. Fights over who’s in and who’s out. Fights over how to read the Bible and who gets communion. Fights over what kind of music is acceptable to our Lord. I’ve crossed the garden committee and the altar guild, the finance committee and the ushers, and lived to tell about it. I’ve witnessed fights over the most efficient ways to make sandwiches for a lunch program for people in need, prompting those words clergy fear: “We’ve never done it that way.” I’ve negotiated fights between church ministries that had to share a refrigerator. I’ve noted the creativity of the human spirit, finding all kinds of things to dispute.

I had always known that church fights happen. I came to realize that sometimes they are not a dispute between a good and a bad thing, but the collision of two good and noble things. “My way of serving Jesus is just a bit more important than yours.” How do we navigate such?

Since day one, the church has had to figure this out. The church in first century Corinth received several letters from St. Paul. Those letters describe church fights about food, liturgy, sex, money and leadership. Any of that sound familiar? Maybe there were valid arguments for both sides. But what St. Paul said is that what really matters is not who is right, but what builds up the church. In response to these various disputes, Paul writes his great hymn about love (I Corinthian 13).

In Morning Prayer we recently read the story of Zacchaeus (see above). He was a tax collector, held in low regard with good reason by his people. He had an encounter with Jesus that turned into a conversion experience, out of which he decided to give away half his wealth and restore any wrong he had done fourfold. Jesus is criticized for hanging out with Zacchaeus. While I’ve know this story since Sunday School, and while I’ve sung the song about the wee little man climbing up into a tree, I never noticed what Jesus says in response to this criticism. He says this about Zacchaeus: “He, too is a son of Abraham.” In other words, to the critics Jesus says: “Hold on. As unlikable, perhaps reprehensible as he may be, Zacchaeus is your brother.”

It’s the wisdom of our baptismal covenant that we are to seek Christ in all persons (even when Christ comes well-disguised). What part of “all” do we not understand? It’s the wisdom of eastern traditions that say the light in you greets the light in me. It’s the wisdom of the South African theology of Ubuntu, which proclaims the inherent interconnectedness of humankind.

In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a time marked by division and rancor. It bubbles up from our personal resentments. It trickles down from our leadership. In families, in churches, in political discourse, we too easily find reason to dismiss our connection to each other.

Jesus calls us to another way. I’m wondering where you hear that call this week. It doesn’t mean we won’t have disputes or disagreements. It doesn’t mean we suspend deep convictions about what is right, what is just. It does mean that we embrace the sometimes annoying truth of our inherent interconnectedness. So we bless each other. We pray for each other. We forgive each other and seek forgiveness. And we do our best to walk in the way of love.

I’m working on it. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not quite there yet.

-Jay Sidebotham


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  January, 13th, 7pm ET
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (November 30, 2020)

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The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 
 
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
-Romans 15:13
New Revised Standard Version

 

Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!
-Romans 15:13
The Message

 

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.
– Barbara Kingsolver

 

Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson

Hope

When I was in seminary, our New Testament professor gave us this assignment: Write a parable. Sound simple? Try it some time. It’s harder than you might think. As if we needed it, it helps us recognize Jesus’ genius. I wrote a few really bad ones. I wrote one about Advent, which I often bring out at this time of year. Actually, like many good stories, it sort of wrote itself. Sorry if you’ve heard it before. It goes like this.

The experience of Advent is like unto that season in my life when I commuted from the suburbs into Manhattan. That daily trek involved a train ride, on tracks that ran along the Hudson River. In winter, commuting took place in darkness. Seasoned commuters gathered on the platform, clustered in precise intervals, knowing exactly where the doors on the train would open. It seemed to be a law of the universe that the colder and windier the morning, the longer the train was delayed. Delay happened often. Sometimes the train didn’t show up at all, which led to a scramble for other ways to get to work. One could never predict. So standing in our clusters on those dark, chilly mornings, anxiety could be high. We would look up the train track, craning to see far into the distance. And waiting.

And then one could see the tiniest bit of light on the track. So very faint. But that first, little bit of light changed everything. For me, there was a sigh of relief. Don’t get me wrong. I was still cold. The wind penetrated. I was not yet on the train. But I knew that soon and very soon it would arrive. That bit of light, perhaps comparable to the first candle lit on an Advent wreath, changed everything. It changed not only my expectation of the future, but also the way I navigated the present dark, anxious, chilly moment until the train arrived.

I’m wondering how you might see that parable at work in the world. Maybe we witness it now, with the promise of a COVID vaccine. It’s not here yet, but as leaders have told us, there is light at the end of the tunnel. That small glimmer, yet unrealized, changes how we act now. I don’t know about you, but it has diminished my Corona-fatigue. It’s also encouraged me to keep doing the things (as annoying as they are) that mitigate spread. It’s made me take to heart the admonitions that what we do now is an expression of love of neighbor. The medical hope for the future changes how I live now.

That is the deal with Advent, as far as I can tell. It is a season focused on hope. That doesn’t mean we just sit around in a holding pattern. It means we conduct our lives right now, this Monday, confident in the promises of Christ’s coming, signified in that manger, but also arriving in each of our hearts, in each of our encounters, in each of our responses to a world in need, in our communities, in our big and beautiful and broken world.

At the church where I am presently privileged to serve, our focus this season is on everyday hope. We’re asking folks to consider ways that hope can shape our thoughts, words and deeds right now, in the midst of considerable coincident crises. Wherever you find yourself as Advent begins, you might want to consider the ways that you can hold on to hope. And as you’re doing all that, play the 1965 Curtis Mayfield hit, a great Advent hymn, which has this refrain:

People get ready. There’s a train a-coming. You don’t need no baggage. You just get on board. All you need is faith. To hear the diesels humming. You don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord. So people get ready.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect

What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
This week!  Wednesday, December 2nd, 7pm EDT

Our guest presenter will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation and Creation Care for the Presiding Bishop.

Stephanie is a gift to the church, with a joyful heart for the Jesus movement. She is a good friend of RenewalWorks and has volumes to share with us about discipleship and evangelism. Join us and invite others.

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Monday Matters (November 23, 2020)

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I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
-Nelson Mandela
Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.
-Winston Churchill
Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.
-Deuteronomy 31:6
I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
-Joshua 1:9
Love the Lord, all you his saints.The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.
-Psalm 31:23, 24
Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
-from the Post-Communion Prayer at the conclusion of the service of Holy Eucharist

Be not afraid

A recent conversation took me back to the days when I worked at an ad agency, before I made the slight career shift to ordained ministry. (I’ve been told that I’m still in advertising, but that’s another topic.) Though it was a particularly secular environment, in which theological issues and liturgical practices never came up in staff meetings or client presentations, there were some spiritual lessons.

In one conversation with the principal of the agency, he posited two motivations in promoting a product or service: love and fear. An advertisement should either connect with what you love, or tap into what you’re afraid of. For instance, this was an agency that came up with the slogan for air filters for your car: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” Buy this product out of fear of automotive apocalypse. Judgment Day is coming for your Oldsmobile. I’m guessing you can think of other advertising examples.

The conversations that evoked this memory had to do with church history, and more specifically, the personal spiritual journeys of people in our congregations. In my years in Episcopal congregations, I’ve noted that many of our people come from other traditions where the fear of God, the fear of judgment, the fear of damnation was the motivator. God was the celestial judge just waiting for people to mess up. Better be religious or else. No wonder so many people feel that they have been spiritually wounded. No wonder there are so many nones (i.e., no religious affiliation) and dones (i.e., done with church).

I haven’t counted to verify but I’m told there are 365 times in the Bible in which people are told that they should not be afraid. One for each day. A daily exhortation. We’ll read a few of those stories in Advent and Christmas seasons. The opening lines from angels to Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, shepherds are some version of “Fear not!” I can imagine that fear might be a reasonable response to an unexpected angelic visit.

But maybe it’s deeper than just surprise. Maybe the angels are also saying that fear is not a healthy motivator. It brings with it toxicity that deforms relationships with God and neighbor. We see that fear-based brokenness at work in families, workplaces, churches, and in our political system. It pervades our racial reckoning. It shapes our regard for those who differ from us and leads us to treat those folks without regard for Christ’s presence in each one of them, dismissing the inherent dignity in each person, created in God’s image.

This kind of fear differs from the fear of the Lord that scripture tells us is the beginning of wisdom. That kind of fear, that spirit of awe recognizes that our lives unfold in the presence of a power greater than ourselves. The good news of our faith is that that greater power is by nature the power of love (and not the love of power).

I’ve been told that the opposite of love is fear. The Bible seems to confirm that when we read that perfect love casts out fear. Another way to think about it.  Courage is the opposite of fear, recognizing that the word courage shares the same root as heart (as in the French word for heart, coeur). Digging more deeply into the word, Richard Rohr points out that courage comes from the Latin, cor-agere, literally “an act of the heart.’

So blessings to you this day, in this unusual time when there are a bunch of reasons to indulge in fear. We launch on a season of thanksgiving and enter Advent, a season of hope, leading to a season of comfort and joy. May we start out this week, living not in fear but with courage, with acts of the heart. In whatever faces you this week, be fearless. Be of good courage.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.

 

Next call:  Wednesday, December 2nd, 7pm EDT

Our guest presenter will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation and Creation Care for the Presiding Bishop.
Join our email list to receive the Zoom link:

Monday Matters (November 16, 2020)

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We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, 95% or what we teach others.
-Edgar Dale

 

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-The Book of Common Prayer, page 236

 

Your word is a lantern to my feet, and a light upon my path.
-Psalm 119:105

 

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
-James 1:22-25

 

Jesus said: You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.
-John 5:39

 

Know the word.
Love the word. 
Live the word. 
Give the word.
-attributed to Mother Teresa

Why read the Bible?

I was reminded last week of the story of Karl Barth, prolific Swiss theologian of the 20th century, one of the greats. Let’s just say he never had an unexpressed written thought. He offered volumes upon volumes of dense writing (that often made me feel dense) on all kinds of subjects. At one point, a smart-ass seminarian asked if the good doctor could sum that all up in one sentence. Kind of a gotcha question. Dr. Barth said he could do so and he did so with the following sentence: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

If that story is not true, it ought to be, for what it reveals is the role the Bible plays in the Christian faith journey. In the work we do with congregations, we’ve learned that a key factor in spiritual vitality in churches is engagement with scripture. Understatement alert: In the Episcopal world, that can mean different things to different folks. But a distinctive element, in the words of Will Willimon in his book Shaped by the Bible, is that a Christian congregation is one that is confronted by and shaped by the Bible. How does that happen?

Yesterday in church, we heard a prayer that comes up once a year (included above.) It’s about scripture, asking God’s help in engagement with scripture, delineating a process that involves five steps. In the prayer. we ask for grace to:

1. Hear: We are meant simply to be open, to pay attention, to decide that the words of scripture are worth listening to. Jesus would often tell the crowds that he offered his teaching for those who had ears to hear. We often decide what we will hear. Spouses and children and students and clergy often engage in selective hearing. We all have a lot we can listen to, and we all face lots of distractions. How will we choose?

2. Read: Find out what the Bible says, for yourself. Do the work. As one pastor said to his congregation, perhaps in frustration: “I can’t read the Bible for you.” It’s a discipline, and so we often suggest some kind of daily ritual, a morning quiet time, participation in the Daily Office (so chock full of scripture), devotional guides like Forward Day by Day. We encourage a set bit of time each day, even if it’s just a few minutes. We encourage a sacred place in your home, a quiet place, a particular chair, maybe marked by a candle or a closed door or a sound machine to help keep focus.

3. Mark: The method of Bible study known as the African model asks a couple questions. It begins by asking what word or phrase strikes you. It then asks where the passage intersects with your life. That’s a good place to start in marking scripture. Don’t be afraid to underline. Keep a journal that includes your most honest and irreverent questions. Pray those questions, or take them to someone you trust for spiritual counsel.

4. Learn: It’s what disciples do. A disciple is a learner, a student. That means, among other things being prepared for something new, something different, to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. True learning comes with putting what you hear, read, and mark to work, to be doers of the word, not only hearers, to quote the New Testament letter of James.

5. Inwardly digest: Let it become part of you. We sometimes hear, as Episcopalians dive more deeply into scripture, that they are amazed how much of the Bible comes from the Book of Common Prayer. It actually happened the other way around. Those who shaped our guide for worship had inwardly digested the words of scripture. Those words were deeply integrated. It shows.

Why do any of this? Yesterday’s collect tells us it is not in order to be holier or smarter than thou. It is for the sake of hope, hope of everlasting life given to us in Jesus. That everlasting life is not pie in the sky but is underway right now. We get to experience it more and more each day. And as Dr. Barth indicated, that hope is anchored in the love God for us, a love from which we can never be separated (eternally). The Bible in all its complexity, in the parts we like and don’t, in the parts we understand and don’t, is at its core a story of that ongoing relationship, a story of love that will not let us go.

So hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Because we can all use more hope.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.

 

Next call:  Wednesday, December 2nd, 7pm EDT

 

Our guest presenter will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation and Creation Care for the Presiding Bishop.
Join our email list to receive the Zoom link:

Monday Matters (November 9, 2020)

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The gospel reading for the feast of St. Martin:  Luke 18:18-27
A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good-except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”  “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with humans is possible with God.”

What does the goose represent?

Later this week (Wednesday), we observe the feast of St. Martin. I love the guy. He’s the patron saint of the first church in which I served, St. Martin’s in Providence, Rhode Island, a great place. When I arrived, I discovered that the symbol of St. Martin is a goose. There were renderings of geese and references to geese all over the place. It didn’t strike me as the most noble mascot, but I went with the symbolism, new priest and all. But why a goose?

Martin, a priest, was elected bishop and didn’t want to be a bishop. Perhaps a measure of his wisdom, but that’s another topic. (Bishops, what do you think?) Upon election, Martin hid from the folks who wanted him to take the job. He hid in a barn, seemingly a good idea, except the honking of the geese in aforementioned barn gave away his hiding place. Next thing you know, he’s wearing a mitre.

That story endears Martin to me. It’s one in a series of stories in the Bible and in our tradition in which people are called by God and wonder if the call is a wrong number. Who me? Why me? You’ve got the wrong person, O Holy One. I’ve felt that way from time to time. Have you?

More about Martin. A patron saint of France, he was born in 330 in what is now Hungary. His early years were spent in Italy. After service in the Roman army, he settled in Poitiers, whose bishop, Hilary, he admired. According to legend, while Martin was still a catechumen, he was approached by a poor man who asked for alms in the name of Christ. Martin, drawing his sword, cut off part of his military cloak and gave it to the beggar. On the following night, Jesus appeared to Martin, clothed in half a cloak, and said to him, “Martin, a simple catechumen, covered me with his garment.” As a legend, the story may or may not be true. But if it’s not true, it ought to be.

That story endears me to Martin further. It reminds me of the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25), in which Jesus commends those who help those in need, noting that such help is the way to meet Christ. It’s a principle reflected in the baptismal promises which call us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. All of them. And we all know that Christ can often come very well disguised. (Perhaps a good thing to recall in the wake of a particularly divisive election season.)

Martin, a rich young man, a person of means and influence, met and served Christ in this encounter. That’s why the gospel reading chosen for his day (see above) features a rich young man challenged to share what he had. The young man in the gospel chose a different path. He seems pretty clear that Jesus’ call is a wrong number. He goes away, sad. And it seems Jesus is sad too, according to accounts in other gospels. The young man’s refusal causes Jesus to offer the image of a camel going through the eye of a needle. It’s a tough passage for those attached to riches to enter the kingdom of God. It’s to let go. It’s tough for any of us who in terms of global poverty are wealthy. Is there hope for any of us?

Thanks be to God, the story doesn’t end there. Jesus says that with God, all things are possible. So with the help of this young man, and with the witness of St. Martin, let’s consider what is possible. That possibility will unfold as we take our cue from St. Martin this week. How are you being called? Do you wonder if that call is a wrong number? If there were a barn nearby, would you go hide there to escape the call? More specifically, where is God calling you to address the needs of our world, so evident in our considerable coincident crises? Who will you encounter, calling you to share what you have? How will you respond?

Take Martin’s witness to this possibility, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll meet Christ in the process.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

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. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
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
4
Jay Sidebotham

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

 

Monday Matters (November 2, 2020)

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In the morning, when I rise, in the morning, when I rise, in the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus. 
And when I am alone, and when I am alone, and when I am alone, give me Jesus. 
And when I come to die, and when I come to die, and when I come to die, give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus. You can have all this world but give me Jesus.
 
 
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

-Mark 10:45

 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

-Hebrews 12:1,2

 

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

Give me Jesus

Last week, I had a conversation with a rector who’d been at her church for only a short time. It was long enough for parishioners to notice that “things were different.” After church one day, a member of the parish approached the rector and said, “You know, you’re doing something really interesting in your preaching.” The rector braced herself for whatever that was. She said that when you’re new, you never really know what folks are going to say. (Actually, that’s true when you’ve been at a place for a long time.) The rector asked him what it was. He said, “You’re talking about Jesus.” She tried to cloak her surprise, and said something like, “Well, yea. That’s my job!”

That reminded me of another story I heard a few years ago from a friend, a rector, who had a parishioner make an appointment with her on the Monday morning after her first Easter. This congregant had grown up in the parish. She said she was very concerned about the new rector’s Easter sermon. It contained “too much Jesus” in it. My friend laughed, thinking she was joking. The parishioner assured my friend she was serious. My friend asked what a person would preach on Easter if not Jesus. She said: “Perhaps something from Buddha.”

I’m graced to be able to take a morning prayer walk listening to the rhythm of Atlantic waves. I have a list of loved ones for whom I pray, those facing deep and varied challenges. Of late I’ve been praying for our broken world, as we contend with considerable coincident crises, and as we face tomorrow’s election and what it says about who we are. On these walks in recent days, a song has kept coming into my head: “Give me Jesus.” The text is above.

I’m not exactly sure why that song has come to me so persistently. What does Jesus have to do with this season of our lives? As I pray about health crisis, economic crisis, racial divide, polarized electorate, kids in cages, creation crying out, I wonder if the prayer “Give me Jesus” might be overly pious or naïve or escapist or irrelevant. Is it sufficient to meet the tasks at hand?

Maybe it is. Give me the Jesus who turned tables over in the temple. Who wasn’t afraid to label leaders whited sepulchers. Who touched lepers when no one else would. Who healed wherever he went. Who broke religious rules so he could heal on the Sabbath. Who hung out with a Samaritan woman of ill-repute and with tax collectors everyone hated. Who found power in service. Who wept at his friend’s grave. Who stretched out arms of love on the hard wood of the cross between two low-lifes who had the audacity to mock him. Who gave his life. Who brought new life.

So let me add a few stanzas:

  • When I’m fretting over election results, give me Jesus.
  • When I’m irked by people who disagree with me, give me Jesus.
  • When I’m bummed about people who disappoint me, give me Jesus.
  • When it’s hard to forgive, give me Jesus.
  • When it’s hard to believe I’m forgivable, give me Jesus.
  • When religion seems too flawed, give me Jesus.
  • When I feel too flawed, give me Jesus.
  • When the world’s pain seems too great, give me Jesus.
  • When I see my part in causing pain, give me Jesus.

What stanzas would you add this morning?

Four decades ago, good and saintly friends lost their 9-year old daughter to cancer. In his eulogy, the priest who pastored the family described the young girl’s final moments. The last thing she did was to take the sacrament of bread and wine. She then said to her parents: I need Jesus. She turned into her natural sleeping position, one she had not been able to find for weeks, and slept, and died. The priest proclaimed that this young girl had reached the most profound, mature status of life, which is needing Jesus.

On the night before he died, Jesus said to his friends: 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) Are we talking too much about Jesus? Maybe not enough. If ever we needed the Lord before, we sure do need him now.

-Jay Sidebotham

Please continue in this season of prayer for an election.  Learn more at www.forwardmovement.org/election.

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

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. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
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
4
Jay Sidebotham

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

 

Monday Matters (October 26, 2020)

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:1,2
 
 
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 
Ephesians 3:16, 17
 
 
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.
Ephesians 4:14-16
 
 
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
II Peter 3:18

Wise guides

As I think about what it means to put faith to work in the world (the theme of these Monday messages), I’m grateful for the wisdom of several guides in my life.

Richard Rohr, in his book, The Wisdom Pattern, makes the point that “education is not the same as transformation.” Too often mainline churches have thought that the answer to going deeper in the spiritual life is to learn more stuff. Rohr suggests that while education matters, the goal of the spiritual life is not simply consumption of educational resources but the experience of soulful transformation. How will we be changed? How has transformation been part of your spiritual experience?

Dwight Zscheile, an Episcopal priest who teaches at Luther Seminary, wrote a book called “People of the Way.” In the introduction he asks about the difference between being a church member and being a disciple. Are they the same thing? What do you think? It can be tempting to think about membership as arrival.  “I’m in and close the door behind me.”A disciple is by definition a work in progress, someone on the move, open to learning, open to others, open to transformation.

A related thought from Brian McLaren, a question to which I often return: “Is the church a club for the spiritually elite who pretend to have arrived, or a school for disciples who are still on the way?” Don’t get me wrong. Clubs are great. But there is more.

Dawn Davis, a priest in the church of Canada and creator of the Revive program, speaks about the need to explore the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. She says it’s like the difference between reading a recipe and enjoying a meal.

Soren Kierkegaard framed the question in terms of worship, describing worship as a drama. He said that in the liturgy, the congregation are the actors and God is the audience. For too long, I have thought of gatherings for worship as being performances, a spectator sport. As clergy, I better be at the top of my game or the congregation (the audience) won’t clap. I love a good drama, but the spiritual life is one in which we all play a part.

These related thoughts from wise guides have been on my mind, as I think about my own spiritual journey and wonder about recent reports of decline in the church in our culture. For me, the hope is the promise of transformation. These thoughts are especially brought to mind as we navigate a season of considerable coincident crises (health, economic, environmental, racial), exacerbated by the anxiety of an impending election. I’ve seen plenty of news. I know a gracious plenty about issues and candidates. What I now need is the experience of trust that will make a difference, that will offer equanimity and hope, peace and tranquility, grace and lovingkindness in choppy waters.

That frame of mind comes not simply with knowing stuff about God, as important as that is. It comes in a relationship with God, known to us in Christ who stood up in the stern of the boat, in the midst of the storm and said “peace be still.” In my work with congregations, I’m grateful for so many wise guides with whom I’ve spoken, asking about their own spiritual experience. When I ask what has been transformative for them, what has helped them grow spiritually, the most common answer I get is crisis, challenge, difficulty, choppy waters. In those moments, we come to know our need of God. We’re in choppy waters right now. That’s precisely where God in Christ likes to go to work.

Starting tomorrow, the office of the Presiding Bishop and Forward Movement offer nine days: A season of prayer for an election. Learn more at www.forwardmovement.org/election.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

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. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
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
4
Jay Sidebotham

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

 

Monday Matters (October 19, 2020)

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Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.
I Peter 3:15 (New Revised Standard Version)
 
 
Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. 
I Peter 3:15 (The Message)
 
 
Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.
I Peter 3:15 (King James Version)
 
 
Christianity, for many, has come to mean anti-intellectual, fanatically narrow-minded people. Christianity, for some, is neither faith nor reason – just reactive tribalism hiding behind the skirts of Mother Church…I move in some circles where the word Christian means he knows nothing about history, nothing about politics and is probably incapable of civil conversation about anything. Five Bible quotes are the available answers to everything. How did we ever get to this low point after developing such a tradition of wisdom? How did we ever regress to such arrogance after the humble folly of the cross?
-Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern

What we’re for

People more easily define themselves by what they are against, by what they hate, by who else is wrong, instead of by what they believe in and whom they love.

-Richard Rohr

A friend told me about a conversation with a parishioner, part of discussions about spiritual growth and their own experiences of faith. As they talked, this parishioner told my friend: “I prefer to self-identify as Episcopalian, not Christian.” I wished for the opportunity to explore that statement with this parishioner, to hear her story, to share my understanding that our Anglican tradition is deeply rooted in the story of Jesus, i.e, unavoidably Christian. But I also had a sense of what she might have meant. In our culture, word association with the word “Christian” does not always suggest good news. People think that word denotes judgmentalism, hypocrisy, a particular political agenda. This woman wanted to make clear: “I’m not that!”

Here’s a cheery Monday morning excerpt from Richard Rohr’s book, The Wisdom Pattern. He offers this observation of our culture: “The soul, the psyche, and human relationships seem at this point to be destabilizing at an almost exponential rate. Our society is producing very many unhappy and unhealthy people…The postmodern mind forms a deconstructed worldview. It does not know what it is for, as much as it knows what it is against, and what it fears.” This insight struck me not only because of the character of this toxic political season, but also because I had recently been talking with some church leaders about the state of our church.

One priest who grew up in a fundamentalist church said that for much of her life, her religious energy as an Episcopalian had been about defining herself by what she was not. Now in her own parish leadership, she recognized that her church was filled with people who were at the church in a defensive, reactive mode, many deeply wounded by other traditions. I’ve met those folks. Their company includes not only those raised in intense religious environments. I’ve met folks wounded by the fact that they were raised with no religious tradition. And of course, there are way too many examples of those wounded within the Episcopal tradition. So it’s understandable that people define themselves by what they’re not, or what they’re against, or who they are mad at.

In our work with congregations through RenewalWorks, we often find people react negatively to particular religious language, and to the ways religious questioned are framed. We often hear: “That’s not how I speak. That’s not how Episcopalians speak.” One of our coaches, an apt listener, heard this comment and responded: “I understand. So tell me. If that’s not your language, what is your language? How would you put this into your own words?”

We all have to do that work. As we think about our spiritual lives, our beliefs and our practices, especially the ways we put faith to work in the world, how do we describe them positively? How do we affirm as well as renounce? How do we talk about what we believe as well as what we refuse to believe? How do we describe where it is we give our hearts? How do we talk about practices that are meaningful and transformative for us? Maybe you want to sit down this week and jot down a few answers to these questions.

At one point, Jesus pulled his disciples aside, and in perhaps the first example of public opinion polling, he asked: “Who do the people say that I am?” When he’d gotten a few answers from his disciples, with laser like focus he then asked: “And who do you say that I am?” How would you answer that question? What’s your language? What are you for? Who are you for?

On any given day, we can all point to the failures of religious , institutions, traditions and their practitioners. We can easily lapse into the prayer of the Pharisee: Thank God I’m not like that tax collector (i.e., those people). The challenge: How do we think about, talk about and act on the things we believe? How do we do so without being reactive, defensive, judgmental, fearful?

This coming Sunday gives us a clue. Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment. He says it’s all about love, love of God, love of neighbor. Love is our language.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

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. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
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
4
Jay Sidebotham

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