Monday Matters (April 18, 2022)

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Joe Heller

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

Enough is enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (April 11, 2022)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

On earth as it is in heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (April 4, 2022)

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Your assignment, should you accept:

 

Write a few sentences about what it means to you that God is addressed in prayer as a parent.

 

Write a few sentences about how you envision heaven. A city in the clouds? A frame of mind? An eternal weekend with relatives you don’t particularly like? A never-ending church service? The ultimate place of healing of relationships?

 

Write a few sentences about how you understand what it means to hallow something.

 

Write a few sentences about your hopes for a world in which God’s name would be hallowed.

 

If you take up this assignment (all may, none must, some should), no need to show it to anyone. But that might be exactly what you want to do. It may be a moment of accountability that will help you grow in spirit, and help you in your observation of Holy Week, and help somebody else.

 

So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.

Homework

Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
-Matthew 6: 9

I have a friend who told me he would only come to my bible study if there was no homework. He probably won’t like this Monday Matters.

After one of her first sermons in a new church, a friend got a call from a parishioner to offer feedback on her sermon. The caller commended the preacher, but said that her frequent references to Jesus in her sermon was not the way they talked in that church. Let that sink in.

I was reminded that in our work with congregations, we find that many Episcopalians define themselves in terms of what they are not, and more to the point, who they are not. As we discuss questions of faith, they will often tell me that that is not how Episcopalians speak. When that happens, one of our wise counselors tells folks: “If that’s not your language, what is your language?”

We’ve been reading Jesus’ teaching about prayer. It could be easy to focus on the things we’re not supposed to do in prayer, e.g., make it showy, make it a public spectacle, go on and on. As we continue in reflection on the Sermon on the Mount this morning, we find that Jesus gets very specific about how we should pray. He offers what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer included in every liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer.

In Luke’s gospel, the Lord’s Prayer is offered in response to the disciples’ request that Jesus teach them to pray. The disciples ask for a prayer, noting that John the Baptist had given his disciples a prayer. (Luke 11.1) It seems like that prayer given to those disciples was a mark of their identity, a sign of who they followed, a sense of who they were. There are other prayers that do that kind of thing. The Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr, provides a sense of identity for the recovery movement. The prayer attributed to St. Francis (“Make me an instrument of your peace…”) provides identity to any number of communities. Is there a prayer that reflects your identity?

With that question in mind, let’s dive into the Lord’s Prayer, bit by bit.

Our Father: The prayer begins by noting who we are talking to. The prayer implies at the outset that this is about relationship, a relationship of a particular kind. It is not the prayer of king and subject, slave and master, employee and boss, judge and defendant. It’s the personal relationship of parent and child. And while in our broken world the parent-child relationship is not always marked by love and care, can we presume that Jesus intended the most loving, gracious relationship, maybe like the father in the parable of the prodigal son?

In heaven: It’s a prayer that speaks of location, offered to a Father in heaven. That says to me that heaven is not some far off place, but much more accessible than we might think. I have a feeling we’ll talk more about how we understand heaven next week.

Hallowed be thy name: On one level, it’s a declarative statement, a way of acknowledging God’s holiness, God’s greatness. We can translate the word hallowed as set apart as sacred, or consecrated. When I studied at Union Seminary, I learned of an Old Testament professor so deeply honored by students that they took off their shoes and left them in the hallway outside the lecture hall to honor this holy man. How much more might we honor the God of creation?

(As something of an aside, I heard of a child in one of our parishes who thought the prayer began: Our Father which art in heaven, how did you know my name? Maybe that child really knew something about the mystery that calls us to this hallowing.)

There’s another way to read this prayer to hallow God’s name. It’s an expression of hope, that God’s name would be increasingly hallowed in a world where that is not the case. I can’t help but think that if God’s name were hallowed among all people, however that name is understood, that our world would be in a better place. That is not necessarily a prayer for people to become religious, because it seems that some of the most religious people are the ones who miss the boat, in Jesus’ estimation. It’s simply a prayer that all people will recognize that our common life unfolds in the presence of a power greater than ourselves, a power whose character is love.

Take this upcoming week as a chance to get ready for Holy Week. Reflect on your own relationship to God, your vision of heaven, your understanding of hallowing God’s name, what it would mean for our global community. If you feel so inclined, take on the homework assignment in the column on the left as a way to prepare for this important week in our common life.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters: March 28, 2022

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Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.

 

Prayer is not about saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to pray now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see I’ve made a notation here to pray at 2:15.’ It’s about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. …
My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, “I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,” that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, “It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,” it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.

 

So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light – I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us.

Empty phrases

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
-Matthew 6: 7,8

In recent readings of Morning Prayer, a few words that I’ve read many times hit me like I’d never heard them before. Does that every happen to you? We begin the confession by saying: Most merciful God. I got to thinking about what it means to begin that liturgy, to begin my day, to live each day in the awareness of the presence of a merciful God. For much of the time, I’m a functional atheist, imagining I can bring God into the picture when I want, when needed. The rest of the time, I’ll run things, thank you very much.

My prayer life exhibits that interest in being in control. (Hear the gospel according to Anne Lamott: What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.) We sometimes approach prayer as filibuster, talking endlessly, repeating words somewhat mindlessly, not doing a lot of listening, thinking God will pay attention to us because we talk a lot or craft the language well. We sometimes approach prayer as shopping list, putting in our order like Doordash, waiting to have wishes fulfilled. God as valet. We sometimes approach prayer with magical thinking, a celestial Aladin’s lamp. Often we end up disappointed when wishes are not fulfilled. All of which is to say that there lots of ways for our prayers to be empty phrases.

Jesus spent a fair amount of time praying. He also spent a fair amount of time teaching about prayer, presumably because we need it. He was mindful that there are some ways to pray that are less edifying, some ways that we pray that are more about us than anything else, resulting again in prayers filled with empty phrases.

So how can we come to greater fullness, less emptiness in our prayers?

We can begin by keeping it simple, confident that we actually don’t have to clue God in to what’s going on. In my work in the church, people often feel incapable or unqualified to pray in front of others. That’s why clergy get called on to offer the prayer in a group setting. I found one simple way to get around that. It’s about filling in the blanks:

I thank God that….

I ask God that…

If you’re feeling stuck in your prayer life, you might want to see if this simple approach helps. Anybody can do it.

The call to simplicity in prayer is what I love about Anne Lamott’s description of what it means to pray. Echoing Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, she says you don’t need tons of words. In fact, you only need three: thanks, help and wow.

Thanks: Meister Eckhardt said that “if the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Expressions of thanks in all circumstances place us in a frame of mind where we recognize God’s gracious activity in our lives, in our world. What are you thankful for this morning?

Help: It’s a matter of recognizing our absolute dependence, which is how Paul Tillich described faith. It’s the recognition that we can’t do it on our own, that our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. Where do you need help today?

Wow: We often fail to notice miracles around us. Here’s Anne Lamott’s take on it: “It’s sort of like when the Wizard of Oz — when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it’s like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, ‘Wow!’ So where’s the wow factor for you this Monday?

It can really be quite simple, however we pray. Our hearts can be moved into deeper relationship with God in silence, through music, with polished collects of the Prayer Book, with fumbling syntax, with sighs too deep for words, with tears as we consider the brokenness of our world. It’s all offered in the confidence, the amazing grace that a relationship with God is accessible and worth pursuing, and that God knows what we need before we ask. A bit more from Ms. Lamott: “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”

God aims to provide what we need, as loving parent. Let’s ditch empty phrases and the filibuster and the wish lists and aim to offer prayers with fullness and simplicity. And love.

-Jay Sidebotham

Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters: March 21, 2022

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And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for fifteen minutes of fame! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.   

          Matthew 6:5-6 (The Message)

 

The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. They pursue it even during times of spiritual dryness, when there is no social or experiential payoff.
Timothy Keller

Do good

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
-Matthew 6:5-6

Those of a certain age may remember a scene from “Sound of Music” when the Von Trapp children have been hazing the new governess, Maria (Julie Andrews) on her first day. They were so mean. When they all sit down for dinner, Maria is invited to say grace, a prayer during which she references the unusual ways she has been welcomed into the household. One by one, the children dissolve into tears of shame. A classic example of what I’ve heard described as horizontal prayers.

Such prayers sound something like this: “Lord, I pray that my sibling will stop being such a jerk.” “Lord, I pray that this particular vestry member will have the humility to see how ill-informed his opinion is.” “Lord, I pray that all of us around this dinner table will come to appreciate the Christian point of view on (name the social issue).” You get the idea. It seems that according to Jesus, people using prayer (or any religious practice) in this way is one mark of hypocrisy, masking our own agenda behind piety, bless their hearts.

These days, I hear all kinds of reasons why folks don’t go to church, why there has been a dramatic increase in the number of nones (no religious affiliation) and dones (those who have bailed). I can see reasons why organized religion loses appeal.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, recently commissioned a survey to explore what people think about Jesus. It’s called the “Jesus in America” study. He said of this study: “We are encouraged that the research shows Americans still find Jesus compelling (editorial comment: phew!) but we also see that the behavior of many of his followers is a problem, and it’s not just certain Christians. It’s all Christians.”

The study included questions about what people think about the church. Christian respondents described Christians as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful. Non-Christians had a different perspective. The characteristics they identified were judgmental, self-righteous, arrogant and, you guessed it, hypocritical. This squares with one of the most common reasons people tell me they have given up on church. They say that they don’t go to church because it’s just filled with hypocrites. To which I respond: “Guilty as charged.”

Jesus spent a lot of time contending with hypocrites. A lot of his most charged exchanges were with really religious people. That should give pause to those of us who are clergy, among others. As a result, the really religious people of Jesus’ day were among those who worked hardest to get rid of him.

As I try to understand and embrace his teaching, I sense his fundamental desire for people to have a deep and authentic relationship with God, a relationship that would be sustaining and joyful. I think he recognized that one of the things that get in the way is worrying about how we come off, how we appear, what other people think of us. I’m not sure it’s possible for us to avoid that.

But perhaps it’s possible if we try his experiment, taking our prayers to some quiet place where we get to realize that prayer is simply a conversation between us and God (an amazing, miraculous privilege when you think about it). It’s similar to the experiment we explored last week, giving alms/doing good in secret, in privacy, so we can be liberated from public opinion, so we can be liberated from the seductive power of our own ego. (After all, we can think of ego as an acronym: edging God out.)

All of it is a way for us to come to a deeper relationship with God, which is key not only to love of God, but also key to love of neighbor, and ultimately key to love of self. Grab some quiet prayer time this week. See what happens.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect is an online conversation series presented by RenewalWorks to hear from thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.

A Story of Transformation
Thursday, March 24th, 7-8pm EDT | Zoom

We hope you will join us to hear how one church’s focus on spiritual growth has transformed its congregation. 

We invite you to an intimate discussion with Rev. Greg Bezilla of Holy Trinity Church in New Jersey, on how RenewalWorks focused his leadership and the parish on deepening their love of God and neighbor. He will discuss what concerns initially encouraged him to embark on RenewalWorks in 2018 and how the church worked to implement the RenewalWorks’ Leadership Team recommendations over the subsequent 3 years. In Fall 2021, Holy Trinity returned to RenewalWorks as a way to measure those efforts. Their results were indeed different and included growth in many important measures.

We are excited to share an interview with this church’s leadership discussing their inspiring journey of rejuvenation. Please join us.

We hope you can join us for this Zoom gathering. Click here to sign up for RW: Connect emails and you will receive the link to join the webinar the day before.

Monday Matters: March 14, 2022

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It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
-Harry Truman

 

When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
-Matthew 6:2-4 (The Message)

 

“When we fulfill a mitzvah and perform an acceptable deed, we grasp [man’s] attachment to God. If it were possible to say so, God is revealed in our deeds, in the depths of our being we perceive the divine voices.”
This is what Heschel calls the “leap of action”: “To surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. In carrying out the word of the Torah he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the presence of God.”
-Jacob Petuchowski, in a 1958 article in Commentary Magazine
discussing the theology of Abraham Heschel

Do good

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
-Matthew 6:2-4

Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. This wisdom from Jesus has found its way into contemporary conversation, but probably not in the way Jesus intended. When we think of an organization where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, it can be one of the harshest critiques of a company, an administration, a church, a family. But in the context of Jesus’ preaching, it really is about the value of doing what we do without concern for recognition. It’s about the ways we think about reward. It’s about what motivates us to do good.

This week, we continue with the portion of the Sermon on the Mount which asks us to consider what drives our spiritual practices. These are good Lenten questions. Last Monday morning, we explored those motivations. And last Monday evening, with my nightly reading of Howard Thurman, I came across a pertinent reflection in his book, Meditations of the Heart. Better late than never. As we hear Jesus talk about our frame of mind as we give alms (which I take to mean as we offer help to people in need), Howard Thurman offered helpful amplification. Here are some excerpts from this meditation entitled “Shall I do good?”

Shall I be good because of some reward, because the virtuous act pays dividends? It is very difficult to escape the searching tyranny of reward and punishment…Again and again, to be good means to us to be approved.

The virtuous act may or may not pay dividends. In the last analysis, [men] cannot be persuaded to be good because of the reward either here or beyond this “vale of tears.” [Men] must finally come to the place in their maturity which makes them do the good thing because it is good.

When this is our awareness, then the whole matter of reward and punishment, approval and disapproval, becomes strangely irrelevant. Shall I be good because of some reward, because the virtuous act pays dividends? No! I shall be good because it is good.

We often talk about folks who give alms, those who serve with time, talent and treasure as people who are do-gooders. It’s not always a positive description. In light of what Jesus says, amplified by Howard Thurman, what does it mean to you to do good? These early days in Lent are a good time to think about that. There’s opportunity for a seasonal focus on what we might take on as a spiritual discipline. We often find that is some way of helping people in need. Those needs surround us. There’s plenty of opportunity.

So may I suggest this week that you and I consider ways to provide support for someone in need, doing so under the radar. Don’t sound any trumpets in advance of this good work. If at all possible, do it in a way that it would not be possible for that person to thank you, in a way that no one would know that you have done this good thing. It might be serving those without homes or food. It might be reaching out to someone who is isolated or grieving. Maybe it’s sending an anonymous bouquet or a meal. Maybe it’s a really generous tip. It might be a generous contribution to a person we pass on the street. Maybe it’s making a contribution to support Ukrainian refugee relief. It may not be possible to do this anonymously. If that’s the case, don’t let it stop you from giving. But to the best of your ability, don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Then reflect on that experience.

Thurman put it this way: I shall be good because it is good. That’s all we need to know. Our practice of goodness, whether anybody else is aware of it or not, whether anybody recognizes it or not, puts us in a holy place.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect is an online conversation series presented by RenewalWorks to hear from thought-leaders exploring ways to continue the work of spiritual growth. These discussions are especially helpful for those who have participated in RenewalWorks, but anyone interested in cultivating spiritual growth is encouraged to join.

Please join us Thursday, March 24th at 7 pm EDT
for a conversation with Rev. Gregory Bezilla,
Rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in South River, New Jersey

We are delighted to be speaking with Rev. Bezilla about his congregation’s experience repeating the RenewalWorks process. What have they learned along the way?
We hope you can join us for this Zoom gathering. Click here to sign up for RW: Connect emails and you will receive the link to join the webinar a few days prior.

Monday Matters (March 7, 2022)

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For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
-Romans 7:19-25

 

In the same way, 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

 

J. S. Bach devoted his life to creating music to the glory of God. “The aim and final end of all music,” he affirmed, “should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” As he set about composing, he lived out this conviction repeatedly, marking his blank manuscript pages with the initials, “J. J.” (Jesu Juva—“Help me, Jesus”), or “I. N. J.” (In Nomine Jesu—“In the name of Jesus”). At the end of his compositions, Bach regularly inscribed the letters “S. D. G.” (Soli Deo Gloria—“To God alone, the glory”). Bach understood that all of life can and should be lived for the glory of God alone. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31)
-Dr. Jerry Moan

Why do we do what we do?

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 6:1

Lent is a season for self-examination. As we continue with reflections on the Sermon on the Mount, moving to the sixth chapter of Matthew, we’re faced with this basic question: Why do we do what we do? Sharpening the focus a bit, when it comes to our spiritual lives, our religious observance, what’s the motivation?

To begin to answer those questions, I return to the wisdom from one of my predecessors, who said he never met a motive that wasn’t mixed. We would do well to simply admit that fact. As we approach our own religious observance, as we try to figure out what discipleship means, we recognize that we practice our righteousness for all kinds of reasons, some of which have to do with the desire to have people think we’re really swell. That’s especially true for clergy who practice religion in a quite public way. But I suspect each one of us has some part of us that practices our righteousness in order to get approval or accolades from those around us. So what are we to do? Some follow up questions come to mind:

What should be our motivation in practicing our righteousness?

Maybe it’s worth thinking about that word “righteousness.’ It’s easy to think that it suggests moralism, a commitment to getting things right all the time, which easily falls into that unattractive holier-than-thou frame of mind. But in the context of the New Testament, righteousness means a number of things. It can be thought of as a term of relationship. Righteousness as a matter of being rightly related to God and neighbor. This comes in fulfillment of the teaching of Jesus who said that the commandments we are given have to do with love of God and neighbor. If that has any truth to it, it means our practice should be focused on how we deepen those relationships, and how we set them right when we mess things up.

Maybe that’s a good focus for the season of Lent, to recognize as the confession says that we have not loved God with whole heart, soul and mind. We have not loved neighbor as self. Sure, mixed motives rule the day. (See St. Paul’s confession of his own struggles as described in Romans 7 and printed in the column on the left). Admitting all that, we may still want to take steps towards wholeness of those relationships. Deepening those relationships may well be the motivation to embrace. Which leads to the next question.

How do we get our motives right, or at least move in that direction?

On Ash Wednesday, during the time when ashes are imposed, the liturgy invites us to read Psalm 51. That psalm includes this prayer: “Create in me a clean heart. Renew a right spirit within me.’ Based on my own record, left to my own devices, I’m not going to be able to get my motives right. I suspect that that kind of purity of heart will not be given to me in this life in fullness.

But if I am to make any steps in that direction, coming to the kind of purity of heart that Jesus said was blessed, it will come as a gift, as a grace. With that gift available to us, we are called to accept it, to see it as an open door which we can walk through, a bridge we can cross.

One of the ways to make that movement is through spiritual practices, recommended in the invitation to the season of Lent in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Practices like prayer and fasting, reading and meditating on God’s word. Practices like giving something up, e.g., those things that block our spiritual growth. Practices like taking something on, e.g., serving those in great need. Which leads to the third question.

What is the great reward Jesus mentions?

I’m not exactly sure, as heaven remains a wondrous mystery. I’m going to guess that it is not that we will receive accolades on steroids. It will not be a heavenly corner office or a divine macmansion. In fact, I suspect it will not be about us. I’m imagining that it will be the arrival at that place of complete healing and wholeness (a.k.a., salvation), where love is expressed without ambivalence. When our focus is on how we look to other people, that heavenly experience may simply be beyond reach.

I think of heaven as that place where we do indeed love God with all our heart and soul and mind, where we actually love neighbor as self. In doing so, I believe we will find our fullest joy, the joy that God created us to enjoy. I can dream, can’t I?

-Jay Sidebotham

 


Ready to begin your RenewalWorks journey?
Illustration

Join the September 2022 cohort of congregations on the journey of discipleship.

A lawyer approached Jesus, putting him to the test with this question: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ response was simple, if not easy. He said it was about love of God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love of neighbor as self.

That singular emphasis on love of God and neighbor provides the foundation for RenewalWorks, a ministry that focuses on spiritual growth by deepening love of God and neighbor in the lives of congregations, in the lives of ministries that animate those congregations, and in the lives of the individuals who bring life to those ministries.

When the details of life press in, parishes, like individuals, can inadvertently move away from this singular, simple focus on discipleship to the more mundane but necessary actions of running a church. RenewalWorks brings the focus back to Jesus’ response to the lawyer.

Get Started

Monday Matters (February 28, 2022)

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In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
-Matthew 5:48 as rendered in The Message

 

Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Matthew 5:48 as rendered in the Common English Bible

 

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
I John 1:8

 

On this sacred path of radical acceptance, rather than striving for perfection, we discover how to love ourselves into wholeness.
-Tara Brach

Perfection

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:48

Once again, in response to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, I’m looking for wiggle room. Be perfect? The older I get, the more elusive that seems.

Here’s how I begin to make sense of it. There’s a fundamental difference between this call to be perfect and the drive for perfectionism. In religious circles, as parents, as professionals, there’s a drive to get everything right. That leads to one of two results. Either we get bummed out at inevitable shortcomings or we succumb to pride that imagines God is lucky to have us on the team. Neither are particularly attractive. Or edifying.

The Greek word used in this verse for perfect is transliterated as teleios. Translations of that word include the English word “perfect.” Alongside that, the word suggests being complete, whole, full grown, mature. In John’s gospel, in Jesus’ prayer for disciples, the word is used to reflect his request that his disciples be made completely one (John 17:23). In Luke’s gospel, the word is meant to suggest work that is finished or fulfilled (Luke 13:32). I’m reminded of how the idea of salvation expressed in scripture can be seen as a move toward wholeness.

It’s hard to read the whole Bible and conclude that Jesus expects us to be perfect in terms of getting it right all the time, in terms of never sinning. He was clear-eyed about human frailty. He was surrounded by the Keystone Cops disciples who demonstrated that frailty in oh so many ways. But he still called them to wholeness, toward spiritual maturity, growth toward the integrated oneness reflected in the character of God.

There are plenty of voices showing us the perils of perfectionism. In her book on writing entitled Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott points out those perils: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Brené Brown, in a book called The Gift of Imperfection, writes: “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

But as Jesus talks to disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, as we eavesdrop on that conversation, we are meant to take it to heart, to try to put it to work in our lives. As we begin the season of Lent, a season of course-correction enlightened by self-examination, what are ways we can do that? What are ways we can move toward wholeness?

We begin by identifying those places where we don’t feel whole. Those are gaps where the light can shine through. Once we’ve got some insight into those growth opportunities, we can take steps toward wholeness, with healthy striving. That comes with practice, which suggests not only putting things into action. It also suggests that we get better, we grow, we mature, we move toward wholeness. In my own journey, those practices include reflection on scripture, quiet time in prayer, especially expressions of gratitude, service to those in need, and to the best of my ability, forgiveness. I’m wondering what practices have helped you grow in this way.

I love the bumper sticker: PBPGINFWMY. Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet. As we journey towards wholeness, towards salvation, may we find grace in the belief that God is with us. God is at work in us. Perhaps in spite of us. But we are not alone in it.

-Jay Sidebotham

 


Ready to begin your RenewalWorks journey?
Illustration

Join the September 2022 cohort of congregations on the journey of discipleship.

A lawyer approached Jesus, putting him to the test with this question: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ response was simple, if not easy. He said it was about love of God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love of neighbor as self.

That singular emphasis on love of God and neighbor provides the foundation for RenewalWorks, a ministry that focuses on spiritual growth by deepening love of God and neighbor in the lives of congregations, in the lives of ministries that animate those congregations, and in the lives of the individuals who bring life to those ministries.

When the details of life press in, parishes, like individuals, can inadvertently move away from this singular, simple focus on discipleship to the more mundane but necessary actions of running a church. RenewalWorks brings the focus back to Jesus’ response to the lawyer.

Get Started

Monday Matters (February 21, 2022)

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From Romans 12

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

You’re welcome

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
-Matthew 5:46-47

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to read many parish profiles, documents that aim to capture the character of a congregation, shared in the most positive light. I have never, ever read of a church that didn’t describe itself as welcoming. Episcopalians make that boast as a denomination, with ubiquitous road-signs that say “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”

Yet I’ve heard too many stories of how folks have visited a church and felt invisible, folks bravely going to coffee hour, ending up reading literature about estate planning or feigning interest in a bulletin board of pictures of people they don’t even know because no one would talk with them. I’ve heard church described as family, which has a wonderful element of truth to it, but also can cause people to wonder: What do I have to do to be part of the in-crowd?

I served for a number of years at a church that was experiencing rapid growth. Someone who had been at the church for many years complained to the rector: “Who are all these people? What are you going to do about this? There are so many people I don’t know.” The rector replied, without missing a beat: “Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”

Brian McLaren put the question this way, asking about the character of our churches and denominations: Are we a club for the elite who pretend to have arrived or a school for disciples who are still on the way? It reminds me of the woman who challenged me on why I spoke about church growth or evangelism so much. She said: “I don’t know why you harp on that. Everyone in town who ought to be Episcopalian already is.”

Club or school? Obviously, McLaren aimed for the latter. One of the things I imagine about a school for disciples on the way is that in that movement, there is always a readiness to welcome folks, fellow travelers along the way.

by Jay Sidebotham

And this discussion presents just one aspect of the issue. These verses come after Jesus has told his disciples that they are called to love their enemies, to pray for them. If it’s hard for us simply to welcome people we don’t know to our churches, people who look a little different, how hard will it be to include those who we might consider to be enemies? Those who disagree with us. Those who have harmed us. Those who don’t like us. Maybe hate us. Maybe deep in the secret places of our hearts we hate them.

Jesus knew that the way of the world was to like the people who are like us, to withdraw into our bubbles, to settle into communities of agreement, cultures of affinity. That’s apparently the way the world operates. Even tax collectors and Gentiles know that. But he envisions another way, the way of love.

Where is that a challenge this week for you? Maybe it comes in your church, in your family, in your workplace. Maybe it comes with people who disagree on issues political or social or theological? How can you reach out this week?

And if the challenge feels beyond your capability, make it a focus of your prayer life.

-Jay Sidebotham

 


Ready to begin your RenewalWorks journey?
Illustration

Join the September 2022 cohort of congregations on the journey of discipleship.

A lawyer approached Jesus, putting him to the test with this question: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ response was simple, if not easy. He said it was about love of God (with all your heart and soul and mind) and love of neighbor as self.

That singular emphasis on love of God and neighbor provides the foundation for RenewalWorks, a ministry that focuses on spiritual growth by deepening love of God and neighbor in the lives of congregations, in the lives of ministries that animate those congregations, and in the lives of the individuals who bring life to those ministries.

When the details of life press in, parishes, like individuals, can inadvertently move away from this singular, simple focus on discipleship to the more mundane but necessary actions of running a church. RenewalWorks brings the focus back to Jesus’ response to the lawyer.

Get Started

Monday Matters (February 14, 2022)

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Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Romans 12:17

 

Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.
― Martin Luther King Jr.,

Loving enemies (Happy Valentines Day)

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

Regardless of the fact that today is Valentine’s Day, the Sermon on the Mount seems to indicate that our lives unfold with enemies all around us. G. K. Chesterton starkly put it this way: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” That gets carried over into the history of the church.

David Brooks recently wrote a column (published on February 4) that spoke about infighting in the evangelical movement. Brooks mentions the song “We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.“ He states the obvious: the world envisioned by that song seems very far away right now. Bitter recriminations have caused some believers to wonder if the whole religion is a crock. (I confess that as I survey contemporary Christian culture in our country I can see their point.)

Brooks quotes Tim Dalrymple, president of Christianity Today: “As an evangelical, I’ve found the last five years to be shocking, disorienting and deeply disheartening. One of the most surprising elements is that I’ve realized that the people who I used to stand shoulder to shoulder with on almost every issue, I now realize that we are separated by a yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension.”

I don’t know how many readers identify as evangelical, but they aren’t the only ones to experience that yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension, with neighbors, co-workers, relatives, not to mention people in the next pew. The chasm clearly dominates our politics. It’s showing up in school boards and classrooms. It’s happening in workplaces. It’s evident where different racial groups convene. And of course, there’s social media. Since the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to disciples, perhaps we should focus on how that chasm surfaces in faith communities. How are we to bridge the yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension? Are there ways we can move toward love of enemies? Nice idea, but how do we do that?

We get a practical answer from Jesus. His call to love our enemies is linked to the call to pray for those who persecute. It’s the wisdom of the psalmist who says of his enemies: “They beset me with words of hate, and attack me without cause. In return for my love they accuse me, even while I make prayer for them. (Psalm 109:2,3) The psalmist prays for his enemies. It’s the wisdom of Jesus who on the cross prayed for forgiveness for his executioners. They knew not what they were doing. It’s the witness of St. Stephen, the first martyr, disciple who similarly prayed for those stoning him to death.

Prayer for enemies accomplishes a number of things. It breaks the cycle of hate, as enmity can breed enmity, hate can trigger hate, resentment repeats injury, only widening the chasm. Prayer for enemies recognizes that God holds in loving regard the person who is giving us a hard time, or doing us wrong, or out to get us. It’s an act of empathy, seeking to bridge that chasm of incomprehension. When we pray for those who oppose us, we put ourselves in their shoes. When we pray for them, we trust God to do what we cannot, which is change somebody else. And this kind of prayer can shift our own propensity for lingering resentment and festering animosity, perhaps even helping us realize our part in the chasm. I’m reminded of Anne Lamott’s insight: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Jesus notes that the rain falls on all of us.

One of the great examples of bridging the chasm of incomprehensibility came in the ministry of Martin Luther King. Dr. King affirmed that we are “woven together into an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” He goes on: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

I’ve come to believe that the gospel can be summed up in two words: love wins. Seems like we can choose either to widen the chasm of incomprehensibility or weave ourselves into the winning network of mutuality, by which we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. This is something worth praying for. Taking steps (even small ones) in that direction would be a good way to celebrate Valentines Day.

-Jay Sidebotham

Good Book Club to start 2022 with Exodus

Start the new year with a renewed spiritual practice of reading God’s Word. Forward Movement, with support from partners from around the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, will celebrate the time of Epiphany with a new round of the Good Book Club by reading the first half of the Book of Exodus.

Exodus recounts the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We hear the great stories of Moses, from his discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter on the bank of the river to the burning bush to his presentation of the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we encounter God’s covenant and explore the grand theme of redemption.

This year, we have a bonus time of scripture engagement: the Good Book Club will dive into the first twenty chapters of Exodus from Epiphany, January 6, to Shrove Tuesday, March 1. For those who want to keep reading, we’ll offer a daily reading guide and an overview of the second half of Exodus. That reading period will conclude on Easter.

The full schedule, including the list of daily readings is available at www.goodbookclub.org.

Sign up to receive updates on Exodus.

Joining the Good Book Club is easy: Open your Bible and start reading!