Monday Matters (March 15, 2021)

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Who am I?
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Letters & Papers from Prison”

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

What are you doing here?

I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite Bible stories. Elijah, great prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures, is coming off a dramatic victory, winning a public contest with opponents. Evil King Ahab and Queen-of-mean Jezebel aren’t pleased. They vow revenge. Elijah freaks. He heads out to the wilderness where he has a major pity party, thinking he’s all alone in the cause of righteousness. (Sound familiar, clergy?) He’s ready to give up. Ready to give up life actually. He heads to Mt. Horeb, the mountain where revelations of God’s presence happen. In that holy place, the voice of God comes to Elijah in the form of a question repeated a couple times: What are you doing here? Whenever this story comes up in church, I’m struck with its relevance. I listen for where lectors place the emphasis: WHAT are you doing here? What ARE you doing here? What are YOU doing here? What are you DOING here? What are you doing HERE? We could spend a lifetime answering the questions. (Read the whole story in I Kings 19.)

Lent offers time to ask those kinds of questions. It’s a season for self-examination, a process underscored by our year-long experience of Lent brought on by Covid-19. It’s given us all a chance to think about who we are and where we are and where we’re headed. What are we doing in the place where we find ourselves?

For me, in Lent, in Covid-tide, asking these questions has brought a sense of both gratitude and wistfulness, recognizing extraordinary blessings that have come my way which exist side by side with regret, resentment and rethinking of ways I have been spouse, child, parent, priest, citizen. All of this has raised the challenge of acceptance. Accepting where I’ve been, where I am, where I’m headed.

To navigate that, I believe I have been graced with four statements that help me in my reflection on life, statements that reflect confession and contentment. Here are the four:

  • I am who I am
  • I am what I am
  • I am where I am
  • I am why I am

Several things occur to me in response to these statements.

First, like looking in a mirror, these statements are an honest assessment of the current situation, where I find myself these days. The good and the bad are encompassed in that view of self (as reflected in the poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the column on the left, a poem written in prison, where he might have asked: “What am I doing here?”). There’s much for which to be grateful in terms of where I find myself, for sure. But there are also things that call for repentance. It’s a mix, just like life.

Second, thinking about who, what, where and why I am brings me back to a focus on grace. However the questions are answered, the bottom line is that I am part of God’s good and blessed creation, that I am held in the arms of a loving, liberating, life-giving God, and there is nothing that can separate me from that.

Take this season to ask these questions. Hear God speak to you as he did to Elijah as he asks: What are you doing here? Ask the question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked of himself in the poem: Who am I? Consider the stewardship question: What am I doing with what I’ve been given? And allow all this self-examination to take place in the context of a love that will not let you go.

-Jay Sidebotham

Exciting news!  Introducing…

RenewalWorks has partnered with The Episcopal Church to transform RenewalWorks for Me into My Way of Love, Powered by RenewalWorks.

Using baseline data from hundreds of churches and thousands of Christians who have worked with RenewalWorks, your responses to a few simple questions will help the system identify broad characteristics of your spiritual life, and then assign you a plan of action.

After reading your initial results, you can go further by signing up for eight weeks of customized emails with tips, reminders and suggestions for daily spiritual practices. Following a four-part routine (Warm Up – Practice – Coach’s Tip – Stretch), these weekly emails support your unique spiritual journey and provide just the right suggestions for you to grow.

My Way of Love is free, a gift from Forward Movement and The Episcopal Church, offered in the confidence that as individual Christians grow in spiritual health, our congregations and dioceses will also be healthier-spiritually speaking.

Learn more and sign up for My Way of Love here.

In a recent episode of the video series  Leading Forward: Conversations on Discipleship and Growth, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry speaks with the Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement. The two discuss My Way of Love and the connection between discipleship and the spiritual practices for Jesus-centered life.

“Answering the survey questions helps the coach to guide you in real spiritual growth based on experience,” said Bishop Curry, “RenewalWorks and [Forward Movement] have been working on this for a while, but My Way of Love is based on that experience and the experience of roughly 2000 years of Christian history, plus a couple more thousand years of Jewish history and the history of other people of faith.” Watch the video here.

Leading Forward -- Conversation with Bishop Michael Curry about My Way of Love
Leading Forward — Conversation with Bishop Michael Curry about My Way of Love

If you’ve already done RenewalWorks for Me, you can still participate in My Way of Love and experience the wisdom that has been infused by this addition of The Way of Love, Practices for Jesus-Centered Life.

Monday Matters (March 8, 2021)

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A Prayer for the Human Family, The Book of Common Prayer
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ Lord. Amen.
 
Humility connects us. Humility reminds us how we are all so dependent on each other. It reminds us of all the many factors that come into play. Humility frees us from the prison of me, to the freedom of we.
-Desmond Tutu
 
True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.
-Frederick Buechner

On humility

One of the challenges in thinking about humility: As soon as we become aware of it, or aspire to it, or hope to see it in ourselves, we’ve probably lost any chance of exhibiting it. We become proud of being humble. But let’s give it a go.

We’re learning in our work with churches that the spiritual vitality of congregations has a whole lot to do with the leader’s heart. We have often referred to the work of Jim Collins, who in 2005 wrote a monograph to accompany his book Good to Great. This text was intended for the social sector and non-profit organizations in particular. In it he highlights essential leadership qualities. Effective leaders in these organizations combine deep personal humility with intense professional will. So let’s focus on that deep personal humility piece.

Last week, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about how we talk with people with whom we disagree. He too recognizes the need for humility by citing a new book by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton. The book, in Kristof’s words, is a paean to intellectual humility. He notes the ways we all come at life with our biases, including the “I’m not biased” bias, by which we believe we are more objective than others. Kristof says that left and right often see the world, indignantly, through a tidy moral prism. But the world is messier than that, which argues for intellectual humility. According to Dr. Grant, what wins people over is  “listening, asking questions and appealing to their values, not your own.”

Interesting stuff, but what does this have to do with discipleship?

In case you haven’t noticed, the world we live in is kind of divided, maybe more so than in the past. Those divisions can be found across the dinner table, in the next pew, in the residence down the hall or down the street , in the adjacent cubicle or window on our zoom conference call, in the halls of our nation’s capital. How do we faithfully move beyond “I’m right and you’re wrong?”

In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited (which I’m reading as part of our work with the impressive and unsettling Sacred Ground series created by the Presiding Bishop’s office), the author Howard Thurman speaks about how people respond to opposition and oppression. For the most part, they either resist (causing a big dust up), or they don’t resist (lapsing into toxic passivity). He says that there is a third way, the way of Jesus.

It is the way of love. It is the way of deep personal humility modeled by our Lord and Savior. It is Jesus listening to Nicodemus’ late-night questions. It is Jesus engaging in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, someone he had no business being with. It is Jesus going to lunch with Zacchaeus, a crook and bit of a creep. It is Jesus saying and showing that true greatness comes in service. It is Jesus washing the feet of disciples. It is Jesus on the cross amidst an argument between thieves hanging on either side of him, speaking forgiveness to torturers and executioners. It is meant to be our way, too.

If Lent is a season for spiritual practice, how about this week practicing humility, especially in interaction with people who disagree with you, people you think are wrong? Listen to them. Pray for them. Throw in a prayer for yourself, that you might be freed from biases that cloud vision. Pray for a world broken in so many ways. Pray for the whole human family, using the prayer in the column on the left.

That is what all this talk about Jim Collins and Nicholas Kristof and Adam Grant and Howard Thurman has to do with discipleship. In a world in need of healing, where divisions are sharp, Jesus offers another way forward, thank God.

-Jay Sidebotham

Exciting news!  Introducing…

RenewalWorks has partnered with The Episcopal Church to transform RenewalWorks for Me into My Way of Love, Powered by RenewalWorks.

Using baseline data from hundreds of churches and thousands of Christians who have worked with RenewalWorks, your responses to a few simple questions will help the system identify broad characteristics of your spiritual life, and then assign you a plan of action.

After reading your initial results, you can go further by signing up for eight weeks of customized emails with tips, reminders and suggestions for daily spiritual practices. Following a four-part routine (Warm Up – Practice – Coach’s Tip – Stretch), these weekly emails support your unique spiritual journey and provide just the right suggestions for you to grow.

My Way of Love is free, a gift from Forward Movement and The Episcopal Church, offered in the confidence that as individual Christians grow in spiritual health, our congregations and dioceses will also be healthier-spiritually speaking.

Learn more and sign up for My Way of Love here.

In a recent episode of the video series  Leading Forward: Conversations on Discipleship and Growth, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry speaks with the Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement. The two discuss My Way of Love and the connection between discipleship and the spiritual practices for Jesus-centered life.

“Answering the survey questions helps the coach to guide you in real spiritual growth based on experience,” said Bishop Curry, “RenewalWorks and [Forward Movement] have been working on this for a while, but My Way of Love is based on that experience and the experience of roughly 2000 years of Christian history, plus a couple more thousand years of Jewish history and the history of other people of faith.” Watch the video here.

Leading Forward -- Conversation with Bishop Michael Curry about My Way of Love
Leading Forward — Conversation with Bishop Michael Curry about My Way of Love

If you’ve already done RenewalWorks for Me, you can still participate in My Way of Love and experience the wisdom that has been infused by this addition of The Way of Love, Practices for Jesus-Centered Life.

Monday Matters (March 1, 2021)

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Can God set a table in the wilderness?

-Psalm 78

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

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.
-Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.
-John Muir

In like a lion…

This date reminds us: March comes in like a lion, out like a lamb. The point is that as we go through this month, we don’t end up in the same place we began.

That is also true of the season of Lent, overlapping this lion-to-lamb month. The expectation of the season is that we will change. When we arrive at Easter, we will be different than when we polished off those pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.  It’s a season of transformation.

The image used for the season of Lent is a journey through the wilderness, specifically the story of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. They began as slaves escaping Egypt. They wandered circuitously for forty years but ended up in a new place. They ended up a new people.

That image of wilderness only has power because we all know something about wilderness. One of my favorite cartoons shows a woman dressed in business attire standing in the great wilderness all alone. Above the drawing this title: A voice crying in the wilderness. The woman is yelling: Get me the hell out of the wilderness! Another cartoon illustrates Moses’ wife stopping the procession of the wandering tribes. She pokes her head in the convenience store and asks for directions. Clearly, her husband needed to know which way to go. Mythology has it that men aren’t good at asking for directions.

All of which is to say that Lent is a season marked by challenge, by testing. It’s why we always start the season reading about Jesus’ temptation in the desert. But it’s also a season of formation and discovery. Though it takes a while, the children of Israel end up in a different place from where they began.

Lent 2021 has its own feel this year. As we began the season, I’ve heard again and again that people feel like they’ve been in Lent for over a year, thank you very much. Since everything shut down last March, they don’t feel quite the same urgency about giving something up. Been there. Done that. The past year has been a wilderness experience, filled with wildest of beasts. A mind-boggling death toll indicates such. If the past year has been a Lent writ large, we may wonder how we will come out different than where we began when we all get back together. Some of that will be hard. Some of that will be a new creation. But we will come to a new place.

So as we move through the month of March, as we move through the 40 days of Lent, as we move through Covid-tide, what will be the things that help us come out as a new creation?The prayer book gives suggestions in the invitation to Lent we read on Ash Wednesday. Think of these suggestions as traveling instructions, leading us to a place we’ve not been before. These suggestions  include the following:

  • Self-examination: A rigorous look in the mirror at where we are, what we have done and what we have left undone.
  • Repentance: It’s about the direction we’re headed, with consideration of whether it’s the direction we want for our lives, the direction we feel called to follow.
  • Prayer: In its varied forms, it’s the recognition that we rely on help beyond ourselves as we give thanks for ways that help has come.
  • Fasting: Traveling light, getting clarity about what we actually need for the journey.
  • Self-denial: Again, figuring out what we can do without.
  • Reading and meditating on God’s word: Hearing what the Spirit is saying to us.

We’re still early in Lent, definitely early in March. Apparently, we are not done with Covid-tide. So there’s time to take these suggestions to heart. Take this moment, maybe especially this week, to invite God to make something new out of your life, perhaps putting these several traveling suggestions to work.

-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: March 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Rev. Doyt Conn, Rector, Church of the Epiphany, Seattle.
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

February 22, 2021

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Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.
-Genesis 12:1-4a
 
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 
-Hebrews 11:8-10

Looking Forward

These days, my daily prayer list has expanded to include prayers for a grandchild expected to arrive later this year (and of course, for her parents). In my prayers for her, I’ve found myself imagining what her life will be like. What will the world be like when she is 30? When she is 60? Will she live to be 120?

This wondering about the next generation was prompted as I read a book by Yuval Noah Harari, entitled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He writes: “If you lived in China in 1018, you might know that by 1050 the Song Empire might collapse, the Khitans might invade from the north, and plagues might kill millions. However, it was clear to you that even in 1050 most people would still work as farmers and weavers, rulers would still rely on humans to staff their armies and bureaucracies, men would still dominate women, life expectancy would still be about 40 and the human body would remain exactly the same. For that reason, in 1018 poor Chinese parents taught their children how to plant rice or weave silk; wealthier parents taught their boys how to read the Confucian classics, write calligraphy or fight on horseback. It was obvious that these skills would be needed in 1050.”

He continues: “Today we have no idea how China or the rest of the world will look in 2050. We don’t know what people will do for a living, we don’t know how armies or bureaucracies will function, and we don’t know what gender relationships will be like. Some people will probably live much longer than today, and the human body itself might undergo an unprecedented revolution thanks to bioengineering and direct brain-to-computer interface. Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050.”

The author speaks about how we educate young people for what’s next. I’m wondering how we prepare them spiritually.

Perspective on the future has always been a matter of seeing through a glass darkly. A year into Covid-tide, I sense that truth more than ever. In the past, looking through foggy lens, I have been sustained and guided by the story of Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. It’s reported in scripture that they answered a call from God, leaving what they knew for something they didn’t know at all. They launched out not knowing where they were going.

They become important teachers in this particular season. We’re making up what it means to deal with COVID. Many of us thought this would be over a year ago. Apparently, we were mistaken. Many people remain uncertain about the ways they will do their jobs in days ahead, if they have jobs at all. The Episcopal Church and other mainline congregations face trends that make it questionable that the church will continue as it has for generations. Covid has only accelerated change and deepened uncertainty about what’s next. That’s true for our society. That’s true for the various communities to which we belong, large and small. That’s true in each of our lives.

Which leads to the adage I heard as a child: I may not know what the future holds but I know who holds the future. I’m pretty sure that the world of my 30 year old granddaughter will be vastly different. I bet she’ll think that much of what we did was quaint at best, perhaps ridiculous. Maybe she’ll regard what we have done as inexplicable, even reprehensible, for any number of reasons.

But as I pray for her, I do believe that she and her generation can still be guided by the one who holds the future, the one whose nature is grace, the one said to be with us till the end of the ages. Call me crazy, but I believe, that as Abraham and Sarah walked by faith, so as her adventure unfolds, she will be held in those loving arms. I pray she will always know that those loving arms surround her.

-Jay Sidebotham

                  



RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for our monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call: March 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Rev. Doyt Conn, Rector, Church of the Epiphany, Seattle.
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (February 15, 2021)

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Deep peace of the running wave to you.
 
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.

Deep peace of the shining stars to you.

Deep peace of the Son of peace to you.

-Iona Community

Peace

I watched too much news last week, specifically video of the attack on the Capitol. It played over and over. I watched over and over. Too many times, I confess. I came to a place where I thought to myself: We need peace. Maybe you feel that way, too. Not just because of the insurrection, but because the pandemic, related economic struggles, partisan and racial divisions around the nation and around the dinner table all conspire to rob us of peace. So what do we know about peace?

What I was hungry for was more than just the absence of conflict, as important as that may be right now. We need more than truce or stand-off. We need to do more than just move on.

I started thinking about the Hebrew word for peace, shalom (שׁלום). I’m told it’s derived from a root denoting wholeness or completeness. It’s not limited to the political or social domain. It’s more than the absence of war and enmity, the absence of quarrel and strife. It’s been described as a moral value, a cosmic principle, a divine attribute. It’s about healing. Three things occurred to me about the healing process. See what you think of them.

First, it is work for each of us. When Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” in the Sermon on the Mount, he described it as something we are called to do, as part of the Jesus movement, as part of the kingdom come. Desmond Tutu, who knew something about the need for peace, wholeness, completeness, said: “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” So let me ask on this Monday morning, what work of peacemaking lies before you? How might that work suggest not only an absence of conflict, but also a move toward wholeness suggested in the meaning of shalom? And let me ask, since we begin a week that includes Ash Wednesday, how have we each stood in the way of peace? How have we participated in unholy disruption, in thought, word or deed? How can we turn from that (i.e., repent)?

Second, with Desmond Tutu’s comment in mind, we admit that it can be hard work. On a Sunday recently, a clergy colleague preached a fine sermon in which he referenced the Epiphany hymn about the call of the disciples, a hymn with text by William Alexander Percy. The first stanzas describe the cost of discipleship, the challenges facing the first disciples. The final stanza describes the hard work of peacemaking. It goes like this: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing the marvelous peace of God.” Have you ever had to exchange the peace on a Sunday with someone who drives you nuts, or someone who has hurt you? At times, it seems to me to be highly inconvenient and even annoying that the peace is embedded in the liturgy. You can’t move forward without it. I don’t always want to do that work, thank you very much. But we’re not given the option of only exchanging the peace with our best buddies. So let me ask on this Monday morning, where is peacemaking hardest for you? In your family? In your church? In your workplace? In your role as national or global citizen?

Finally, on some level, it’s God’s work in which we participate. Among the many fruits of the Spirit listed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3:23ff) he includes peace. When I do my best to console a family who has suffered great loss, I pray that they will be granted the peace that passes understanding. So we join with St. Francis asking to be made an instrument of God’s peace. Not our own, but God’s. We say “The peace of the Lord be with you.” Not our own, but God’s. And we pray for that one thing, the marvelous peace of God. So let me ask on this Monday morning, and as Lent begins, how will you invite God’s grace and power into your peacemaking “work?”

If it all feels overwhelming, or out of reach, if the news of the day makes peace seem unimaginable, take to heart what Jesus said to his best friends on the night before he was tortured and executed. On a night when peace might be hard to come by, he said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

-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: March 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Rev. Doyt Conn, Rector, Church of the Epiphany, Seattle.
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (February 8, 2021)

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For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
-Romans 8:38, 39
 
What happens for us and in us through Christ has two sides to it: in Christ we find God, and we find ourselves in Christ. This is the true God: the one who in Christ takes the way of suffering to the point of death on the cross, so as to reconcile this faithless and torn world to himself; the one who takes on himself death in profoundest forsakenness so as to comfort all the forsaken through his love; the one who becomes poor so as to make the poor rich. In Christ, God himself comes to us and reconciles us with himself. And that is our true self: our sins, which cut us off from the source, the wellspring of life, are forgiven. Our enmity is overcome. God reconciles us, and we are reconciled. God loves us, and we are beloved.
-Jurgen Moltmann From his book, Jesus Christ For Today’s World

What difference does Jesus make?

There are a few ways to pose the question.

I recall a sermon I heard when I was a teenager. The preacher asked the congregation: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? At the time, I heard the question in a shaming way, but I’ve held on to it anyway, as a way of personal spiritual assessment. What is the evidence? Has it all made any difference?

A few years later, when I served as rector, I remember a speaker who framed the question this way: If your church disappeared from your community, would the community notice it was gone?

Last week, one of my spiritual guides, Dwight Zscheile, Professor at Luther Seminary, spoke to a group of us about cultivating communities of hope. He put the question this way: What difference does Jesus make? 

It was a way of asking us to explore our core identity as a church, the community committed to following Jesus. He noted all kinds of reasons people come to church: the joy of social connection, aesthetics like music and art, a vehicle for good works in the community, satisfying performances akin to an interesting lecture or swell concert. All good things. But are they at the core? How are they distinct from other offerings available in our culture?

He said that the core is revealed in the 8th chapter of Romans, where Paul affirms that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, a love that will not let us go, a love that meets the longings and losses we face. The core is transforming grace. When that love is embraced, it answers the question about the difference Jesus makes.

There are various ways to express the same question. You may have other variations in mind. Basically it asks why we do what we do. Why do we commit time, talent and treasure to a spiritual community? What does it have to do with hope? How do we come to see a difference in our lives? How do we participate in making a difference in our world?

I read a recent interview with another one of my spiritual guides, Marian Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington. It’s an interesting time for that job, for sure. The article noted that the good bishop has not been shy in calling for policies that reflect Jesus’ call to care for the least of these.

For her, that has involved listening to Jesus, following Jesus, and not simply depicting the Jesus of our own choosing. In other words, letting Jesus make the difference in us. She said that if your Jesus always agrees with your politics, you’re probably not reading deeply enough into Jesus. At the same time, she does not believe that justice and societal issues are optional for clergy. They are embedded in our faith. And she admits that it doesn’t matter how articulate a bishop is if she doesn’t have behind her strong vibrant congregations who are making a difference in their communities.

Making a difference. In Bishop Budde’s words, it’s about leading with Jesus. That means to me allowing Jesus to make a difference in our lives. That will look different for each of us. Bishop Budde’s context, her vocation leads her on a certain path in these extraordinary times for our church and nation. Yours and mine will reflect our own context, our own vocation.

But wherever and whoever we are, we are called to ask on this Monday morning: What does leading with Jesus look like for us this week? What difference does Jesus make in our lives? What difference does it make in our church? Is there evidence of any transformation? If our church went away, would anyone notice?

Not bad questions to ponder as Lent approaches. Maybe you can prepare for that holy season with thoughts and prayers about these questions, however they are framed for us, however they touch our hearts.

-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: March 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Rev. Doyt Conn, Rector, Church of the Epiphany, Seattle.
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (February 1, 2021)

3-1
We have not loved you with our whole heart…
-from the Confession
 
Purity of heart is to will one thing.
-Soren Kierkegaard
 
Philippians 3:10-14
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved I do not consider that I have made it my own but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 
 
Psalm 139:1-6
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Create in me a clean heart

I’ve been blessed over the years, in service in churches, to follow clergy who provided great foundation for work I felt called to do. Even after they left, they continued to be my teachers. There was always the challenge of big shoes to fill, but always a gift to follow folks who knew what they were doing. At the church where I served in the diocese of Chicago, I followed two folks who went on to be bishops (bless their hearts). Two fine people. Two faithful priests. Two gifted leaders.

George Councell went on to be Bishop of New Jersey. He left a great legacy, including this wonderful line applied when he was raising money for a new neighboring Hispanic community. He told the congregation; “The good news is we have the money. The bad news is, it’s still in your pockets.” He knew the tensions we all live with, God and mammon tugging at us. I’ve used that line shamelessly. Feel free to borrow it if you need it.

Alan Gates followed George, and went on to become Bishop of Massachusetts. He left this bit of teaching, passed on by many in the congregation. He repeatedly told groups: “I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” I’ve used that shamelessly as well, not only in official capacity but in reflection on my own spiritual journey.

I thought of mixed motive when I recently read Psalm 51, which we’ll hear in a couple weeks as part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The verse that struck me and prompted me to remember Alan Gates’ line comes from that psalm: Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.

That psalm is by tradition attributed to King David, simultaneously faithful king and sketchy creep. He’s not alone in scripture in that complex portrait. Abraham and Sarah, parents of faith, had shining moments of faithfulness but also engaged in duplicitous motives less than pure. St. Paul wrote letters speaking of his own embrace of grace. But if you read between the lines, it’s hard not to get the impression that he thought he was something kind of special. Jesus spoke to Pharisees and said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” For me, one of the most stirring biblical examples of this dynamic is the nameless man described in the gospels (see Mark 9) whose son is in need of Jesus’ healing power. Jesus asks if the man believes. The man responds: “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” Ever feel like that?

In the history of the church, Augustine (famous for his ambivalent prayer: Give me chastity but not yet.) spoke of the church as corpus per mixtum. Wheat and weeds living side by side. That may be true of the church. That may be true of our hearts. Maybe that’s what Martin Luther had in mind when he said that we are saints and sinners at the same time. You get the picture. So what do we do about it?

Contending with mixed motives, we begin by admitting they are there, as if we could pretend otherwise.

Then we decide that purity of heart is a worthwhile objective. It’s entirely possible we are happy to live with the ambivalence. My own heart is a smorgasbord of motives, love and resentment and retribution and people-pleasing and assorted visions of success.

Recognizing all that, a movement toward purity of heart (a work in progress) is captured in the call to love God with all of our being and to love neighbor as self. While there’s not a day in my life that I do that fully, my prayer is that I can move in the direction, with aspiration for love as my sole guide.

So we ask for a clean heart. We can’t do this on our own. A movement toward purity of heart is something God does in us. If it ever happens, it will indeed be a miracle, a grace. If it ever happens, maybe that will be heaven. Maybe this week, you can take a step in that direction.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

-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.
 
Next call: February 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Dr. Dwight Zscheile, professor at Luther Seminary
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Monday Matters (January 25, 2021)

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Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-he is Lord of all.
-Acts 10:34-36  (St. Peter’s vision of unity)
 
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 

-Galatians 3:26-28 (St. Paul’s vision of unity)

 
A prayer for the Unity of the Church (p. 818, Book of Common Prayer)
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Unity

Sometimes, it’s crystal clear that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church calendar. Today, January 25, we observe the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. It concludes a week that began on January 18 with the feast of the Confession of St. Peter, which tells about the time when Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah. The week between these two stories, these two celebrations is called a week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In case you haven’t noticed, unity seems to be on our minds these days, not that we necessarily know how to get it.

Let’s not miss the fact that these two characters, Peter and Paul, bracket this week. They had things in common. Both were capable leaders, innovators, spiritual entrepreneurs. Both had pretty strong ego strength. Both knew failure. Peter denied Jesus. Paul persecuted members of the Jesus movement. The New Testament indicates that they had run-ins. (Church fights are nothing new.) Paul publicly accused Peter of hypocrisy. A letter attributed to Peter notes that some of Paul’s letters were hard to understand. The two guys agreed to disagree, Peter having a mission to those in the Jewish community, Paul directing attention to Gentiles.

With all that, these two pillars of the early church illustrate something about unity. Their unity was not uniformity, not even agreement. I’m not sure they even liked each other that much. But with the help of these two characters, Peter without unexpressed thought and Paul without editor, we can learn something about what unity means, not only in our church, but in our families and workplaces, in our nation and world. According to them (see verses above) unity is about welcome and inclusion, about the wideness of God’s mercy which we hopefully reflect in our lives. Hopefully.

I suspect we all have indelible impressions of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Not the epiphany I was looking for. Particularly unsettling to me were the number of people in that crowd who indicated that what they were doing had something to do with Jesus. If that’s what the Jesus movement is about, count me out.

In response, I felt an urgent need to seek another understanding of what it means to be a Jesus follower. I picked up a book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. He talks about how those who feel disenfranchised (people on all sides of the political spectrum these days) easily resort to fear, deception and hate. We’ve seen all of those in our politics. Thurman says that hate emerges in a situation in which there is “contact without fellowship. “

The ways that lack of fellowship gets expressed need not be as egregious as attacking our capitol, setting up a noose for the Vice President in Jesus’ name. We might ask, for instance: Where does road rage come from? When I’m driving (without my collar on) I can declare someone to be a total idiot, or worse, simply because they drive too slow or hog the left lane or fail to use a signal. I would never do that if I were in the passenger seat with them. Social media allows people to say things they would not otherwise say, not that I would ever participate in such. We retreat into silos of class, race, theology, liturgy, politics, taste which allows us to other-ize folks and feel somehow more secure, more in touch with our “inheritance.” Contact without fellowship.

So a week of prayer for Christian unity is timely, a reminder, a recognition of the importance of relationship, not only with God but with each other. It calls us to the wideness of God’s mercy. Where are the growth edges for you in this? Maybe a lack of fellowship is hampering, hindering relationships in your household, in your neighborhood, in your church. Maybe it’s broader than that. Howard Thurman notes that in the course of our lives, our response can be fear, deception or hate. But he suggests an alternative, the way of Jesus, the way of love, which is the focus of his last chapter in his book. It is God’s work, but it begins in each one of our hearts.

So this week, ask God to create in you (and me while you’re at it) a new heart. If it helps, use the prayer for unity printed above. Then reach across the aisle, whatever that looks like in your life.

-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: February 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Dr. Dwight Zscheile, professor at Luther Seminary
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (January 18, 2021)

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On Friday night, Jan. 27, 1956. Martin Luther King slumped home, another long strategy session under his belt. He found Coretta asleep. He paced and knocked about, his nerves still on edge. Presently the phone rang, a sneering voice on the other end: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” King’s fear surged; he hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table. Here was the prelude to King’s most profound spiritual experience, described in his book, Stride Toward Freedom.
 
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
 
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
 
Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
-as described by John Dear in the National Catholic Reporter January 7, 2006

Holy Sense

Recently, the church calendar introduced me to the life and witness of Harriet Bedell. (Apparently, I skipped the class that taught about her.) After studying at the New York Training School for Deaconesses, she became a missionary-teacher among the Cheyenne in Oklahoma. In 1916, she was sent to Alaska, ending up serving as a teacher and nurse at St. John’s in the Wilderness at Allakaket, 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle, sometimes traveling by dogsled to remote villages. In 1932, hearing about the plight of the Seminoles in Florida, Bedell used her own money to reopen a mission among the Mikasuki Indians. She worked to revive their traditional crafts. The arts and crafts store they established greatly bolstered the local economy. Bedell continued her ministry of health care, education, and economic empowerment until 1960 when Hurricane Donna wiped out her mission.

That’s what caught my attention. Writing from coastal North Carolina, I occasionally hear folks refer to hurricanes as acts of God. I dislike the term. I thought about this woman, about the devoted labor that went into her decades of ministry, wiped out in a day by a storm. How did she keep going? How does one make holy sense of such a thing?

Another story: A family friend was a theology student, proficient in languages, including biblical Greek. A few decades ago, after studies were completed, she answered a call to go to the Sudan. She spent 13 years working there in a remote village with a group of people that had never had access to the Christian scriptures. She learned their language. Painstakingly over those 13 years, she translated all of the New Testament. She was forced to flee in a time of political upheaval. All her translation work was destroyed. No flash drive. No cloud. Gone. How does one make holy sense of that?

Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist, spent time in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, reporting on her work. After wrapping his mind about what the work entailed, he wondered how she could continue. The depth of poverty in Calcutta was overwhelming. Her efforts, noble as they were, seemed insignificant. Muggeridge asked: How do you keep going? How could one make holy sense out of what she was doing?

Mother Teresa answered: God calls me to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

On this day when we remember Martin Luther King, we might ask how he kept going. How easy it would have been for him to stay in the pulpit in his prominent church, remaining at home with family. It might seem that all his work was swept away in a second on the balcony of that Memphis hotel. How do we make holy sense of that? How did he keep going? Maybe there’s an answer in the story excerpt above.

These days, we face a mountain of coincident crises: record pandemic deaths, economic challenge, scandalous inequality, racial divide centuries old, political upheaval, political and religious leadership fails, democratic values under attack. On top of that, in each of our own lives, we know that suffering is the promise life always keeps. A friend speaks of personal tsunamis. How do we keep going? How do we make holy sense?

Perhaps this morning, on this particular holiday, in this new year, we can focus on what it means in our own lives to simply be faithful, even if it doesn’t mean being successful. Where is that a challenge? Where might there be an opportunity? Can we faithfully remember that God is with us in that experience?

Maybe that can help us make some holy sense of crazy days.

                                                             -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: February 3rd, 7pm ET
Guest: Dr. Dwight Zscheile, professor at Luther Seminary
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (January 11, 2021)

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Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt.
-Psalm 123.4
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way,  over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret-it leads only to evil.
-Psalm 137:1-8
 
During the past ten years, Mississippi as a society reached a condition which can only be described, in an analogous but exact sense of the word, as insane.
-Walker Percy in 1965

Guidance from another time

From family and friends, I received a bounty of books this Christmas. I’m eager to read them all, now stacked on my bedside table, backed up like planes circling LaGuardia for a landing. As I write, I’m halfway through Jon Meacham’s book entitled His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.  

This weekend, after watching too much news about the events in Washington, I retired to continue reading Meacham’s book. Dog-eared page led me to the chapter which begins by recounting the bombing of the church in Birmingham in the midst of the civil rights movement. Four young girls died after hearing a Sunday School lesson on this subject: The Love That Forgives. As I read this account of that event which is said to have altered the course of our history, I did wonder how much had actually changed. Last week’s image of the confederate flag marched through the capitol cannot be unseen. A gallows with a noose was set up outside the Capitol. Too many searing images.

Those images and what they reveal about who we are make it hard for me to know what to say this Monday morning. So I’ll turn it over to Mr. Lewis and Dr. King to learn from the way they responded to the desecration of that holy place in Birmingham. The circumstances differ, but I sense there are lessons for us as we navigate the desecration of another kind of holy place, the U.S. Capitol. I believe that Mr. Lewis and Dr. King provide guidance, as they fought for justice and peace, refusing to back down to evil, daring greatly, getting in good trouble, risking everything, all the while guided by principles of nonviolence, by the Sermon on the Mount, by prayer to the God of the exodus, by the spirit of Jesus, by the way of love.

Mr. Meacham reports that the bombing gave the debate over nonviolence new resonance. There were questions of whether the guiding principles of non-violence could do any good. They were fighting with love and the haters were using dynamite. Mr. Lewis recalled: That was always a question during the movement. After the church bombing, after so many violent episodes, people would say, “How can nonviolence defeat violence? The Klansmen don’t go to funerals. We’re the ones who go to funerals. But we couldn’t give up. Violence was not an option for us- not if we wanted to prevail, not if we wanted the Beloved Community.”

Dr. King preached at the funeral for three of the four girls. He said: “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city…And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of human personality.”

I don’t know how these men found their grace and courage. I don’t know how they found strength to hold onto faith. I’m not sure how they kept hope alive. I’m pretty sure I would have folded or fled. But they kept on. They suffered for it. We are better for it. They speak to us from one crazy decade to another, calling us to find a way to move towards beloved community.

Is there something, even a small thing, you can do this week to move toward that place? If so, just do it. If you can’t think of anything, pray for God’s spirit to show you a way, to show you the way. And echo the prayer of the psalmist: Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.

                                                             -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:  This Wednesday, 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