Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Good Friday Prayer

April 17th, 2014 · Sharp Prayers

It is Friday, Holy One, and we stand at the foot of the cross.
Where shall we cast our eyes?
We look down. We glance to the side.
We stare inward. We look up… at him.
Mantegna CrucifixionMy God, my God, what does this mean?
How is this sacred?
How can this save?
How is this love?
This is a hard place to stand.
We want to run away.
Yet you, gracious God, bid us stay.
So we ask for courage, patience and calm.
Help us to watch and listen and pray.
It is Friday, and we stand at the foot of the cross.
Hold on to us here.
Do not let us go.
This we pray in the precious name of Jesus, our suffering Lord. Amen.


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Ticket to Ride

April 10th, 2014 · Faith and the City

When Jesus traveled around the ancient world, he did so on foot. He walked from village to village, from plateau to lakeside, from Galilee to Jerusalem.

In all of his travels, Jesus walked.

Right up, until Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, the gospels tell us, Jesus rode. What led Jesus to cash in his miles and upgrade for this leg of his trip?

Maybe he wanted to make a grand entrance. Maybe he finally embraced the hopes of the crowds. Maybe he intended to enter the city like a king—like a Messiah—like the old prophet Zechariah had promised:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.    (Zechariah 9:9)

Palm SundayRejoice. Shout aloud. Jesus is riding into Jerusalem, although his “ride” isn’t much of an upgrade over walking. His steed is a donkey!? Conquering heroes don’t ride donkeys. Kings don’t ride donkeys—not real ones, not powerful ones who can make a difference. Is this a joke? This dude has no chance at leading a rebellion against Rome. Slowly, the people stop stripping psalms from nearby trees and start asking each other questions: “What kind of Messiah is this?”

According to Matthew, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

This Sunday we will join the citizens of ancient Jerusalem. We will wave greenery in the air. We will sing triumphant songs. We will start the journey of Holy Week by studying the donkey and his rider.

We will cry out from the simultaneously hopeful and skeptical places inside of us: “Who is this?”

See you in worship,


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In the Presence of My Frenemies

April 3rd, 2014 · Faith and the City

As the parent of a teenager, I enjoy eavesdropping on the ever-fresh vocabulary of high school students. One of the most evocative and fascinating terms that my daughter uses is frenemy.

Frenemy, of course, is a mash-up of friend and enemy. It describes a person who is a helpful companion some of the time and a rival at others. It can also refer to someone who pretends to be a friend, but is actually an enemy: the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Spite NYTIMESAll in all, the word frenemy demonstrates that today’s teens are pretty savvy when it comes to the fickle nature of human relationships. The friend who talks you through a bad experience on Monday can become the enemy gossiping about your troubles on Tuesday. The person privately encouraging you to seek a promotion at work can undercut you in chasing the same promotion. That’s a frenemy.

In my day, the high school terminology about relationships included the quaint “going steady.” It was an optimistic thing (and a big commitment!) to assert that you were “going steady” with someone. To openly refer to people as frenemies sounds more jaded, but it is also more realistic. Our relationships with other people are not always, or even mostly, “steady.” They can fluctuate from warm to cold, from supportive to combative.

Life teaches us that our closest friends — people we have leaned on in times of personal struggle — are also those capable of wounding us most deeply.

Somebody once asked me, “Why, in Psalm 23, does the psalmist say, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies? Who wants to sit at a table with their enemies?” I replied that I thought this famous verse was a taunt: “I am having a feast, and my enemies can only look at me enjoying myself and lick their lips.”

Recently, though, I have been considering another interpretation. I have begun to think that the psalmist was acknowledging something that contemporary teens know quite well: Every day we study with, play sports with, work alongside and sit at table with frenemies.

In a famous sermon, “You are Accepted,” theologian Paul Tillich described the imperfect dynamics underlying even the strongest friendships. He wrote, “There is something in the misfortune of our best friends which does not displease us. Who amongst us is dishonest enough to deny that this is true?” Ouch.

If Tillich is right, sin factors in all of our relationships. All of them. Even those we value most highly. Hearing this, we may want to protest: Surely we don’t feel the same way about our next-door neighbors as we do about the Taliban? There are enemies, and then there are enemies. Right?

This Sunday we will be wrestling with these very questions. Join us as we conclude our Lenten journey through the Sermon on the Mount by considering Jesus’ teachings on enemies and frenemies.

See you in worship,


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A Prayer for Help and Healing

March 30th, 2014 · Sharp Prayers

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

Holy God, Blessed Comforter,
we bow our heads before you.
We yearn to push worries aside
to focus on you, to talk with you,
but it is difficult.
So difficult.
We are distracted, skeptical and afraid.
Anxious thoughts lurk in our heads like prowlers.
As soon as things go quiet,
they hijack our imagination.
They take over…
gobbling up our attention, our energy, our confidence.
So, basically, God…
We need your help…
Help managing
our responsibilities,
our expectations,
and our burdens.
We need your help…
Help figuring out
what to do,
how to spend our days,
where to stand and what to stand for.
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
We pray for wisdom, Precious Lord.
Gift us with good judgment
so that we know
what to let go of
and what to cling to
in this life.
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
We pray for compassion, Precious Lord.
Gift us with soft hearts
as we hike these corridors of concrete and steel.
Give us strength to walk the second mile
and to care for those in need.
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
We pray for healing, Precious Lord.
Gift us and our loved ones
with clear and hopeful minds,
and with bodies that work.
Free us from the demons of addiction.
Pry the talons of hate from our souls.
Hold onto us as we grieve.
Shower us with grace.
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
Hear our prayers, O God,
and be present to us this day
and throughout the coming week.
This we ask… this we pray
using the words you taught us,
“Our Father…” 

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Seekers and Dwellers

March 13th, 2014 · Faith and the City

One of the most helpful books regarding religious change in North America is Robert Wuthnow’s After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.

In this very readable study, Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University, sees a pattern playing out in American spirituality over the last half century. 
He describes this pattern through the ingenious use of one of the central stories in the Old Testament: the Exodus.

In studying the Exodus, Wuthnow asks: “How would we describe the spirituality of the Hebrew people after they left oppression and slavery in Egypt?”

Then he asks a series of smaller questions:

Who were their clergy? Their main clergyperson was a prophet — Moses. He was in charge of leading the people through a harsh land: keeping the people fed, safe from marauders and focused on God’s plan for their lives.

Where did they worship? They worshipped in a tent — a temporary structure that could be raised and lowered each day.

Pillar of Fire and CloudWhat did God look like? God was on the move. God was a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the people through the wilderness.

What concerns did they bring to God? They were worried about survival. Would they have enough food and water to make it from day to day? Was the life they were headed toward better than the life they had left behind?

Eventually, the Hebrew people do leave the wilderness and settle “the land of milk and honey.” As they set up homes, farms and villages in the new land, their spirituality changes. So, Wuthnow asks the same questions again:

Who were their clergy? Their clergy were priests — individuals skilled in administration and ordering communal life.

Where did they worship? They worshipped in temples — permanent stone structures suitable for a settled people.

TempleWhat did God look like? God was thought to reside, to touch the earth, in the Holy of Holies, a special place inside the temple.

What concerns did they bring to God? They were worried about invading armies, and they were concerned with establishing laws that would make communal living both possible and faithful.

According to Wuthnow, American spirituality moves back and forth like a pendulum between these two types of spirituality. He calls the spirituality of the Hebrew people in the wilderness “a spirituality of seeking.” He calls the spirituality of the Hebrew people who have settled the land “a spirituality of dwelling.”

Which spirituality seems more like you? Are you a seeker? Or a dweller?

I look forward to hearing your responses.

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Give Lent a Try

March 4th, 2014 · Faith and the City


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Write It Down

March 1st, 2014 · Faith and the City

This Sunday is Confirmation Sunday. At the 11 am worship service, eight young people will join the church.

Over the last several months, our Confirmands have taken an intensive course on Christianity. They have studied the Bible together. They have shared their personal stories. They have served at the Bowery Mission.

Each of them has also written a statement of faith.

believeI love that we ask them to do this. I love that they are encouraged to write down what they really believe. I love that their thoughts about God are flavored by the context in which they live.

Bless them. It is radical thing — a counter cultural thing — for a junior high student in New York City (or anywhere, really!) to think about and talk about her faith.

Over the years, I fully expect that our Confirmands will change their minds about some of the things they have written down on the crumpled papers stuffed in their pockets. This is healthy. They are just being Presbyterian.

Presbyterians are forever writing creeds — statements of what we believe.

We write new creeds because we are convinced that God never stops reaching out to embrace the world.

Of course, the world God loves is constantly changing. (Who knew that this week we would be talking about the Ukraine?) All this change requires that we discern, ever afresh, who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.

With that in mind, I have a challenge for you. Write down what you believe about who God is and what God wants you to do with your life. You don’t have to show it to anyone, but you do have to be honest. Brutally honest.

Desk-drawer-and-accessoriesThen stick your statement of faith in a drawer. Pull it out a year from now, and see if you believe the same things. It is a great discipline, and a pretty revealing one, too.

In retrospect, our statements of faith reveal the way in which our beliefs grow and change and sometimes fade away. These statements also show, invariably, what we are worried about, what we are hoping for, and what things are constants (rock solid) through good and bad times.

They can show, if we look closely, the footprints of God in our lives. And that’s fitting, because the Beatitude we are studying this Sunday is: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

See you in worship,


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The Contemplative Christ

February 6th, 2014 · Faith and the City

I am drawn to contemplative people. They are human fish tanks. In the presence of reflective friends, I move slower, feel calmer and become more mindful of what is going on around me.

Just as the human heart needs aerobic exercise, a soul needs contemplation to stay healthy. It needs more than I am able to provide. So, over the years, I have sought out “trainers” — wise souls who guide me in engaging the world.

pilgrim-paperbackOne of my favorite contemplatives is Annie Dillard. After four seasons watching the flora and fauna bloom, flutter and expire on a small tributary of the Roanoke River known as Tinker Creek, Dillard wrote:

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.

Dillard is part of a profound American tradition that began with Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s contemplative focus was, of course, Walden Pond:

ThoreauI went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

That, in a nutshell, is the treasure that all contemplatives seek: a way to live that is authentic, courageous and true.

So, yes, Jesus is a contemplative, too. Sometimes his subject for reflection is nature (“Consider the lilies…”). More often it is other people. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus hikes up a mountain, sits his disciples down on a ridge overlooking the villages below, and starts talking about the people who dwell there:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

We might ask what benefit can come from contemplating the “poor in spirit.” Jesus, couldn’t you come up with a more uplifting subject? Of course, the same could be said for studying a water bug at Tinker Creek or a woodchuck at Walden Pond.

“Sit still for a moment,” counsel the contemplatives. “If you look a little longer, a little deeper, you just might find yourself blessed.”

This week our sermon series turns to the Beatitudes!

See you in worship,


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Somebody’s Fool

January 30th, 2014 · Faith and the City

“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.”
–1 Corinthians 1:25

In 2009, the Arts and Our Faith Committee brought an exhibit of John August Swanson’s richly colored serigraphs to FAPC. It was a great way to inaugurate our gallery. Over the past twenty years, John has led a renaissance in biblical folk art in this country. His prints tell stories. They speak parables with layers of vibrant ink.

This week, John’s marvelous art returns to our church.

The JesterOne of the pieces that will appear at FAPC for the first time is Jester. You may recognize it. With John’s permission, Jester is the image we are using to promote FAPC’s Winter/Lent Sermon Series: “A Faith that Blesses.” It will hang in our gallery for the next two months.

I like this image, largely because I think being a Christian is like being a jester. A court jester is a fool—a person whose job is to break the tension, to be the comic relief, and at the same time, to tell the truth. In fact, the court jester was sometimes the only figure capable of telling the truth to a powerful king or queen without being killed.

English painter, Cecil Collins once wrote, “The Fool is innocent, spontaneous and joyful, even Christ-like. As a result he may be ridiculed by conventional society, although he actually has the sight which they have lost.” St Francis of Assisi was known as “God’s Fool.” It’s not an insult. Ok, it is; but it is also an honorable title with biblical roots!

In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul observed that the ancient Greeks thought the early Christians were fools because of their beliefs. He could have written the same thing about contemporary New York City. Maybe we should lean into the description too.

We are called to be fools for Christ. We are jesters seeking to open windows of truth; clowns who long to bring light to dark places; bright-eyed hope-mongers who are forever trying to bless the world.

Join us this Sunday as we begin an exploration of Christ’s Beatitudes and as we talk about “A Faith that Blesses!” Bring a friend, and don’t forget to stop by the gallery on the way in to check out Jester.

If it feels like you are looking in a mirror… good!

See you in worship,


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Is Same Sex Marriage, Christian Marriage?

January 23rd, 2014 · Faith and the City

“Every generation of Christians is obligated to wrestle with theological controversy.”  –Rowan Greer

Professor Greer illustrated this truth by taking his students on a semester-long tour of the Church’s fiercest and most important fights.

Along the way, he constantly reminded us that Church History is the record of Christian communities and individuals at conflict with the world, and Christian communities and individuals at conflict with each other.

The first major Christian controversy can be found in the New Testament. Right off the bat, Peter and Paul engaged in a dispute that threatened to divide the early Church. The apostles’ argument revolved around this question: “Who can be saved? Is Jesus’ message only for Jews (Peter’s position) or is it for all people (Paul’s position)?”

schismLater, the early Church argued about: the divinity of Jesus, when to celebrate Easter, what sort the bread should be used in communion, and the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.

In fact, our argument about the Trinity resulted in the biggest church split of all time—The East-West Schism of 1054. This was one nasty church fight, and, in the year 1000, every culture, every village around the Mediterranean was talking about it. According to Greer, if you went to draw water at the village well, you would inevitably find yourself in a heated argument about the nature of the Trinity.

Really? People were that passionate about the Trinity? If I walked into Central Park right now, and tried—really tried—to engage passers-by in a debate over the nature of the Triune God, not only would I fail to connect, but you would likely see me on the six o’clock news in cuffs!

Times change. What can get one generation of Christians foaming at the mouth can become a (yawn!) non-issue for the next. You might think this fact would bring an end to hot button debates, but it doesn’t. That’s ok. Our most passionate debates keep us wrestling with what matters. These controversies are our way of asking—again and again—a set of basic but crucial questions:

  • How do we read the Bible?
  • How do we know God’s will?
  • Who is Jesus and what does it mean to follow him?
  • What kind of ethical behavior does God require of us?
  • What holds Christian community together?

For the past 40 years, Christians in North America have been asking these five questions in relation to human sexuality. In particular, Presbyterians are asking these questions as they discuss an especially current question, “Is Same Sex Marriage, Christian Marriage?”

I plan on addressing this question in my sermon this Sunday. Then, following the 11:00 AM worship service, all of our clergy will participate in a panel discussion on this topic. I invite you to come and to bring a friend.

Bring a friend this Sunday? Are you serious, preacher?

Absolutely! I trust this community. I have every confidence that we (clergy, congregation and guests) will be able to engage this conversation in a way that considers the issue and that models a faith shaped by and focused on Jesus. I have every confidence that we will be able to hold onto each other with grace and love as we talk about these important matters.

See you in worship,


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