Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Las Vegas

October 4th, 2017 · Sharp Prayers

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

–Harry Emerson Fosdick

 

Dear Friends in Christ:

What are we to do?

All this week, I have glanced at the news and then turned away. I heard a segment of an audio recording, a staccato burst–nine bullets a second–before I lunged and switched off the radio. I have avoided watching the police videos. I have tried not to stare at this horrific eclipse.

I haven’t wanted to look.

At the same time, like most people, I have been searching for answers: “How many people? How many guns? Who is this guy? Why? Why did he do it?” The details coming from Las Vegas are so awful. There must be some key fact that will unlock our understanding. There must be some snippet of backstory that will make sense of all this.

Nothing will make sense of this.

I get angry. Why are we going down this path again? We know the playbook. Politicians will offer “thoughts and prayers.” Flowers will be strewn along fences. Candles will be lit. Editorials will be written. Sermons will be preached. And then…

I start to go numb. I doubt anything will change. This is not the last time we will wake to this story. This is merely the latest in an unstoppable string of blood-splattered encounters. Tortured souls will keep acquiring assault weapons and will keep turning them on innocents. They will.

I read a little. I read about the heroes–the nurses and doctors who (like a M.A.S.H. unit) worked like frenzied angels to keep as many people breathing as was humanly possible.

I read a little more. I read about the victims. This is slow-going… heart-shredding. I sample one or two stories at a time. A mother, a new husband, a dog-owner, a hair-dresser, a county clerk, a salmon-fisherman, a soldier. The bios of these country-music lovers devastate me. The tributes offered by their family members unspool me.

I pray. I weep for the dead. I ask God to do the impossible–to do what only God can do.

Precious Lord, hold these people. Hold us all. Walk alongside us through this terrible valley. Steady our steps. Give us hope. Pour your unfathomable peace over our heads like a balm. Save us all from this madness.

I read Micah 6. “What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” I notice that Micah asks the faithful “to do justice.” He doesn’t tell us to demand justice from others. He says, “Do justice.”

I get the message. Back to work. There is justice to be done.

There is kindness to be loved.

See you in worship,

 

SBJ

 

P.S. Our preacher this Sunday is FAPC’s beloved friend, Dr. Nora Tubbs Tisdale of Yale Divinity School. Nora will continue our journey through the Book of Revelation by preaching on Revelation, Chapter 6-The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

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Why We Do What We Do

September 22nd, 2017 · Faith and the City

Over the past two days, our Jewish brothers and sisters have been celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the arrival of a New Year. In addition to reading Scriptural texts that recall the goodness of creation and offering prayers for God’s blessing in the year to come, Rosh Hashanah is the occasion when the shofar (a ram’s horn) is sounded during worship services.

My friend Rabbi Peter Rubenstein has a wonderful short video that explains the meaning of theshofar and the rich symbolism it contains.

 

This video reminds me that we Christians must share the history of our rituals, too. We must explain, in creative and relevant ways, the meaning of our most basic religious practices, the things that we do over and over again in worship, to our children, to our guests and to each other.

You may remember a few years ago when a producer from the reality television show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” called to see if we would permit the Kardashian sisters to come to worship and be filmed lighting a candle. We asked the woman on the phone: “Why do they want to light a candle?” The producer responded, “It doesn’t matter.” That’s when we graciously ended the conversation.

Because it DOES matter! It matters a lot.

Human beings crave ritual. We need ritual to mark our passage through life and to focus our attention on the sacred aspects of all that we do.

Increasingly, though, people bypass religious communities to craft their own ceremonies. These homemade rituals may look good. Dim lights. Sober expressions. Faces aglow. But without a story, without a tradition, lighting a candle is an empty act. It has no hope of orienting a person toward the good, the sacred… toward God. Without the grounding of a community or a tradition, rituals quickly become “all about me.”

One of the most common rituals we celebrate at FAPC is the singing of the Doxology. It is a powerful moment in the service when we rise to our feet (as we are able) to sing praise to God. This Sunday, we are going to talk about the roots of singing the doxology.

We are going to consider why, in a world beset by earthquakes and hurricanes and countless other catastrophes, we ought to have praise on our lips. Hint #1: It is not “all about me.” Hint #2: It has something to do with the shofar! Let’s talk about how the Doxology focuses us, in the face of immense and troubling calamities, on the work we have to do.

See you in worship,
SBJ
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Charlottesville

August 12th, 2017 · Sharp Prayers

From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.
My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
James 3:10

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. It’s the first rhyme a child learns on the playground. It is a feisty, singsong response to an insult.

It is also a big, fat lie.

Words hurt. Words demean, threaten and abuse. Words paint twisted pictures of our sisters and brothers. Words fan the flames of anger. Words condone violence.

When sticks and stones get picked up, it is usually because of words.

My friends, I lament the images emerging from Charlottesville, Virginia. I know you do, too. I condemn the vile words used by white nationalists who marched there this weekend. I know you do, too.

The rhetoric of this movement is utterly toxic. It scapegoats the same people fascists always seem to target: Jews and Catholics, African Americans and Latinos, LGBT persons and women. The leaders of this movement cast an ugly vision for our country. The words they use are built on fear, anger and pain.

This movement is wrong. It is sinful. It is evil. It must be resisted by people of faith.

How should we resist? I suggest we start by cleaning up our language. We, the people of this proud country, have a diminished appreciation for the harmful and hurtful effects of our words.

This problem starts at the highest level of national politics and descends all the way to junior high school. Too often our words — important words about vital things — are tossed around with little care for either their truthfulness or their power. We are all paying the price for such brutish communication. Our societal conversation has devolved, it has sunk, into a mean-spirited debate in which no one can agree on the facts, and everyone seems eager to play the victim.

There is an alternative. It is rooted in our faith. Now, more than ever, we need words tempered by prayer, spoken in song, and relentlessly doused with love.

We need prayer because our hearts need to change. We need to understand and not dismiss the pain and anger in our brothers and sisters. This can only come through hearts opened to the grace of God through prayer. Do not discount time spent with your head bowed. Prayer really can move mountains. Sometimes the mountain is us!

We need to sing because this is how people of faith cast a common vision. When we sing the psalms and hymns of our faith, we speak God’s majestic vision, a vision that is welcoming and hopeful and beautiful. We need this vision right now.

We need to love because this is the most basic demand Jesus makes of those who would follow him. Without love, we are nothing. Yes, in turbulent times like this, love is challenging. It is also in short supply. Perhaps that is why it is Christ’s supreme commandment.

I will be praying for all of you in the days ahead. I will be singing while you are singing this morning. And my heart is full of love for you. I am confident you will make a difference through your caring actions and your mighty words in the days to come.

Bless you and see you soon,

SBJ

 

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Summer Reading

June 9th, 2017 · Faith and the City

Summer is upon us.

With the promise of hot days, plastic tumblers of iced tea and (I hope) a slower pace comes one of the great pleasures in life: summer reading. This year, the stack I am taking with me on study leave includes serious, prepare-for-the-fall-sermon-series books, but also some fun stuff.

Here is a sampling of the titles in my hammock-ready stack:

Brian K. Blount, Can I Get a Witness?: Reading Revelation through African American Culture (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005)

Spoiler alert: I have always wanted to preach a sermon series on the last and (some say) scariest book in the Bible: Revelation. This fall — finally — we are going to saddle up and explore the apocalypse. Brian Blount is a marvelous New Testament scholar with an expertise in Revelation. I covet his wisdom for this journey.

Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders (Harper, 2017)

This mystery novel is getting all the raves. The New York Times says, “This fiendishly brilliant, riveting thriller weaves a classic whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie.” I’m in!

 

C. S. Lewis, The Space Trilogy, originally published 1938-1945

I have read the Narnia books so many times. In recent months, though, I have felt it might be time to return to the science fiction novels. Lewis pitched these books to a more mature audience. His protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is trying to figure out why Earth is such a mess. Seems fitting!

If you have a book to recommend, I still have room on the stack. Let me know! Like introducing someone to a new friend, there are few things better than the suggestion of a good read.

See you in worship,

SBJ

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Choose Your Own Adventure

May 4th, 2017 · Faith and the City

In the late ’70s, my mother gave me a book entitled The Cave of Time. Turning to the first page, I found something unique and thrilling. The book placed readers at the center of the story. YOU, it explained, are exploring Snake Canyon. YOU discover the mysterious, dimly lit Cave of Time.

Gradually you can make out two passageways. One curves downward to the right; the other leads upward to the left. It occurs to you that the one leading down may go into the past and the one leading up may go to the future. Which way will you choose?

If you take the left branch, turn to page 20. If you take the right branch, turn to page 61. If you walk back outside the cave, turn to page 21.

Take the right hand fork and you could end up sitting on a train talking with Abraham Lincoln. Take the left hand fork and you might find yourself captive on an alien spaceship.

The Cave of Time was the first in the very popular series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Their attraction was clear: In these books, readers got to make decisions that affected the story. Your choices took you to far off lands, and led to encounters with fascinating people and creatures.

Eventually, after turning pages back and forth, your adventure concluded with the ominous words,The End. Many (OK, most) of the book’s conclusions were grim. I was variously disintegrated by a ray gun, bitten by a poisonous viper, and eaten by monkeys.The End.

Of course, it wasn’t really over. I would go back, make different decisions, turn to different pages, find more adventure and keep seeking the best possible outcome before coming to The End.

The books were exciting. They also taught me something about the consequences of my choices.

Choices matter. Although, honestly, sometimes I felt like I had made a good choice and still ended up getting eaten by monkeys. This, too, was an important life lesson.

Yet, in one critical way (and I’m not talking about ray guns), these books did not mirror life. In life, when we finally do get to The End, we don’t have the option of turning back the pages and re-making our choices.

Our story is our story. Still, there’s more to be said.

As people of faith we confess that our story (our choices, our adventure) is wrapped up in God’s story. This week we are going to explore what this means. On Sunday you will be asked to consider: What sort of story are you in? What role are you playing in this story? And who is best situated to tell your story?

I hope to see YOU there!

–SBJ

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Sooner or Later… Church!

April 27th, 2017 · Faith and the City

Church is the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity. But church is difficult.
Sooner or later, though, if we are serious about growing up in Christ,
we have to deal with church. I say sooner.
Eugene Peterson

A clergy friend of mine once said, “God sure chose a crazy, leaky vessel to help save save the world!” He was talking about the church.

Almost everyone, inside and outside the institution, can list aspects of church that are (or have been) messed up.

From a historical standpoint, we can point to shameful moments when elements of the church came down on the wrong side of an important issue. I once taught at a Presbyterian seminary in Texas where one of my predecessors on the faculty (over a hundred years earlier) had authored articles defending the practice of slavery.

On a personal level, we can point to churches and clergy who haven’t lived up to our high expectations for the institution and its servants.

On a heartbreaking level, we can list churches that have hurt us (friends and family, too) by substituting abusive talk for the good news of Jesus Christ and his message of justice, grace and love.

On the just plain wacky level, we can point to fraudulent and downright clownish distortions of our tradition in the contemporary world — manifestations of church that make us cringe and wish we could revoke their right to use the adjective “Christian” to describe their activities.

The church is an imperfect institution. And yet, I love it. I know you do, too.

I love this sometimes-awkward, clearly flawed collection of disciples, because I am convinced that my friend is right: God is using the church (warts and all) to save the world. I also believe that God is using the church to save us. Yes, we who show up to light the candles, sing the hymns, say the prayers and feed the homeless need saving, too.

For the next four weeks, we are going to examine, in worship, “The Case for Church.” We are going to talk about how the church nurtures and shapes us; how the church cultivates critical moral conversations for the wider society; and how the church fosters an ethic of justice and hope.

Does this sound like work? It is. As Eugene Peterson points out, church is difficult. It supposed to be. Church is difficult like working out is difficult. It is difficult like getting along with family is difficult. Jesus never intended for church to be a spa. It’s a gym. It’s a challenging conversation. It is a place where our own notions of God are often challenged; where our self-righteousness and narcissism are exposed; where deep hurts can be salved, and we can grow in hope.

Church is the crazy, leaky vessel where, sooner or later, we Christians must engage if we want our hearts to be shaped to do God’s will and work in the world.

See you (and any skeptics you might be able to drag along) in worship,

SBJ

p.s. — With spring (finally?) here, what better way to spend a Saturday than outdoors in the Hudson valley? FAPC Serves, our annual, all-congregation day of service, is heading north to Holmes Presbyterian Camp & Conference Center on May 6. And we can use your energy! Sign up today, and bring family and friends along!

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Temperance — Virtue #4

March 24th, 2017 · Faith and the City

A few years ago, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns turned his attention to a fascinating thread in the tapestry of American history: Prohibition.

With an eye for quirky characters and an ear for the idiom of the age, Burns’ series unpacks the events leading to the adoption of the 18th amendment to the Constitution (1920) — banning the production, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages — and its subsequent repeal (1933).

It is a fascinating film.

Central to this American story is the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Formed in 1870, the WCTU would (within 20 years of its formation) become the largest women’s organization in the world.

The WCTU’s expressed purpose was to embody the counsel offered by the ancient Greek thinker Xenophon, who wrote, “Moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful.”

Some criticized the Temperance Movement for being led by killjoys advancing prudish doctrines. The reality was far more complex.
Burns describes the historical context:
By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol a year — three times as much as we drink today — and alcohol abuse (primarily by men) was wreaking havoc on the lives of many, particularly in an age when women had few legal rights and were utterly dependent on their husbands for sustenance and support.
In the late 19th century, the ravages of alcohol abuse were devastating American families. The WCTU provided fed-up women with an avenue of hope, a way to resist the rot that was eating away at their towns and families. Together they worked toward a ban on “sin substances” like alcohol and tobacco. They also joined forces with those working for women’s suffrage.
The president of the WCTU, Frances Willard, frequently argued that women were “the morally superior sex” and needed to be able to vote, so that they could act on their natural inclination to safeguard families and cure society’s ills!
This Sunday, in our ongoing study of Christian virtues, we are going to turn our attention to Temperance. What does it mean to seek moderation in this life? Is this an antiquated goal, a prudish instinct? Or is Temperance still wise counsel when it comes to dealing with alcohol (and a whole lot more)?
See you in worship,
SBJ
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The State of Your Faith

February 9th, 2017 · Faith and the City

Do me a favor. Please take 10 minutes at some point today and consider this question: “How’s your faith?”

Here’s how I suggest you proceed. Go somewhere quiet — somewhere you will not be interrupted. Close your eyes. Now, take the pulse of your soul. Ask yourself, “How would I describe the current state of my faith?”

As you consider the question, try to be specific and candid. Choose the most fitting, most honest adjectives.
  • Is my faith growing, or shrinking?
  • Is it engaged, or yawning?
  • Is it mystical, or highly rational?
  • Is it far in the background of my daily life, or a clear lamp on my path?
  • Is my faith stuck in a rut, or is it changing? Is the way I relate to Christianity, the Bible and the hymns of the church different than it was a year ago? Ten years ago?
I would love to hear your responses. Feel free to leave a comment below.
There are no wrong answers. We are all on a journey that has zigs and zags to it.

This Sunday we are going to talk about the paths on which we find ourselves. So I really want to know: “How’s your faith?”

See you in worship,

SBJ
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Up Against the Holy

February 3rd, 2017 · Faith and the City

This week I have been thinking about the word “sacred.” What does it mean for something or someone to be “holy”?

To some people the word “sacred” distinguishes between the mundane parts of the world (buses and spreadsheets and really good chicken parm) and the holy things that reside in church cabinets (beeswax candles, water for the baptismal font, communion wafers).

Others scoff at this distinction. “Holy,” they say, is an empty word, a made-up adjective ascribing religious significance to entirely ordinary items and people.

Still other people argue that holiness isn’t about things, but behavior. When individuals and communities follow a moral code (the Torah, the household codes of the New Testament, Sharia Law), then they are leading sacred lives.

Somewhere behind (or before!) all of these definitions, there is another, more basic, more primal way in which we use the word “sacred.”

When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, the prophet is instructed to remove his sandals: “You are standing on holy ground.” “Holy” and “sacred” describe encounters between people and the divine, moments when God is intensely present.

Down through the centuries, there have been a number of Christians who have felt God’s direct and transformative presence in their lives. We call these people “mystics.”

Mystics worry us. To the modern mind, they seem a little too hyped up on God juice.

Mystics are a little too ready to talk about the dream they had, the voice calling them to prayer and service, the closeness they feel to Jesus.

To orthodox believers, mystics seem subversive. In Ron Hansen’s beautiful book, Mariette in Ecstasy, a young nun in a rural New York convent tells the Mother Superior that she has had an extraordinary experience. Mariette has been visited by Christ. Her testimony throws the community of nuns into turmoil.

It is a funny thing. We say we believe in God, but when we bump into someone who claims to have encountered God, we run the other way.

This Sunday, we are going to talk about loosening up a bit — getting mystical. We are going to talk about that afternoon, at the small table, when you were talking with a good friend, taking bites of really good chicken parm, and you felt like your conversation reached new depths. It was suddenly infused with something otherworldly. It got holy.

See you in worship,

SBJ

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Holy Graffiti

January 5th, 2017 · Faith and the City

Dear Friends in Christ:

Today is Epiphany — Jan. 6. After the 12 days of Christmas, Christians move from celebrating the birth of Jesus to contemplating the revelation of Christ to the world.

In other words, Epiphany is Jesus going public. During Epiphany, we contemplate the transformative things that happen when people from all walks of life encounter the light of Christ.

Across the world, Christians celebrate Epiphany in creative ways. In Greek Orthodox communities, priests throw a weighted cross into deep water and members of the youth group dive for it!

Many Christians “chalk” the front door of their home on Epiphany. My wife does it every year. The formula for the ritual, adapted for 2017, is simple. Take chalk of any color and write the following above, on or near the entrance to your home:

20 + C + M + B + 17

The letters represent the initials of the three Magi – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – who came to visit Jesus. They also abbreviate the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat: “May Christ bless this house.” The “+” signs represent the cross, and the “20” at the beginning and the “17” at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a prayer that Christ would bless this home and all who dwell therein for the coming year. Give it a try!

This Sunday we will begin our journey through Epiphany by reading the story of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan and by talking about the identity baptism confers on all of us. We may even do a little cross diving.

See you in worship,

SBJ
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