Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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The Christian Path

February 19th, 2015 · Faith and the City

What does it mean to be a Christian?

apostles' creedHow would you answer? A Christian might respond by handing an inquisitive soul a copy of The Apostles’ Creed. “Here’s our constitution. Being a Christian means believing these things, or most of these things. To have faith is to embrace this set of beliefs.”

This approach has merits. It misses something too—something vitally important. Being a Christian is not simply a mental process. “I believe this and this and this. Check, check, check. Therefore, I have faith.”

Being a Christian is more than cerebral agreement. It is a way of life.

What does this way of life look like?

Well, from our earliest days, the followers of Jesus ordered their faith (and their lives) according to a set of sacred activities. These activities are called “disciplines” or “practices.” For centuries, Christians have engaged in these practices to experience the holy and be formed as God’s people.

Some of these disciplines are familiar to us. Some less so. Worshipping together on a Sunday is a Christian discipline. So are prayer, fasting, sharing sacred meals, observing times of silence, engaging in service and embarking on a pilgrimage.

PrayerIn recent years, across the contemporary church, the ancient Christian practices have been experiencing a revival. Why? Well, to be blunt, they work. These activities actually help people to connect with God. Along the way, they also assist us in feeling less anxious and more grounded; less angry and more loving; less bitter and more thankful.

It sounds too good to be true. Right? Well, I do have a caveat. There is a reason Christians call these activities “disciplines.” They take effort and commitment.

But, that is what Lent is for!

Join us this Sunday as Lent begins. Bring a friend. Together, we will explore the classic Christian practices. We are going to start by talking about fasting. I’m an expert… Just kidding. I bet you knew that.  :-)

See you in worship,


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Fast with Us?

February 11th, 2015 · Faith and the City

Fasting begets prophets and strengthens the strong. 
Fasting makes lawgivers wise; it is the soul’s safeguard, 
the body’s trusted comrade, the armor of the champion, 
the training of the athlete.

Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (AD 330-379)


Dear Friends in Christ,

Lent is nearly here, and we have an invitation for you.

fastingThis Lent at FAPC, we will be talking about (and practicing together!) the classic Christian disciplines. One of the first disciplines we will study is fasting.

Fasting has a long and revered place in the Judeo-Christian faith. Jesus began his earthly ministry by going out into the desert and fasting.

This year, as Lent begins, the clergy invite you to join in a one-day fast on Ash Wednesday — Feb. 18, one week from today.

A few caveats: 

  • There are medical conditions that make fasting ill-advised. If you have any concerns, please consult your doctor.
  • Anyone who has experienced an eating disorder in the past should be cautious about a food fast. You can always fast from other things, like video games, shopping or television.
  • Pregnant or nursing mothers should not fast.
  • Young children should not fast.
  • If you have a math test at school or a big presentation at work on Wednesday, don’t fast. In fact, if — for whatever reason — Wednesday isn’t a good idea, pick another day.

How will this work? 

We are inviting you to join us in refraining from food and beverages other than water for 24 hours. Your last meal before the fast will be on Tuesday evening. We will break the fast on Wednesday evening. During the fast, we encourage you to drink a lot of water. We suggest that you avoid caffeine and alcohol.

Why is fasting a spiritual practice?

It is an experience that can focus us. To be sure, fasting is challenging. It can make us feel irritable. It can make us feel weak. When these things happen, Christians turn to prayer. We ask God for strength and gratitude and perspective.

FastingPrayerIs there some area of life where you have been seeking wisdom from God?

Every time you find yourself yearning for food or caffeine during the fast, lift up the issue that concerns you and ask God for guidance. You may find new clarity.

Finally, approach the fast not as drudgery, but as grace. Not as a hardship, but a blessing. This is a chance to walk a path that Christians have traveled for centuries as they sought to become more aware of the presence of God.

Are you in? 

Give it some thought. Pray over it. If you do attempt a fast, I’d love to hear about your experience. Please share your thoughts here…

See you in worship,


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Love Letter

February 5th, 2015 · Faith and the City

Over Christmas, the Black Johnston family received a small box with the words “Love Letter” emblazoned on the outside.

It turns out that “Love Letter” is an award-winning card game. It is fairly simple to learn. Yet, like all good games, it has surprising layers of fun, complexity and luck.

Love Letter GameThe goal of the game is to get your love letter into the hands of the princess. The challenge, of course, is that other players are also trying to get their sweet words to her. Along the way, they will try to discredit every other potential suitor—including you!

It is full of risk, deduction and laughs. It plays fast. We are hooked.

The game also makes an interesting, historically accurate point. Trying to communicate your love for someone—especially someone of a different class—in a feudal society often involved twists, turns and dead ends. In the medieval world, you weren’t always sure that expressions of adoration made it to your intended recipient.

The same might be said for our communication with God.

We say that God loves us. We confess that we love God. Yet, how clear are the communication channels? Are the letters getting through?

This week in worship, in the run up to Valentines’ Day, we will talk about ways in which the faithful have received expressions of divine affection down through the years. We’ll also speculate about where your love letter might be.

See you in worship,



P.S. Speaking of love letters to and from heaven, we are delighted to welcome Brad Wigger and Jane Larsen-Wigger for a very special Adult Education Event entitled “Prayer 101” this Sunday at 12:30 pm in Jones Auditorium. Trust me, time spent with these two wise and caring souls will be a blessing!

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January 29th, 2015 · Faith and the City

In preparing for Sunday’s worship, I came across this poem by Willow Harth. From the outset, the author warns her readers, “This poem is not meant for you. Unless …”

Unless you have spent time “underground.” Unless you have played “peek-a-boo with death.” If those experiences sound familiar, then perhaps this poem is, emphatically, for you.

by Willow Harth
This poem is not meant for you

unless you too have been underground
choking on your life’s debris, and
playing peek-a-boo with death seriously

buttercup-flower-meadow-background-field-flowers-gallery-cute-wallpapers-41589then the surprise of ten thousand buttercups
out of nowhere on every side where they’d
never been before on my daily walk
might have had the effect on you it did on me

because suddenly

I wanted to understand how these particular
flowers came to be-the whole evolutionary
history of mosses, ferns and angiosperms,
the miracle of photosynthesis and DNA, not

to mention the longings of the Milky Way
to reflect itself in the form called flowers and
in these buttercups, which seemed like a
visitation from the sun, urging me to tell you, in
case like me you had forgotten

we are the universe’s latest way of blooming.


This week in worship, our attention turns to the very last sermon Moses preached. Together, we are going to reflect on the prophet’s final words to his congregation: “Choose life!”

See you “buttercups” in worship,


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January 23rd, 2015 · Faith and the City

In 1860, the Earl of Glasgow built a new wall out of field stones.

Wall in ScotlandRunning along the edge of a meadow, the new wall kept sheep from wandering away. Not long after it was completed, however, an unusually intense rainstorm flooded the Earl’s pasture. The waters rose, forced their way through the new wall and rushed across an adjacent property. The owner of the neighboring field sued for damages. The Earl’s wall, the man claimed, caused the flood.
Four years later, the resulting legal case was heard by the House of Lords. Speaking on behalf of the Earl, Lord Chancellor Westbury argued that there are times in life when calamities come our way “which no human foresight can provide against, and of which human prudence is not bound to recognize the possibility.”

Westbury called these calamities “Acts of God.”

Acts of God, the Lord Chancellor argued, are not our responsibility; and, as such, they do not warrant the payment of damages. Westbury won the case. Today, Tennent v. Earl of Glasgow continues to be cited as a legal precedent in property law.

By now you are probably wondering: Why should I care about this case? Two reasons.

First, insurance companies still declare (if you read the fine print) that they are not responsible for Acts of God. Their language can be traced right back to the case involving the Earl of Glasgow’s wall. Surely that’s worth a few trivia points.

Second, and more important, this legal terminology raises a poignant theological question: Is God responsible for disastrous events, for things that cannot be foreseen — for mayhem?
MayhemIf it helps, go ahead and picture the nefarious character from the Allstate commercials. I am talking about the guy who declares that he is a “cheap bungee cord” about to give way and dump 800 pounds of tailgating equipment onto the highway in front of me.

“Mayhem,” says the voiceover, “is everywhere!”

Where is it coming from? Lord Westbury attributed mayhem to God. To our modern ears, it may seem strange to charge God with whipping up mayhem. It is not odd, however, for Biblical figures to ascribe mayhem to God.

This week we are going to be talking about Acts of God in worship, and we will consider whether God occasionally slings a little (or maybe a lot) of mayhem our way.

See you in worship,

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Can God Take a Joke?

January 8th, 2015 · Faith and the City

Life of BrianIn 1979, the British comedy troupe Monty Python released their most controversial and irreverent movie, Life of Brian. The basic premise of the film was that “Brian” was born on the very same day as, in the next stable over from, Jesus.

This coincidence leads to sustained confusion and hilarity. Throughout his life, Brian is repeatedly mistaken for the Messiah. As the film unfolds, the Monty Python guys send up a number of New Testament stories, including: the Sermon on the Mount, the stoning of a sinner, and the trial before Pontius Pilate.

When it was initially released, Life of Brian was met with protests and accusations of blasphemy in Great Britain and the United States. Some countries gave the movie an “X” rating to prevent it from being seen by a wide audience. Still others, including Ireland and Norway, banned the movie outright. As is so often the case, the movie’s notoriety contributed to its box-office success. A clever marketing campaign in Sweden billed the film as, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”

I was in high school when “Life of Brian” first came out. Our local Presbyterian preacher cautioned parents—warning that the movie could prove “corrosive to your children’s faith.” So, at my mother’s request, I did not see it…

Until seminary! Arriving at Divinity School, I discovered that, not only had all of my contemporaries seen the film, but many of my respected professors too. Some of them had memorized lengthy bits of dialogue. So, I watched it. I laughed. I cringed. I cackled some more. True to its billing, the movie was caustic, but not to my faith. The real target of the film’s humor was not religious belief, but religious hypocrisy.

There have been times, of course, when allegedly humorous send-ups of Christianity have missed my funny bone. Sometimes attempts at religious comedy come across as mean-spirited and crude. I suppose a healthy debate could be had trying to define the fine line between 1) prophetic humor that unmasks religious hypocrisy and 2) malicious comedy that drags another person’s sacred beliefs through the mud.

Je Suis CharlieThis week, though, I am pulled in another direction. In the aftermath of the massacre of the staff at the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, I have been considering the question: “Can God take a joke?” In particular, “Can God handle a bad joke, a rude joke, a joke that we find offensive?”

There are a lot people in this world (of various religious persuasions) who seem to think that God’s honor needs defending. Is this the case? Is God offended by our crude attempts at humor? Is God angered by a cartoon depicting a famous religious figure in unflattering circumstances or by songs and satire that poke fun at some aspect of religion? Does God take offense and expect followers to avenge the divine honor?

The classic Christian answer to this question is “No.” God isn’t petty. God doesn’t slouch around heaven with a wounded ego. God doesn’t need armed defenders. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves. For it is written, Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) Amen, brother Paul.

The tragic news out of Paris this week should set every religious tradition on alert. When people of faith lose their sense of humor, they embrace one of the oldest sins in the book—idolatry. The assailants in Paris fashioned a deity out of their own broken image. Any God who would require his followers to exact vengeance on unarmed cartoonists is a petty, insecure deity undeserving of human devotion and love. This is not the powerful, trustworthy God, I would wager, whom most of the faithful—Christian, Jew and Muslim alike—worship and adore.

My friends, it takes personal courage to listen to the critics of our faith, and it takes spiritual maturity to love them, but love them we must, for their role in keeping the faithful honest and humble is crucial, regardless of whether we find them funny.

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Jesus is Coming…

December 4th, 2014 · Faith and the City

Dear Friends in Christ,

Advent is a season of waiting. We wait for Christ to appear. We wait for the baby to be born in Bethlehem. We are also waiting, in general, for God to show up and make all things right.

What are we supposed to do while we wait? Is waiting “passive”—permission to be a couch potato for Jesus? Or “active”—a long “to do” list we must complete before we can meet God?

yellow_5151219_1024x1024On a warm day this past week, I saw someone on Fifth Avenue wearing this t-shirt…

I laughed. I almost asked the shaggy fellow: “Look Busy? Doing what?”

What can we do to impress Jesus—to please Jesus? Not much, says the Apostle Paul. “We are saved by grace and not by works.”

Still, this isn’t excuse to park ourselves on the sofa during Advent. Christ gives his disciples work to do. He calls us to be merciful, generous, courageous and just. He charges us to tell people the good news and to care for those who are hurting.

This past week, as protests have continued in Ferguson and flared right here in New York City, our “to do” list looks somewhat daunting. As we wait for God, what is our responsibility to those who cry out for justice?

Join us this Sunday as we talk about our efforts to more than “look busy” in response to God who approaches the world in this holy season.

See you in worship,


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Add Friendship and Stir

November 21st, 2014 · Faith and the City

are_tom-newA few times every year, we bring in an outside preacher to fill FAPC’s pulpit. This Sunday, we will welcome the Reverend Thomas Are, Jr. from Village Presbyterian Church in Kanas City. Tom is an exceptionally fine preacher. He is also my friend.

It is a privilege to introduce outstanding pastors and speakers to you. It is also a blessing for me to get to spend precious time with a friend like Tom.

This Sunday, Tom will conclude our fall sermon series—a series focused on The Book of Acts. Way back on Homecoming Sunday, we started this journey. On that September morning, we observed that The Book of Acts is addressed to Theophilus—to “A Friend of God.”

This small detail has become more and more important for us. The New Testament talks a lot about friends. Jesus called his disciples “friends.” Acts does the exact same thing to you and me. It challenges every successive generation of Christ’s followers to be, first and foremost, friends—friends of God, friends to each other, and friends to a world a world in need.

We have kept that challenge before us. For the past eleven weeks, we have tried to picture what it means—what it looks like—for this church to be a community of friends.

Along the way, we have had to contend with those who say that friendship is a weak card to play in a world that either hardens people’s hearts or leaves them in tatters.

At those moments, I am reminded of a conversation that I had about two years with Tom Are. In the midst of a bunch of clergy who were having a heated discussion about the direction of national church, Tom asked, “Which of the ordination vows do you think are most important?”

The ordination vows are the constitutional questions that deacons and elders and clergy answer when they are ordained. They are lofty questions about “the purity of the church” and “the promotion of social righteousness.” There are a lot of questions in the list.

“Ok, I’ll bite,” I said. “Which is most important?”

IMG_3058“It is buried in the middle of the list,” Tom responded. “It’s not controversial. It slips by, spoken with ease, but without it we are lost. The most important ordination question is: Will you be a friend in ministry?”

His response has made me think, and think, and think some more. I wonder… Is there a conflict in this world that would not be eased, if not downright solved, by friendship—by serious-risky-candid-forgiving-loving friendship between the parties involved?

Impossible to imagine? Maybe. Although, not evidently for Acts, or for my dear friend, Tom.

See you in worship,


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Why Poetry?

November 6th, 2014 · Faith and the City

christianwimanThis Sunday, FAPC welcomes Christian Wiman. He will be speaking in the Kirkland Chapel following the 11:00 am service. After that, he will sign copies of his books. I don’t want to over-hype this event, but Wiman is well worth your time. In reviewing his most recent collection of poems, Once in the West, Jill Baumgaertner calls Wiman’s voice, “among the most compelling in contemporary poetry.”

It is risky to predict the future, but I feel certain that Wiman’s verse will stand the test of time. He’s that good. Years from now, chances are you’ll look back and say with pride, “I heard him speak at my church once.”

Now, I know that pushing poetry to urban people who pride themselves on short, precise communication is risky. Mention poems and most New Yorkers picture a guy in a beret reciting a few rambling stanzas in some coffee shop down in the Village. Poetry, we suspect, is not for us. It is avant-garde. It requires a dictionary. It is work.

These charges are mostly true, and still, I would urge people of faith to read poetry. Here’s a list of my top-ten reasons why you should put yourself on a regular diet of poetry, and consequently my case for why you should attend the Wiman event at FAPC this Sunday!

SBJ’s Top 10 Reasons People of Faith Should Read Poetry

  • Reason #10: You already like poetry more than you think! Most of your favorite Bible passages are poetry. All of the Psalms. The Magnificat. The Beatitudes. 1 Corinthians 13.
  • Reason #9: The world and our emotions are complicated. Our impulses for good and for ill are more convoluted than we wish they were. Poetry gets this. It mirrors life’s complexity and reflects it back at us in ways that are frequently uncomfortable, but also stark, honest and true!
  • Reason #8: It is good to learn new words. Not to impress friends (although there is that!), but because life is thick and rich, and we need lots of apt, lyrical, evocative words to convey life’s ebb and flow to each other.
  • Letterman_IllustrationReason #7: Because sickness and death really do shadow our every step.
  • Reason #6: Because it is far better to wrestle with (and shout back at) our fears, than it is to repress them.
  • Reason #5: Because we love hymns and they are (quite simply) a compilation of almost 2000 years of our best poetry.
  • Reason #4: Because you are wicked smart and poetry stumps you.
  • Reason #3: Because it ought to be hard (if not impossible) to capture the Almighty with our words.
  • Reason #2: Because dogs, sunflowers, rain glistening on New York streets, fresh cut pears, a picture of your grandmother, the smell of jasmine, and the rough skin of a friend’s hand in your hand all create feelings that you want to last and last. Poetry makes them last. Or at least it helps.
  • Reason #1: Because the Word became flesh and dwells among us. (John 1: 14)

See you in worship,


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Zombies and Saints

October 31st, 2014 · Faith and the City

Boo! It’s Halloween. In this country, we go all out to celebrate this spooky holiday. We spend more money on Halloween — on costumes, decorations and candy — than at any other time save Christmas.

What is it about this annual brush with the Zombie Apocalypse that so thoroughly engages us? Mostly, I suppose it is just plain, escapist fun. Who can resist dressing up and becoming someone else (some thing else) for a day?

I also wonder if we embrace Halloween because it gives us a chance to probe the edge of our fears.

The world is a scary place. Every day, the evening news alone can make us want to hide under the kitchen table, to imagine that our neighbors are undead creatures eager to eat our brains. Halloween allows us to act out just how frightening we find the world to be.

Fortunately, Christians have an antidote to all this fear. It is called All Saints’ Day. We will celebrate it this Sunday. On All Saints’ Day we remember our dead, not with trepidation, but with affection, and we commit ourselves to living with courage in the world — to approaching our neighbors not with fear, but with love.

This past week, Joe Clifford, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, reminded me of a story I would like to share with you.

In the third century, a plague of dysentery was sweeping through the Roman Empire. In cities along the Mediterranean, such as Alexandria, people were so afraid of catching the plague that they would put infected relatives — members of their own families — out of their homes, leaving them on the streets to die.

250px-Dionisii_alekThe Christian community in Alexandria, however, had a different response. They went out into the streets and took in those with dysentery. They kept them warm and gave them fluids. (This is, in fact, the treatment for dysentery.) In 260 AD, Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, wrote that Christians became “an army of nurses,” providing for the needs of that suffering community.

Their efforts turned into one of the greatest evangelism efforts the Christian Church has ever known. The citizens of Alexandria thought it was a miracle. I suppose it was.

Sometimes, in the face of extreme fear, loving care is a miracle.

Right now, my friends, our world needs a miracle. Maybe the witness of the saints in Alexandria so long ago can help us, once again, to move beyond our fears to acts of compassion and love.

See you in worship,


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