Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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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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October 17th, 2014 · Faith and the City

In a speech given at Southern Methodist University in March 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. remarked, “[A]s we think of progress in race relations, we have come a long, long way, but we still have a long, long way to go.”

MLKFifty years later, Dr. King’s words continue to convict. Watching the protests in Ferguson, navigating our way through difficult conversations at work and school, feeling our own visceral responses to images and arguments in the news, we know — without a doubt — that racial reconciliation in America still has “a long, long way to go.”

What is it about race that makes it such a tenacious problem for us, such a recurring flashpoint in this country’s history?

Some say racism is inevitable. We are hard-wired to see our tribe, our ethnic group, as superior to all others. We are naturally inclined to categorize people, drawing neat circles that define who is “Us” and who is “Them.”

Others say, “Not so!” Racism, they argue, isn’t an innate disposition. It is learned behavior. From a very early age, parents and friends pass along their perspectives — their biases — to us. We absorb racial stereotypes from the wider culture, too. We aren’t born caring about the color of a person’s skin, but eventually we do. We can’t help it, because we swim everyday in a society awash in prejudice and bigotry.

Expanding this trajectory, some describe racism as a force that runs a lot deeper than individual bigotry. It is structural oppression. Individually, we may have good hearts; in theory, we want good things for each other. But as a society, we participate in complex structures that diminish, repress and demean others. One American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, called this phenomenon “Moral Man and Immoral Society.”

Today, the biggest challenge we face in regard to racism in this country is finding a safe space to talk about it.

Where can we have a candid and gracious conversation about race? Where can we work for reconciliation and understanding, without lapsing into gotcha politics or toxic tweets? Where can we go to find reason for unity and perspectives that transcend our prejudices?

The answer, I hope, is the Church. In addition to Dr. King, the Church actually has some superb resources for tackling this issue.

For example, the Book of Acts tells us that ethnicity and cultural differences were a major topic of debate in the early Church. One of the key questions these sisters and brothers in Christ discussed around the campfire was: “Who can be a Christian? Who belongs in this community?”

This Sunday, we are going to study one of the most fascinating stories about race in the New Testament, and we are going to talk together about racism in America.

Bring yourself and a friend. I promise a free-from-toxic-tweets zone!

See you in worship,


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¡Qué Linda!

October 3rd, 2014 · Faith and the City

On Oct. 21, 2011-just shy of three years ago today-Linda Jiménez wrote her first Friday email to the congregation of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. She had started her job as FAPC’s first Lilly Resident in Ministry that summer, and she was preparing to step into our pulpit for the first time.

There were a lot of “firsts” for Linda that day. And for the next three years, the “firsts” just kept on coming.
Working at a big, urban church demanded that this young pastor do a lot of things she had never done before. Like co-leading a weekend prayer retreat for 40 women she was just getting to know. Taking late-night calls from troubled church members as the “pastor on call.” Offering spiritual comfort to our neighbors at the Peninsula Hotel in the wake of a tragedy.

As much as any seminarian I’ve ever known, Linda Jiménez is called to do ministry.

But she will be the first to tell you that three years at FAPC introduced her to aspects of ministry she never knew existed, much less wanted to try. In that Friday email three years ago, she wrote (presciently, it turns out) that “to be called can be a scary thing… especially when you are uncertain of what lies ahead. But I’ve learned that you never know what amazing plans God might have in store when you answer that call with a ‘yes.'”

Linda JimenezTonight we will gather as a community to ordain Linda as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). In that same service, she will be installed as FAPC’s “Evangelist,” the pastor charged with planting a new worshipping community somewhere in New York City, with the full support of this congregation.
This is a first for us, and another first for Linda.

As it happens, as Linda was growing into her ministry at FAPC, others here at the church were tilling the soil of what we would soon call our “Mustard Seed Ministry.” The Commission on Presbytery Initiatives, led by Debbie Mullins, was charged with identifying a project FAPC could undertake that would strengthen congregational vitality in New York City. With the Session’s approval, we decided to plant a new church, in a neighborhood and among people who were longing for community, for a place to explore and nurture their faith.

The first step was to find the right pastor, an individual with the particular combination of vision, spirit and courage to venture out on her own, explore uncharted territory, and see this project through. It was Linda who heard that call, put her fears aside, and answered “yes.”

In our fall sermon series, we are exploring the Book of Acts to determine what defines and shapes a Christian community. Tonight is your opportunity to experience Christian community at its finest. If you are in the city, I urge you to join us in the Sanctuary at 7 pm as we celebrate Linda’s new ministry. Children are welcome! If you are not able to attend, please join us in prayers of joyous thanksgiving.

Truly God has more “amazing plans” in store-for Linda, and for all of us.

See you in worship,


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How Good Thou Art?

September 25th, 2014 · Faith and the City

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.”

–Romans 12:9

Are you a good person?

good_notThis question twists people of faith around like a tie-dye shirt. Being good is certainly our intent. When we step out the door every morning, we want to be a benevolent force in the world. We want to stand on the side of the light. We want to go to sleep with a clean conscience at the end of the day. We want to be good.

Still, we ponder, “Am I sort of good? Mostly good? Not so good?”

We are not alone in scratching our heads. Philosophers have long debated people’s capacity for goodness.

They ask: “Do humans have an inherently good nature? Or, are we—at our core—selfish, violent creatures prone to nasty behavior?”

They ask: “Do we start life out as innocent souls who are eventually corrupted by outside forces? Or, are we predators from the get-go—potential criminals whose ruthless instincts must be kept in check by a society’s rules and its police?”

how-to-be-goodA few years ago, I enjoyed reading Nick Hornby’s novel, How to be Good. The book follows the life of a married English couple living in intercity London with their two kids. The wife, Katie, is a doctor. She considers herself to be a pretty good person. Although, she is having an affair.

Her husband, David, on the other hand, is a journalist. Nobody would describe David as “a good guy.” Every week, he writes a mean-spirited column entitled, “The Angriest Man in Holloway.” As the novel begins, Katie and David’s marriage is on the rocks.

Then things change. Not necessarily for the better. After an encounter with a Jamaican spiritual healer named DJ Goodnews, David decides to be good—really good. He starts giving away the family’s possessions. He invites a homeless man to live in their apartment.

It is a funny story. Along the way, Hornby raises some great questions. What metric should we measure our moral lives against? How much “good” is enough?

This Sunday, we are going to be talking about how to be good and how good to be!

See you in worship,




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