Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Summer Reading 2015

April 30th, 2015 · Faith and the City

The days are lengthening. T-shirts are appearing on Fifth Avenue. Summer is around the corner.

In transitioning to this welcome warmth, tucking away sweaters and hauling out sandals and straw hats, we cannot forget a crucial pre-summer task. It is time to think about and assemble your book list.


What will you read in the park, at the beach, and on the bus this summer? 
Here are a few suggested additions for your hammock-ready stack:

Marilynne Robinson, Lila
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

We first met Lila in Gilead — a novel this congregation read together in 2010. Now, Marilynne Robinson gives us the backstory on John Ames’ much-younger wife. 

 
Raised on the road by a group of migrant workers in the 1920s, Lila is a self-sufficient, homeless woman with little trust for other people. Yet the twists of grace bring her to the small town of Gilead, where she finds herself falling in love with the local preacher and considering the ways of God. 

Once again, Robinson gives us a luminous portrait of faith informed by her own Calvinist piety. Of course, I realize that it is somewhat suspicious for me to recommend a book that features a preacher as a main character. So let me direct you to a second opinion in a review of Lila from The Atlantic

James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age
(Viking, 2014)

  Carroll’s book rigorously crisscrosses among history, theology and Biblical interpretation in considering the question, “Who actually is Christ for us today?” To answer, Carroll challenges us to look afresh at the Jewish identity of Jesus.

This book opens with a scholarly tone, but poignant payoffs await those willing to work with the author. This short piece in the New York Times will give you a sense of Carroll’s style. 

 
I am excited to announce that Professor Carroll (author of 18 works of fiction and non-fiction, winner of the National Book Award and the scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University in Boston) will visit FAPC to speak and sign copies of his books on Sunday, Nov. 8. You know what that means — Christ Actually is the selection for our 2015 congregational book-read!

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
(Scribner, 2014)

I just finished reading this remarkable novel — winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and a finalist for the National Book Award. It is the story of a young, blind French girl and a young, orphaned German boy prior to and during World War II.

I don’t want to spoil anything about Doerr’s captivating plot, except to say that this is one of the most beautiful and moving books I have ever read. 

If you have a book to recommend to me, I still have room on the stack. Please post your faves and raves hereon this blog.

Like introducing someone to a new friend, there are few things better than the suggestion of a good read.

Peace,
SBJ

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From Palms to Solitude

March 26th, 2015 · Faith and the City

Unknown-1Rejoice 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

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. I hope you can be here. We are going to take the first steps of Holy Week.

To start, of course, we are going to stand alongside the crowds in Jerusalem. We are going to sing some of your favorite hymns. We are going to wave greenery in the air! We are going to cast ourselves as extras, shouting jubilant greetings to Christ as he enters the holy city.

We are also going to take time to prepare our hearts for what lies ahead. Among other things, this means that we are going to talk about how to make space in our lives for quiet and contemplation during Holy Week.

Iphone-apps-for-schoolsCharlene Han Powell told me a few weeks ago about a member of our congregation who decided to give up apps for Lent. Yes, applications: the little programs on our smartphones that are supposed to make our lives easier; the little games that insidiously reach out with a ping, calling us back, promising that we don’t need to spend a second of our lives being bored.

This young woman reported that she found giving up these apps — so carefully designed to tap into our need to be needed — surprisingly hard. Can our brains really be that easily co-opted? Evidently yes. Are we being conned into finding meaning in things that we know are inherently meaningless? Yes again. What are we giving up when we fall into their crafty embrace? Good question!

To start on an answer, this week I have started making a tour of places in New York City that are known for being quiet. I have visited the Cloisters, the New York Public Library and a secluded spot away from tourists in Central Park. I have gone in search of solitude — in search of places in this city that might help me listen for something other than a ping.

I hope you will join us this Sunday as together we talk about how we care for souls that are desperate for time away from our daily clamor — time when we can listen for God. Oh, and if you have a favorite quiet place in the city that you would like to share, I’d be honored if you would post it here.

See you in worship,

SBJ

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On the Move

March 12th, 2015 · Faith and the City

imagesAslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening…

All around them, though out of sight, there were streams chattering, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over.

            –C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

Thaw! What a great word—what a wonderful thing. Snow is melting. Yes, to be sure, some nasty artifacts are showing up in the vanishing ice. That’s the price we pay for living in the big city.

Fortunately, amid the yuck, there is clear evidence that winter is giving up its grasp. The air feels soft. Trees are sporting buds. There are open patches of water on the reservoir. The earth’s annual thaw is finally under way!

In the Christian classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis tells us that the arrival of the great lion, Aslan, in the land of Narnia brings a great thaw—the end of “endless” winter.

With the return of spring to Narnia, all sorts of animals emerge from their burrows. They shake the sleep from their heads and the dust from their traveling clothes. They head out into the world. They walk about. They imitate their King. After all, “Aslan is on the move.”

PilgrimageThis coming Sunday, in our ongoing exploration of Lenten disciplines, we are going to study the ancient practice of “pilgrimage.” Earlier this year, I remarked that “fasting is not a Christian weight loss plan.” Similarly, pilgrimage is not a Christian vacation. Yes, it can rejuvenate a person’s spirit, but it is more than relaxation. It is traveling with a holy purpose. It is a commitment to being “on the move” with Aslan.

Join us this Sunday as we continue our travels through Lent, and as we talk about journeys that might bring us into step with God.

See you in worship,

SBJ

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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,

SBJ

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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,

SBJ

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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,

SBJ

 

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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Unless…

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.
Untitled

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,

SBJ

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Mayhem

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,
SBJ

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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,

SBJ

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