Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

Sharp About Your Prayers header image 1

The Hate Machine

September 28th, 2015 · Faith and the City

As of Wednesday, it’s officially fall! I love autumn in New York. The morning air is crisp. Sumac leaves in Central Park are turning red. Footballs are flying through the air.

Did you see the college game last Saturday between Texas and Cal?

The Golden Bears were way out front. Then, Jerrod Heard, the Longhorns’ freshman quarterback, began to lead a comeback. With a minute to go, Heard dashed 45 yards past lunging Cal defenders to score a touchdown.

The stands erupted! The Longhorns danced on the sidelines. All they needed to do was to kick the extra point, and the game would be tied. Reliable Nick Rose, senior placekicker for the Longhorns, came on. And he shanked it. He missed the kick wide right.

The dancing on the sidelines ceased. 100,000 fans in burnt orange looked down at the field in stunned silence. Seconds later, the game was over. The scoreboard flashed Longhorns 44 – Bears 45.

And Twitter erupted! People took their anger over the loss and their frustration at the Texas kicker to the blogosphere. Many seemed eager to outdo each other in wishing that terrible things would befall young Nick Rose.

Dismayed at the outpouring of vitriol, one journalist observed, “Twitter does hate better than it does anything else.”

I suppose we could dismiss this story as just another example of our crazy obsession with sports. It’s just a game! But I am not sure that sports fans are the only ones who have stoked the fires of their own anger. In politics and the arts, in academia and religion, people are expressing fury with each other.

What’s going on?

This Sunday, we are going to address the rising tide of anger, the tsunami of snark that is surging through our culture. I hope you’ll join us, and bring a friend, as we continue our study of contemporary idols!

See you in worship,

→ No CommentsTags:····

Idol Talk

September 11th, 2015 · Faith and the City

In 2002, the English author Neil Gaiman won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for a book entitled American GodsAmerican Gods

In the novel, Gaiman weaves a picture of contemporary America in which new gods (deities like Media, the goddess of television, and Technology Boy, the personification of the Internet) are on the rise.

At the same time, older gods (like Odin, the Norse god of knowledge and wisdom, and Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead) are being pushed aside. These ancient gods are no longer worshipped; in fact, they are in danger of being completely forgotten.

American Gods manifests Gaiman’s knack for telling rollicking, often creepy stories, even as he draws his readers into the grip of a provocative question. In this case, his question is as old as human culture:

Who (or what) do you worship?

This Sunday, and throughout the fall, we are going to wrestle with this fundamentally human question.

We are going to start by identifying our guiding principles — the real ones, not just the ones to which we give lip service! We are going to talk about the fears, the goals, the loyalties, the insecurities and the loves that direct the path of our lives. We are going to name these “New York Gods,” these forces to which we (and those around us) are downright devoted.

Of course, the rub here is that these “gods” — these recipients of our conscious and unconscious devotion — are not the God, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all. They are bogus deities. They are what the prophets called idols.

So, every step of the way, we are going to strategize about how to keep fraudulent gods off our soul’s top shelf as we move deeper into the genuine embrace of the living God.

This Sunday is Homecoming.

The Chancel Choir will be back! Sunday School will be rockin’! Familiar faces will be in the pews! The Homecoming Fair will be fabulous! We are even going to have a famed NYC caricature artist on hand to sketch a picture of the idols in your life.

It will be fun. It will be spiritually provocative. It will be good for your soul.

I hope you will invite a friend or two to join us. Trust me, you’ll be glad you came to church!

Eager to see you in worship,


→ 2 CommentsTags:·······

Sabbatical Travels

July 15th, 2015 · Faith and the City

In Edinburgh, I had a chance to reconnect with my friend, the Reverend Calum MacLeod. Calum is the parish minister of St. Giles’ Cathedral—the mother church of all Presbyterianism.


It was here that John Knox, the Protestant reformer and minister of St. Giles (1560-1572), began the movement that would found the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian branch of the Christian tree.

Calum is a sturdy pastor with a keen wit—the perfect person to be leading our mother church.

Recently, he was asked by an American tourist why St. Giles uses the King James translation of the Bible for so many of its services. Calum responded, “Well, Madam, because this was his childhood church.”

“Whose church?” she queried.


St. Giles, like so many other British churches, has a complicated history. It existed before Presbyterianism. Expressions of Roman Catholicism at St. Giles reach back to 1124, and there have been moments (post-Henry VIII) of flirtation with Anglicanism.

Yet the seeds planted by Knox had strong roots.

Just ask the Rev. James Hannay.


Calum and Missy MacLeod with Jenny’s Three-Legged Stool

It was Hannay, following the orders of King Charles, who began reading from the new Booke of Common Prayer at St. Giles one Sunday morning in 1637. Insulted at the king’s desire to exert control over worship, a Scottish Puritan by the name of Jenny Geddes picked up the three-legged stool on which she was sitting and threw it at the pastor. Others began to hurl insults and even Bibles at the clergyman. A riot ensued.

Rev. Hannay’s tenure quickly came to an end, and a national covenant was signed—a covenant forbidding the English crown from mandating the ways through which the Scottish churches could and should worship God.

Thanks to Jenny, the Presbyterian Church was here to stay!

→ No CommentsTags:··


June 30th, 2015 · Faith and the City

news-scott-in-sorbie-2015-insetIn 1929, my paternal grandfather, Edgar Johnston, left his home in Sorbie, Scotland, to travel to New York City. There he put his carpentry skills to work in the New York shipyards. His wife, Beatrice (my grandmother), went to work at Bloomingdales.

Yesterday, I visited for the first time, the parish church in Sorbie. I was delighted to see that there was a Johnston serving as ‘church officer’!

I was also pleased that the ‘welcome’ at the bottom of the sign echoes FAPC’s “All Are Welcome!”

Comments Off on SorbieTags:·

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.


→ 2 CommentsTags:······

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,


→ 6 CommentsTags:······

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,


Comments Off on On the MoveTags:·····

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,


Comments Off on The Christian PathTags:·····

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,


→ 2 CommentsTags:···

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!

Comments Off on Love LetterTags:·····