March 4th, 2014 · Faith and the City
March 1st, 2014 · Faith and the City
This Sunday is Confirmation Sunday. At the 11 am worship service, eight young people will join the church.
Over the last several months, our Confirmands have taken an intensive course on Christianity. They have studied the Bible together. They have shared their personal stories. They have served at the Bowery Mission.
Each of them has also written a statement of faith.
Bless them. It is radical thing — a counter cultural thing — for a junior high student in New York City (or anywhere, really!) to think about and talk about her faith.
Over the years, I fully expect that our Confirmands will change their minds about some of the things they have written down on the crumpled papers stuffed in their pockets. This is healthy. They are just being Presbyterian.
Presbyterians are forever writing creeds — statements of what we believe.
We write new creeds because we are convinced that God never stops reaching out to embrace the world.
Of course, the world God loves is constantly changing. (Who knew that this week we would be talking about the Ukraine?) All this change requires that we discern, ever afresh, who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.
With that in mind, I have a challenge for you. Write down what you believe about who God is and what God wants you to do with your life. You don’t have to show it to anyone, but you do have to be honest. Brutally honest.
In retrospect, our statements of faith reveal the way in which our beliefs grow and change and sometimes fade away. These statements also show, invariably, what we are worried about, what we are hoping for, and what things are constants (rock solid) through good and bad times.
They can show, if we look closely, the footprints of God in our lives. And that’s fitting, because the Beatitude we are studying this Sunday is: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
See you in worship,
February 6th, 2014 · Faith and the City
I am drawn to contemplative people. They are human fish tanks. In the presence of reflective friends, I move slower, feel calmer and become more mindful of what is going on around me.
Just as the human heart needs aerobic exercise, a soul needs contemplation to stay healthy. It needs more than I am able to provide. So, over the years, I have sought out “trainers” — wise souls who guide me in engaging the world.
One of my favorite contemplatives is Annie Dillard. After four seasons watching the flora and fauna bloom, flutter and expire on a small tributary of the Roanoke River known as Tinker Creek, Dillard wrote:
Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
Dillard is part of a profound American tradition that began with Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s contemplative focus was, of course, Walden Pond:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
That, in a nutshell, is the treasure that all contemplatives seek: a way to live that is authentic, courageous and true.
So, yes, Jesus is a contemplative, too. Sometimes his subject for reflection is nature (“Consider the lilies…”). More often it is other people. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus hikes up a mountain, sits his disciples down on a ridge overlooking the villages below, and starts talking about the people who dwell there:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
We might ask what benefit can come from contemplating the “poor in spirit.” Jesus, couldn’t you come up with a more uplifting subject? Of course, the same could be said for studying a water bug at Tinker Creek or a woodchuck at Walden Pond.
“Sit still for a moment,” counsel the contemplatives. “If you look a little longer, a little deeper, you just might find yourself blessed.”
This week our sermon series turns to the Beatitudes!
See you in worship,
January 30th, 2014 · Faith and the City
“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.”
–1 Corinthians 1:25
In 2009, the Arts and Our Faith Committee brought an exhibit of John August Swanson’s richly colored serigraphs to FAPC. It was a great way to inaugurate our gallery. Over the past twenty years, John has led a renaissance in biblical folk art in this country. His prints tell stories. They speak parables with layers of vibrant ink.
This week, John’s marvelous art returns to our church.
One of the pieces that will appear at FAPC for the first time is Jester. You may recognize it. With John’s permission, Jester is the image we are using to promote FAPC’s Winter/Lent Sermon Series: “A Faith that Blesses.” It will hang in our gallery for the next two months.
I like this image, largely because I think being a Christian is like being a jester. A court jester is a fool—a person whose job is to break the tension, to be the comic relief, and at the same time, to tell the truth. In fact, the court jester was sometimes the only figure capable of telling the truth to a powerful king or queen without being killed.
English painter, Cecil Collins once wrote, “The Fool is innocent, spontaneous and joyful, even Christ-like. As a result he may be ridiculed by conventional society, although he actually has the sight which they have lost.” St Francis of Assisi was known as “God’s Fool.” It’s not an insult. Ok, it is; but it is also an honorable title with biblical roots!
In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul observed that the ancient Greeks thought the early Christians were fools because of their beliefs. He could have written the same thing about contemporary New York City. Maybe we should lean into the description too.
We are called to be fools for Christ. We are jesters seeking to open windows of truth; clowns who long to bring light to dark places; bright-eyed hope-mongers who are forever trying to bless the world.
Join us this Sunday as we begin an exploration of Christ’s Beatitudes and as we talk about “A Faith that Blesses!” Bring a friend, and don’t forget to stop by the gallery on the way in to check out Jester.
If it feels like you are looking in a mirror… good!
See you in worship,
January 23rd, 2014 · Faith and the City
“Every generation of Christians is obligated to wrestle with theological controversy.” –Rowan Greer
Professor Greer illustrated this truth by taking his students on a semester-long tour of the Church’s fiercest and most important fights.
Along the way, he constantly reminded us that Church History is the record of Christian communities and individuals at conflict with the world, and Christian communities and individuals at conflict with each other.
The first major Christian controversy can be found in the New Testament. Right off the bat, Peter and Paul engaged in a dispute that threatened to divide the early Church. The apostles’ argument revolved around this question: “Who can be saved? Is Jesus’ message only for Jews (Peter’s position) or is it for all people (Paul’s position)?”
In fact, our argument about the Trinity resulted in the biggest church split of all time—The East-West Schism of 1054. This was one nasty church fight, and, in the year 1000, every culture, every village around the Mediterranean was talking about it. According to Greer, if you went to draw water at the village well, you would inevitably find yourself in a heated argument about the nature of the Trinity.
Really? People were that passionate about the Trinity? If I walked into Central Park right now, and tried—really tried—to engage passers-by in a debate over the nature of the Triune God, not only would I fail to connect, but you would likely see me on the six o’clock news in cuffs!
Times change. What can get one generation of Christians foaming at the mouth can become a (yawn!) non-issue for the next. You might think this fact would bring an end to hot button debates, but it doesn’t. That’s ok. Our most passionate debates keep us wrestling with what matters. These controversies are our way of asking—again and again—a set of basic but crucial questions:
- How do we read the Bible?
- How do we know God’s will?
- Who is Jesus and what does it mean to follow him?
- What kind of ethical behavior does God require of us?
- What holds Christian community together?
For the past 40 years, Christians in North America have been asking these five questions in relation to human sexuality. In particular, Presbyterians are asking these questions as they discuss an especially current question, “Is Same Sex Marriage, Christian Marriage?”
I plan on addressing this question in my sermon this Sunday. Then, following the 11:00 AM worship service, all of our clergy will participate in a panel discussion on this topic. I invite you to come and to bring a friend.
Bring a friend this Sunday? Are you serious, preacher?
Absolutely! I trust this community. I have every confidence that we (clergy, congregation and guests) will be able to engage this conversation in a way that considers the issue and that models a faith shaped by and focused on Jesus. I have every confidence that we will be able to hold onto each other with grace and love as we talk about these important matters.
See you in worship,
January 9th, 2014 · Faith and the City
One of my former colleagues, Stan Hall, kept an assortment of bottles in his office. It was his water collection. Containers of various shapes and colors held Stan’s special waters. There was a plastic bottle of spring water blessed by Pope John Paul II. There was a bright blue flask of “caffeinated” water. There was even a tin of dehydrated water—just add water and you’ll get….
My favorite piece in Stan’s collection was a clear medicine bottle. In it, tiny clusters of algae floated in murky liquid. The hand-printed label read, “Jordan River Water.”
Stan explained that this small bottle once belonged to a pastor who had smuggled it back from the Holy Land. He used its muddy contents to add “authentic flavor” to worship. You see, every time this pastor would perform a baptism, he would contribute a few precious drops of Jordan River water to the baptismal font.
Now, don’t worry, the water used for baptism at FAPC has no exotic additives. It comes straight from the spigot—“New York’s Finest”—a source that is both hygienically safe and theologically suitable.
Still, Stan’s algae-filled bottle makes me wonder. Surely, the pastor with his eyedropper knew that there is nothing magical about water from the Jordan River. It has no special properties—no distinctly Christian qualities—that make it any more holy than safely chlorinated tap water. Water is water. Surely, that pastor knew, as he measured out each treasured tear, that any old water would do for a baptism?
This Sunday we are going to be talking about the sacred power of water.
Join us and bring a friend as we go down by the river to pray!
December 15th, 2013 · Sharp Prayers
Lord, in this holy season,
on this day of prayer and laughter,
we praise you.
We praise you for the wonders you have sent:
for a brilliant star and angels’ song,
for the shepherds’ courage and a maiden’s strength,
for light—light that comes when all seems dark.
We yearn to be seized by the poetry of Christmas:
heaven wrapped in a barnyard,
the unfathomable source of all being
reaching out to grasp our hand,
the face of love revealed.
Oh my. What can we do?
We kneel. We kneel before you.
We praise you for the Word made flesh.
We behold his glory.
We crouch in quiet awe before the little child.
Help us to rise from our knees as changed people.
Make us less afraid.
Make us more loving and more confident in your love.
Make us bigger than we are.
Make us yours—your emissaries—your children.
This we pray, with hearts overflowing,
for the one who taught us to talk with you,
by saying, “Our Father…
December 13th, 2013 · Faith and the City
At our house, the boxes have been carted up from the basement storage bin. The Christmas tree is in its stand, and the lights are strung. My wife’s Scandinavian straw goats (don’t ask!) have appeared. Stockings are hung by the chimney with care.
I have also unpacked our overly big carton of Christmas children’s books. We all have our favorites. Here are three that I commend to you as we get closer to Christmas 2013:
- The first is called simply The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas. The text is basically Luke’s nativity from The New King James, but you want to get this book for its fabulous illustrations –pictures that make the text come alive for even the smallest among us!
- I always recommend (especially in the week leading up to Pageant Sunday) Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. This is a good out-loud reading experience for everyone age eight and up, and will have all within earshot laughing at the antics of the Herdman kids — a rough-around-the-edges family who “get” the story of Christmas in a powerful way.
- Finally, for a snuggle-down bedtime story I love Kate DiCamillo’s Great Joy. In this story, we get to look at the world through the eyes of little Frances as she contemplates her one line in the church pageant: “I bring you good tidings of great joy!”
I look forward to seeing you Sunday as our little ones proclaim the story of Christ’s birth to us.
See you in worship,
December 5th, 2013 · Faith and the City
I love New York City. It is my father’s birthplace. All four of my grandparents found work in Gotham. It is a thrilling metropolis overflowing with fascinating people, important challenges and unparalleled energy. There is one thing, however, that New York is not.
It is not quiet.
At this time of year, as flocks of tourists pass through our beloved home, clogging the sidewalks and lifting our tax base, I find myself longing for moments when “all is calm.”
We’ve got the “all is bright” part covered!
As a teenager, clad in a serious down jacket, I would walk to the edge of our rural Minnesota yard, where a stand of Norway pines met the neighboring farmer’s pasture. There, I would flop on my back in the snow.
It was quiet. Not silent, but quiet. It was quiet enough that you could hear things that you normally cannot hear: the cluck of a roosted pheasant, the creak of a tree trunk, the soft thud of snow dropping from a branch.
I honestly don’t remember what I thought about in those moments, but I do remember knowing that I needed this quiet, contemplative space in my life. Without it, I felt somewhat rudderless. I was going about my tasks, but I couldn’t tell you whether or not the stuff that had me so busy was important.
My prayer for you, and for me too, is that this week you will find time to (metaphorically speaking) throw yourself backwards into the snow, time to think big thoughts, and focus yourself amongst the hustle and the bustle.
Who knows what you’ll hear?
Then, I’ll see you on Sunday, as we pay a visit to the next house on our Christmas tour of homes. This week, we are stopping by Matthew’s abode, and (in a hint of what’s to come) I’ve got to tell you that there are A LOT of cars parked in his driveway.
See you in worship,
November 29th, 2013 · Faith and the City
“What deals are we going to score on Black Friday, Daddy?”
As many of you know, the term “Black Friday” has been around since the 1960’s. It refers to the fact that on this day of prodigious shopping many stores move from “red ink” to “black ink” in their accounting records—indicating a profit for the year.
It is something of a marketing miracle that we have come to view a bookkeeping milestone as “the best shopping day of the year.” Yet, this past Tuesday, I actually heard a person confess that she would “feel guilty” if she wasn’t part of the scrum. No wonder some have been stampeded trying to get the best deals!
This year, for the second year in a row, I am boycotting Black Friday.
I am not doing it as a protest against capitalism. I figure the stores deserve to profit, their hard-working employees deserve to be paid, and the economy needs the boost. I also figure the marketing people are just doing their jobs stimulating that part of our brains that says, “I must have one of those and I must have it now!”
Instead, I am avoiding shopping because I refuse to have my calendar taken over by one more made-up day. Historians tell us that John Calvin purged the calendar in Geneva, Switzerland of all holidays that were not specifically related to Christ. I suppose that’s a bit extreme, but I respect Calvin’s inner curmudgeon!
If we are going to add days to our crazy calendars, I would rather that the new day ask us to contemplate simple, sacred things and engage in activities that will strengthen our souls and our relationships.
Last year, our family invented “Biscuit Day.” Biscuit Day falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In the morning, everyone gets floured up and makes biscuits. We eat the warm pastries with raspberry jam. Then we go out into Central Park, to a place where there are a lot of trees, and try to catch twirling, tumbling leaves—before they hit the ground! Even the dog joins in.
I hope you and your family had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I also hope that you will consider adding Biscuit Day—or some other food-for-your-soul day—to your calendar. Oh yah, and speaking of calendars, this Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. The greens are up. The sanctuary looks fabulous! Join us and bring a friend, as we begin the journey toward a holy Christmas.
See you in worship,