Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Thank God for Chipped China

November 26th, 2015 · Sharp Prayers

“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”

–Philippians 2:3-5

Dear Friends in Christ,

96204543_franciscan-desert-rose-usa-oval-platter-chipped-rim-ebayToday, the Black Johnston family will set the table with an eclectic set of china: Dinner plates given to us on our wedding day almost 25 years ago. A chipped platter that my mother passed along. A bowl that Amy found on E-bay. And tea cups that once belonged to her grandmother.

I am not sure that Martha Stewart would approve, but it will be perfect. Then, we will sit down and give thanks.

As we bow our heads, I will be thinking of you. I will.

Like everything else, I suppose, stories about religion and people of faith that make the news are sensational. A good bit of it is downright terrible. Still, I know (and you do too) that this is only part of the story.

So this Thanksgiving, as we sit down to pray, I will give thanks for you. I will give thanks for everyone who lives out their faith in ways that do not make headlines. I will give thanks for the countless acts of love and kindness that you—and people like you—act out everyday.

I will give thanks for all of the imperfect, chipped souls who sense, underneath and in the midst of all the messiness of life, the presence of the God who cares and loves, and who inspires us to do the same.

May God bless you with travelers’ mercies and courage this Thanksgiving.

See you in worship very soon. Advent is upon us and we have reason for an abundance of hope,


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A Prayer for Paris

November 13th, 2015 · Sharp Prayers

God of Compassion,
we pray for the people affected by the terrorist attacks in Paris.

We pray for the wounded.
We pray for families who have lost loved ones.
We pray for the fire, police, military and ambulance staff on the scene.
We pray for the doctors and nurses caring for the injured.

Holy and Righteous God,
these cynical and cowardly acts have shaken us.

Comfort the hurting. Hold them tight, Good Shepherd.
Surround this world with a strong sense of your care.
Bring justice to the perpetrators of this evil.
Inspire all your children to break these devastating cycles of violence.
Out of these terrible happenings, weave wonders of goodness and grace.

This we ask in the precious name of Jesus,
whose life, death and resurrection
are an ever-present witness to the good news
that–in You–love will always triumph over violence.

May your truth and your way
rule over our hearts this day and always. Amen.

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Christ Actually

November 7th, 2015 · Faith and the City

Who is Jesus Christ to you?

Is he the same, gentle figure you met in your Children’s Bible? The same healer your Sunday School teachers told you about? The same Messiah you wrestled with in high school? The same Divine whose nature you questioned when doubts first swirled through your head?

It’s likely that, whenever and wherever you first met Jesus, he has changed. 

Or rather, your understanding of Jesus — what he means in your life, what he means to the world — has changed.

Unknown-1This fall, many of us have been reading James Carroll’s Christ Actually: Reimagining Faith in a Secular World. Carroll is our guest this Sunday for a special Adult Education event. A year ago, he penned an op-ed in theNew York Times titled “Jesus and the Modern Man.” He wrote about the “intellectual obstacles to faith” in our modern age, and wondered what purpose Christ, and Christ’s Church, had for us anymore.If you haven’t read Christ Actuallyread the New York Times piece. It will tell you a lot about James Carroll. And I think you will come away as intrigued as I am to meet the man.

In Christ Actually, as Carroll the historian works out the meaning of Christ for the modern world, Carroll the altar boy, the seminarian, the former Catholic priest, the man of faith lingers in the margins, working out this same question for himself.

“I grew up during the Cold War,” he writes, “on bases of the United States Air Force, where my father, an Air Force general, served as a member of America’s nuclear priesthood.” Following that childhood, Carroll sought out a different priesthood, absorbing the Jesus of Roman Catholic theology, and eventually (this being the Sixties), the Jesus of social change.

Carroll left the priesthood to become a writer. But he never left Jesus. Or perhaps, Jesus never left him.

After publishing nine novels and a memoir, Carroll suddenly started writing about the Church. He went on a quest to strip away centuries of dogma and tradition … to reckon, as a person of faith, with the horrors of Auschwitz and 9-11 … to look with rational, questioning eyes at irrational claims of a God incarnate … and to figure out, for himself, who Jesus truly is.

Maybe you have been on the same quest in your own life. I know I have.

Where does this quest lead? Come on Sunday, and we’ll explore that question together. My conversation with James Carroll starts at 12:30 in Kirkland Chapel.

See you in worship, and afterward,


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Heroes, Villains and Violence

October 18th, 2015 · Faith and the City

NYC16My daily route to the church takes me past the Grand Army Plaza on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. From my seat on the bus, I have an unobstructed view of the plaza’s central attraction — the freshly gilded statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

A West Point graduate, Sherman settled in New York City after the Civil War. Sherman’s friends and other luminaries in the city were determined to honor the retired general. So they arranged for him to sit for the famous French sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Thirteen years later (a decade after Sherman’s death), Saint-Gaudens completed his masterwork. The statue was installed on Memorial Day, 1903.

Today the sculpture remains indisputably majestic. Covered in gold leaf, Sherman faces South astride a warhorse. Under the horse’s hooves are pine boughs. The southern orientation and crushed foliage are symbols of Sherman’s military campaign in Georgia.

Noticing them, I always remember how Sherman is viewed in the South. There, Sherman isn’t a hero. He’s a villain — reviled and hated.

After the fall of Atlanta in 1864, Sherman’s forces burned a good deal of the city to the ground. Sherman next led his army on an infamous march across the state, stealing food, torching barns and, as the general himself put it, “smashing everything on the way to the sea.”

Military historians debate Sherman’s tactics. Was he a heartless madman determined to punish the South by destroying everything in his path? Or was he a savvy strategist whose actions, while certainly brutal, hastened the end of a bloody war?

Every day, I pass by Sherman. Every day, I remember how one person’s hometown hero can be another’s villain. And every day, I think about violence.

Actually, far too often I am already thinking about violence by the time I pass Sherman. Chances are the clock radio has woken me up with the latest gut-churning account of humans hurting humans. If not, the morning paper has inevitably headlined with a photo chronicling the violence of our time.

I try to take account of each story. Sort it. Sift it. Is this an instance of appropriate violence? Did this person engage in “a necessary evil”? Or was it simply a case of wanton hurtfulness?

As I process, I tug at other related threads. I wonder if all the violence we are consuming — in the news, in movies, in video games — is warping us. Are we being seduced by its horrors? Are we becoming numb? Cynical?

This Sunday, we are going to talk about violence. It is not an easy topic. Yet for people who would tag along after Jesus, there may be no more important conversation.

See you in worship,


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Another Sharp Prayer from St. Augie!

October 6th, 2015 · Sharp Prayers

A Prayer for Strength and Courage
Attributed to St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

God of life,
there are days when the burdens we carry
rub our shoulders raw and weigh us down;
there are days when the road seems dreary and endless,
the skies grey and threatening;
there are days when our lives have no music in them,
when our hearts are lonely,
and our souls have lost their courage.

God of life,
flood our path with light,
turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;
tune our hearts to brave music;
give us the sense of comradeship
with heroes and saints of every age;
and so quicken our spirits
that we may be able to encourage
the souls of all who journey with us
on the road of life,
to your honor and glory.


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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,

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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,


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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!

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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!”

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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.


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