Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Race

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,

SBJ

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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,

SBJ

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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,

SBJ

 

 

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Hello Cruel World

September 19th, 2014 · Faith and the City

One afternoon this past summer, I walked into the living room to find my 15-year-old in tears. Izzy was holding a historical novel she had been reading all day.”What’s up?” I asked.

She explained that the novel took place during the reign of Henry VIII. The two main characters were a young man and a young woman who had endured some pretty hard knocks in 16th-century England. Toward the end of the story, though, things were looking up. They were in love.

Then the final chapter of the book pulled the rug out from under its hopeful readers. The young man was sent to the Tower of London and killed.

With damp eyes, Izzy protested: “Why would an author do something like this? I want to throw this book in the garbage.” Looking at her, I paused. Then I headed down a path all parents have to travel: “Sometimes, honey, that’s the way the world is. Sometimes it’s just plain cruel.”

SOCRATESThe great philosopher Socrates is credited with saying (and I paraphrase here): “What trips us up most in life is the picture in our head of how things are supposed to be.”

Mostly, I think Socrates is right. If we approach life as if it were a fairy tale in which we are the triumphant heroes, we are going to be sadly, painfully disappointed. Rose-colored glasses will mess you up. But at the same time, I also suspect that Izzy’s horror at the ending of her book is a sign of moral character.

Does facing reality require that we surrender our visions for a better world, a more just society or a less-violent planet?

Iris MurdochSure, having a picture of “how things are supposed to be” can break your heart. (Regularly!) But it also gives us the courage to act, to change and to make a difference.

The great Irish philosopher Iris Murdoch puts our almost-mystical challenge best: “We can only act in the world we see.”

This Sunday we are going to continue our journey through the Book of Acts. We are going to ask:What does Luke see when he looks at the early Church? His answer strikes me as both spooky and inspiring!

See you in worship,

SBJ

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Where’s Home?

September 10th, 2014 · Faith and the City

home“Where is home?”

Is “home” where you were born? Is it where your parents live? Is it where you know the rules and crave the local barbeque? Or is “home” is where your favorite chair sits? Is it where you pick up your mail? Pay the rent? Perhaps “home” is a work in progress—a dream that you hope to make real?

Where’s home?

My grandfather DeWolf would have answered without pause. He lived from birth to death in the same Dutch farmhouse in northern New Jersey. He knew exactly where home was. On the other hand, my wife Amy and I have led a far more mobile existence. In twenty-three years of marriage, we have nested in New Jersey, Texas, Georgia and New York. We also spend time every summer in North Carolina and Minnesota.

A few weeks ago, while locking the door to the small house in Duluth, Minnesota that used to belong to Amy’s grandmother, my bride and I engaged in a familiar litany. “Where’s home?” Amy asked. My response never varies, “It’s where you are, darling!”

I wonder… Is home the scent in the air and the soil under your feet? Or is it the people who stand around you? Maybe it’s both.

In August, I stopped by FAPC to check on Vacation Bible School. Among the energetic kids, I ran into a mom I hadn’t seen in a couple months. “How are you doing?” She took a deep breath, looked around at her friends and their children, smiled at me and said, “It feels so good to be here.”

Maybe home is that magic combination of place and people that feels comfortable, happy and safe.

house_on_hill_scene_color_2Near the end of his life, the prophet Moses was traveling through the wilderness with people who had recently escaped from slavery. As they moved through the desert, the people kept asking their leader: “Where’s home? Where’s this promised land?” Responding, Moses assured them that: “The eternal God is thy dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (KJV, Deut. 33:27)

When considering the question “Where’s home?” our tradition answers by pointing to God.

God is home!

This Sunday is Homecoming Sunday at FAPC. It’s time, my friends, to breath deeply of the sanctuary’s air, to hear the choir’s voices swell, to see beloved faces, and, most of all, to be surrounded by God’s everlasting arms. Come home!

Oh, and before you come, would you do me a favor? Would you please watch this two-minute excerpt of “The Wayside Motor Inn”? I think it is a perfect conversation starter as we begin our new sermon series!

Eager to see you in worship,

Scott

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Summer Reading 2014

June 12th, 2014 · Faith and the City

Summer is upon us. Huzzah!!

With the promise of long days, tall glasses of iced tea (fresh mint in mine!) and blessed moments of respite comes one of the great pleasures in life: summer reading.

Here are a few of the things in my hammock-ready stack:

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

A few ago years, Christian Wiman, a well-known poet and the editor ofPoetry magazine, was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing treatment, Wiman formed a friendship with a pastor in Chicago and re-engaged his Christian faith. In My Bright Abyss, Wiman wrestles with mortality and the beautiful truths of our tradition.

You may remember that My Bright Abyss was on my reading list last summer, too. It’s here again because this book will be the focus of FAPC’s congregational reading project this fall. Wiman will be at FAPC speaking and signing books on Nov. 9. Pick up a copy now: I recommend reading My Bright Abyss a few pages at a time … like a devotional … or a poem. 

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (HarperOne, 2013)

Recommended by my dear friend Constance, this book is a wild, often hilarious, stream-of-consciousness rant against some of the sillier critiques of religion. More importantly, it is a testimony to what it really feels like to inhabit the inner emotions of Christianity. Spufford is smart, edgy, funny and wonderful.

Leif Enger, Peace Like a River (Atlantic Monthly, 2002) 

I have had this on my stack for a while, and now that J.C. Austin is recommending it, too, I am ready to commit. It is, I have been told, a religious road-trip novel set in Minnesota and North Dakota. Perfect!

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues(HarperOne, 2014) 

New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright always makes me think. I am eager to dig into his latest.

If you have a book to recommend, I still have room on the stack. Please post your faves and raves here. Like introducing someone to a new friend, there are few things better than the suggestion of a good read.

See you in worship,

SBJ

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What Does Grace Feel Like?

June 12th, 2014 · Faith and the City

A good friend and I have been emailing back and forth on the subject of grace. We have been considering whether grace feels good?

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Of course, grace feels good.

FOCYet, southern author and short-story virtuoso, Flannery O’Connor consistently suggested that grace is not a warm-fuzzy feeling, but is more akin to a hard knock on the head–something that wakes us up and frees us from the worst things that shackle our souls.

In a similar vein, I came across this quotation from C.S. Lewis:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

 

     –C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

 

Have you ever had a time when it felt like God was renovating your “house”? Did it feel like grace?

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The University of Adversity

May 30th, 2014 · Faith and the City

Dr. Cleo LaRueThis Sunday, FAPC welcomes back to its pulpit the Rev. Dr. Cleophus LaRue.

Dr. LaRue has written seven books and numerous articles on preaching and currently holds the Francis Landey Patton Professorship of Homiletics at Princeton Seminary. He is America’s foremost expert on African American preaching and an honest-to-goodness “stem-winder” in the pulpit.

Cleo is also my dear friend.

I have known this fine pastor for 25 years. We have been through a lot together. I first met Cleo in a PhD seminar at Princeton Seminary. Cleo had already served two churches in Texas and worked with the legendary Dr. Gardner Taylor here in New York.

I was in awe of his wisdom and experience. I was new to doctoral work, had never served a church before, and like so many 20-somethings, I was eager to prove myself.

During these early days, Cleo and I had a running debate that went like this: I would ask, “Cleo, do you think I am capable of teaching black students how to preach?” Cleo would respond, “Yes, but I can do it better.” “Oh, really!” I would reply, and we were off and running.

Eventually, I figured out that my friend was teaching me an important lesson about context. He was arguing that he knew the context of certain students better than I did, and because of that, it made him a better instructor for those students.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I really understood his point. This time, I was sitting with Cleo in the office of the senior pastor of an African American church in Austin, Texas. It was Martin Luther King weekend, and Cleo was going to be preaching in a few minutes. As we sat there, I looked around and remarked on the odd fact that there were no windows in the pastor’s office.

Cleo smiled. Then he taught me again.

Brick Through a Church Window“Scott,” he said, “during Jim Crow and throughout the Civil Rights movement, black pastors were looked upon as leaders who might have influence over their communities. If you want to intimidate a community, you had best start by intimidating its leaders. So it was not uncommon for a brick to come smashing through a sanctuary window, or for someone to drive by and aim a shotgun blast at a church. A lot of congregations decided it was safer if the pastor’s office did not have any windows.”

My friend Cleo never scolded me, never made me feel ashamed at my ignorance. In his gracious way, for 25 years, he has taught me and held me to a higher standard for what it means to preach the gospel in a complicated and not always very nice world.

It is an honor to have him back at FAPC to preach this Sunday (at 10 am!) on the subject “The University of Adversity.”

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Prayer for a Field Mouse

April 27th, 2014 · Sharp Prayers

Prayer for a Field Mouse by Pat Riviere-Seel

Harvest MouseBless the gray mouse

that found her way

into the recycle bin.

Bless her tiny body,

no bigger than my thumb,

huddled and numb

against the hard side.

Bless her bright eye,

a frightened gleaming

that opened to me

and the nest she made

from shredded paper,

all I could offer.

Bless her last hours

alone under the lamp

with food and water near.

Bless this brief life

I might have ended

had she stayed hidden

inside the insulation.

Bless her body returned

to earth, no more

or less than any creature.

“Prayer for a Field Mouse” by Pat Riviere-Seel from Nothing Below but Air. © Main Street Rag, 2014.

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Jesus is on the Loose!

April 22nd, 2014 · Faith and the City

Empty!

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