Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

Sharp About Your Prayers header image 1

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

→ 3 CommentsTags:·····

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?

→ No CommentsTags:··

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.”

→ 2 CommentsTags:···

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.

→ No CommentsTags:···

Jesus is on the Loose!

April 22nd, 2014 · Faith and the City

Empty!

Comments OffTags:··

Good Friday Prayer

April 17th, 2014 · Sharp Prayers

It is Friday, Holy One, and we stand at the foot of the cross.
Where shall we cast our eyes?
We look down. We glance to the side.
We stare inward. We look up… at him.
Mantegna CrucifixionMy God, my God, what does this mean?
How is this sacred?
How can this save?
How is this love?
This is a hard place to stand.
We want to run away.
Yet you, gracious God, bid us stay.
So we ask for courage, patience and calm.
Help us to watch and listen and pray.
It is Friday, and we stand at the foot of the cross.
Hold on to us here.
Do not let us go.
This we pray in the precious name of Jesus, our suffering Lord. Amen.

 

→ 3 CommentsTags:··

Ticket to Ride

April 10th, 2014 · Faith and the City

When Jesus traveled around the ancient world, he did so on foot. He walked from village to village, from plateau to lakeside, from Galilee to Jerusalem.

In all of his travels, Jesus walked.

Right up, until Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, the gospels tell us, Jesus rode. What led Jesus to cash in his miles and upgrade for this leg of his trip?

Maybe he wanted to make a grand entrance. Maybe he finally embraced the hopes of the crowds. Maybe he intended to enter the city like a king—like a Messiah—like the old prophet Zechariah had promised:

Rejoice 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)
 

Palm SundayRejoice. Shout aloud. Jesus is riding into Jerusalem, although his “ride” isn’t much of an upgrade over walking. His steed is a donkey!? Conquering heroes don’t ride donkeys. Kings don’t ride donkeys—not real ones, not powerful ones who can make a difference. Is this a joke? This dude has no chance at leading a rebellion against Rome. Slowly, the people stop stripping psalms from nearby trees and start asking each other questions: “What kind of Messiah is this?”

According to Matthew, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

This Sunday we will join the citizens of ancient Jerusalem. We will wave greenery in the air. We will sing triumphant songs. We will start the journey of Holy Week by studying the donkey and his rider.

We will cry out from the simultaneously hopeful and skeptical places inside of us: “Who is this?”

See you in worship,

SBJ

Comments OffTags:····

In the Presence of My Frenemies

April 3rd, 2014 · Faith and the City

As the parent of a teenager, I enjoy eavesdropping on the ever-fresh vocabulary of high school students. One of the most evocative and fascinating terms that my daughter uses is frenemy.

Frenemy, of course, is a mash-up of friend and enemy. It describes a person who is a helpful companion some of the time and a rival at others. It can also refer to someone who pretends to be a friend, but is actually an enemy: the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Spite NYTIMESAll in all, the word frenemy demonstrates that today’s teens are pretty savvy when it comes to the fickle nature of human relationships. The friend who talks you through a bad experience on Monday can become the enemy gossiping about your troubles on Tuesday. The person privately encouraging you to seek a promotion at work can undercut you in chasing the same promotion. That’s a frenemy.

In my day, the high school terminology about relationships included the quaint “going steady.” It was an optimistic thing (and a big commitment!) to assert that you were “going steady” with someone. To openly refer to people as frenemies sounds more jaded, but it is also more realistic. Our relationships with other people are not always, or even mostly, “steady.” They can fluctuate from warm to cold, from supportive to combative.

Life teaches us that our closest friends — people we have leaned on in times of personal struggle — are also those capable of wounding us most deeply.

Somebody once asked me, “Why, in Psalm 23, does the psalmist say, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies? Who wants to sit at a table with their enemies?” I replied that I thought this famous verse was a taunt: “I am having a feast, and my enemies can only look at me enjoying myself and lick their lips.”

Recently, though, I have been considering another interpretation. I have begun to think that the psalmist was acknowledging something that contemporary teens know quite well: Every day we study with, play sports with, work alongside and sit at table with frenemies.

In a famous sermon, “You are Accepted,” theologian Paul Tillich described the imperfect dynamics underlying even the strongest friendships. He wrote, “There is something in the misfortune of our best friends which does not displease us. Who amongst us is dishonest enough to deny that this is true?” Ouch.

If Tillich is right, sin factors in all of our relationships. All of them. Even those we value most highly. Hearing this, we may want to protest: Surely we don’t feel the same way about our next-door neighbors as we do about the Taliban? There are enemies, and then there are enemies. Right?

This Sunday we will be wrestling with these very questions. Join us as we conclude our Lenten journey through the Sermon on the Mount by considering Jesus’ teachings on enemies and frenemies.

See you in worship,

SBJ

Comments OffTags:·····

A Prayer for Help and Healing

March 30th, 2014 · Sharp Prayers

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

Holy God, Blessed Comforter,
we bow our heads before you.
We yearn to push worries aside
to focus on you, to talk with you,
but it is difficult.
So difficult.
 
We are distracted, skeptical and afraid.
Anxious thoughts lurk in our heads like prowlers.
As soon as things go quiet,
they hijack our imagination.
They take over…
gobbling up our attention, our energy, our confidence.
 
So, basically, God…
 
We need your help…
 
Help managing
our responsibilities,
our expectations,
and our burdens.
 
We need your help…
 
Help figuring out
what to do,
how to spend our days,
where to stand and what to stand for.
 
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
 
We pray for wisdom, Precious Lord.
 
Gift us with good judgment
so that we know
what to let go of
and what to cling to
in this life.
 
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
 
We pray for compassion, Precious Lord.
 
Gift us with soft hearts
as we hike these corridors of concrete and steel.
Give us strength to walk the second mile
and to care for those in need.
 
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
 
We pray for healing, Precious Lord.
 
Gift us and our loved ones
with clear and hopeful minds,
and with bodies that work.
 
Free us from the demons of addiction.
Pry the talons of hate from our souls.
Hold onto us as we grieve.
Shower us with grace.
 
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.
 
Hear our prayers, O God,
and be present to us this day
and throughout the coming week.
 
This we ask… this we pray
using the words you taught us,
saying,
“Our Father…” 

→ 1 CommentTags:····

Seekers and Dwellers

March 13th, 2014 · Faith and the City

One of the most helpful books regarding religious change in North America is Robert Wuthnow’s After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.

In this very readable study, Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University, sees a pattern playing out in American spirituality over the last half century. 
He describes this pattern through the ingenious use of one of the central stories in the Old Testament: the Exodus.

In studying the Exodus, Wuthnow asks: “How would we describe the spirituality of the Hebrew people after they left oppression and slavery in Egypt?”

Then he asks a series of smaller questions:

Who were their clergy? Their main clergyperson was a prophet — Moses. He was in charge of leading the people through a harsh land: keeping the people fed, safe from marauders and focused on God’s plan for their lives.

Where did they worship? They worshipped in a tent — a temporary structure that could be raised and lowered each day.

Pillar of Fire and CloudWhat did God look like? God was on the move. God was a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the people through the wilderness.

What concerns did they bring to God? They were worried about survival. Would they have enough food and water to make it from day to day? Was the life they were headed toward better than the life they had left behind?

Eventually, the Hebrew people do leave the wilderness and settle “the land of milk and honey.” As they set up homes, farms and villages in the new land, their spirituality changes. So, Wuthnow asks the same questions again:

Who were their clergy? Their clergy were priests — individuals skilled in administration and ordering communal life.

Where did they worship? They worshipped in temples — permanent stone structures suitable for a settled people.

TempleWhat did God look like? God was thought to reside, to touch the earth, in the Holy of Holies, a special place inside the temple.

What concerns did they bring to God? They were worried about invading armies, and they were concerned with establishing laws that would make communal living both possible and faithful.

According to Wuthnow, American spirituality moves back and forth like a pendulum between these two types of spirituality. He calls the spirituality of the Hebrew people in the wilderness “a spirituality of seeking.” He calls the spirituality of the Hebrew people who have settled the land “a spirituality of dwelling.”

Which spirituality seems more like you? Are you a seeker? Or a dweller?

I look forward to hearing your responses.

Comments OffTags:·····