Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Orlando

June 14th, 2016 · Sharp Prayers

Dear Friends in Christ,

Over the last few days—in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando—I have had a difficult time reading the paper; a difficult time making it through each wrenching sentence.

I have felt alternatively numb and angry, bewildered and so very, very sad.

I have been making a little list of things that I know. It helps me to do this. When the ground about me is shaking, it helps me to write down my surest convictions—the places where I personally feel solid and certain.

Here is my short list:

  • I know that there is no easy solace that can be offered to the friends and family members of those murdered. I know this will hurt for a long, long time.
  • I know we can do better as a country when it comes to enacting and enforcing sane gun legislation.
  • I know that God’s heart breaks over these deranged acts of violence.
  • I know God loves the LGBT community just as much as God loves the straight community.
  • I know that the forces of evil despise love. They want to hurt love. This is the sad truth of Good Friday.
  • I also know that love—the bloodied, stubborn, refuse-to-stay-dead love Christ offers to the world—will eventually triumph. This is the deep promise of Easter morning.
  • I know that prayer matters.

In moments like this, some say the promise of prayer is weak and ineffective. They argue that prayer is a docile response to atrocity. I disagree. At times like this prayer is not the only action worth taking, but (make no mistake) prayer is an action worth taking.

Prayer focuses us. Prayer guides us. Prayer grounds us.

Will you pray with me?

O God, the only true source of wholeness and peace,
in a world bearing fresh wounds,
we ask for your help and guidance.

As we move through this hard time, please endow us with:
the compassion to embrace our LGBT neighbors,
the courage to bear one another’s burdens,
and hearts unafraid to weep with those who weep.  

As we consider our response to this tragedy,
save us from the desire for vengeance,
and from the temptation to rejoice in wrongdoing.
Help us take positive steps, real steps, bold steps
toward preventing future massacres. 

Fill us this day with the love of Christ
that we might seek good for all people.
Let us not be overcome by evil.
Help us overcome evil with good. 

Finally, O Lord, pour a balm on us, help us to heal,
for you alone are our refuge and strength,
our help in time of trouble.

Help us to show in our lives,
what we proclaim with our lips:
Good is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
hope is stronger than despair.

Amen.

 

Bless you and all those you love this day,

SBJ

 

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Summer Books 2016

May 27th, 2016 · Faith and the City

In his memoire, Confessions, St. Augustine famously describes his life’s lowest point.

One afternoon, while taking inventory of his misery, Augustine is overcome. He has a public meltdown. Crouching under a tree, sobbing uncontrollably, he pours out his heart. Eventually, he blames heaven for his predicament. “How long, O God,” asks Augustine, “will you be angry?”

Then, still choking back tears, Augustine hears a voice — the voice of a child, chanting, Tolle lege! Tolle lege!

Literally, “Take it and read!”

Interpreting this as a message from God, Augustine grabs a Bible, lets it fall open to a random passage, and begins to read.

The rest is history. In reading, Augustine is embraced by the radical love of God. In reading, Augustine is transformed.

I am reminded of Augustine’s story whenever I hold a book that was recommended to me by one of you. What could be better than having a friend write the name of a novel on a scrap of paper and say, Tolle lege?

Friends, with summer unofficially upon us, it is time to compare notes. What sort of life-changing reading material belongs alongside the detective novels on my summer reading stack? Here are a few already on my list:

David Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House, 2015)
In recent years, Brooks has moved from political punditry to something that looks a lot like public theology. In fact, Brooks claims that he wrote this book “to save [his] soul.” With a preamble like that, it had to go on my stack.

51F4A67SB9LChaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev (Knopf, 1972)
Twenty years ago I first read this powerful novel about a boy growing up in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn. Potok offers both a fascinating portrait of this subset of New York’s religious world and provocative grist for those interested in religion and the arts. This book will be the subject of our congregational book-read this fall.

James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press, 2016)
Protestant reformer Martin Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in is really your god.” Holding to this wisdom, Smith asks us to think about things we really love. Then he calls readers to look closely at classic Christian habits to see what sort of love these practices may stir up in our hearts. I’m in!

What’s on your summer stack? And what have you read lately that has been transformative? Please leave your recommendations here…

–SBJ

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What I Learned from Momma…

May 5th, 2016 · Faith and the City

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way,
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

–Martin Rinkart, 1636

560fe1eac7670f5ebfbc5a947b2ef4aaThis Sunday is Mothers Day. So, I am curious: “What’s the best advice your mother ever gave you?”

A few years ago, I posed this question. Here are some of my favorite replies:

  • “Sleep when the baby sleeps!”
  • “Your attitude is a choice you make each day. Choose wisely!”
  • “Wiggle the door nob.” In other words, just because an opportunity looks closed to you, doesn’t mean it actually is.
  • Marry someone you respect.”
  • “Just add butter.”
  • “Assume good intentions.”
  • “Keep the faith!”

My own mother was supportive, strong and smart. She was a master gardener and darn good cook. She drove a tractor and was crazy competitive at Trivial Pursuit.

She wasn’t big on dispensing wisdom, but I always knew where I stood with her. Watching her tackle life with gusto and her faith with grace was clear counsel.

I miss her mightily.

I know Mothers Day brings up all kinds of thoughts and emotions, but maybe a good way to reflect on this occasion is to ask: What’s the best advice your mother ever gave you?

Please share your thoughts, my wise friends.

See you in worship,

SBJ

PS  This Sunday, I will be preaching on the blessings that come when one generation shares its faith with the next, as together we continue our encounter with your favorite Bible passages.

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Short, but Sweet

April 14th, 2016 · Faith and the City

As a seminary intern leading a youth group at Seaside Presbyterian Church in Milford, Connecticut, I gave a dozen teenagers a simple assignment. “For next week, memorize your favorite Bible verse. Come prepared to recite it and to tell us why it is meaningful to you.”

Immediately, Patrick, a precocious fourteen year old responded, “Dibs on John 11:35.” Then he sat back, folded his arms and smiled. The rest of the youth group dove for the shelf full of Bibles.

Why was Patrick so smug?

The youth quickly discovered that Patrick had chosen to memorize the shortest verse in Scripture: “Jesus wept.” Soon the youth were turning pages, trying to find equally short and (they believed) corny verses to memorize.

Bibles-on-the-Shelf-570x380“Wait,” I implored, “Don’t forget, you have to do more than memorize. You have to explain why it is meaningful to you!” My words were lost in a sea of laughter. Another teen, Julian had just declared that he was going to memorize Job 19:17: “My breath is offensive to my wife.”

The next week, however, Patrick surprised me. Yes, he stuck with John 11:35. He recited the passage before his smirking peers: “Jesus wept.” Finally, though, he fulfilled the assignment–he fulfilled it beautifully. “This is passage is meaningful to me because it makes Jesus real. I can identify with someone who feel sadness like me.”

Patrick isn’t the only one.

Many of you answered our recent survey asking: What verses from Scripture inspire you? What passage is tattooed on your heart or scrawled on a card tucked in the corner of your bathroom mirror? The top two vote getters were: John 3:16 & 1 Corinthians 13. Not surprising. Solid standards!

Third place, however, may raise a few eyebrows: John 11:35. Yep, four of you listed the shortest verse in the Bible as your favorite. Were you mocking the question? I don’t think so. Like young Patrick, you offered powerful and poignant reasons for holding this verse close to your heart.

What could be inspirational about Christ’s tears? How do biblical laments guide us and give us hope?

This Sunday’s sermon is entitled: “God’s People Sing the Blues.”

See you in worship,

SBJ

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Dear Mr. Trump

March 24th, 2016 · Faith and the City

Dear Mr. Trump,

In light of the attacks this week in Brussels, I join you, other political candidates and all Americans in expressing heartache and solidarity with the people of Belgium.

At the same time, I cringe when I hear you call for “more waterboarding.”

Mr. Trump, you claim to be a Christian. You claim to be a Presbyterian. These claims have some validity. You were baptized with waters from the same baptismal font in Queens that received my father and my two uncles into the faith.

I serve the Presbyterian Church the closest to your home here in New York. I can see your tower out my window. You once sent your children here to Vacation Bible School. Although you are not a member here, we share many connections. Perhaps that explains why, on this Good Friday, I feel compelled to say something to you.

images-1The Christian faith teaches that torture is wrong.

In fact, for a Christian to make an argument in favor of torture is to miss a central point of our religion. In this I am reminded of the powerful words of the book of Hebrews: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

Here in the church closest to your home, we affirm our faith each week by saying creeds from the Christian tradition. One of the most frequent confessions that we affirm together is the Apostles’ Creed. At the center of this creed are sentences about Jesus of Nazareth that include the haunting words, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

Our most ancient confession highlights the fact that Jesus was tortured by the Roman government. This is the same Jesus who admonished his followers with the most uncomfortable ethical charge of all time: “Love your enemies.”

I am not (I like to think) naïve; I realize there are people in the world whose hatred knows no bounds. Yet, as fellow Christians, when we think about protecting ourselves and those we love, we must also grapple with the torture of Jesus. When we as a nation advocate for dehumanizing treatment and state-sponsored suffering, we are walking down a very dark path.

Yes, there are twisted people out there—people who even now are dreaming up terrible possibilities. Yet, despite the great burden that this places on our leaders, I implore you to remember Good Friday. As someone vying for the most powerful office in the land, I beg you, do not give in to the temptation to become what we so rightfully despise.

Sincerely,

Your Neighbor–SBJ

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Give it to Me, Chapter and Verse

March 11th, 2016 · Faith and the City

I have a question for you.
                                                               .

It’s the same question voters are putting to Presidential candidates at town hall meetings. It is a question that pastors get asked all the time. It is a question that a college chaplain posed to me sometime during my sophomore year.

John 3:16What is your favorite passage of Scripture?

What few verses from the Good Book most inspire you? Comfort you? Guide you? What verse is tattooed on your heart, or scrawled on a note card tucked in the corner of your bathroom mirror? What passage from the Bible gives you direction and hope?

I really want to know.

You see, your clergy have a plan. After Easter, we are going to start a 10-week sermon series on FAPC’s favorite verses. We’re calling it For the Bible Tells Me So.

To throw your two cents in, click on this link and tell us three things: 1) your name, 2) your favorite passage, and 3) a sentence or two about why it is your favorite. We’ll sort them and do the rest.

One of my twisted colleagues has already suggested that we turn this around next year and ask for your least favorite passages. We’ll see! For now, send us the verses closest to your heart, and we will go to work!

See you in worship,

SBJ

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@Table w/ the Confirmands

February 25th, 2016 · Faith and the City

It is a common icebreaker: “Name the person, living or dead, with whom you would most like to share a meal?”

Who will sit at table with you?An Australian food company recently posed this question to a group of adults. Predictably, their answers listed celebrities: Marylin Monroe, Justin Bieber, Jimi Hendrix, and Nelson Mandela.

After filming the adults, the director dismissed them. He then invited their children to sit before the cameras. Again he asked: “If you could share a meal with anyone in the world, who would it be?” As their parents watched from another room, the children—all of them—said that they would most like to have dinner with their families. Cue the waterworks!

You can watch the video here.

I love how children—in unscripted and unpretentious ways—so often point us in the direction of our better selves.

On Tuesday night, I witnessed another example of this. On Tuesday night, the Session of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church met with this year’s confirmands. These seventh and eighth graders sat at various tables in Bonnell Hall.

Then, between forkfuls of meatloaf, we began “to examine” them. The Presbyterian Church requires that the Session interview people who wish to be full members of the church. So, we asked them questions related to their confirmation studies and outreach service. We asked them about worship and the sacraments.

UnknownI even asked: “Who is God?” After thinking for a minute, one of the confirmands at my table responded, “God is the one I find when I walk into this church. I find God in the midst of all these people who have gathered to pray and try to do good. It feels like family to me.”

At this, I watched one of the elders sitting at the table dab at her eye.

For, of course, we all want to sit at table with family.

See you in worship,

SBJ

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Hold on to the Good

February 18th, 2016 · Faith and the City

Do you savor? Do you take time — pause-and-reflect time — to delight in the moments of grace and joy that flit through your life?

Unknown-4This morning I read something that troubled me. Psychologist Dan O’Grady claims that our negative experiences and critical thoughts have remarkable staying power. They stick to us like Velcro. They replay themselves in endless loops on the screen that drops down in front of our mind’s eye.

On the other hand, O’Grady says our positive experiences and joyful thoughts are fleeting. They slide away from us like eggs on Teflon.

I guess this all makes sense. It is important for humans to remember negative experiences so that we can avoid them going forward. A hot stove will burn your fingers. That dude in the next cubicle will insult you. Remembering these experiences can save us future pain. But what life-saving, face-saving benefit comes from re-reading a complimentary email?

Flowers fade. Scars last.

I know that’s true. Still, I fear that, over time, this dynamic might unbalance us. At the very least, it might make us cynical, disconnecting our ability to appreciate “the good.” And if we cannot hang on to “the good,” how can we possibly hang on to God?

Maybe, as Father Richard Rohr suggests, we need to work a little harder at letting the good things of life imprint on us.

I suggest that we take Rohr’s advice literally. Here’s why. When I get a positive letter, I will read it, smile, save it in a file and move on. When I get a negative letter, I will read it. Put it down. Come back to it. Now, the worst sentence in the letter — the one that really twists my innards — has been imprinted on my brain. It is in my memory. It goes with me wherever I go. It eats at me.

What if we were as dedicated, as diligent, as persistent in taking time to contemplate — to savor —- the moments that give us joy and hope and a sense of purpose? What if we took time to lift up the positives as often as we lift up our struggles to God in prayer?

What would become of us?

Buddy the ElfWould we all become “Cotton-headed Ninnymuggins”? The naïve Will Ferrell from “Elf”? Or would we become something more, something deeper?

This Sunday, my friends, we are going to contemplate what comes from drinking deeply and slowly of God’s grace!

See you in worship,
SBJ

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The Souper Bowl

February 5th, 2016 · Faith and the City

About 12 years ago, I met the Rev. Brad Smith. Brad told me an amazing story.

In 1990, he was an associate pastor at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. On Super Bowl Sunday, Brad offered a simple prayer as the church’s youth group settled down to watch the big game:

Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat.

This prayer (together with a nudge from the Holy Spirit!) caught the attention of the youth. They asked, “What can we do to make a difference?” After some discussion, they decided to hold a canned goods drive to benefit community food pantries in Columbia. They invited other area churches to participate.

Twenty-two churches in Columbia participated in that first food drive, collecting $5,700 in canned goods and cash for local hunger programs. The youth were pleased. Their efforts were a success, and the Souper Bowl of Caring was born.

They had no idea what they had started!

In the ensuing years, more and more youth groups began to follow the example set by the teens from Spring Valley Presbyterian. They collected canned goods and cash on Super Bowl Sunday. Then each youth group talked about hunger in their community, and made plans for using the money and supplies to support local hunger relief programs.

While it began with Presbyterians, youth groups from every denomination soon joined this act of service. Along the way, their charitable efforts caught the attention of the NFL. Eventually it was embraced by both President George H.W. Bush and President Jimmy Carter — two leaders who became Souper Bowl Ambassadors.

UnknownSince Brad first prayed his simple grace, 25 Big Games have been played, and in that time American youth groups have raised over $100 million for combatting hunger in their communities.

It is remarkable what one heartfelt prayer and the courage of young people can accomplish.

This Sunday, we will begin our Lenten sermon series, @Table w/Jesus. We will look with new eyes at those whom Jesus chooses to sit alongside at supper. We will gather around the table where he alone is the host. And yes, after worship, FAPC youth will collect canned goods and donations for local food pantries.

It will be a feast!

See you in worship,

SBJ

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Slush

January 28th, 2016 · Faith and the City

This past Monday put me in a grumpy mood.

Unknown-2After dropping my son off at school, I negotiated icy sidewalks and slush clogged intersections trying to make my way back to the subway. It was a ridiculous mess. Trudging along in single file with other commuters and school children, I began muttering about scofflaws who had not shoveled their walks and bus stops that were completely inaccessible.

At 108th and Columbus, I waited my turn and climbed a five-foot mound of snow. Descending, I paused to consider how best to jump out into the crosswalk. Evidently, I made a poor choice. My ankle twisted. Executing an awkward pirouette, I fell sideways into a six-inch deep pool of black slush.

As the filthy, frosty water soaked through every layer of my clothes, my first thought (I kid you not) was: “This is the Mayor’s fault!” Blaming the Mayor, by the way, is a good way to test whether or not you are a seasoned New Yorker. If something bad happens to you in the city, anywhere, at any time, what should you do? If you have spent five years or more in Gotham, odds are that your knee-jerk, purely reflexive response will be: “Why do we have such an inept City Hall?!”

On Monday, however, I did not have an opportunity to breakfast on bitterness for very long. Not long at all. In seconds, I was surrounded by a group of junior high students. “Whoa,” said one, “Are you alright?” Quickly, hands reached out and I was helped to my feet by a group of kids who looked like they could pose for a United Nations poster highlighting diversity.

They escorted me to the other side of the street, asked again if I was ok, and headed off to school. As I scraped ice off my pants and rubbed my sore elbows, I marveled at these teenage Good Samaritans. They had helped me up, but even more importantly, they had redeemed me from my own simmering anger.

Is it that simple? Can the fires of frustration and anger be fueled by something so basic as slush and a stumble? Can they be just as quickly doused by something so ordinary as a helping hand?

I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, but my experience this week has made me think. We all tend to believe our particular anger is righteous, but what if the anger in our hearts isn’t righteous at all? What is it is small-minded and selfish? What if God is trying to tug us free from its unhealthy grip and toss us back into life with an entirely different attitude?

This Sunday we are going to continue our conversation about the current set of challenges afflicting public discourse in this country and we are going to talk about what our faith can do to help us out of the slush.

See you in worship,

SBJ

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