Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Sooner or Later… Church!

April 27th, 2017 · Faith and the City

Church is the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity. But church is difficult.
Sooner or later, though, if we are serious about growing up in Christ,
we have to deal with church. I say sooner.
Eugene Peterson

A clergy friend of mine once said, “God sure chose a crazy, leaky vessel to help save save the world!” He was talking about the church.

Almost everyone, inside and outside the institution, can list aspects of church that are (or have been) messed up.

From a historical standpoint, we can point to shameful moments when elements of the church came down on the wrong side of an important issue. I once taught at a Presbyterian seminary in Texas where one of my predecessors on the faculty (over a hundred years earlier) had authored articles defending the practice of slavery.

On a personal level, we can point to churches and clergy who haven’t lived up to our high expectations for the institution and its servants.

On a heartbreaking level, we can list churches that have hurt us (friends and family, too) by substituting abusive talk for the good news of Jesus Christ and his message of justice, grace and love.

On the just plain wacky level, we can point to fraudulent and downright clownish distortions of our tradition in the contemporary world — manifestations of church that make us cringe and wish we could revoke their right to use the adjective “Christian” to describe their activities.

The church is an imperfect institution. And yet, I love it. I know you do, too.

I love this sometimes-awkward, clearly flawed collection of disciples, because I am convinced that my friend is right: God is using the church (warts and all) to save the world. I also believe that God is using the church to save us. Yes, we who show up to light the candles, sing the hymns, say the prayers and feed the homeless need saving, too.

For the next four weeks, we are going to examine, in worship, “The Case for Church.” We are going to talk about how the church nurtures and shapes us; how the church cultivates critical moral conversations for the wider society; and how the church fosters an ethic of justice and hope.

Does this sound like work? It is. As Eugene Peterson points out, church is difficult. It supposed to be. Church is difficult like working out is difficult. It is difficult like getting along with family is difficult. Jesus never intended for church to be a spa. It’s a gym. It’s a challenging conversation. It is a place where our own notions of God are often challenged; where our self-righteousness and narcissism are exposed; where deep hurts can be salved, and we can grow in hope.

Church is the crazy, leaky vessel where, sooner or later, we Christians must engage if we want our hearts to be shaped to do God’s will and work in the world.

See you (and any skeptics you might be able to drag along) in worship,


p.s. — With spring (finally?) here, what better way to spend a Saturday than outdoors in the Hudson valley? FAPC Serves, our annual, all-congregation day of service, is heading north to Holmes Presbyterian Camp & Conference Center on May 6. And we can use your energy! Sign up today, and bring family and friends along!

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Temperance — Virtue #4

March 24th, 2017 · Faith and the City

A few years ago, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns turned his attention to a fascinating thread in the tapestry of American history: Prohibition.

With an eye for quirky characters and an ear for the idiom of the age, Burns’ series unpacks the events leading to the adoption of the 18th amendment to the Constitution (1920) — banning the production, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages — and its subsequent repeal (1933).

It is a fascinating film.

Central to this American story is the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Formed in 1870, the WCTU would (within 20 years of its formation) become the largest women’s organization in the world.

The WCTU’s expressed purpose was to embody the counsel offered by the ancient Greek thinker Xenophon, who wrote, “Moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful.”

Some criticized the Temperance Movement for being led by killjoys advancing prudish doctrines. The reality was far more complex.
Burns describes the historical context:
By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol a year — three times as much as we drink today — and alcohol abuse (primarily by men) was wreaking havoc on the lives of many, particularly in an age when women had few legal rights and were utterly dependent on their husbands for sustenance and support.
In the late 19th century, the ravages of alcohol abuse were devastating American families. The WCTU provided fed-up women with an avenue of hope, a way to resist the rot that was eating away at their towns and families. Together they worked toward a ban on “sin substances” like alcohol and tobacco. They also joined forces with those working for women’s suffrage.
The president of the WCTU, Frances Willard, frequently argued that women were “the morally superior sex” and needed to be able to vote, so that they could act on their natural inclination to safeguard families and cure society’s ills!
This Sunday, in our ongoing study of Christian virtues, we are going to turn our attention to Temperance. What does it mean to seek moderation in this life? Is this an antiquated goal, a prudish instinct? Or is Temperance still wise counsel when it comes to dealing with alcohol (and a whole lot more)?
See you in worship,
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The State of Your Faith

February 9th, 2017 · Faith and the City

Do me a favor. Please take 10 minutes at some point today and consider this question: “How’s your faith?”

Here’s how I suggest you proceed. Go somewhere quiet — somewhere you will not be interrupted. Close your eyes. Now, take the pulse of your soul. Ask yourself, “How would I describe the current state of my faith?”

As you consider the question, try to be specific and candid. Choose the most fitting, most honest adjectives.
  • Is my faith growing, or shrinking?
  • Is it engaged, or yawning?
  • Is it mystical, or highly rational?
  • Is it far in the background of my daily life, or a clear lamp on my path?
  • Is my faith stuck in a rut, or is it changing? Is the way I relate to Christianity, the Bible and the hymns of the church different than it was a year ago? Ten years ago?
I would love to hear your responses. Feel free to leave a comment below.
There are no wrong answers. We are all on a journey that has zigs and zags to it.

This Sunday we are going to talk about the paths on which we find ourselves. So I really want to know: “How’s your faith?”

See you in worship,

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Up Against the Holy

February 3rd, 2017 · Faith and the City

This week I have been thinking about the word “sacred.” What does it mean for something or someone to be “holy”?

To some people the word “sacred” distinguishes between the mundane parts of the world (buses and spreadsheets and really good chicken parm) and the holy things that reside in church cabinets (beeswax candles, water for the baptismal font, communion wafers).

Others scoff at this distinction. “Holy,” they say, is an empty word, a made-up adjective ascribing religious significance to entirely ordinary items and people.

Still other people argue that holiness isn’t about things, but behavior. When individuals and communities follow a moral code (the Torah, the household codes of the New Testament, Sharia Law), then they are leading sacred lives.

Somewhere behind (or before!) all of these definitions, there is another, more basic, more primal way in which we use the word “sacred.”

When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, the prophet is instructed to remove his sandals: “You are standing on holy ground.” “Holy” and “sacred” describe encounters between people and the divine, moments when God is intensely present.

Down through the centuries, there have been a number of Christians who have felt God’s direct and transformative presence in their lives. We call these people “mystics.”

Mystics worry us. To the modern mind, they seem a little too hyped up on God juice.

Mystics are a little too ready to talk about the dream they had, the voice calling them to prayer and service, the closeness they feel to Jesus.

To orthodox believers, mystics seem subversive. In Ron Hansen’s beautiful book, Mariette in Ecstasy, a young nun in a rural New York convent tells the Mother Superior that she has had an extraordinary experience. Mariette has been visited by Christ. Her testimony throws the community of nuns into turmoil.

It is a funny thing. We say we believe in God, but when we bump into someone who claims to have encountered God, we run the other way.

This Sunday, we are going to talk about loosening up a bit — getting mystical. We are going to talk about that afternoon, at the small table, when you were talking with a good friend, taking bites of really good chicken parm, and you felt like your conversation reached new depths. It was suddenly infused with something otherworldly. It got holy.

See you in worship,


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Holy Graffiti

January 5th, 2017 · Faith and the City

Dear Friends in Christ:

Today is Epiphany — Jan. 6. After the 12 days of Christmas, Christians move from celebrating the birth of Jesus to contemplating the revelation of Christ to the world.

In other words, Epiphany is Jesus going public. During Epiphany, we contemplate the transformative things that happen when people from all walks of life encounter the light of Christ.

Across the world, Christians celebrate Epiphany in creative ways. In Greek Orthodox communities, priests throw a weighted cross into deep water and members of the youth group dive for it!

Many Christians “chalk” the front door of their home on Epiphany. My wife does it every year. The formula for the ritual, adapted for 2017, is simple. Take chalk of any color and write the following above, on or near the entrance to your home:

20 + C + M + B + 17

The letters represent the initials of the three Magi – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – who came to visit Jesus. They also abbreviate the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat: “May Christ bless this house.” The “+” signs represent the cross, and the “20” at the beginning and the “17” at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a prayer that Christ would bless this home and all who dwell therein for the coming year. Give it a try!

This Sunday we will begin our journey through Epiphany by reading the story of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan and by talking about the identity baptism confers on all of us. We may even do a little cross diving.

See you in worship,

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Gaudete Sunday

December 8th, 2016 · Faith and the City

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

–Isaiah 35

Friends in Christ,

The Third Sunday of Advent is upon us. Tradition calls this Gaudete (gow-da-tay) Sunday. It is the Day of Joy. Isaiah 35 will be our guide this Gaudete.

Christmas CactusEvery time I read Isaiah’s prophesy, I think of my mother. She was one of those obsessive gardeners who could fool around (all year long) with a Christmas cactus. Shuttling it from room to room, closely monitoring its water, wrapping its stems in aluminum foil, Mom was determined to get the succulent plant to bloom for Christmas.

I wrote a little poem (below) to capture her efforts. This Sunday, I look forward to talking with you about joy: What is it? Where do we find it? Why do our hearts depend on it?

See you in worship,


christmas cactus

year long, she cultivates
saw-toothed tendrils
herding their greenness
toward december

a vigilant finger
polices the sandy soil
pokes down an inch
to feel the damp

the clay pot shuttles
from window to window
chasing measured doses
of an indirect sun

all in a gardener’s hope
that her home
would be graced by
an advent blooming

red-spouted trumpets
heralding the season
calling parched folk
to attend the baby god

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Election Day Prayer

November 8th, 2016 · Sharp Prayers

unknown-1Almighty God, on this Election Day we pray for our country. We pray for peace. May our sense of community and connection be greater than our perceived divisions and differences. As we stand in line at schools, churches, and synagogues, may our commitment to care for one another grow. As we chat with neighbors, may we recognize our common bond. We are all your children!

We thank you, Sovereign God, for the freedom to vote our conscience. 

We are keenly aware that after the polls close, acrimony, anger and fear will remain. Grant us the courage to step into the breach. Send your Spirit to drive us to the places where you are already working to bring reconciliation. Remind us relentlessly that You are greater than every category we can devise; You are more powerful than any estrangement we have created; You are eternal, ever present and forever calling us to justice, peace and abundant life. 

Show us today, and everyday, how to live in the love of Jesus Christ, the perfect love that casts out fear. Amen.


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Skeletons in the Closet

October 28th, 2016 · Faith and the City

This week I finished Hillbilly Elegy, a gripping memoir by J.D. Vance. Vance tells the story of growing up in Ohio and Eastern Kentucky, in America’s Rust Belt.

The book provides an unflinching description of a poor Appalachian family of Scots-Irish descent who faces disappearing coal and steel jobs, the scourge of highly addictive drugs, and deeply entrenched cycles of family dysfunction and violence.

It sounds grim, but it is also a tale of fierce love, hard work and heroic solidarity. In other words, the family that raised Vance is complicated.

All families are complicated.

This Sunday, we are going to be talking about the skeletons everyone has in their family closets.

What do they say about us? Why do we hide them? How can we pry their bony fingers from our hearts?

It all sounds a bit Halloweenish, but I promise you: the News is Good!

See you in worship,


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Come Home

September 8th, 2016 · Faith and the City

Our God, our Help in ages past,
Our Hope for years to come,
Be Thou our Guard while troubles last
And our eternal Home!
— Isaac Watts
Dear Friends in Christ,

Where is home?

Is “home” where you were born? Or is “home” is where you pick up your mail? Is it where your parents live? Is it where you know the rules and crave the local barbecue? Is home where you know you can go in times of trouble?

Where’s home?

Scott Black Johnston
Senior Pastor

Near 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 land you have been promising us?”

Responding, Moses assures them: “The eternal God is thy dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (KJV, Deut. 33:27) 

When people of faith look for home, our tradition points to God. God is home.

This Sunday is Homecoming at FAPC. It’s time, my friends, to breathe deeply, to hear the familiar hymns, to see beloved faces and, most of all, to be surrounded by God’s everlasting arms. Come home!

Our schedule for Homecoming looks like this:

  • Starting around 10 am, walkers from many different religious communities in New York will be arriving at FAPC for a brief service of reflection and remembrance marking the 15th anniversary of 9/11. If you would like to participate in the full walk (which begins at 8:30 am at Temple Emanu-El), read more here. Otherwise, simply join in when the walkers reach our Sanctuary. 
  • At 11 am we will all gather for worship in the Sanctuary. (Our 9:30 am service doesn’t return until next week.) The FAPC Choir will be back. We will begin our Fall Sermon Series, Backstory: Finding Life and Hope in Genesis. Don’t forget to invite a friend to this festive start to our program year.
  • At noon, we will have our annual Homecoming Fair upstairs in Bonnell Hall. This is your time to reconnect with friends, to sign up to volunteer, and to join a community groups. This year also features the unveiling of a new addition to FAPC’s growing collection of religious art.

It is going to be a grand day. I can’t wait. It feels really, really good to be home!

Eager to see you in worship,


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Sacred Backstory

September 2nd, 2016 · Faith and the City

An actor prepping for a new role opens her script to search for backstory. A solid backstory brings a character to life. It chronicles triumphs and struggles. It focuses on moments when a person’s virtues and flaws come into focus.

You don’t know someone until you know his or her backstory. Not really.

So, what is your backstory? Be brutally honest. What events have defined the path of your life? What moments have shaped you?

Now, go a step further: How do you feel about your personal history? Is it triumphant? Sad? Does it inspire you? Can you lean on your backstory when life gets tough?

news-backstory-insetAs we think about these questions, our faith is working to stitch our personal histories into God’s great epic. You are the next chapter in a saga that goes way, way, way back. In other words, your backstory begins with the first book of the Bible: Genesis.

In the modern world, we are not entirely sure what to make of Genesis. Some believers defend the historicity of figures like Adam and Eve: “The men and women of Genesis are as real as you and I.” Others scoff. In the Bible’s first book, they see only primitive myths and bad science.

Both sides miss the point. Genesis is not straight-up journalism. It isn’t bad science, either.

Genesis is sacred backstory.

Genesis wrestles with humankind’s most basic questions: Who is God? Where did the world come from? What sort of responsibility do we have for the planet? For each other? What is work? Why does hatred and violence come so easy for us? What is the nature of forgiveness?

Genesis does something else, too. Gently, but persistently, it asks: “Got backstory? Do you have a story that will comfort you, inspire you, sustain you for the living of these days?

FAPC’s Fall Sermon Series is titled Backstory: Finding Life & Hope in Genesis. It begins Homecoming Sunday–September 11th at 11:00 AM. I hope you will come to church in the expectation that Scripture’s starting point can mark a new beginning for you!

See you in worship,


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