Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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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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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.



Bless you and all those you love this day,



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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…


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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,


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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