Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

Sharp About Your Prayers header image 1

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,


Facebook Comments

Comments Off on Short, but SweetTags:···

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.


Your Neighbor–SBJ

Facebook Comments

→ 1 CommentTags:·······

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,

Facebook Comments

Comments Off on Give it to Me, Chapter and VerseTags:····

@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,


Facebook Comments

Comments Off on @Table w/ the ConfirmandsTags:····

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,
Facebook Comments

Comments Off on Hold on to the GoodTags:·····

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,


Facebook Comments

Comments Off on The Souper BowlTags:···


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,


Facebook Comments

Comments Off on SlushTags:·····

Hit the Wood

January 22nd, 2016 · Faith and the City

Can you keep a secret? Step a little closer.

I do not like election years — specifically Presidential election years.

9b31eb4a40984958b067d27cb0a23194_xlargeYes, yes … I know. The Presidential election in America — the once-every-four-years process through which we select a leader for this country, followed by the peaceful passing of the baton from one administration to the next — is one of the wisest, most stirring aspects of our democracy.

Why would a preacher ever dread this constitutional process?

I’ll tell you why. I dislike election years because the season leading up to the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in November inevitably turns parishioners cranky.

It’s easy to see why. As we get closer to casting ballots, the rhetoric surrounding the campaigns grows more and more heated. The stakes for our country (and for us personally) are described in stark, apocalyptic terms. Your livelihood, your family’s safety and the fate of the world depend on how you cast your ballot.

These grim refrains make us twitchy.

We start sifting through the words of everyone around us. We try to figure out which candidate our friends and neighbors are supporting. We want to get a sense of whether they are going to vote to save the world or doom it. And, of course, we bring these heightened political sensitivities to church.

During election years, congregants listen with extreme care. Left and right, everyone is trying to detect some hint of partisanship in the pulpit. Since both politicians and pastors tend to talk about hot-button issues — sexuality, immigration, the plight of the poor — it is almost inevitable that preachers get accused of being a shill for one party or another.

22e0ca58f7b2357794b10154687e3c2bPeople are ready, as my friend Ted Wardlaw puts it, to “hit the wood.” Ted coined this phrase to describe sermons that would so agitate a listener that he or she wanted to get up and leave the sanctuary without hearing another word. On the way out, the frustrated person would stiff-arm the swinging door leading to the narthex. A bang would sound as the person’s hand hit the door, quickly followed by a second bang as the door swung all the way around and slapped the wall.

This Sunday, we are going to talk about the things that make us want to hit the wood. And what we ought to do about that.

See you in worship,

Facebook Comments

Comments Off on Hit the WoodTags:····


January 7th, 2016 · Faith and the City

Life moves fast.

mulchfest-treecycleIf you walk around the city this week, you cannot help noticing the curbside stacks of bedraggled Christmas trees. They are ready for “Mulchfest” — New York’s annual recycling program that turns our holiday remnants into something useful for local parks and playgrounds.

The Church moves fast, too.

This week we celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Jesus is no longer a child. He is an adult who walks down to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John.

Christmas is a memory. It is mulch.

And that’s OK!

Christmas is good mulch — essential, spiritual mulch. The songs of angels, the joy of the shepherds, the hopes of the Magi can and should become cover for the patches of bare ground in our lives. They protect our roots. These stories nourish us and call us to new life in the New Year.

Take, for example, the affection that Mary and Joseph show for their newborn. The beauty of this moment beckons us to sing “Silent Night.” But it doesn’t stop there. This love, this deep love, keeps reaching out to claim our hearts.

the-Baptism-of-JesusThis Sunday it is reaffirmed when Jesus, the adult, stands dripping wet in the Jordan, and a voice from above proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

This Sunday, I encourage you to make good on those New Years resolutions. Come worship. Come spread mulch over your bare spots. Come gaze into the eyes of God’s Beloved, and see if some of that love doesn’t wrap itself around you, too.

See you in worship,


Facebook Comments

Comments Off on MulchTags:····

Hopes and Fears

December 19th, 2015 · Faith and the City

Christmas is for poets.

The best verse for Yuletide tweaks our nostalgia. It prods our skepticism, too. It pushes past both the syrupy sweet and the sadly cynical places in our hearts. The best poetry ushers us into the mystery of God’s incarnation.

How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
       — W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being”

Christmas is for poets.

One of my favorite scraps of Christmas poetry comes from the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” An American preacher, Phillips Brooks, wrote this hymn after he traveled to Bethlehem on horseback on Christmas Eve in 1865.

I love to picture it. In the time before electricity reached Palestine, on a dark December night a clergyman rides toward a village guided only by starlight.

kTMbeAM9cO little town of Bethlehem, 
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
The silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth 
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

I imagine the preacher slowly wending his way through the rocky terrain. He ponders a young Jewish woman, astride a donkey, feeling the first pains of labor, hoping to make it to the town in time. He imagines her husband leading the donkey, worrying over the few coins in his pocket, wondering where to take his beloved to have this baby. Surely, the preacher is thinking of the shepherds, reclining in the dark fields, gazing up at the stars.

Brooks feels the poignancy and the power of the moment. The universe inhales and pauses — holding its breath. Something simple, something salutary, something momentous is about to happen in quiet, humble, dark Bethlehem.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

I need that verse to get to Christmas. I need that verse right now. I need to know that my hopes and my fears are going to be met and embraced by God.

Perhaps you are feeling that, too?

See you in worship, my friends.

Facebook Comments

Comments Off on Hopes and FearsTags:····