Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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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,
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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,


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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,


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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,

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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,


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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.

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Pageant Sunday Prayer

December 12th, 2015 · Sharp Prayers

God of archangels caroling through the heavens, and
God of cherubs with cotton-ball wings and coat-hanger frames;

christmas-pageantGod of shepherds in the fields, and
God of three-year-old lambs searching for their mommies;

God of wise men from the East, and
God of magi whose adolescent voices crack when speaking of you;

God of a Bethlehem barn and God of a Fifth Avenue Sanctuary,
we pray to you this morning.

We pray asking for your sacred sight.
We ask you, never-sleeping God,
to help us see the world as you see it…

As a play,
as a pageant,
full of human foibles and missteps,Unknown
dotted with grace and unexpected joy,
a bit nerve-wracking, a bit glorious,
dancing on the verge of wonder.

Help us to see life as a pageant, God,
an event in which we will all
eventually find our way to you.

Bless us with stamina, hope and courage for the journey,
this we ask, in the name of the one who is born to us,
the One who would eventually teach us to pray, saying…

Our Father…


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What Are You Waiting For?

December 3rd, 2015 · Faith and the City

Two splendid works of 20th-century culture have a lot to teach us about the ancient mysteries of Advent. One is a play, the other a movie.

WaitingForGodotIn a 1999 survey by The Massachusetts Review, Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot was voted “the most significant English language play of the 20th century.” Written in 1949, Beckett’s two-act play focuses on two men on a country road by a skeletal tree.

The men are waiting on a friend. As they wait, they philosophize. They talk about death, and the future, and the meaning of life.

Why are we here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.

Eventually, one of them asserts that if Godot were to show up, they would be saved. But as the final curtain falls, Godot has not arrived, and they are left there. Still waiting.

Is that our fate? Perpetually waiting for someone who will never arrive?

One of my favorite movies is Stanley Tucci’s marvelous Big Night (1996). Set in the 1950s, the film tells the story of two brothers from Italy who operate a little restaurant in New Jersey called “Paradise.”

Big NightThe older brother, appropriately called Primo, is a brilliant but fussy chef. The younger brother, Secondo, is the energetic manager and bartender. Sadly, despite their best efforts, the restaurant is failing. Unless something can turn the business around, it will close.

In a surprising display of “generosity,” a rival restaurant owner insists that he can persuade Louis Prima, the famous Italian singer, to dine at Paradise when he comes to town the following week. Knowing that the publicity could save their restaurant, Primo and Secondo plunge into preparing for a “big night.” They spend their last cash on an extraordinary feast, and they invite all their friends to come meet the great Louis Prima.

The guests arrive. The wine starts to flow. Fabulous food appears on the tables. People dance and sing and eat. It is an all-around amazing evening. Everyone is happy, except for Secondo. He keeps checking his watch. Where is Louis Prima?

The famous singer never shows up. Secondo is distraught. He and his older brother argue. Secondo is convinced that all has been lost. But his brother offers a different perspective: To be together, eating good food, enjoying each other “is to know God.”

We are all, I suspect, in some way, waiting to be saved. This Advent, may God grant us eyes to see the saving graces that surround us every single day.

See you in worship this Sunday, when we’ll gather again at the table,


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Thank God for Chipped China

November 26th, 2015 · Sharp Prayers

“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”

–Philippians 2:3-5

Dear Friends in Christ,

96204543_franciscan-desert-rose-usa-oval-platter-chipped-rim-ebayToday, the Black Johnston family will set the table with an eclectic set of china: Dinner plates given to us on our wedding day almost 25 years ago. A chipped platter that my mother passed along. A bowl that Amy found on E-bay. And tea cups that once belonged to her grandmother.

I am not sure that Martha Stewart would approve, but it will be perfect. Then, we will sit down and give thanks.

As we bow our heads, I will be thinking of you. I will.

Like everything else, I suppose, stories about religion and people of faith that make the news are sensational. A good bit of it is downright terrible. Still, I know (and you do too) that this is only part of the story.

So this Thanksgiving, as we sit down to pray, I will give thanks for you. I will give thanks for everyone who lives out their faith in ways that do not make headlines. I will give thanks for the countless acts of love and kindness that you—and people like you—act out everyday.

I will give thanks for all of the imperfect, chipped souls who sense, underneath and in the midst of all the messiness of life, the presence of the God who cares and loves, and who inspires us to do the same.

May God bless you with travelers’ mercies and courage this Thanksgiving.

See you in worship very soon. Advent is upon us and we have reason for an abundance of hope,


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A Prayer for Paris

November 13th, 2015 · Sharp Prayers

God of Compassion,
we pray for the people affected by the terrorist attacks in Paris.

We pray for the wounded.
We pray for families who have lost loved ones.
We pray for the fire, police, military and ambulance staff on the scene.
We pray for the doctors and nurses caring for the injured.

Holy and Righteous God,
these cynical and cowardly acts have shaken us.

Comfort the hurting. Hold them tight, Good Shepherd.
Surround this world with a strong sense of your care.
Bring justice to the perpetrators of this evil.
Inspire all your children to break these devastating cycles of violence.
Out of these terrible happenings, weave wonders of goodness and grace.

This we ask in the precious name of Jesus,
whose life, death and resurrection
are an ever-present witness to the good news
that–in You–love will always triumph over violence.

May your truth and your way
rule over our hearts this day and always. Amen.

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