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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


Dr. Scott Black Johnston: All the Time?

March 21, 2011

Almost 20 years ago, I preached at an African American Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.  The pastor of the church was the Rev.  Burnell "Johnny" McQueen, a former student of mine.  The service began with the choir and the congregation singing three, pew-thumping hymns in a row.

As the notes from the third hymn faded, Johnny stepped into the pulpit.  All eyes in the sanctuary looked at him with expectation.  Then Johnny spoke in a clear, authoritative voice, "God is good!"  The congregation responded with equal confidence, "All the time!"

At this Johnny smiled, and asked, "All the time?"  With greater volume the congregation responded, "God is good!"

Later, Johnny explained that his church began every worship service in this manner.  It was their perpetual "Call to Worship."  I imagine that if we Presbyterians scripted it (the way we tend to do), it would look like this:

Liturgist:            God is good!

People:                All the time!

Liturgist:            All the time?

People:                God is good!

Now, while I love the enthusiasm of this litany, I wondered, "Wouldn't it get old?"  Week after week, no matter what had happened in the world, no matter what transpired in the lives of the congregation, would this always be the best way for that church to begin worship.

God is good!  All the time?

This past Wednesday, our Clerk of Session, Bob Brennan, began a committee meeting with prayer.  He prayed, "Gracious God, the world is in quite a mess.  So many things seem to be going wrong."

Our eyes were closed, but I know everyone in the room was nodding.  Bob continued, "Still God, we are here tonight, we are planning the activities and programs of this church.  We trust that you are using us to bring about your kingdom."

Now, here's the funny thing.

More than anything, Bob's honest and confident prayer reminded me of the litany that I first heard at Johnny's church so long ago.  At our best, Christians face difficult circumstances - awful tsunamis, failed revolutions, nuclear disasters and even personal tragedy and heartache - and still manage to stand up and confess, "God is good."

To some, this confession in the face of disaster is proof of how incredibly irrational people of faith are.

To others, saying "God is good" is simply a way to acknowledge the One who became human to be like us, to be with us, to face the hard parts of life alongside us.  It is that One who gives us strength, not to run away from a broken, messed up world, but to care for it with holy courage.

Two days ago, I was talking to my friend Mary Kelly on the phone.  Mary Kelly and I were discussing a difficult situation that a couple of our mutual friends were going through.  We were both sad, but Mary Kelly, bless her big, big heart, had a plan.  She knew what she going to do to be a Christian friend to those in turmoil.

I know why she had the strength to make a plan.  I know why she didn't bury her head in the sand.  Deep in her heart, Mary Kelly had made the most basic confession that people of faith ever make.  It is a confession that spurs us to prophetic and challenging action in times of crisis.

What was that confession?

Let me answer this way...  Do you know the last thing that Mary Kelly said to me before she hung up the phone?  She said, "Scott, I know one thing for certain.  God is good."

All the time, Mary Kelly.  All the time.

[Taken with permission from the Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston's blog "Sharp About Your Prayers." Originally posted 3/18/2011]

 


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