Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

9/6 2016

The Challenge of Imitating Mother Teresa (or The Sorrow of Not Being a Saint)

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St. Teresa

Image: By Túrelio, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2246938

Once she was fast-tracked, the end result was no surprise. We knew she should become “St. Teresa”—though, as Pope Francis noted at Sunday’s canonization mass, it will be hard not to keep calling her “Mother.”

No, what struck me was something else Pope Francis said: “May she be your model of holiness.”

My model of holiness?

I had been inspired by her in college when I discovered her 10 “rules for humility” and tried to practice them. Like, “Never defend yourself.” The experiment didn’t last long. I can’t imagine imitating the rest of her life—living so intimately on a daily basis with the dying and the poor; sleeping on a hard flat each night; waking so early to pray (ask the people who live with me—I need my sleep). Can she really be a model for people like me—comfortable, suburban Christians who live so far from the poor she served?

And then there are the detractors who say she shouldn’t be imitated, who argue—perhaps rightly, who am I to say?—that her order lacked transparency and oversight; that the medical care she gave suffered a deficit of good hygiene; that her rhetoric about the poor glamorized poverty. For all the people who worked with her in India and came back praising the holiness of this “saint of the gutters,” many returned crying foul.

So: a life of holiness that seems impossible to imitate or a life that shouldn’t be imitated at all?

As I ponder these things on the day after her canonization, wondering how they relate to my own life, I think: Both of these options are off the mark. One gets wrong what it means to imitate a saint and the other misunderstands what makes a saint to begin with.

Quaker Thomas Kelly has written that each of us is called to allow “God’s burdened heart” to become “particularized” in our own lives. And if nothing else, Mother Teresa was a living, breathing particularization of God’s burdened heart for the “least of these,” of God’s desire to draw them near in love. She did that with every fiber of her being and in a way that expressed her own passionate love of God. Those two—the love of the poor and the love of God—became one flame on the altar of her heart.

And that’s the kind of holiness I long to imitate. But I will not particularize God’s burdened heart in my life the way she did in hers; I’m still learning, achingly slowly, just how I might (I know too well the sorrow novelist Leon Bloy was talking about when he wrote, “There is only one sorrow—not to be a saint.”). I’m still waiting on God and cooperating with God along that journey of discovery. Thomas Merton said, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” Mother Teresa had discovered the saint that was her truest self as she served the poor. She had, as my favorite hymn puts it, “one holy passion filling all [her] frame.” In that way she is a model of holiness for all of us.

This understanding of sainthood doesn’t mean there aren’t mistakes in judgment, organizational inadequacies, errors in fact; it doesn’t mean that your life couldn’t be better—healthier, happier, wiser, more organized. Some of her critics might be right—and she can still be a saint. Because that one holy passion filling her slight frame overflowed, making its way into the world as a fierce, stubborn love that went by the name Mother Teresa.

Which gives me hope. If that one sorrow Bloy spoke about is ever healed in me—a big “if,” but “ifs” are God’s specialty—and the saintly, truest me ever gets discovered; if my prayer is answered that I might learn, as that same hymn puts it, “to love Thee as Thine angels love,” and that love gets expressed in a visible love here and now—that doesn’t mean I will need to become perfect, to have it all together. Thank goodness.

After my funeral, a few people might murmur in the parking lot: But . . . but remember how he loved run-on sentences so; how he was a slave to sweets, eating banana splits secretly at night and covering his tracks so his kids wouldn’t know the next day; remember how he ate all the salt and vinegar chips at the picnic, at every picnic; how his temper was short, his patience shorter; how he never mastered balancing a checkbook and his wife had to keep the family finances; how he couldn’t resist a semi-colon if his life depended on it. How can this man be called holy?

Well, I probably won’t be, and certainly won’t be in St. Peter’s Square. And all of the above is true, anyway.

But if one person—a child of mine or a grandchild someday, a former student or parishioner, a stranger whose path crosses mine—happens to say, even if to no one in particular, “There was nonetheless a consuming love for God in him that seems worth learning from”—if that happens, that will be enough.

To that end, St. Teresa, pray for me.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.


7/20 2016

Reflections from an African-American Police Chaplain

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blacklivesmatter-bluelivesmatterWhile the world is concerned with the constant threat from terrorist groups, the United States is finding itself facing a terror of its own. The shootings of two young African-American men, one in Baton Rouge, La., and the other in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., have ignited a tension between law enforcement and the African-American community. Recently in Dallas, five police officers were fatally shot while patrolling and protecting protestors. Just this past Sunday, three Baton Rouge officers were shot and killed. While all attention is being placed on the strained relationship between African-Americans and the police, let me just say that there has been enough in the news over the years to remind us that we are a violent nation, perhaps the most violent of all industrialized nations. The narratives these past couple weeks have been juxtaposed in a way that causes Americans to think there is a war between African-Americans and law enforcement. I find that highly incredible.

The African-American community has been treated unfairly by law enforcement since the days of slavery, in fact by America at-large. The protests since the deaths of Travon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and others are just the display of a constitutional right to assemble and freedom of speech. These protests are not as baseless as the attempts to inflame national sentiment against the concerns of African-Americans. We are angered by the recent events, but these situations are not new. While some want us to focus on healing relations and reconciliation between law enforcement and African-Americans, this can only take place after admission of wrong doing. But besides harassment from police, we are dealing with the trauma of so many young men shooting and killing each other in our communities. When I think about what is happening with my people, I am reminded of the words in Jeremiah 31:15 and repeated in Matthew 2:18, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” And then within my spirit the words in Habakkuk 1:2 echo, “How long shall [we] cry for help and you will not listen, or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”

We are facing a pandemic of violence resulting from a number of factors which I won’t expound on at this time. However, I will choose to offer the reminder that racial tension in this country is still unresolved despite progress on some levels and in some areas in the social fabric. The Kellogg Foundation, building on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Process, has been building a model for dialogue. Some of the findings from its work indicate the following: (1) more people recognize that racism is a huge problem in our country, (2) there’s a huge gap between Whites and African-Americans in the understanding or perception of how race shapes opportunity. Despite the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, a Harvard University study revealed that American schools were more segregated in 2000 than when bussing began in 1970.

And then there is the police. I wonder what it must be like to be an African-American police officer, representing two communities. I have participated in several services where officers were killed in the line of duty, three ambushed in Pittsburgh in 2009 by a White assailant. The pain and numbness I saw that day in the eyes of officers explains the fear they too have today given the current attacks. Wives and children have lost husbands and fathers who left for work never to return home. There is violence everywhere. This is not about Black or Blue; it’s about humanity and we would do ourselves a favor by erasing the lines separating otherness and stepping into the world of the other. That’s what Jesus did.

The Rev. Dr. John Welch is a 2002 graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He earned his MDiv degree, served in parish ministry at Bidwell United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and is now the Seminary’s vice president for student services and community engagement and dean of students. Additionally, he has served as chief chaplain for the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police since 2008.


7/15 2016

Pokémon Go and the Search for God

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pokemon and godThe World through a Game

Our 11-year-old son was desperate to play Pokémon Go, trying to download the app on his iPod, learning only later he needed a smartphone.

Mother to the rescue: curious herself and eager to see him happy, she got the app on her phone. Before long, they found themselves at Arsenal Park in downtown Pittsburgh staring at the phone, clueless what to do next.

Since Arsenal Park is a Poké Stop, a small band of aficionados was also there, enjoying pizza on what must be called a pokébreak. Eager to help a couple neophytes, these gamers explained how this is an “augmented reality” game and how you capture the Pokémon by tapping them when the phone shakes, then flinging balls at these Pokémon superimposed on the world you see through the screen. At the park my wife and child managed to capture a Diglet and secure an egg with a Squirtle inside.

While writing that last line felt like using a foreign language, I can already see how this scene—my wife, son, and six gamers roaming around a park, watching it through their phones, waiting for a cartoon animal to appear as an overlay—is quite a good image of how we humans actually live our real lives and read our world: through filters.


Reading the World through Filters

Thomas Merton once suggested that only a handful of people see the world as it really is. I think he’s right. The rest of us see the world through the overlays, the filters we carry within us. Some of them were preinstalled before we were born—the filter called sin, for instance, which causes us to see the world falsely, as if we stand at its center.

Other filters we have downloaded along the way: the filters of ideology; the filters of our fantasies and fears, addictions and aversions; the filters of social constructions like race and social categories like class—all of which shape the way we perceive and misperceive reality.

When I see a colleague as a competitor, a student as a threat, or one of my children as an extension of myself, I am seeing them through a filter, not as they really are. And if I can’t see the world as it really is, then I certainly can’t do the thing most incumbent upon me, the one thing I was born to do: see the shimmer of God’s glory, God’s own presence, from within all that is.

The Second Century theologian Irenaeus is famous for saying, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” Rarely do we hear the second half of that quotation: “And the life of the human being is the vision of God.” The vision of God—exactly what our reality-distorting filters prevent us from seeing.


The Place of Spiritual Practices

Somewhere, someone right now is writing a sermon or a blog post suggesting Pokémon Go as an analogy for the human search for God: faith is like the screen we look through to see God.

I had a colleague who used to say that we must become “detectives of divinity,” but this is not at all what he meant, for until we have our reality-distorting filters of sin and ego and ideology deconstructed, the gods we find along our way are only idols we capture to serve our own interests.

Christian spirituality is not something we add to our lives like an app to our phone to help us find God. Rather, spiritual practices are meant to help us stay available to the God who finds us, the only One whose mercy can dismantle our filters so we can increasingly see reality as it is. With our distorted lenses, we see the world in the illusory way we want to see it. By making ourselves available to God’s grace, we can become disillusioned. We stop seeing neighbors as competitors and love as a zero sum game.

We can stop seeing the world through the narrow screens of sin, ego, and ideology. And we can start seeing the world as it is—the playground of God’s Spirit and the theater of redemption, shining from the inside out with the glory of a hidden God.

Now, where’s my son? I need him to show me how to get that game on my phone.


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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