Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

11/11 2016

The Artist and Gardener, Or, How to (Not) Take Back Our Nation

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election-andy-crouchLike many of you, I stayed up late on election night watching polls and listening as pundits prognosticated ‘what it all means.’ I confess that I have spent most of my free time since Tuesday night reading columns on the right and the left, digging through the sudden avalanche of anxieties projected by ‘Red’ America, ‘Blue’ America, and our neighbors to the North and South. We talk about the way the candidates awaited election results in their respective ‘war rooms,’ while narrating the ‘uprising’ of blue collar workers that ‘upended’ established elites. Such talk filters through religious groups as well. We now watch religious conservatives and evangelicals gloat over a country reclaimed, while the various constituencies of the religious left strategize methods to ‘take back’ the country from conservatives. In describing the election, our metaphors betray violence in the political class and on the city streets, in rural America and in the reality-warping enclaves of political media. War rooms and uprisings that ‘take back’ the country normalize political bloodsport and invest us in a winner-takes-all, zero-sum contest in which power becomes the only horizon which matters. In the meantime, we lose the politics of neighborliness, of welcoming strangers and seeking common cause across difference in our communities.

The church of Jesus Christ ought to know better. We gather in buildings and homes, storefronts and gymnasiums, cathedrals and parks across the United States every week to confess faith in the resurrection of the crucified one. Yet, we fail to inhabit the political consequences of this confession, preferring instead to compete in the bruising quest for political control as either ‘values voters’ or ‘progressives.’

For all our intention to ‘change culture’ by pulling the levers of power, we find ourselves ambivalent to the gospel. Reconciliation? Sure, as long as it is on my terms or represents ‘the real’ America. In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter calls for the renewal of Christian public life by revealing our problematic lust for cultural power. Culture, Hunter insists, cannot be changed by winning an election or even winning arguments. To use the language of Charles Taylor, culture describes a social imaginary produced by the interplay of stories, symbols, practices, and institutions. Hunter insists our quest to ‘take back’ the culture is both a fool’s errand and theologically problematic.

Instead, Hunter calls the church to a politics of “faithful presence within,” which invites the church to turn from our will to power and “yield [our] will to God” so that we might learn to “nurture and cultivate the world where God has placed [us].” In practice, this means taking a vow of stability and joining ourselves to the places and people God has sent us. Yes, Hunter wants us to resist the urge to move to Canada when our party loses, and instead, to participate in the common goals, hopes, and concerns of our immediate community. Practices of faithful presence cultivate trustworthy relationships wherever God has us; they enable us to bear witness to the trustworthy Creator we know in the Son.

Where do we start? In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch describes the public shape of our Christian vocation as artist and gardener. Both the artist and gardener begin their work with careful attention to a particular place or subject and work creatively with materials, people, and traditions/ideas to invoke meaningful experiences and cultivate community. In their work, the artist and gardener steward what is good and meaningful in a time and place. Like the small business owner in my neighborhood hosting a free taco night to draw the community together post-election, the artist evokes something new and the gardener tends to relationships. Rather than ‘take back’ culture or avoid politics entirely, perhaps we can cultivate connections to the cares and hopes of our neighborhood, working as artists to draw out what is good and meaningful in our context and as gardeners to facilitate space for mutual trust and strong relationships. We are called, not to politics as usual, but to a public and provocative faithful presence within the places God sends us.

The Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute will host Andy Crouch at Pittsburgh Seminary Dec. 1, 2016, at 7:00 p.m. We invite you to join us as he unpacks how his view of leadership can have an impact on our city and our communities as we seek the bigger context of how leading with strength and weakness can shape our beloved city of Pittsburgh. Learn more about this upcoming event.

Dr. Scott Hagley is assistant professor of missiology and also works with the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative and teaches in the MDiv Church Planting Emphasis program as well as the new Church Planting and Revitalization certificate program. He previously served as director of education at Forge Canada in Surrey, British Columbia, where he worked to develop curriculum for the formation of missional leaders in hubs across Canada.


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.

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