Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

9/13 2014

A Funeral Introduction

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Professor Swart playing Frisbee with PTS students last year

Professor Swart playing Frisbee with PTS students last year

Today I went to a funeral for I man I’ve never met.

Not only have I never met him, but I had never even heard his name before Monday night of this week. A friend posted on Facebook that a professor at the Seminary had died of a heart attack while playing Frisbee with students. “Strange,” I thought, “I have no idea who that is.” I highlighted the name, Jannie Swart, and pasted it into my browser bar.

Links filled the screen about Jannie Swart, also known as the Rev. Dr. Johannes Swart. He was South African, a white South African pastor, who led one of the largest congregations in Johannesburg during the earliest years of the post-apartheid transition. Under his leadership and example, the church labored to repent for the sins of apartheid, and to become multilingual, multiracial, and multicultural. He left Johannesburg in 2005 to do his doctoral work, and ended up at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2012.

As I read the articles I was filled with regret. What I might have learned in one conversation or one audited class with this man! How could we have been so close, but yet never met?

His funeral was held at the Seminary, a 15-minute walk from my house.

I went to the funeral because I felt that I ought to have met this man, and, in some sense, this was my last chance. Hearing his friends and colleagues talk about him would certainly give me some sense of who he was, something beyond a list of degrees or church appointments. I wanted to know why the people I loved and respected had loved and respected this man so much.

And, if I am honest, I wanted to know one more thing. I wanted to know how the Seminary community would process such a senseless death, the death a beloved professor taken on the very first day of classes. How could they deal with the loss of such a wise man who still had so much to teach the students (and the whole community)? How could he be gone?

Really, God? He was playing Frisbee with students.

I was not the only person in the sanctuary with this question, and I was relieved to hear it spoken from the pulpit.  “I’m angry,” the president of the Seminary said, “and I want to ask God, ‘Why this one? I’ve got a whole list of people you could have taken.’” We all laughed nervously, but we knew exactly what he meant. Someone else said that she felt like she had been robbed, and as I looked out over the crowd I could see his college-age daughter and teenage son sitting with their mother.

There is no sense in a moment like this, and so we did not attempt to understand.

Instead we sang, over and over again:

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near.

Wait for the Lord;  be strong, take heart.

Instead we listened to verses that had been spoken at their wedding:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 

And instead we were reminded what a well-lived human life can look like.

One person said that Jannie was “like Mandela, a man of uncommon grace.” A professor told the story of his many trips to South Africa, and how after t30 years of making these trips, he met Jannie and made his first authentic friendship across racial lines. Someone else recited one of Jannie’s favorite phrases, “We must strive to be hospitable to one another,” and many others gave examples of how Jannie had embodied this charge. This was a man who loved life, and who lived it to the full.

And finally we were asked,

“How can we go back after Jannie has changed our lives?”

And although I met him at his funeral, I include myself in this challenge.

By Jennifer Pelling ’10, communications assistant for CCO, who blogs at http://longdaysandshortyears.wordpress.com.


9/3 2014

Reformed Church Symbolism: Five Examples

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Church Symbolism in Pennsylvania“What’s your favorite church building?”

I was recently asked this question by a couple that I will be marrying this fall. We were talking about the impact that a building can have on a wedding and the importance of church symbolism. Then they asked me about other buildings that stood out to me, and then my mind started racing. Here are just five of the many churches that came to my mind.

Aspinwall Presbyterian Church in the Aspinwall neighborhood of Pittsburgh has gorgeous stained glass windows that follow the liturgical calendar. It also has wide clear glass windows reminiscent of puritan architecture. It’s high church liturgy and puritan windows – the best of both worlds. This also happens to be the building in which we were standing when I had that conversation so it gets the first spot.

Harbison Chapel at Grove City College Harbison is a massive, imposing stone building that displays an American take on European architecture. The beautiful stained glass windows feature scenes from church history, including events from the United States like the founding of the college itself. Before pursuing my MDiv degree at Pittsburgh Seminary, I attended Grove City College and sat in those pews. Now that I occasionally serve as guest speaker in the chapel, it has become a permanent fixture in my memory.

Third Presbyterian in New Castle, Pa. In addition to permanent symbolism like stained glass windows, Third has cloth banners of the attributes of the disciples. Those symbols are largely unknown and appear strange and mysterious if you don’t know your church symbolism. They also present a great way to teach and remember the stories of the disciples.

Memorial Presbyterian in St. Augustine Memorial is unmistakably inspired by St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Venice. Even after living in Florida for years, I only worshiped there once. Nonetheless, it’s hard to forget a Presbyterian Church modeled after a Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Grace Covenant in Orlando, Fla. My fascination with church imagery really began while I was serving as a pastor at Grace Covenant. The stained glass windows were designed by the congregation and in the center of the four buildings is a beautiful courtyard with memorial gardens. While the sanctuary does not have a central cross in the chancel, it has (if I remember correctly) more than 80 crosses throughout – on pews and chandeliers and in windows. It was during my ministry there that I started researching church art and symbolism.

These kinds of buildings, all of them Presbyterian, fascinate me. If you’ve read my thoughts on theology and superheroes that should come as no surprise. It’s also interesting because the rich imagery in Presbyterian architecture stands in contrast to its tradition. John Calvin wrote that “…whatever men learn of God from images is futile, indeed false.” Yet despite Calvin’s objections, we use powerful visual imagery in our worship spaces. If you need evidence, just look at the five churches above.

What do you think? Should your church be on this list? Send me an e-mail at ddavenport@pts.edu and you might find your church in my next post!

Written by the Rev. Derek Davenport ’05, director of enrollment and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Derek is also an alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program. Derek has covered images like those listed above in greater detail on his website www.preachingsymbols.com


8/29 2014

Celtic Spirituality for Today

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Celtic crossA few weeks ago my wife and I made a pilgrimage from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Camp Sumatanga in Alabama—sacred ground for us Methodists. We were in Alabama on a retreat, the theme of which was Celtic spirituality.

I basked in the hours of silence; enjoyed other people preparing my meals and cleaning up after; and felt renewed by morning and evening prayer and daily Eucharist.

But what I really loved? The content: the vision of the ancient Celtic Christians and its relevance for today.

I know much of the revival of Celtic spirituality is bland—all fairies and rainbows. But the truth is, the Celts lived in a harsh landscape as tribal people who became utterly devoted to the Triune God’s presence in their midst. There’s nothing wishy-washy about Celtic spirituality: Trinity, Cross, and Christ are central to the Celtic way.

I was reminded of many aspects of Celtic spirituality that seem important for Christians and churches to recover today:

  • The need to have a soul friend—what they called an anam cara. St. Brigit is reported to have said, “A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.” We need companions in the life of faith with whom we can be utterly honest, and who can be utterly honest with us, as we seek to discern together the way of Christ. Soul friends are key in spiritual formation.
  • Egalitarian leadership. Men and women served together, side-by-side. Some double monasteries—monasteries with both men and women—were led by an abbess, a woman.
  • A sense of kinship with all creation. The Celts were able to see the presence of God in all of creation, and knew intimately themselves to be a part of creation. Contemporary people, so alienated from the rest of creation, have much to learn from the Celts. John Scotus Eriugena, the ninth century Irish theologian said, “Everything visible is a theophany.” Can we discover this again?

But what struck me the most was the theme of pilgrimage. They didn’t journey to a specific place, and then return (the way we did to Camp Sumatanga), but they set out in their little boats, called coracles, and abandoned themselves to God’s providence—willing to go wherever the winds of the Spirit led them, taking with them their witness for Christ.

At the retreat, as I looked back on my life, I could see something of this kind of wandering: I thought I would be a musician—how did I end up a United Methodist pastor? I thought I’d stay a pastor—how did I end up teaching in Pittsburgh, at a Presbyterian seminary of all places? The rascally providence of God guiding my coracle, that’s how.

But as I reflected more, I began to wonder—can each day, each moment be this kind of pilgrimage? Not just the “big moves” of my life, but can I with every breath abandon myself to the winds of the Spirit, the will of the One who longs to guide me? That’s the hope, the longing, I brought back with me from the retreat.

I even wrote a haiku—much to my surprise!—during one of our silent hours to express my prayer to be available to the Spirit’s guidance each day:

Boat of this moment,
coracle of divine love:
take me where you will.

Now home, back at work, writing syllabi for my MDiv classes, catching up on e-mail, returning phone calls, this is still my prayer.

By the Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens, associate professor of leadership and ministry, who served as a UM pastor before coming to Pittsburgh.

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