Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

10/6 2015

Phyllis Tickle Taught Me How to Pray

Print Friendly

Phyllis-TickleWhen I heard the news that Phyllis Tickle passed away Sept. 22, 2015, I wondered what office of prayer she had just completed. I imagine that a woman who led so many into deeper practices of prayer would surely pass into the fullness of the Kingdom by way of prayer. In her own prayer-book, the Vespers office for the night before she died included a hymn with these words: “So when the world is at its end / And Christ to judgment shall descend, / May we be called those joys to see / Prepared for all eternity.” The refrain for that Vespers service: “Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds.” [1] By grace we trust that Phyllis now sees those joys with the Church Triumphant.

Tickle was the founding religion editor at Publisher’s Weekly and a prolific author, but her influence on the Church extended far beyond books. She supported and sponsored many voices in the emerging church movement, lending credibility to a phenomenon that others regarded with suspicion. She used her publishing savvy to bolster budding authors and bring fresh voices to the Christian publishing market. But her greatest contribution to the Church was how she taught a new generation of Christian leaders to pray in a very old way.

The one conversation I had with Phyllis took place with a group of other Pittsburgh pastors at a local bar after she spoke at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Summer Leadership Conference in 2012. [2] After the table had talked about the paradigm shifts affecting our culture and the Church for quite a while, I offered a quick interjection: “Phyllis, thank you for The Divine Hours.” She lit up. Then with joy she recounted the story behind her greatest works.

The Divine Hours was Phyllis’ biggest writing project – a series of prayer books revolving around the practice of fixed-hour prayer. Long maintained by the monastic wing of the Church, fixed-hour prayer involves pausing to pray at specific, predetermined times throughout the day. The early Church inherited this practice through its Jewish roots. Psalm 119:164 says “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws” and this verse was taken quite literally in Jesus’ day. By the time of the Apostles, praying liturgical prayers up to seven times a day was a common practice in Jewish religion, and the Apostles maintained such practices even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Acts 3:1 shows Peter and John going to the temple “at the time of prayer – at three in the afternoon.” Peter and Cornelius are practicing fixed-hour prayer in Acts 10 when they receive the revelations that lead to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church.

In the history of the Church, these have been systematized in various ways by different traditions. A simple list of some of the key hours includes (1) Vespers – 6:00 p.m., (2) Compline – Before Sleep, (3) Midnight or the Night Watch, (4) First Hour or “Prime” – 6:00 a.m., ( 5) Third Hour or “Terce” – 9:00 a.m., (6) Sixth Hour or “Sext” – Noon, and (7) Ninth Hour or “None” – 3:00 p.m. An attentive person will notice that the prescribed prayers for certain times often refer to biblical events which occurred at those hours. For example, many Third Hour prayers ask the Holy Spirit to fall upon us as a Pentecost. Ninth hour prayers may ask that our sin would be crucified with Christ. When practiced regularly, fixed-hour prayer becomes a way of weaving the story of Jesus and the Church into our daily lives, increasing our attentiveness to God and our sense of identification with Christ and the Apostles.

In that conversation three years ago, Phyllis told us the story of how her publisher invited her to write the series of prayer books. She prayed the hours regularly for years before compiling The Divine Hours, and the series thus flowed out of the deep well of her own prayer life and experience. She maintained the rhythm even when at work during the day, often leaving her office to go to the bathroom for privacy when it was time to pray. When her editor approached her with the idea for a book on fixed-hour prayer, she asked why she’d been chosen for such a task. The editor responded with a statement like, “We figured you either had the most regular bladder of any human being, or you were praying.”

By writing The Divine Hours, Phyllis opened up the practice to a whole new audience. Many were transformed by adopting this new rhythm of prayer. When other prayer books could quickly become stale, The Divine Hours offered fresh sets of seven offices for each day of each season of the year, with each prayer painstakingly selected by Phyllis. When other prayer books felt clumsy to operate, The Divine Hours arranged all the prayers and readings one needed for a given office on one page.

Ken Wilson, a Vineyard pastor in Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote about the Divine Hours: “I was able to relax with this kind of prayer. It didn’t depend as much on my state of mind or my feelings of spirituality at the time of prayer. It felt like dipping my canoe into a river of prayer that has been flowing since the time of Abraham.”[3] Wilson was so enlivened by the practice that he convinced Phyllis to let his church post a regularly updated version of the Divine Hours on their website.

If I had one more opportunity to speak to Phyllis, I would offer a similar gesture of gratitude. But it would be phrased a bit differently, in recognition of the growing effect which her work has had on me: “Thank you, Phyllis, for teaching me to pray.”

[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours (Volume One): Prayers for Summertime: A Manual for Prayer (New York: Image 2000) p. 571

[2] Videos of Phyllis’s presentations at the Summer Leadership Conference are available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNuifQCVOd4.

[3] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back (Nashville: Thomas Nelson 2008) p. 119

The Rev. Christopher Brown moved to Pittsburgh from Colorado to pursue a master of divinity (MDiv) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He currently serves as the coordinator of the Church Planting Initiative at the Seminary along with pursuing his master’s in theology. Chris is the organizing co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church, a church plant of the PC (U.S.A.) in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Chris regularly blogs at https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com and tweets at @brwnchrstpher.


10/5 2015

One Surprisingly Good Reason to Bless the Animals

Print Friendly

Blessing-of-the-petsFormer U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins begins his poem “Another Reason Why I don’t Keep a Gun in the House” with this line: “The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.”

One night last week it was my dog Wrigley who wouldn’t stop barking—or howling, rather—at every noise he heard: the neighbors’ car door, the train whistle, my wife ascending the basement stairs—whatever. And with every bark, yelp, and howl I felt anger rising.

The kids were in bed. The rest of the house was still. I was in my pajamas, sitting in my recliner, trying to read and wind down.

And the dog wouldn’t shut up.

Which is precisely why we should bless animals—as many churches did in special services yesterday—and thank God for the presence of these (sometimes frustrating) pets in our lives.

Most of the time we hear about the positive benefits of pets—how companion animals can lower stress, alleviate loneliness, help people relax. At the seminary we have a day during exam week when we bring pets to campus to help the students unwind in the midst of exams. Pets are good for you.

But I want to bless my dog for making my blood pressure rise, and here’s why.

There’s almost nothing more significant in spiritual growth than learning to let go of our shallow preferences and our egocentric agendas. Jesus said we should lose our lives for the sake of the gospel, but more often than not we lose our lives—our false selves—through a thousand small acts of letting go of “the way I want things now”: I want my food hot, I want the pillows on the sofa this way not that way, I want to be early to church. I want, I want, I want.

We like things the way we like them, and learning how not to have our way and yet not be ruined by it is at the heart of spiritual growth. It’s what many of the great spiritual writers call letting go of attachments.

And that includes, at least for me, not always having the peace and quiet I want. It means sometimes getting out of the recliner to take the dog out, or chasing the dog to get a kid’s stuffed animal out of his mouth, or distracting him from chewing the coffee table when I would rather be reading. He gives me more opportunities than I ever would have wanted to practice this letting go, to notice my frustration (and yes, sometimes anger) and not let it control me. He is teaching me how not to sin in my anger.

Of course marriage works for this as well, as does having children or spending time with other human being in general. But dogs work too.

There’s a saying of the early Christian monastics that I particularly love. One of the monks asked another monk why the demons are so afraid of him. The second monk replied, “Ever since I became a monk, I have been trying not to let anger rise as far as my mouth.”

He’s not unhelpfully repressing his anger. If something is repressed we are unaware of it until it one day wreaks havoc. No, this monk is very aware of his anger, but he takes care of it. He has learned to notice it and observe it. He is aware of when it begins, how it builds, and when it dissipates. Because he has such practice being aware of his anger it doesn’t have to control him. The slights to his ego, the frustrations of his personal preferences, the disruptions to his comfort—these things don’t have to devastate him anymore.

And I suspect that’s because he’s had lots of practice. I just know this monk had a dog.

Paul told us to imitate Jesus by looking not to our own interests but to the interests of others.

By all means: Bless these animals God has given us who provide us with more chances than we ever wanted to let go of our own interests so we might have compassion on others—even on them.

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.


10/2 2015

When Relationships Harm: How the Church Can Help

Print Friendly

pastoral counseling relationshipsIntimate partner violence (also called “domestic violence” or “relationship violence”) is a subject about which many of us in the church know very little. Even if we do know something about it, we often feel uncomfortable discussing it. That may be because we believe that it doesn’t happen to people we know. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t so. A report released in 2011 found that more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner in their lifetime. Clearly, this is not something that just happens to “other people”; it’s happening right now in our faith communities, to people we know, and that means we need to spend some time thinking about this and about how we want to respond.

But, what can churches really do about this problem? Most of us are not professionally trained in this area, so how can we help? Here are a few suggestions for ways I think the church can respond to and maybe even help prevent intimate partner violence:

  1. Know our limits Most clergy and other congregational leaders are not trained professionals in the area of intimate partner violence. This means that when it comes to providing direct assistance, we will often need to refer to other agencies in our community who do have this expertise. Each congregation can be prepared for this by maintaining a resource list that includes various options for help (emergency shelters, financial assistance, care and counseling services, etc.). Even better, church leaders can develop relationships with these agencies so that when we have to refer, we have a personal contact who can help the person make the transition between caring communities.
  2. Acknowledge our responsibility Although most congregations are not fully equipped to deal directly with domestic violence, it is important for us to think about what responsibility we do have in these situations. We may not be able to offer certain kinds of help, but we can offer pastoral and spiritual care and the support of the religious community. No survivor of abuse or violence should feel they have to choose between the help of secular agencies and the support of their faith community. They need both in order to seek healing for themselves and their families.
  3. Think more carefully about our language and our theology How we talk about theological themes like love, marriage, suffering, and redemption within the church may help to lay the groundwork for healthier relationships, or it may perpetuate destructive patterns between partners. If we choose to, we can paint a different picture of the way relationships should be. We can communicate to those in our faith community the norms that we uphold as God’s expectations for us in intimate relationships: equality, honesty, accountability, and mutual respect. We can say very clearly, from the pulpit and all throughout our communities, that God doesn’t want anyone to suffer needlessly, and that abuse or violence in any form is contrary to the loving relationships that God longs to create among human beings. We can also teach that forgiveness within human relationships does not mean relieving someone of responsibility for his or her actions. This might remind us all that we don’t have to excuse abuse or violence in the name of forgiveness. Instead, we can hold up a vision of healthy relationships as being free from all forms of violence and coercion, while still holding out hope that transformation is possible.

In some ways, I think this last point might be the most important, because domestic violence doesn’t begin with violent actions. Instead, it has its origins in the attitudes of people who have come to believe that it is acceptable for one person in a relationship to exercise power over another. In our religious communities, our children and young people are watching us to find models of what adult relationships should be. If we can offer them healthier, more loving, and more respectful ways of understanding relationships in light of the practices and language of our faith traditions, we will be giving them an enormous gift. And in doing so, we may even be helping to prevent relationship violence from happening in the first place.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

1 2 3 66