Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/5 2018

Origami as a Spiritual Practice

rigami as spiritual discipline rhinoFor more than 30 years, I have enjoyed the Japanese art of origami. For most of that time, creating objects by folding a single sheet of paper was a hobby. Scrap paper is literally everywhere, so finding material has never been a problem. A brightly colored ad from a magazine would become a flower. A discarded memo would end up as a crane, or a dragon. A sticky note was easily turned into a fish or a butterfly. Early on, folding paper became a way of losing myself in the creative process. Origami, like many arts, is a way of making something special out of the mundane. It is a way of seeing beauty in the ordinary, the way a sculptor looks at a block of wood or marble and envisions possibilities.

 

More recently, though, I have come to see origami as a devotional tool, perhaps even a spiritual discipline.

 

Origami as a Spiritual Discipline

More recently, though, I have come to see origami as a devotional tool, perhaps even a spiritual discipline. Whereas before it was a hobby and a way of decorating my workspace—my office now has brightly colored seagulls hanging from the ceiling, and a green Macaw perched on a lampshade!—origami has provided an opportunity for prayer and spiritual growth. During the season of Lent, when we look for ways to repent from that which is harmful to our spiritual journey, my folding took me in an unexpected direction.

Recently, two news stories, both almost lost in our current socio-political chaos, caused me to stop and ponder my place in God’s creation. The first report came March 19, when I learned that Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros, had died. Although there are two female northern white rhinos remaining, Sudan’s death makes their species’ extinction almost certain.

A little more than one week later, a report came from the National Marine Fisheries Service that no right whales were born in their normal calving region off the coast of Georgia and Florida. The whales have a four month span during which calves are born in this part of the Atlantic. Without young, the remaining 450 right whales have entered a critical period in their existence. As with the northern white rhino, the right whale seems to be on the path to extinction.

origami as spiritual discipline whaleOne night, in the quiet of my living room, I pondered what it meant to lose a species forever. Human responsibility for both species’ decline is easy enough to prove. Poaching has decimated rhinoceros and elephant species. Commercial whaling in the past greatly reduced right whale numbers and today entanglement in fishing lines and collisions in shipping lanes take their toll. Our role in their stories is as certain as it is tragic.

 

Asking God for Help

Feeling sad and powerless, I found myself picking up a piece of origami paper and a book of diagrams by John Montroll. As I folded first a model of a rhinoceros, then a whale, I opened myself up to God’s Spirit, and asked for … what? Absolution? A miraculous rebound of both of these great creatures, along with every other bit of wildlife that had vanished due to human expansion? There was nothing, really, that I could come up with in my conscious prayer. Their doom is spelled out, just as other species of whale, rhino, and many other animals have vanished from the earth. Even asking God to forgive humanity for all the sins that have pushed these animals to the brink of their existence rang hollow.

So I folded each model, and gave God space to move in the reality of the moment. I gave God my confusing swirl of sadness, regret, and anger. As the finishing touches were added, all I could do was to ask God, as I had so many times before, for help.

Each figure now sits on a desk, one at work and one at home. They remind me that even if I can do nothing to save them but make a donation to a charity or foundation, I can still bear witness to our reality. And may God forgive us when these and other sacred creatures vanish forever.

 

The Rev. Scott Fuller has served in several different positions in health care providing spiritual care and counseling for patients and their families. Currently, he is a chaplain at Life Pittsburgh.

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3/29 2018

Easter Dawns in Pittsburgh’s Riverview Park

Easter sunrise service in Pittsburgh“Easter Sunrise Service in the park. It sounded good to our family. But the only one we knew about in Pittsburgh was held in Schenley Park, way on the other side of the city. It would mean at least an hour’s street car ride to get there, so, of course, we didn’t go. That was in 1932.” So recalled Northside resident Helen Nichols in 2008. She went on: “Then one day we heard that a group of people in our area were starting a sunrise service to be held in Riverview Park. That was in our backyard! So of course, we attended.”

And thus began what has become a nearly century-old Pittsburgh tradition—the Northside Easter Sunrise Service in front of Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park, now in its 84th year. The 2018 interdenominational community worship service begins at 6:30 a.m. April 1, with Pittsburgh Seminary alumnus and Miller Summer Youth Institute co-director the Rev. Derek Davenport preaching. From native Pittsburghers to visitors to our city from around the country, all are invited to attend.

Easter Sunrise Service in Pittsburgh

Since its inception, the NESS has had an ecumenical ethos. Helen Nichols noted, “The [initial organizing] Committee felt it was important to have pastors from different churches participate in the program. So we would visit various churches in the area to get acquainted with the pastors and to invite them to have a part . . . We invited high school choirs to provide the special music. Many of the same people attended year after year, and we became Easter morning buddies!”

That same thing still happens today, according to organizer Alice Hoffmaster, Helen Nichols’ niece. “I really think some people would just show up at 6:30 on Easter, even if it wasn’t advertised! It’s a joyous occasion!” As the last member of the Nichols family to be involved with this service—“but not the last member of the Nichols family!” Alice hastens to add—she does everything from inviting service participants to promoting the event online and through mailings to local churches. “Participants in the service always change,” she says, and “in recent years we have mixed more contemporary music in with the traditional Easter music.” Alice likes “that the service helps people start their Easter day in a positive, reflective, and meaningful way,” and without conflicting with people’s home church services later in the morning. As well, “It’s dark when the service begins, but the sun rises as the service progresses. I like that symbolism,” she says.

Sunrise Service Churches and Pastors

Over the years, many churches have participated in the NESS. Alice’s program lists church participants back to 1938, including: Riverview (previously Watson and Eighth United) Presbyterian, Shadeland Avenue Christian and Emmanuel Baptist (now the merged congregation of Emmanuel Christian Church), Shadyside Presbyterian, Trinity Lutheran, Central Pittsburgh Reformed Presbyterian (now Reformed Presbyterian Church of the North Hills), Mt. Zion Baptist, Bellevue Christian, North United Presbyterian, Evangelical and Reformed Church of the Ascension, First United Presbyterian of Allegheny, New Life Community, Mt. Troy United Church of Christ, Brighton Heights Lutheran, Lamb of God Lion of Judah, Mosaic Community, North Hills Christian and Missionary Alliance, Allegheny Center Christian and Missionary Alliance, Emmaus Deliverance Ministries, and Christ Church at Grove Farm.

Multiple Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students and graduates have also participated as preachers for the NESS. More recently, they include the Rev. Charissa Howe of Emsworth/St. Andrew’s PCs, Erin Angeli, the Revs. Steven Werth and Kellie Mills of Riverview PC, and now Derek Davenport. Alice notes, though, that “the speaker is not always a preacher or pastor. In the past, we’ve had as speakers the 1965 Miss America (Miss Vonda Key Van Dyke), a Christian author (the Rev. William H. Venable), and a missionary to Africa (Ms. Lorinda Robinson).”

Funding for the NESS is provided by donations from the people who attend the service. “The money goes directly to advertising the event, and all participants in the service graciously donate their time,” Alice notes. She sees the event as “a great opportunity, especially for smaller churches, to get involved in a community-wide service, something they may not be able to organize on their own.” Thankfully, as her aunt Helen said 10 years ago, “many of the responsibilities are now being carried on by the next generation of some of the original committee members. Some of those original members are now in Heaven, but it is our desire that the Easter Sunrise Service in Riverview Park will continue until Jesus Christ comes to take His own to be with Him.”

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3/23 2018

Mister Rogers: A Neighbor before Neighboring Was Cool

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” For multiple generations of Americans these words instantly call to mind a familiar melody and images of a warm smile, cardigans, blue shoes, and trolleys. I’m no different, by the time I went to kindergarten in the fall of 1989 I’m sure I had heard Mister Rogers’ (at 1962 alumnus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) sing this song hundreds of times. I loved so much about the program—the Land of Make Believe, the songs, the days we accompanied Mr. Rogers out the back door to join him at the sandbox. Through it all Mister Rogers’ calm, steady presence exuded sensitivity to the anxieties, joys, and curiosities that mark early childhood. It was the kind of thing that made kids like me love accompanying the grandfatherly Mister Rogers though both mundane things like changing his shoes to his trips out into his neighborhood.

Truth be told, as much as I liked the Land of Make Believe and the backyard sandbox, my favorite part of the show was getting to accompany Mister Rogers out into the neighborhood. In the neighborhood we met all kinds of people, from a friendly mailman and a dancer to folks who made things like crayons. (The orange crayon episode was my favorite. There were SO MANY orange crayons in that Crayola factory!) In my corner of rural western Pennsylvania I did not know anyone who worked in a crayon factory. I had no idea how the crayons I used everyday were made. I was so glad Mister Rogers did and was willing to take me along!

 

Looking back I can see that one of the things Mister Rogers did for me—completely without my knowing it—was to illustrate through this trips into the neighborhood how connected all of us were to others.

 

Mister Rogers in the Neighborhood

Looking back I can see that one of the things Mister Rogers did for me—completely without my knowing it—was to illustrate through this trips into the neighborhood how connected all of us were to others. Sure, I might be watching from the comfort of my living room, but just as the camera panned out to show Mister Rogers’ house, not as an island but as a part of a much larger community, so too my life and my little house was part of a much bigger community, a community in which many different kinds of people contributed in a variety of interconnected ways. By taking me with him into his neighborhood Mister Rogers taught me in his gentle way how to better see my neighborhood, my mailman, the people who made things (though not crayons, alas!) close to my house.

 

Who is My Neighbor

In today’s world neighboring has become a topic that is variously hipper-than-hip in some communities and politically suspect in others. We have books like The Art of Neighboring and “sanctuary cities” at the same time as others build literal and figurative walls. In this milieu the scribe’s question to Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” sounds almost contemporary. It is basically a question “Who counts?”

In the simple goodness that children instantly understand Mister Rogers never had that question. He seemed to intuitively know the answer. As I and generations of children with me accompanied Mister Rogers through his day and into his community we learned that the people we met were all neighbors each with unique contributions to make to our community and each worthy of our kindness. It is a lesson that rings with the Gospel. It is a lesson I hope I never forget.

 

The Rev. Dr. Charlie Cotherman ’12 serves as pastor of the church plant Oil City Vineyard in Oil City, Pa., and also as an adjunct faculty member at Pittsburgh Seminary. While a student at PTS, Charlie received The Fred McFeely Rogers Prize in Biblical Studies.

 

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Pittsburgh Seminary invites you to help fund the Fred Rogers Family Room in our newly renovated, soon-to-reopen Barbour Library! With its Neighborhood-like feel, furnishings, and outfitting, the Fred Rogers Family Room will welcome families to explore reading and play that inspire loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, and seeing every person as a child of God. Make your donation toward our $25,000 goal today!

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