Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

10/16 2019

Inside the PTS Curriculum: Spiritual Formation

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The “Inside the PTS Curriculum” series gives you an inside look at what students are learning in their courses at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Each article focuses on one class, its subject matter, what students can expect to learn, the required texts, and the kinds of assignments students can expect. We’ll let you know whether the course is required or available for the Master of Divinity (MDiv), the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS), or Master of Theological Studies (MTS). Each article will include the professors’ bio.

This week’s course is “Spiritual Formation.”

Roger Owens teaching spiritual formationAbout Spiritual Formation

During this term, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students will be learning about spiritual formation with the Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens in the class “Spiritual Formation.” This two-part course is required for students in the Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree and Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS) degree programs and open to students in the Master of Theology (MTS) degree program.

In this course students will be introduced to and practice a variety of spiritual disciplines, grounded in historic Christian spiritual traditions. Students will reflect on their own life of prayer, practice of vocational discernment, and begin developing the skills to lead communal spiritual practices.

Students who participate interestedly and actively, read all the materials, and complete assignments, by the end of the course will have a basic understanding of key themes in Christian spirituality and be able to relate those themes to their own lives of faith; have a practical familiarity with a number of spiritual disciplines and be able to incorporate some of those disciplines into their lives through the development of a rule of life; have experience with spiritual formation in small groups and be able to practice healthy small group process; and have an introductory knowledge of how to lead and teach spiritual practices.

Assignments include keeping a spiritual formation journal; completing a pastor/spiritual director interview; developing and keeping a rule of life; writing one paper and one book review; leading a spiritual practice; and in-class spiritual practices. Required reading includes Soul Feast, Newly Revised Edition: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, by Marjorie Thompson; Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, by Barbara Holmes; We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, by Gustavo Gutierrez; Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker Palmer; Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction, by L. Roger Owens; and A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice, by Jane E. Vennard.

About the Instructor

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens received his Ph.D. in theology from Duke University where he was awarded a Lilly Fellowship for the Formation of a Learned Clergy. Before that he completed his M.Div. at Duke Divinity School. As an undergraduate he studied philosophy and Bible/religion at Anderson University in Indiana. Owens is an ordained Elder in the North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. In North Carolina he served both urban and rural churches for eight years as co-pastor with his wife before coming to PTS. His newest book is Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife (Church Publishing, 2019.) Owens serves on the faculty for the Upper Room’s Academy for Spiritual Formation, where he lectures on postmodern spirituality and traditions of Christian spirituality.


4/5 2018

Origami as a Spiritual Practice

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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.


2/14 2018

Facing the Dust Together: What Kate Bowler’s “Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved)” Taught Me about Ash Wednesday

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Ash WednesdayFor a few years, my middle child was afraid of Ash Wednesday. He’d sit patiently through the homily, mumble along with Psalm 51 as best he could, but balk at the main event: the imposition of ashes. So he’d stay behind in the pew while his brother, sister, and whichever parent wasn’t leading worship filed forward to receive the oily, ashy smudge.

The mystery of his fear was finally solved, when he asked, “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“What makes you think it hurts?” I asked.

“Ashes are hot.”

I could see the undulating glow of burning embers in his imagination, and I understood.

“Oh, no,” I said. “We order them, and they come in the mail in a tiny plastic bag. They haven’t been hot for a long time.”

But in a way, he was right. The words we hear on Ash Wednesday as a finger traces a cross on our foreheads—Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return—are scorching words. Who would choose to come forward as the curtain is pulled back, and we glimpse the future, our futures: dust?

On the other hand, which is worse: walking with others to stare down our common destiny, joining the people of God in rehearsal for the time when each of us will have to confront this truth—dust—for ourselves; or staying behind, contemplating mortality alone?


Facing Dust

Not everyone gets to choose. Last week I read the stunning memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), by Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, who was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at the age of 35.

She didn’t have the luxury of staying in the pew. The ashes came for her.

I loved the book because it beautifully displays the struggle of facing the dust without easy answers. As a scholar of the prosperity gospel, Bowler knows what Christianity-with-answers looks like: If you have the right faith and pray the right way, God will heal you. As much as she’d like to believe this, especially when she imagines leaving behind her husband and young son, she knows it’s false. The truth is more beautiful, and more difficult: “God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”

I also loved the supporting characters, the friends who choose to walk with Bowler in the valley of the shadow of death as far as they can even though they have nothing to offer—no magical incantations, no curative essential oils, no prescriptions for joy—but their wholehearted presence.

There’s Frank, a seminary colleague of Bowler’s and a Lutheran minister. “When my older colleague Frank, who lost his own adult son, found his way into my hospital room, he wrapped his strong hands around mine and said, quietly: ‘I wore this clerical collar to impress you. And also to get through hospital security.’” Presence. Connection. Humor.

And there’s Ray, a friend and pediatric oncologist. Ray has been in the room countless times with parents, sharing good news and bad; he’s watched patients recover and eased their dying; he’s one of the few people with whom Bowler can share the depths of her fear. “‘Are you okay?’ he asks. ‘Yes, yes, I’m okay. Except for about 10 minutes a day, I’m okay.’ Anyone else would have left it at that. He looks at me carefully. ‘What does it look like? Those 10 minutes?’ he asks.” Not anyone could stay with her to hear her answer, but Ray does.

I found myself choking up as Bowler shares these encounters, because the miracle of Frank’s and Ray’s capacity to enter her suffering, without trying to fix her, testifies to the beauty of what she’s discovering: God is here. We are loved. It is enough.

Simone Weil, the 20th Century philosophy and mystic, said, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

There is such hope and beauty in the quiet folks who show up, love, and dwell with Bowler in the place of dust.


Facing Ash Wednesday Together

Can Ash Wednesday be that kind of place?

Maybe the value of Ash Wednesday is not just the practice it gives us in acknowledging and facing our own mortality. Maybe it’s that we do it together, that we walk with one another toward the man or woman in the robes and with the darkened fingertip ready to mark us and utter those scorching words.

And maybe the power of Ash Wednesday is that we are brave enough to eavesdrop as someone beside us—a husband, wife, partner, parent, child—hears those portentous words as well.

And we don’t recoil from them; and they don’t from us.

Tonight our family will huddle together in a pew. We will say Psalm 51. And then we will walk forward. We will look together into this crystal ball and see our future: dust. We will do this as a choice, knowing it might not be a choice next week, month, or year.

We will practice being a miracle for one another, thankful that in several weeks the church again will pull back the curtain, will show us the future—the whole future this time.


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality 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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