Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

10/4 2018

Not Just Chickadees—Remembering Francis, a Subversive Saint

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St. Francis Blessing of the AnimalsI’ve already seen the signs: “Blessing of the Animals—This Sunday”.

In honor of St. Francis—who preached to chickadees, tamed a wolf terrorizing a town, and welcomed chipmunks onto his shoulders—many churches will be offering animal blessings this Sunday. They will invite dogs, cats, gerbils, lizard, cockatoos, and more, into their sanctuaries—or at least into their front yards. They will sing All Creatures of Our God and King. They will invoke the name of Francis. And they will bless these furry and feathered friends. The children will love it.

What they won’t do? Encourage kids to steal.

Maybe they should.


Francis the Thief

Before he ever preached to an animal, Francis criticized the burgeoning merchant economy of 13th Century Italy. He grieved the way the economy put money into the pockets of some while leaving others begging along roadsides.

One of Francis’s first acts on his way to becoming St. Francis was to steal fabric from his father’s business and sell it. One account says he gave the money to a church, another says he offered it to the poor. Either way, he didn’t seem to appreciate the notion of property. The fabric—and the money it fetched when sold—wasn’t his to give away.

He did it anyway.

This act marked the beginning of what we might call Francis’s conversion—the 180 degree turn God’s Spirit was working in his life: a turn from a world in which a human economy allows people to say, “This is mine, I earned it, I can do with it what I want,” to a vision of a divine economy in which all that is belongs to God, is oriented toward God, and should be used for God’s purposes.

And, as Francis found out, living in that kind of economy can get you in trouble.


A New Vision Emerges

Unsurprisingly, Francis’s father did not think highly of this act of generosity. He flew into a rage, and Francis absconded. He hid for several weeks in a small cave, where only one friend knew where he was. He ate what little food his friend brought him, and he prayed. As one early biographer put it, “The Lord sent him such consolations and delight as he had never known.”

There’s no way to know exactly what happened to Francis in that cave, but I love the way G. K. Chesterton, in his biography of Francis, describes his new attitude when he emerged. Chesterton suggests that, when Francis came out, he saw the world upside down:

The effects of this on his attitude toward the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. . . . If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging.

Francis saw the world—all of creation, even himself and, presumably, his father and his father’s fabric—as suspended from its divine source. He saw things as they really are—coming from God, belonging to God, to be used for God. And that kind of vision doesn’t jibe with the way things typically work.

No wonder we bless the animals—that feels safe. Celebrating Francis-the-thief would contribute to the corruption of minors.


Of a Piece

But Francis-who-blesses-the-animals and Francis-who-steals-the-fabric are one and the same Francis; these two aspects of his character are of a piece. They flow from his radical reorientation.

Francis discovered a kinship with the rest of creation—Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Second-Cousin Squirrel—because he saw the trees, wolves, cockatoos, and gerbils as existing in God, as all things do. He peered into their divine heart—the same divine heart in his father and in the poor beggar. But the human economy—This is mine! I earned it! You can’t have it!—blinds us to this truth.

So when we bless the animals, we’re not just doing something cute, and we’re not just putting at risk the sanctuary carpet. We’re glimpsing the heart of reality. We’re practicing radical kinship. We’re being a bit subversive.  We’re learning that not only the animals, but our very lives and our things, come from God, belong to God, and should be aimed toward God’s purposes.


Stealing St. Francis

When my wife and I got married, she bought me a little statue of St. Francis holding a basket. I filled the basket with birdseed and placed it in the front yard of our house. I loved that statue of Francis, loved how he greeted me each time I approached the front door. And I loved how, from the dining room table, I could watch the squirrels, chipmunks, and birds eat their fill as I ate mine.

When we sold the house 13 years ago, we forgot Francis. He stayed in that yard, and I wanted him back.

Last summer, when our family visited that town to see friends, we drove by the house to show our kids. “Boys,” I said, slowing down as we passed, “this is where we lived when you were born.” And then I stopped. I saw Francis, my Francis. He’d been moved from the island of azaleas in the front yard to near the bushes beneath the dining room window.

I glanced at our eight-year-old daughter, quick and small. She could pull off a heist if anyone could—dash into the yard, pluck Francis from among the bushes, and jump into the van before anyone saw her. And I’d never driven a getaway car before. It felt exciting.

Until I remembered—that’s not the kind of thief Francis was. He didn’t steal in order to own. He stole because what his father possessed wasn’t being used for its divine purpose. It had lost its place in Gods economy.

So we drove away, and I was left wondering, not whether I would every have my Francis back—I won’t—but whether I could let this vision of Francis shape my life. Would I ever really see the world the way Francis did?

And would I be willing to show that world to my kids, knowing the trouble seeing the world this way could cause them?


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDivDoctor 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. His latest work is Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife (Church Publishing Inc., 2019).


7/31 2018

Trusting God in the Middle of Uncertainty

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Hurricane Maria damage

Photo credit: Roosevelt Skerrit  https://www.flickr.com/photos/rooseveltskerrit/albums/72157686922251424, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62690583


I live in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane María struck our island as the strongest cyclone in modern history with winds up to 175 mph and rainfall measuring up to 37.9 inches. My mother is the executive director of El Guacio, Puerto Rico’s only Presbyterian camp. Here, we passed the storm.


Each of the events that occurred in the camp resulted in great stories of faith and resilience.

Power, water, and communications completely fell a few hours in. When we were able to come outside, we saw we were trapped beneath many feet of branches. With help of the community, it took two days to leave the house and around 10 days to visit our family.

The camp has its own water source, but the pipes were destroyed. The community united and we were able to bring water to the camp. People came to fill their water needs and with a generator do daily tasks like wash their clothes. Help continued, and with donations we have been able to provide laundry services, water, refrigerators, stoves, food, supplies, and clothes, among other things, to families in need.

Ice was one of the scarcest resources. and with the help of a Presbyterian church in New York the camp got an ice machine distributing up to 800 pounds of ice daily. The camp has become a hub for mission. People who come to help and rebuild stay at the camp to visit the communities.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance visited the camp this year and saw the needs and how we provided assistance. They granted funds to the camp to be able to rebuild its infrastructure and give to the community. We are currently working to make a garden to plant fruits and vegetables so that the community may have a steady food resource.

My church experience led me to know the importance of the service work that was needed and to trust God in the middle of uncertainty. Looking back, I wish I had knowledge of how to prepare and have the supplies needed. It is alarming that due to climate change a hurricane like this may strike again in the next years. Each of the events that occurred in the camp resulted in great stories of faith and resilience. Through it all we have seen how God cares for God’s people and that we are all intertwined in the mission to serve.

Natanael (Nato) Rivera Vargas participated in the Seminary’s Miller Summer Youth Institute, a program for rising high school seniors to earn college credit while exploring what God is calling them to do and who God is calling them to be.


6/4 2018

Is It Christian Enough? Watching “A Wrinkle in Time” with My Daughter

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A Wrinkle in Time movie posterMy eight-year-old daughter and I left the theater and walked into the bright afternoon sun holding hands. We’d just seen A Wrinkle in Time. That’s a pretty good way for a dad to finish a movie about a daughter who travels billions of light years to rescue her less-than-perfect father from the clutches of evil.

As she clenched my hand, she asked, “Dad, would you say that was a movie about self-discovery?”

“That was part of it. What do you think Meg discovered?”

“That who she is is who she was meant to be.”

Pretty good, I thought. “And who she is is worthy—and capable—of love, right?”

She just squeezed my hand and smiled.

But I bet there were some moviegoers not smiling, disappointed that the explicit Christian message of Madeleine L’Engle’s book morphed into the gospel of Oprah: You are good enough, so believe in yourself.

Though there was more to the movie than that, I can still imagine their whining that Jesus wasn’t mentioned, as he is in the book. Buddha, Rumi, Einstein, Mandela, yes—but Jesus? No.

But that didn’t bother me. For me the question is whether the message of the movie is one I want to shape the mind and the heart of my daughter. To which I answer: Yes.


Worthy of Love

As in the book, Meg must discover that she is worthy of love, despite the faults and fears she thinks disqualify her. I cheered when African-American Meg rejected the fantasy of herself conforming to the image society tells her is beautiful, an image that includes having straight hair like my white daughter’s. And I cheered that my daughter finally got to see a courageous heroine who doesn’t look like her.

I know from experience that any of us can mistakenly believe ourselves unworthy of love. We imagine we are not smart enough, athletic enough, beautiful enough, thin enough, rich enough—whatever enough—to fully belong, to be embraced by the human family and by the Love that moves the planets and the stars, a Love at the heart of the book and the movie.

But Meg discovered that she is worthy of love just as she is. And I’m learning that I am. And my daughter got to see what the journey to discover this can look like, and that it’s a journey worth taking.


Warrior of Light

But Meg didn’t just learn that she’s worthy of love. She also found that she’s capable of love, and that such a love as hers can drive back the forces of evil. As one who can love, Meg becomes what Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which call a “warrior of light.” She’s joined a great army. She’s now a participant in a light that is greater than her, a light that is laboring to banish evil from the cosmos.

It’s a calling I face every day: Don’t just bask in the light of love, like a cat curled up on a warm windowsill, but love—love fervently, actively, persistently. And it’s a call I hope my daughter is hearing. Encompassed by love, she too can love in simple, poignant, powerful ways.

Who knows what hope an eight-year-old’s love might unlock in this world?


The Name of the Light

My daughter woke up early the other morning and caught me in prayer. I was reading the assigned text for the day from the third chapter of John, the familiar passage about a God who loved a cosmos enough to send a Son.

The passage ends with a contrast between the way of light and the way of darkness. Those who follow the light experience the joy of knowing their “deeds are done in God.”

I gestured for her to join me in the La-Z-Boy. She walked over in her orange Halloween pajama bottoms, a too-large flannel shirt, and a menagerie of stuffed animals in her arms. When she climbed into my lap, I said, “Listen to this. I think it might remind you of the movie we saw.” And I read aloud the verses from John’s Gospel.

When I finished, she looked up at me and smiled knowingly, just as she did in the parking lot after the movie. She is loved. She is capable of love. She can be a warrior of light. And she knows it.

And she knows the Light’s name. She doesn’t need Hollywood to tell her that.


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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