Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

2/8 2018

Don’t Be a Hero! And Other Guidelines for Choosing a Lenten Discipline

How should you decide what you are going to give up—or take up—for Lent this year?

Here’s my plan: I’m going to wake up an hour earlier than usual, depriving myself of sleep and devoting that hour to prayer; read meditatively through the whole New Testament, paying particular attention to living the Sermon on the Mount; fast from sweets and chips, as usual, as well as from meat and Pinot Noir; write letters of encouragement to friends, family, and all my far-flung enemies; and call P. twice a week, whom I assiduously avoid during ordinary time, as penance. And do all of this before 7:00 a.m. each day. (Sorry P.—that’s your penance.)

As kids would say when I was young: NOT!

St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian, prayed, “Put my life in good order, O my God.” But we are prone to view Lent as the season during which we put our lives in good order for God. It’s like Jan. 1 all over again: we pile on the discipline, the resolutions, and the good intentions so that by Easter we’ll be the saints we want to be—and recognized for it.

We have forgotten, if we ever knew, the deep truth of life with God, stated succinctly by Ruth Burrows, an English Carmelite sister in her 90s: “Prayer is not our activity, our getting in touch with God, our coming to grips with or making ourselves desirable to God. We can do none of these things, nor do we need to, for God is there ready to do everything for us, loving us unconditionally.”

 

God is there ready to do everything for us, loving us unconditionally.

In other words: Don’t be a hero.

We are not the first to be tempted to spiritual heroics. In the rule he wrote for monks, the 6th century St. Benedict cautioned moderation in all things, including Lenten discipline. He required each monk to inform the abbot of his plan to observe Lent as a way to avoid pride, the assumption being that the abbot might say, “That’s a little much; back off.” Of course, what seemed moderate in a 6th century monastery might feel extreme to us, but the principle of moderation remains the same regardless of the century.

If Burrows is right that it’s not our job to find God or make ourselves acceptable to God, because God is already here, working and loving in us, then maybe in Lent we should aim for something more modest: to make a little space to become aware of that divine presence, available to it. The following guidelines might help with that endeavor:

 

Cut it in Half

Take whatever you were imagining you might do in Lent and reduce it by 50 percent. Why set yourself up for failure? You were going to read 10 psalms a day? Make it five. You were going to spend 30 minutes in silent prayer each evening? Make it 15. You were going to call your most aggravating friend twice a week? Make it once. Better to do something that makes a little space than try to make a lot, only to throw in the towel by the second Sunday of Lent.

 

Follow your Longing

 Don’t give up chocolate because everyone else is doing it. Ask yourself: Where have I been longing for freedom in my life? What way of prayer has been calling my name? Have you wanted to spend time in silence, meditating on Scripture, but haven’t found the time? Lent might be a chance to begin. You’re more likely to keep at something that comes out of your own God-inspired longing.

 

Tell Someone

St. Benedict was right—we’re more likely to overachieve if we keep our discipline a secret. Why not run it by a trusted friend or spiritual mentor—someone who knows you, your ambitions, and your blind spots? There’s a chance that when you say it out loud and see the look on your friend’s face, the truth might hit you: I’m trying to be a hero, aren’t I?

Lent is not a free 40-day membership to a spiritual gym. It’s an invitation to make space that opens us to God’s forgiving, healing, loving presence. There’s no trophy at the end, no parade of champions. No need to be a hero.

 

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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1/23 2017

Will you grow spiritually this year?

spiritual exercisesMy kids were each wearing blue the other morning—Duke blue—when my seven-year-old daughter slipped into my bedroom as I was getting ready for work and saw the narrow blue stripes on my dress shirt. “Oh, good!” she declared. “You’re wearing blue too!”

“Yes,” I said, “but I’m about to put on a green sweater.”

She looked skeptically at the cardigan splayed across the bed. “Not that green sweater!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She invoked the fashion sense of one of her older brothers: “I agree with Silas—that sweater doesn’t look so good.”

The kids have been contending that I’m overly fond of old things. Exhibit A: the green sweater. My briefcase is exhibit B—broken zipper, missing strap, faded brown leather. Then there’s the green La-Z-Boy in the basement—my chair for reading, writing, praying, and, yes, escaping them. Their case is solid.

But they’re wrong. Most of the old things I love weren’t old when I got them. I carried that La-Z-Boy from the warehouse to the car and ripped the plastic wrap off when we got home 13 years ago.

I like these things because they are comfortable, familiar, cozy—not because they’re old.

Having rounded the corner into a new year, we are now squarely facing that frightening horizon of the unknown—300-and-some-odd uncharted days. And when facing all the coming year’s not-yets, we’re tempted to find comfort in our green sweaters: comfortable relationships, established routines, familiar patterns of life.

Including those comfortable, established, familiar patterns of prayer.

A spiritual director used an analogy once to help me see how spiritual growth occurs in life. Imagine a campfire, he said. Close to the campfire it’s warm and bright. Further away stands the ominous woods in which you imagine rodents of unusual size and other assorted fairytale menaces. You don’t want to leave this fire.

But we grow, he continued, when we allow ourselves to inch away from the cozy comfort of the fire and move toward the mystery of the unknown—the unknown in the depth of ourselves and in the mystery of others, the infinite unknown that is the heart of God.

He could just as easily have said: growth happens when you are willing to wear a new sweater, button holes still tight, elbow patches still stiff. It’s neither familiar nor comfortable, but it might be just what you need.

A year ago I started the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. This was a stretch for me, the spiritual equivalent to learning a new sport. The Exercises engaged spiritual muscles I never used in prayer, especially my imagination. I’d long had a deep resistance to the Exercises, afraid to let my unwieldy imagination into relationship with God, which the Exercises require. But a process of discernment led me to this adventure. A year later I’ve faced fears I never wanted to admit and grown in freedom from attachments I didn’t know I had.

But it disrupted my routines. I couldn’t do the Exercises and still spend as much time in lectio divina and silence each morning as I was used to. So I put those in the drawer for a time.

I’m back to my familiar patterns, but I engage them differently now. I’m more likely to offer my imagination to God—to speak to God through the images that come to me and be led by God through them as well.

I would never recommend mindless exploration of new prayer practices for novelty’s sake. But if you are feeling yourself drawn to a new practice or repelled by one, either of these intuitions merits further attention. It’s just possible the Spirit is inviting you to push your seat back from the fire until its heat can no longer protect you from the dark night’s chill, to push your chair a little closer to God’s terrifying beauty, God’s unrestrained wildness.

Or in other words: You might need to put the old green sweater in the drawer.

Don’t take it to the thrift store, just stow it until the moment the Spirit—through a movement in your soul or the voice of a soul friend—says, Pull it out again. Try it on. See how it feels now. Now that you’ve been changed, it might fit you better than before.

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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7/15 2016

Pokémon Go and the Search for God

pokemon and godThe World through a Game

Our 11-year-old son was desperate to play Pokémon Go, trying to download the app on his iPod, learning only later he needed a smartphone.

Mother to the rescue: curious herself and eager to see him happy, she got the app on her phone. Before long, they found themselves at Arsenal Park in downtown Pittsburgh staring at the phone, clueless what to do next.

Since Arsenal Park is a Poké Stop, a small band of aficionados was also there, enjoying pizza on what must be called a pokébreak. Eager to help a couple neophytes, these gamers explained how this is an “augmented reality” game and how you capture the Pokémon by tapping them when the phone shakes, then flinging balls at these Pokémon superimposed on the world you see through the screen. At the park my wife and child managed to capture a Diglet and secure an egg with a Squirtle inside.

While writing that last line felt like using a foreign language, I can already see how this scene—my wife, son, and six gamers roaming around a park, watching it through their phones, waiting for a cartoon animal to appear as an overlay—is quite a good image of how we humans actually live our real lives and read our world: through filters.

 

Reading the World through Filters

Thomas Merton once suggested that only a handful of people see the world as it really is. I think he’s right. The rest of us see the world through the overlays, the filters we carry within us. Some of them were preinstalled before we were born—the filter called sin, for instance, which causes us to see the world falsely, as if we stand at its center.

Other filters we have downloaded along the way: the filters of ideology; the filters of our fantasies and fears, addictions and aversions; the filters of social constructions like race and social categories like class—all of which shape the way we perceive and misperceive reality.

When I see a colleague as a competitor, a student as a threat, or one of my children as an extension of myself, I am seeing them through a filter, not as they really are. And if I can’t see the world as it really is, then I certainly can’t do the thing most incumbent upon me, the one thing I was born to do: see the shimmer of God’s glory, God’s own presence, from within all that is.

The Second Century theologian Irenaeus is famous for saying, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” Rarely do we hear the second half of that quotation: “And the life of the human being is the vision of God.” The vision of God—exactly what our reality-distorting filters prevent us from seeing.

 

The Place of Spiritual Practices

Somewhere, someone right now is writing a sermon or a blog post suggesting Pokémon Go as an analogy for the human search for God: faith is like the screen we look through to see God.

I had a colleague who used to say that we must become “detectives of divinity,” but this is not at all what he meant, for until we have our reality-distorting filters of sin and ego and ideology deconstructed, the gods we find along our way are only idols we capture to serve our own interests.

Christian spirituality is not something we add to our lives like an app to our phone to help us find God. Rather, spiritual practices are meant to help us stay available to the God who finds us, the only One whose mercy can dismantle our filters so we can increasingly see reality as it is. With our distorted lenses, we see the world in the illusory way we want to see it. By making ourselves available to God’s grace, we can become disillusioned. We stop seeing neighbors as competitors and love as a zero sum game.

We can stop seeing the world through the narrow screens of sin, ego, and ideology. And we can start seeing the world as it is—the playground of God’s Spirit and the theater of redemption, shining from the inside out with the glory of a hidden God.

Now, where’s my son? I need him to show me how to get that game on my phone.

 

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.

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