Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

10/2 2013

Why Taize?

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Every Monday our PTS community worships in the tradition of Taizé. For those who are unaware of this tradition, it is a service with roots in an ecumenical community in France and features repeated song, prayer, Scripture, and silence. We started worshipping in this way every Monday two years ago as part of a number of changes in our chapel program. We moved away from a more faculty-driven program into a more student-driven model. It is certainly still a work-in-progress, much like our personal and communal lives together. No matter how much we may think otherwise, we have never really arrived. God is always changing us. This is reality in our lives, as well as our chapel program.

The faculty members in charge of this transition wrote periodic e-mails to the campus about how this change would enrich our lives together, even if some of the styles of worship made us uncomfortable. We were encouraged to participate and allow ourselves to grow. These e-mails were clearly written for me. I was so angry the first year about these changes. My first year of seminary I felt like chapel had a rhythm and it grounded me as I navigated my life as a student, attempting to balance it with parenting small children. And, still, many of the memorable and challenging sermons of my lifetime were heard in chapel during that time. Chapel was my favorite part of the day. Well, aside from lunch. Then they had to go and change it. Why? And to me, it was a hot mess. I never knew what to expect. I like to think I am open to the Spirit, but I was very resistant to the changes. I also happened to have a baby during second year, so I was given the grace to process in solitude as I grumbled to God about how I felt like PTS had been led astray by some evil spirit. It sounds harsh, but I was a tad bit angry.

My third year, I started coming around, partly due to Taizé, but mostly due to the fact that I realized most of my friends were graduating and that chapel was one time I could see them regularly. I still felt apprehensive when we sang songs I thought were too contemporary, became nervous when speakers were too personal, and disliked how we were always moving the chairs around. But I pressed on.

This year, though, it all came together for me. In a moment of revelation, where God once again revealed to me the obvious, I sat in the realization of my own selfishness.  Worship is not about me. Like I said, this was a revelation of the obvious, which is often how revelation happens for me. Obviously, this was something I knew, but it was revealed to me through my experience of Taizé this year.

The service features the first round of song led by a cantor, and we are blessed at PTS to have many talented musicians and singers. I had prepared myself to be emotional at this particular service because I knew one of my favorite professors would not be there, as he has moved on to another very fortunate institution, but I hadn’t prepared myself for how emotional I would be about all of my friends who had moved on. As the cantor finished the first round, I sat thinking about how the cantor had been my daughter’s first teacher at the PTS Playroom and how thankful I was for this institution and community for nurturing my gifts, my family, and those who surrounded us during our time here. When I looked up, though, I realized that the cantor was not the person I had been thinking of. That person graduated last year.

Instead of feeling foolish, though, I praised God for the revelation that this is the point of worship. Not to confuse two clearly different people, no. But to remind us of the wider community of faith, the larger story that we are part of. Suddenly, my mind was moving on to the children who had performed in the Christmas play, the alums who had attended lectures and other events, the memorial service offered for a fellow student’s stillborn son, the academic awards given to well-deserving students, all these things in this place offered as worship and thanksgiving to the God who became part of our world, died, rose, and ascended into heaven.

Taizé (or something like it), I think, offers a way for communities in constant transition, like a seminary, to remain grounded and connected to a larger story. It allows us to reflect, weekly, through its predictable rhythm, on the changes that we all endure in our lives. And it allows a space for those who are a little less comfortable with the phrase “varied worship experiences” to remain grounded and maybe, just maybe, allow themselves to open up to the rich and wonderful expanse of God’s love through worship in the wider church.

Written by Shana Hutchings, Senior MDiv student

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6/7 2013

Remembering – The Core of our Lives and Ministries

This past week, I attended the 217th Commencement of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, along with many of my friends and colleagues. But I was not graduating. It was a strange feeling since those graduating were the very ones I entered Seminary with in 2010. Due to my middling academic abilities and the presence of young children in my family, I chose to complete Seminary in four years, rather than three, and I stand by my decision, but I was reminded of a friend of mine, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph while sitting at the ceremony. She is 88 years old and has six siblings, who all have children and grandchildren. She told me once that she had no regrets about her call to her vocation and that she knew, when she entered ministry, that she would be giving up having children. The one thing she didn’t think about, though, was that she would be giving up grandchildren. She choked up when she told me that and I felt like I understood her loss to a small degree. That is a bit how I felt watching my friends graduate. When I chose to take four years, I never thought how difficult it would be to say farewell after three years were done. I managed to keep myself sort of together during the ceremony and wish my dear friends and colleagues all the best in their post-Seminary life. But it was hard.

One of my favorite lines is from poet Mary Oliver, where she admonishes her readers to “Pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it.” As I reflect on the past three years, I can fondly remember the solid academic foundation we have been blessed with, the relationships built within student organizations, the recreation had through games of Frisbee and basketball (for those with athletic talent, that is), the ways we have cared for one another during difficult times, the times we have worshiped together in chapel services, the social times we have enjoyed with friends and children, and the meals we shared together in homes, restaurants, and the cafeteria. These were the foundations of our shared life together and were important in forming us as colleagues and leaders.  The times, though, that I think were even more important were those moments where eternity unexpectedly entered our midst. There were thousands of these moments, too many to share here, but I would like to share two such moments from my experience at PTS.

The first occurred near the beginning of our time together during our first round of midterms. I discovered early in my time at PTS that the majority of my colleagues were not only competent and intelligent, they were also academically-driven to such a degree that astonished me. I found exam periods to be very anxious as my friends prepared to master the material to perfection. I was quite impressed and found myself unable to relate in many ways, actually. After our first round of exams, most of us had picked up our papers and answer sheets from our mailboxes during our morning break and were examining the comments and grades, trying to figure out which answers we had missed. I always sat in the second row of the lecture hall surrounded by a group of amazing second-career students. These people not only held down full-time jobs, they also were here after being away from academics for what seemed like a lifetime. One of these students asked another, a mild-mannered woman, “How did you do on that exam?” And the student answered, “I got a D.” We both looked at her, waiting for her to elaborate, and she flashed a huge smile, lifted her arms in the air, and shouted, “I PASSED!!!!!!!!!!” For me, eternity snuck into that moment. God calls all of God’s children to participate in the work of the Kingdom and God always honors our best efforts, and what is even better, God honors our not-so-great efforts, too. I felt like, in the midst of the overwhelming urge among my colleagues to earn perfect scores (as great as those are), God reached in at that moment and revealed God’s vision for a ministry that includes all of us, regardless of class rank.

The second instance was just a short time ago and it stands in contrast to the story I just shared. This moment came at an occasion that most of us can hardly imagine: a memorial service for a stillborn baby boy. A dear colleague and friend lost her son about halfway through her pregnancy last year and held a memorial service this year in our chapel. Many of us gathered and shared in grieving this loss for our friend and her family. The entire service was somber and moving, but one moment will stay with me, and others I am sure, forever. In the middle of the service our friend, the mother of the baby boy, along with another friend, offered a stringed duet of “Lullaby” as a praise and tribute to the short life of her son. Eternity snuck in again. The Kingdom of God is truly near when we can offer our best gifts in our times of greatest pain. I felt as if I had been permitted to listen to her private lamentation to God. I was reminded, once again, how Christ suffers with us and redeems our suffering for the glory of God.

One of my favorite authors is Willa Cather, who gained fame by writing stories set primarily in Nebraska. Early in her career, though, she struggled to find her voice. She spent a long time merely copying prominent East Coast writers because she admired them. At some point, though, she decided to write from her experiences. She said of this turning point, “Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” My hope, in sharing these two stories, is to remind us of the art of remembering. I think remembering is at the core of our lives and our ministries. In remembering, we become more and more aware of God’s faithfulness. I started this piece with Mary Oliver’s admonition and I think it goes well with Cather’s observation about her own life. I hope that we will all, whether we are leaving this place or holding down the fort a bit longer, practice the arts of paying attention and being astonished.  Miracles happen every single day. When they happen, tell the stories. And then take the time, often, to remember them. These things, I firmly believe, will sustain us all well in life and ministry. Congratulations, graduates! Thanks be to God!

By Shana Hutchings, Senior MDiv Student

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2/21 2013

What Color Is Lent?

This has, thankfully, been a mild winter in Pittsburgh (the picture above comes from 2010).  Still, this year as every year, Lent began while winter still held sway.  Indeed, even now, with February at long last over and done (how strange that, according to the calendar, February is the shortest month of the year!), the official first day of spring, March 20, seems a long way off.

All of which may seem appropriate.  Lent certainly seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving.  The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and lugubrious shade.  But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter shades: the penitential black of clerical garb, the gray of Ash Wednesday’s daubs on hands or foreheads, the off-white of sackcloth.

Yet, curiously, the term “Lent” has nothing to do with winter, or darkness, or fasting, or penitence.  Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin, all of which mean “Spring”!

Likely we will have difficulty wrapping our heads around this concept.  Lent as springtime?  Our springtime associations wrap about Easter (a name which, by the way, derives from the Saxon goddess of fertility and the dawn!)—the feast of Christ’s resurrection, acclaimed by John of Damascus (sixth century) as “the Spring of souls.”  Even in the secular world, Easter is celebrated with signs and symbols of newness and life: eggs, brightly dyed in the shades of spring flowers; bunnies (famous for their fecundity!); and new clothes.

By contrast, these 40 days of preparation are appropriately penitential, marked by self-examination, prayer and fasting. Likely, we would prefer to skip the preparation and jump directly into the celebration!  But the Lenten disciplines are not optional.  Mark reminds us that, after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).  Jesus could not avoid this time of trial, and neither can we.  But this Lenten season need not be grim and colorless.  Lent is a green season—a time of growth.  Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are.  Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit.  It is then a season of new life—a springtime for our souls!

God grant you, sisters and brothers, a green, growing, God-filled Lent!

By The Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell, James A. Kelso Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

 

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