Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

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

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.


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.


2/10 2016

How do Christians Fast?

how do Christians fastYesterday we answered the question “Why do Christians fast?” Today we’ll take a closer look at how Christians fast.

Eating Less

Though there was no single method St. John Cassian prescribed, he did offer “a single goal: avoid overeating and the filling of our bellies.”[1] While going long periods of time without food is a common form of fasting in Scripture, for many of us it can backfire and lead to binge eating when breaking a fast.  In contrast, refusing to get seconds or putting down your fork before you’re full can be simple but powerful way to fast, and avoids the dangers of either irritability or binge eating.

Eating at Fixed Times

In Celtic monasticism, people like St. Aidan often waited until after 3:00 p.m. to eat, but then ate whatever was available in moderation. They didn’t want to eat during the hours when Christ was on the cross. How might the timing of your meals create a greater awareness for you of the events of Christ’s life?

 Eating a Disciplined Diet

Our Eastern Christian sisters and brothers abstain from meat and dairy products on most Wednesdays and Fridays during the year, and do the same throughout the entire season of Lent. Wednesdays are traditionally fasting days because they are the day on which Judas agreed to betray Jesus. Fridays are fasting days because of the crucifixion. The restricted diet helps one grow in consciousness and discipline, but doesn’t deplete one’s energy as much as a total fast.

 Eating With Your Attention on Christ

St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote that “While one is eating, it is good to imagine Christ our Lord eating in company with his apostles, and to observe how he eats, how he drinks, how he looks about, and how he converses, and then to try to imitate him. In this way, one’s mind will be occupied chiefly with the consideration of Our Lord and less with the sustenance of the body.”[2] Similarly, I know a pastor who has a large replica of Rublev’s famous Trinity Icon in his dining room. When he practices his morning devotions, he imagines sitting at the table with the Trinity. How might we eat differently if we were sitting at the table with Jesus?

Regardless of how we fast, we do it as a discipline to bring us closer to God.

The Rev. Christopher Brown moved to Pittsburgh from Colorado to pursue a master of divinity (MDiv) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He currently serves as the coordinator of the Church Planting Initiative at the Seminary along with pursuing his master’s in sacred theology. Chris is the organizing co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church, a church plant of the PC (U.S.A.) in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Chris regularly blogs at https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com and tweets at @brwnchrstpher.

[1] St. John Cassian. p. 73.

[2] St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises and Selected Writings (New York, NY: Paulist Press 1991) p. 172

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