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Thinking Out Loud
  • On Loving the Church

    by Michael Jinkins | May 26, 2015


    The President's Charge to the 2015 Graduating Class of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
    May 17, 2015


    On Loving the ChurchI once knew a dean who, in the midst of searching for a new faculty member, had a question about one of the candidates under consideration. This candidate had all the credentials. But the dean had a nagging doubt about him because he had written some pretty scathing, very negative criticisms of the church. So the dean called a pastor who knew the candidate well. And he asked the pastor: "Is this person someone who loves the church enough to criticize it? Or does he really just have contempt for the church? What is the source of his criticism? If he loves the church enough to critique the church, we need him and want him on our faculty. But if he does not love the church, if he only has contempt for the church, I think we should look elsewhere."

    This dean told me that he sat there, with the phone receiver in hand, waiting a long time for the answer. After a very long pause, the pastor, who knew the candidate well and liked him very much, said, "I think you should keep looking."

    This conversation reminds me of a very funny chapter in a very funny book by Daniel Zeluff. The book, which came out while I was in seminary, is titled, There’s Algae in the Baptismal "Fount" (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978). Zeluff could be quite a critic of the church himself. The chapter I have in mind is titled, "I must be a prophet, else why are they stoning me?" The point of the chapter is not a denunciation of the role of actual prophets, though there's a good deal of suspicion in the chapter about self-proclaimed prophets; instead, the chapter lifts up the role of the pastor who is willing to love his or her people into righteousness rather than merely judging them for weaknesses and failures that are common to all people to one degree or another.

    Barbara Brown Taylor, a couple of years ago, from this very pulpit, reminded us that, as pastors and church leaders, some of our best teachers are the folks in our churches who will never agree with us. That's true. And it is a sign of God's good grace that God will bring us folks who never agree with us, folks who will never even like us, in every congregation. But in a larger sense, the church herself often plays this role, the role of gadfly teacher.

    The Holy Spirit speaks and works through the people of God. Often unevenly, sometimes at a maddeningly slow pace, but the Spirit of God is at work in and among these people. And usually I have found that the Spirit of God works through the people of God far more reliably and truly than through me as an individual.

    Often we, as your teachers, want you to fall in love with our disciplines. I'm a theologian, so it is only natural that I want you to fall in love with theology. Someone else may want you to fall in love with New Testament or Old Testament, or Christian ethics, or pastoral counseling. Today, I want to encourage you to fall in love with the church, though I truly cannot charge you to do so. No one can charge another person to love. But I do ask you, and I do encourage you to love the church. Unfaithful though the church sometimes is, inconsistent in its service to God, even unreliable in its quest for justice, the church is still the Body of Christ. And that's not just a metaphor, that’s a theological fact.

    In recent days, I have been reminded of what it means to love the church by the example of our friend Dr. David Hester. David was a fine scholar, a great teacher and a theological leader. David was also a pastor. David was dedicated to justice. And David loved the church through which Jesus Christ continues to offer himself on behalf of this broken world that God loves.

    So this is my encouragement, if not my charge, to you: Love the church. Learn the humility that will make it possible to love the church. Love the church enough to respect the wisdom and grace of the people who make up the church. Love the church not for what it could be, but for who it is. For God's sake love God's people.

    And now receive the benediction: May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always. Amen.


  • The Thrill is Gone

    by Michael Jinkins | May 18, 2015


    BB KingThe year was 1969. I was sixteen. The moment is scorched into my mind. Ben Norrod and I are sitting in his room listening to a recording that would go on to win a Grammy Award in 1970 and eventually earn a coveted place on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of Greatest Songs of All Time: “The Thrill is Gone.” Ben and I were both musicians, and we listened to that record until the grooves nearly wore away.

    B.B. King’s voice was like gravel and honey. And Lucille, his Gibson guitar named for a woman who caused a barroom brawl and conflagration early in his career, well, she sang with a voice all her own. B.B. said he played his solos in the higher register because his hearing wasn’t very good and that way he could hear Lucille sing. Together they made up the greatest musical team in history.

    I grew up in deep East Texas on a diet of music that knew no categories except “good” and “bad.” We were catholic listeners, and we loved them all from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys to Muddy Waters. Great music poured out of East Texas dance halls I was told never to visit and radio stations from Houston and New Orleans. There was so much great music. But B.B. was unique, and we loved him uniquely. As I moved from one band to another in those days of late nights and long music sessions and other things that will remain hidden in history, from pick-up bands that stayed together just long enough to play one dance to groups that lasted a year or two, covering everything from Blood, Sweat and Tears standards to Bob DylanElton John and James Taylor, B.B. King was a fixed point on a compass that spun like it was driven by the winds of change.

    My children, Jeremy and Jessica, were brought up on B.B. King along with a lot of other great rock, country, blues, R&B, and jazz. When the kids were teenagers, Debbie gave me a Father’s Day gift of a day with them at an all-day Austin City Limits Blues concert. Debbie and Jessica had to leave before Buddy Guy and B.B. came on stage in the evening, but Jeremy and I were there to see the King of Blues, by then too old to stand for long. He sat on a stool and sang and played. His fingers were not as quick as they once had been, but even then his voice was pure magic, transporting us from Austin to the Mississippi Delta that his heart never entirely left.

    The great irony of the blues is just how happy it makes you to play it. The blues draws you in and reminds you that being human isn’t easy, loving isn’t easy, and neither is dying. We are not alone in our unease. Others have the blues too. There’s a community of the blues, and it is not limited by age, creed or race.

    I know this may seem sacrilegious to some people to say this, but when I heard that B.B. died, I couldn’t help but remember something Daniel Patrick Moynihan said when his friend President John F. Kennedy was murdered. Someone said to Moynihan, “We’ll never be happy again.” To which Moynihan responded, “We’ll be happy again. But we’ll never be young again.”

    Over the next several days and maybe weeks, I’ll be listening to B.B. King a lot. Listening and remembering. And I will be very sad. I know I’ll be happy again, but there’s no way to recapture that moment at sixteen when Ben and I huddled round that record player and thrilled for the first time.

    The thrill is gone, at least for today.


  • A Leadership Notebook: When to Sweat the Small Stuff

    by Michael Jinkins | May 15, 2015


    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    When to Sweat the Small StuffSome time ago I mentioned a now classic essay by Charles F. Knight in the Harvard Business Review in which the author, almost as a side comment, said that most companies fail for “non-analytical reasons.”1 His point was that most of the time when our organizations fail, it is not because we didn’t understand what to do, we simply didn’t do what we knew we should. Oftentimes (to paraphrase Robert Burns) “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” because we don’t manage the details.

    Let me give you a purely hypothetical example.

    A large church with a professional staff and a session well-stocked with highly capable folks decides to embark on a capital campaign. They have polled the congregation about the church’s and community’s needs. They have carefully analyzed these needs and have developed a compelling case statement for why the church should embark on this capital campaign. They have interviewed some of the most generous givers in the congregation to find out if they believe the church has a solid case and how that case might best be framed. They spent months using a variety of tools to analyze the giving potential of their congregation. They laid careful plans to ensure that they have not overshot the mark of what they are capable of raising. Their leadership has carefully crafted a beautiful letter co-signed by the head of the campaign (a widely respected elder representing the session) and the church’s senior pastor. The letter will be sent to all members along with a professionally-produced case statement that conveys how crucial this campaign is to sustain and expand the vital missions of the church. The office staff gets to work pulling together the mailing list and sends out the letters.

    But within a few days, the pastor’s secretary gets an angry call from a longtime member, Frederick Arthur David, a beloved and well-known retired physician known to everyone as “Bud.” When the pastor talks to Bud on the phone, he finds out that the letter Bud received from “the church in which I was baptized, the church in which I was married, the church in which my mother and father’s memorial services were conducted, the church to which I gave the stained glass windows that now illuminate the chancel in honor of my wife, Anne, whose funeral you performed last spring” had been sent a “form letter” addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Arthur” with the salutation, “Dear David and Anna.”

    The conclusion Bud says he was hesitantly forced to draw is that the church he has loved his whole life doesn’t remember his name, doesn’t remember that his wife “ANNE” died last year, or just doesn’t care.

    After taking full responsibility for the mistake, apologizing, and listening carefully, the pastor asks if he can come over to Bud’s house and visit with him. Over the course of the next few days, this fence will be mended because Bud loves his church and trusts his pastor of fifteen years.

    Unfortunately this turned out to be just the first shoe to drop.

    Within a week the staff realizes that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in every 10 letters sent out in the mailing have similar problems. Or worse! It is about this time that they realize too that they were really fortunate with Bud, because a long relationship of trust and affection existed between him and his church and his pastor. This was not the case with other members.

    As research has shown, newer members of a congregation and members with few deep, close, long-established ties to the life of the church are willing to base their entire evaluation of a church and its pastors on very little information, perhaps only a single brief conversation. Receiving a campaign letter that appears to treat them as just nameless members of the herd may be enough to end their relationship with this church.

    It is about this point in my telling of this purely hypothetical story that everyone hearing it who has ever been responsible for a major capital campaign may begin to look a little shaken and to feel a little nauseated.

    Despite great analysis, excellent planning, carefully laid groundwork, and beautiful production of campaign materials, the launch of this capital campaign was undercut by a lack of attention to details. What might have been a great opportunity for the congregation turned out otherwise. Instead of making follow-up visits to take the next step of asking members to contribute to the campaign, a great deal of time and energy now has to be devoted to convincing many of the congregation’s members that their church really does know them and really does care about them.

    Sometimes the small stuff isn’t small. And it matters a great deal that those who are checking the details are detail people.

    This is one of those instances in which good management can contribute to effective leadership. Conversely it reminds us that poor management can undercut our every attempt to lead well.


    1Charles F. Knight, “Emerson Electric: Consistent Profits, Consistently,” Harvard Business Review, January-February, 1992, 57.


  • The Capacity to Hope

    by Michael Jinkins | May 11, 2015


    Capacity for HopeOften when I start reading a book, I skip the preface, acknowledgements and foreword. I sometimes read the introduction if it appears to hold important information, but most of the time I just want to get into to "the book."

    Recently I paused to read a preface that may just make me pause more often at those pages numbered with the small Roman numerals. The book itself is a selection of John Cassian's Conferences in "The Classics of Western Spirituality" series published by Paulist Press (1985). The preface was written by Colm Luibhéid who also translated the selections. (The introduction to the volume, incidentally, was written by the great Church historian Owen Chadwick; as excellent and informative as it is, it is Luibhéid's preface that steals the show.)

    Luibhéid brings to the pedestrian task of preface-writing rare elegance and thoughtfulness. He creates one of those moments when the reader feels compelled to stop, lay the book aside for a few moments and reflect on his or her own faith.

    Luibhéid does this in the course of describing John Cassian's contributions to Christian thought. Cassian (c.365- c.435), a contemporary of St. Augustine of Hippo, is known in our time primarily as a key theologian for the Benedictine movement. Drawing on some of the most important theological sources of the early church, particularly Evagrius Ponticus (of whom I have written recently), and deeply inspired by the lives of the Egyptian "Desert Fathers," John Cassian brought the wisdom of the East to the Western church. Rather than restricting himself, however, to a discussion of Cassian's influences and impact, Luibhéid takes us into the heart of Cassian's message.

    He explains that "in his way John Cassian is someone responding as he can to the old problem of what to make of the life one has. And that problem in its turn rests on the deeper one of making sense of whatever reality we have happened to meet. Is reality any deeper than the farthest reach of our own perceptive capacities? Is this - what we encounter - all of it? It nags and worries. It surfaces in a sick man amid the fading of things. It presses on the spectator of a dead child. Can this be all of it?" (References are to page xii of the preface.)

    Then, Luibhéid turns to a very brief survey of possible responses to "the old problem of what to make of the life one has." He speaks first of the "teacher" who is capable of evoking through "the expert marshaling of words" a level of confidence that seems to virtually guarantee "the existence of awesome and accessible domains of transcendence." We don't know whether Luibhéid is speaking here from an autobiographical perspective or is critiquing other persuasive teachers. But many teachers and preachers will recognize the danger of too-glibly relying on eloquence and persuasion in response to "the old problem."

    Next, he describes the opposite confidence of a thinker, like the classical writer Lucretius, who asserts that all hope based on transcendence is worse than mistaken, it is "craven, degenerate superstition" which "has managed to poison the wells of living." There are legions today who are only too ready to pour scorn on the hope and faith of others in the name of science or humanity or justice or some other lofty good.

    Luibhéid contrasts both brands of over-confidence - of credulity and scoffing - by appealing to the poet Seamus Heaney who leaves aside questions of transcendence, seeking reality "more quietly, more humbly" in paying supreme attention to the physical world, to "a chunky rock" or "the recurring flavors of a type of wine." Believing in anything beyond that which can be touched, smelled and tasted, from this perspective, "is to take too great a chance," writes Luibhéid.

    "But," he continues, "the willingness to take just such a chance is surely the mark of the Christian. A creature of the day and of circumstance, the Christian nevertheless claims, at times weakly, at times with powerful courage, that God does indeed exist, that there is somewhere an enduring and timeless domain where the burdened heart may aspire to find ease. The Christian has in him the capacity to hope for better things."

    Hope, we are reminded in this exquisite preface, is not born from a spirit of optimism, nor from any confidence one may have in oneself or one's circumstance. It is the unique product of trust in a God who is faithful to fulfill promises long made and against all odds.


  • What Do You Wear When You Pray?

    by Michael Jinkins | May 05, 2015


    What do you wearRecently Jay Warthen, a two-time alum (1977 and 1985) of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, sent me the following quote from Mark Twain in response to a blog I had posted. The quote is from Twain’s novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

    “I could have given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law of human nature: spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a [person] is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it; and besides I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty, and paralysis to human thought.”

    This is a great quote from one of America’s most original thinkers, and a quote that proves conclusively that if Twain understood himself to be an agnostic, he was certainly a Protestant agnostic.

    Among the several ideas Twain presents in this tightly packed paragraph, the one I want us to focus on today is the way in which our religious beliefs fit us like the clothes we wear. I’ll wager we have all met people who wore the beliefs handed down by their parents like an ill-fitting suit of clothes until one day they suddenly seem to realize, “Wow, this heavy wool three-piece tweed thing may have worked for my great-great-grandfather, but it just isn’t me!” The next time you see this person at prayer, they’re worshipping in something that fits them better. It can go the other way too, of course. Someone may have been seen for years trying on first this spiritual costume and then another, only to realize that the dress her mother wore to worship fit exactly right all along, though she needed to take it in here and there and raise the hem.

    I’ve simply quit trying to figure out what makes faith fit the person, but I suspect that much of fitness is reflected in Anne Lamott’s reflection that “All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things.”

    One of my all-time favorite books is William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (originally published in 1902 after having been presented as the Gifford Lectures in Scotland). Martin Marty referred to James, in the Penguin edition of this classic this way: James “seems at times to be someone who has come to believe in believing, and lets it go at that; to be a voyeur of experiencers, and then let them go their way.”1 This is probably true, provided we also realize that at least one of the experiencers of believing on whom William James reports in his book is none other than William James himself.

    What I find in James is something toward which I hope we all aspire: a generosity of spirit to listen to other people’s descriptions of their spiritual lives on their own terms. William James was helped in doing this because of his own largeness of spirit and his natural curiosity. I hope that the motivation for my own desire to do this is a generosity of spirit helped along with a belief that God is up to far more in this world than I can possibly ever imagine. No matter what any of our creeds may confess (and some of our creeds are far more generous on this point than some of us), God is not bound to meet humanity according to our rules; so it only makes sense that God meets others in ways that are appropriate to their cultures and societies and tribes.

    A few years ago, I was visiting with a rabbi friend. He had recently returned from a trip to Mongolia. While there, he stayed with a Mongolian family. One evening the father in this family asked my friend a question: “What apparel do you wear when you pray?” My friend was delighted by the question, and he showed his host his prayer shawl. The man admiringly examined the shawl and showed my friend the clothes he put on to pray.

    I suppose we could push Mark Twain’s figure of speech to the point where it would no longer be helpful. But taken lightly, it may be not only interesting but also potentially revealing. And it is even more interesting and potentially revealing today when there are folks who find it necessary to put on the spiritual garments (metaphorically speaking) of two or three faith traditions in order to adequately bear witness to God as God has met them. There are varieties of religious experience because God has blessed creation with the gift of variety.


    1Martin E. Marty, “Introduction,” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Classics, 1982), xxvi.


  • A Leadership Notebook: Almost Anything Can Work a Little Better

    by Michael Jinkins | May 01, 2015


    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Nothing WorksWhen it comes to amazing insights for leadership, nothing beats an insight from Loren B. Mead which I first came across years ago in a little book he wrote titled: The Whole Truth About Everything Related to the Church in Twelve Pages (if you don’t count the introduction and conclusion). It was first published by the Alban Institute in 1988.

    This book has been on my list of required texts for several courses. It is – for obvious reasons – a favorite among students whose written reviews of the book have sometimes rivaled the book’s length.

    The first two chapters alone were worth the $6.95 I paid for my copy of the book. In fact, the titles of the first two chapters were worth the seven bucks:

    Chapter 1: “Nothing works”

    Chapter 2: “Almost anything can work a little better”

    The theological astuteness of chapter one brings to mind the historic doctrine of the church, “original sin,” which teaches us that everything is broken. Maybe it is not all broken. But all is somehow broken.

    Mead said of this point, “I keep running into people who think what they are doing or inventing will work. It won’t. Nothing works. If you begin there, you have a chance. Understand that. Savor it, even.”

    Not only is this a profound restatement of the doctrine of “original sin” with which anyone in leadership can immediately resonate, it is also a wonderful expression of humility. Those who pretend that some things really do work, Mead reminds us, are lying. He says this with a twinkle in his eye and the most delightfully wry smile, but he is not joking.

    We live in a fallen world. It really is fallen, not just stumbling, not just tripping and regaining its balance at the last moment, but fallen. Splat. The world is splayed across the sidewalk, its coffee spilled, its Danish bouncing out into the traffic. Oops, there goes a taxi now crushing the warm pastry and splashing the world’s face from a puddle into the gutter to boot. And when the world falls, it takes everything down with it.

    “Nothing works.”

    Mead’s next point is just as important: “Almost anything can work a little better.” He continues:

    “Does that surprise you? Nobody talks about this one, either. What this means is that the grass is not greener in the next pasture, but that the dry, brown, mangy stuff peering out of the cracks in the clay of your front yard might, just might, have some life in it. It may take some weeding and some digging, some watering and some fertilizing, but it’s got some chance of life. What’s more, it’s likely to be the only chance you are going to have to grow a lawn.”


    Among the other ten chapters in the book (the ten pages in which we learn everything there is to know about the church) are the following points:

    • “There are no quick answers”
    • “There may not be an answer”
    • “There’s no such thing as strategy – just tactics” (I would quibble with him over this point, but he makes a valid argument.)
    • “There are no big deals anymore”
    • “Money won’t solve your problem”
    • “A new bishop (or pastor or executive) won’t solve your problem”
    • “You can’t get there from here”
    • “You won’t get anywhere if you don’t start from here”
    • “Ministry is the journey, not the destination”


    But as interesting and often wise as all of these one-page chapters are, Mead’s great insight is right there in chapters one and two: “Nothing works” “Almost anything can work a little better.”

    There are two serious observations I want to make about Mead’s message.

    First: I have never read these chapters aloud that the room full of leaders with whom I was working didn’t laugh out loud. Sometimes the laughter began with a few snickers of self-recognition before it grew into full-fledged belly laughter, but every group to whom I have presented this insight have laughed. They immediately see the humor in themselves and in the organizations they lead. As became clear in the conversations that developed in the workshops and classes in which I’ve used Mead’s book, the leaders found hope – sometimes significant hope – in his wisdom.

    This has helped me to realize that often the most important thing we can do is to reframe a situation in which we find ourselves in ways that draw out its implicit humor.
    Seriousness is not a sign of organizational health. Really. And a lack of humor (or chronic seriousness) certainly doesn’t contribute to the health of those in leadership. Even as a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence, a sense of humor also points toward institutions and leadership that possess the right combination of humility, self-awareness and the smarts necessary “to make a real go of it.”

    Second: There’s just no substitute for reality. And when we hear those words, “Nothing works” and “Almost anything can work a little better”, we have the sense that we are looking right into the face of what is real.

    The older I get the more suspicious I become of those who make any kind of claims about efficacy (though I, along with Garrison Keillor and many, many true Calvinists, remain a true believer in the efficacy of oat meal). The larger the claims to something working, the more suspicious I am. Massive, all-embracing solutions leave me cold. And the very prospect of utopias makes my skin crawl. Yet, I am more optimistic than I’ve ever been that we can get something done. Something. Not everything.

    Mead is, if anything, even more suspicious than I am that everyone who makes gigantic claims is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. The idea that “Nothing works” but “Almost anything can work a little better” is not, as he readily admits, “very exciting. It doesn’t sell very well.” But I think he is right, and, as he says, it isn’t all bad news. “The good thing,” he says, “is that this gives you a way to go.”

    Indeed it does.



  • Zen Calvinism and the Art of Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 27, 2015


    Zen Calvinism"Is there ever going to be a day of unalloyed joy in this job?" asked my friend as I walked into his office.

    The day was supposed to be a day of celebration. That's how it had started. Champagne was purchased, the troops assembled. After a toast was made and a short speech commemorating the generous gifts that had put the organization over its goal for the capital campaign, everyone went back to their offices aglow. They had all played their parts, of course. The honor of the moment belonged most of all to the organization's president and the fund development staff, but everyone would benefit from the gifts the campaign accrued. And as everyone had done what they could to bring success, all basked in the satisfaction that comes from contributing to a successful venture.

    Thirty minutes after the celebration ended, however, a smoldering dispute between two staff members blew up into a full-scale conflagration engulfing pretty nearly everyone else in the organization. Recriminations abounded, and a routine staff meeting later that afternoon turned into an apocalyptic nuclear event, the fallout from which seemed to threaten the very core of the organization's mission and the integrity of its leadership.

    One might simply chalk it all up to another confirmation of Edwin Friedman's maxim: When things start going really well, watch out! Or one could sit amid the ashes of Calvinist confession aware that creation just keeps on falling. Or one could find in this situation a corollary to the First Noble Truth of Buddhist thought as restated by psychotherapist Mark Epstein: Life is persistently unsatisfactory.

    All three interpretations of my friend's mixed day ring true. And all three remind us of a painful fact of life and leadership.

    Nothing stays fixed.

    You can read this statement in at least two ways, and the two are closely related: (1) Nothing stays nailed down. All things are in motion all of the time. All things are always changing, whether you notice it or not. (2) Nothing stays in good repair for long, especially when it comes to complex human associations. A triumph in personnel may be followed by a disaster in facilities, as every chief operating officer of every company knows. A joy in worship can yield, five minutes later, to a concern in pastoral care, as all pastors recognize.

    We seem startled by the continuous movement, variability and shifting of life. Yet, we know that life's transitory character is one of its basic features.

    I am reminded of this whenever we have the opportunity to drive to our home on Saint Simons Island, just off the coast of southern Georgia. Most of the time, when we drive there, our route takes us through the hills of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and across the mountains of North Carolina, places where change is noticeable mostly in the seasons, not in the tough, seeming permanence of the rocky terrain. But when we arrive at the coast, the mask of earthly permanence slips, and the world's true nature peeks through. From one visit to the next, sometimes from one day to the next, sandbars shift on the back of powerful tides, dunes move at the mercy of relentless Atlantic winds, new streams cut their way through the vast tidal marshes and new islands appear in the rivers emptying into the ocean. You can feel the earth quiver in its liminal state between solid and fluid right between your toes walking on the beach.

    Do the mountains ever change? Of course they do, as do the plains and deserts, cornfields and forests, but mostly at a rate that we detect either through the cycle of the seasons or over centuries, even millennia. Coastal environs simply exegete the reality of contingency common to the whole earth, though disguised in most places.

    We can fool ourselves into believing that the world, our world, is static, and so we can cling to the ways existence is arranged and all that we seem to hold firmly in it. We can imagine that our lives, our arrangements, our relationships, our accomplishments all stand immovable. But this is an illusion. The sands and tidal grasslands and coastal inlets and islands provide a clearer lesson of that which is ultimately universally true. The sands do shift. So does everything else. And the wise learn to adapt their footing wherever they stand.

    These reflections are, of course, fundamental both to Calvinists and to Zen masters. From Calvinism, we learn to watch for the hand of God amid life's inevitable changes and to entrust our lives and all of life to the God whom we believe is trustworthy. From Zen, we learn to appreciate the impermanence of life, to accept it, and to locate ourselves within in it - and not in futile opposition to it.

    There is a sense in which we are so preoccupied by the way things were and so distracted by the way things may be that we miss the wonder of the way things are.

    The fact that nothing stays fixed, in the sense that everything changes, reminds us of our own impermanence, our mortality. The fact that nothing stays fixed, in the sense that nothing stays in good repair, reminds us that we are not omnipotent. There is a gift hidden within the awareness that we are mortal and that we are not all-powerful. We are human. We are not God. The past is not within our power and ultimately the future is beyond our control. Our regrets about the one and our anxieties about the other have the capacity to rob us of that which really is within our scope, dealing with the present with full-attentiveness, with courage, integrity, grace, justice and love.

    This insight applies to leadership as well as to life.

    Thich Nhat Hahn, in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999) speaks of the practice of washing the dishes "mindfully." Rather than dreading the chore as necessary toil, trudging through it wishing we were doing something else, or racing through it anticipating what we will finally get to do when we finish the chore, Hahn reflects on the mundane joy of doing this most mundane task fully engaged. We feel the warmth of the water, the slipperiness of the soap, the sponge as it cleans a dish, the hot rinse under the tap, and finally placing the plate on the drying rack. Each act is attended with minds awake to the moment until all of the job is done. The person who races through the job of washing the dishes, anticipating that when he is done he will reward himself for the toil with a nice cup of tea, is unlikely to fully attend to the "reward" of the tea any more than the "chore" of washing up.

    Does this mean that we shouldn't plan for the future and evaluate how we have performed in the past? Of course not. What it means is this: When we set aside times and occasions to plan, we should plan. And we should bring to bear in those exercises all the tools of anticipation and capacities for analysis available to us. When we set aside times and occasions to evaluate, we should evaluate. And when we do, we should direct our full attention to this crucial work. In whatever we do, we should be mindful of that to which we have given ourselves. This is both a discipline of stewardship and a practice of the spirit.

    Nothing stays fixed. In a single day we shall move from that task accomplished with satisfaction to a new challenge which requires our best attention. The "canvas" on which the leader practices his or her art is more like the sandy surface of the beach than it is the granite of a mountain canyon. When the next tide wipes much of it clean, we will start again.


  • Noble Truths

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 21, 2015


    Noble Truths 3Most faiths have their core touchstone tenets.

    For Judaism, it is: "Hear, O Israel, The Lord is God, The Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:5)

    For Christianity, it is found in the gospels. We remember the teaching as The Greatest Commandment, which combines two core teachings from the Torah: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27)

    For Buddhism, the touchstone teachings are contained in The Four Noble Truths, the first of which is often translated as "all life is suffering." This translation, however, has led (or misled) many people to believe that Buddhism's teachings are more pessimistic than John Calvin on a rainy day. According to Mark Epstein, a psychotherapist who has written extensively on the subject, the First Noble Truth should be rendered rather differently.

    Epstein explains: "When I first discovered Buddhism, I was taken with its no-nonsense appraisal of the human condition. ‘All life is suffering,’ the Buddha taught in the first of his Four Noble Truths." However sensible Epstein discerned this teaching to be, he couldn't help but think that the statement tended to be a bit melodramatic, "even if a careful reading of history seemed to support it." Then he found out something illuminating. The word dukkha, which is usually translated as "suffering," in fact "has a more subtle meaning of pervasive unsatisfactoriness." This made even more sense to him, especially in light of his experience as a psychiatrist. He continues: "Even the most pleasurable experiences are tinged with this sense of discontent because of how transient and insubstantial they are. They do not offset the insecurity, instability and unrest that we feel."1

    If Epstein is right, "All life is pervasively unsatisfactory" would be a much more accurate rendering, then, of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. Obviously there are examples of profound suffering. Disease, natural disasters and wars come to mind as causative forces of human suffering. But, as Epstein observes, a thread of unsatisfactoriness also runs right through all of life. Even the most wonderful, exhilarating, jubilant moments in life often are framed with something else.

    A baby is born, but even as the family gathers at the window of the nursery in the hospital, their faces reflecting their joy and wonder at new life, their happiness is tinged with sorrow because a beloved grandmother died before she could see the child born.

    A couple marries, but even while on their honeymoon, they find themselves quarreling over the cost of a dinner and which road to take in a strange town. Tears replace laughter as they come to terms with the negotiations that inevitably make up so much of our most intimate relationships.

    A congregation consisting largely of people who have known one another since grade school, people who have lived close to one another and supported one another through many of life's ups and downs, finds itself divided by positions its denomination has taken.

    Life is pervasively unsatisfactory, even when it is far more than merely satisfactory, even when it is wonderful. This reframing of Buddhism's touchstone tenet may have something to teach non-Buddhists, especially those of us whose faith takes into account the empirical reality often referred to in classical Christian theology as "original sin," the brokenness of creation that goes beyond individual acts of sin and is woven into the warp and woof of existence.

    When we speak of the theological symbol of "The Fall," we gesture toward the mysterious and puzzling fact that this glorious creation is not only good - indeed, very, very good, as we are told in Genesis - but flawed. Even the best of actions are tainted with something not so good; (perhaps even more irritatingly) bad actions by people we take to be pretty disreputable often may be "tainted" by goodness. Not everything fallen about the world can be characterized in moral terms. There's something about the is-ness of the world that isn't quite right. When the Bible says that all creation groans for redemption, it really does mean all of creation and not just the human beings. But we humans have our own distinctive place among all creation as we long for shalom, peace, wholeness.

    Christian theology speaks of the longing for wholeness that invites us to hope, to hope for justice, for peace, for the reign of God. Many have observed that the doctrine of eschatology is rooted in this longing. Others have noted that the concepts undergirding the philosophical quest we often describe under the category of ontology are rooted in this longing.

    Epstein, himself rooted and grounded in his psychiatric practice and his practice of Buddhism, warns us of a less than desirable aspect of our longing, even our longing for wholeness. He writes:

    "In the Buddhist world, this longing for an imagined wholeness is portrayed in what is called the Six Realms of Existence, an age-old method of conceptualizing psychic reality that is a very compelling Eastern model of the mind. … One of the Six Realms is that of the Hungry Ghosts, beings who are in a state of chronic deprivation and longing, always searching for a nourishment that they are not equipped to digest. Hungry Ghosts haunt the offices of psychotherapists."

    They haunt churches and seminaries and family rooms and offices too. And, as Epstein himself observes, "The most disturbing aspect of the Hungry Ghost psychology is that no satisfaction is possible."2

    This is where I especially want to see us bring the wisdom of our various spiritual, religious and theological traditions into conversation. A deep awareness of the "pervasive unsatisfactoriness" of life is a good starting point, and a helpful re-framing of reality. A grateful reception and blessing of "the world that is" (as a gift of God) builds on this foundation. However, I think another step is required to put to rest the Hungry Ghosts, particularly those that haunt our own hearts. Without letting go of those healthy aspects of longing (whether for a more just world or for the reign of God) which motivate us to act for justice, kindness and peace, we can entrust this un-whole existence to God in the confidence that God is doing for us and for those we love better things than we can ask or imagine.

    The God who placed in us our longings also offers rest from these longings. In this paradox, we can find the wholeness that often eludes us.


    1I am indebted to Stephen Prothero for encouraging me a few years ago to read Mark Epstein's Open to Desire: The Truth about What the Buddha Taught, (New York: Gotham Books, 2005). The passages quoted appear on page 4.
    2Epstein, p. 98-99.


  • A Leadership Notebook: Negotiating Difference

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 17, 2015


    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!


    TOLLeadership041715Of the great insights that have emerged in the study of leadership over the past generation, none have been more important than those shared by Roger Fisher and William Ury (et al) of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Many ideas that leaders in education, industry, politics, diplomacy and religion now take for granted were first formulated in the project.

    Together, Fisher and Ury published, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). A string of other valuable resources followed: Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate (co-authored by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown; New York: Viking/Penguin, 1988); Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (authored by William Ury; New York: Bantam Books, 1991); and Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict [co-authored by Roger Fisher, Elizabeth (Kopelman) Borgwardt and Andrea Kupfer Schneider; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994]. These books are consistently evaluated among the most valuable resources I assign in courses and workshops on conflict and negotiation.

    In Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury say that the spark which got the whole project going was a question: “What is the best way for people to deal with their differences?”

    They cast a broad net when dealing with differences: a lawsuit arising from a car accident, a dispute among corporate leaders attempting to engage in a joint venture, a city official meeting with union leaders to avert a transit strike, a Secretary of State trying to negotiate an agreement limiting nuclear weapons, or a married couple discussing whose turn it is to pick up the children from daycare and who should get supper started. Negotiating our differences is a common feature of life. Some of the insights shared in these books emerged from the negotiation of major international situations, such as President Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accord. Any pastor or school principal will immediately resonate to the wisdom, even if the differences being negotiated are on a much more intimate scale than Middle Eastern relations.

    Among the insights that I have found most valuable – and which a generation of leaders have used most often – is this: “Arguing over positions produces unwise agreements.”

    Using a variety of stories from an array of leadership situations, they introduce a set of revolutionary insights under the banner of “principled negotiation or negotiation on the merits,” which “can be boiled down to four basic points:”

    • “Separate the people from the problem.”
    • “Focus on interests, not positions.”
    • “Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.”
    • “Insist that the result be based on some objective standards.”

    Rather than casting those who have a difference as opponents, they say: “Figuratively if not literally, the participants [in a negotiation] should come to see themselves as working side by side, attacking the problem, not each other.” Depersonalizing the situation can significantly reduce the animus among disagreeing parties. Every effort should be made to grant the assumption that everyone involved wants the best possible outcome for everyone. This is a basic step in negotiations that is neglected at considerable peril. And the second point they make is, if anything, even more important because when people assume negotiating positions, they “often obscure what [they] really want.” Thus it is crucial for all parties to discern and communicate what their actual interests or needs are, and not to focus on their bargaining positions.

    In one story in the project’s resources, a sort of fable is told about two children arguing over the last orange in the family kitchen. The parent, tired of the hearing the argument, cuts the orange in half and hands half to each child. Unfortunately, the solution didn’t address the actual interests of the children. One child needed the peel of an orange for a recipe while her sibling just wanted to eat an orange. As it happened, one girl took her half outside, promptly peeling the orange and throwing the peel away; while the other girl peeled her half, throwing away the meat of the orange and grating the peel (unfortunately too little to make a success of her recipe). If their parent had helped the children articulate their actual interests (rather than their bargaining positions: “I want the last orange!”) the needs of both children could have been happily (and more successfully) met. As small and domestic as this story is, it expresses an insight that has proven enormously helpful in all sorts of negotiations.

    About ten years after the publication of Getting to Yes, Ury wrote a sequel, Getting Past No, where he dealt with a problem that many people in leadership have expressed: What do you do when your potential partner in a negotiation is reluctant or unwilling to negotiate in good faith?

    I have found Ury’s Getting Past No as valuable if not more valuable than his and Fisher’s Getting to Yes. But “getting past no” requires a great deal more than just reframing an issue, as important as reframing undoubtedly is. “Getting past no,” according to Ury, requires a five-step strategy that has as much to do with managing oneself as it does with managing the game of negotiations. As Ury explains, “To get past no, you must overcome each of these barriers to cooperation: [the other person’s] negative emotions, … negotiating habits, … skepticism about the benefits of agreement, … perceived power, and your reaction.”

    Ury explains how we can learn not to react when we feel angry or afraid by “going to the balcony.” He offers great tactics for finding emotional distance in the midst of a conflict so that we can respond in an emotionally appropriate (and wise) manner, rather than merely reacting from our limbic system.

    He also explains how we can learn to disarm someone who sees himself or herself as an opponent by “stepping to their side” and consciously reflecting on the problem at hand from the perspective of the other person. It is often true that the other person simply does not feel listened to, so, we should make every effort to give them a hearing.

    Other basic “active listening” skills can really help diffuse a tense situation: Listen more than you talk; paraphrase the arguments being made by the other person and ask them for clarification to make sure you understand them as they want to be understood (rather than caricaturing and stereotyping the “other side”); acknowledge the feelings and perspective of the other person; agree when it is appropriate (and honest) to do so; accumulate all the yeses you can in the course of negotiating; show respect for the other person’s authority and competence; make clear “I” statements and avoid blaming “you” statements.

    These are just a few of the tactics Ury teaches. Perhaps the best of his insight is the one he borrows from Sun Tzu (author of The Art of War): “Build your adversary a golden bridge to retreat across.” He reminds us that a gloating winner is a real loser, and that often someone on the verge of negotiating the right outcome loses everything by causing the other person to lose face.

    Fifteen years of knowledge and wisdom garnered by the Harvard Negotiation Project cannot be communicated in a blog, and some of the most helpful insights are contained in the final book in the series which deals specifically with conflict, Beyond Machiavelli. It is in this book that Fisher, Kopelman and Schneider offer a particularly powerful insight:

    “Our purpose in managing conflict cannot be to end all differences. Each party will always see its own reality – each will have strong partisan perceptions about the conflict and his or her role in it. A more useful question than ‘Who is right?’ is: ‘Given these strong partisan perceptions, how can we move forward?’ We need to find a way to cope with conflict despite the fact that people have differences.”

    Can we get an “Amen”?


  • The Invisible Revolution of Eastertide

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 14, 2015


    The INvisible Revolution of EastertideResurrection faith, chiefly because of its difficulties, has the ability to turn everything upside down. Our belief in the resurrection is the invisible revolution at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Imagining the unimaginable, the impossible possibility of resurrection has an effect that nothing else does. For the first followers of Christ, confronting the Risen Jesus exploded their hopes along with their disappointments. And the new hope given in meeting the Risen Christ empowered the disciples in ways they could never have imagined. Certainly this was also the case for Christians throughout the early church. If the Roman Empire lost its primary instrument (the threat of death) for enforcing compliance over Christians, then it effectively lost its power over them. Herein was sown the seeds of the end of the Roman Empire. Christian writers understood that the ripples of this invisible revolution would run through the whole of society. But the reason this revolution would run throughout society, eventually toppling an empire, was that it had already toppled the empire of the soul.

    Lewis Galloway, senior pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, recently reminded his congregation of the revolutionary power of the resurrection faith in his sermon, “So, What Do You Say?” (texts: Joshua 24:1-2a, 13-18; Mark 8:27-30). In his sermon, Lewis quoted Al Winn, former moderator of our church’s General Assembly and once president of Louisville Seminary. Al said in an Easter sermon in 1979: “Jesus will cause you to question everything you ever knew to be true and to believe everything you once doubted.”

    When we come face-to-face with the ultimate mystery of human existence (death) and discover that there is mystery greater even than this, we find ourselves in a whole new territory, a territory beyond our most distant boundaries.

    Toni Morrison, in one of the most compelling, beautiful and disturbing novels ever written, Beloved, brings her characters to just such a place, faced with mystery greater than death. The characters find themselves in relationship to a figure identified as “Beloved,” whose true identity remains shrouded even when virtually everyone knows she must be the ghost of a child who died in the midst of her mother’s struggles to break free from slavery. Beloved haunts her family, trying to settle down in freedom near Cincinnati. She seduces her mother’s lover, and brings everyone face-to-face with a reality that just can’t be real – but that must be. In the wake of the realignment of lives and hopes and fears that Beloved causes in her family, a consciousness arises that is summarized in a single statement: “Death is a skipped meal compared to this.” (Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987)

    There’s a right time for everything. And, as I said recently in another blog, it seems to me that Easter morning may not be the best moment to affirm belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Amid the beautiful music, the spring sunshine and lilies, our affirmation feels a little like whistling past the graveyard. It seems to me that, at the very least, there are better moments, more timely moments, to make this affirmation. There may, in fact, be moments when it is not just appropriate, not just necessary, but essential to affirm our belief in the Risen Christ. As Miguel de Unamuno (who knew personally the terrors of life and death during the Spanish Civil War) once wrote, “I shall die reciting the Credo, but do not hang me by the neck before I have said: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.’” (The Agony of Christianity, New York: Ungar Publishing, 1960, p.117)

    The resurrection of Christ is the doctrine that enshrines impossibility at the heart of Christian faith. The Christian creed understands, even when we may not realize it, that nothing merely possible will do. And if the impossible is that which is necessary, what are we to make of life?

    As Al said, “Jesus will cause you to question everything you ever knew to be true and to believe everything you once doubted.” If Jesus doesn’t do this – and doesn’t do this even to our most precious beliefs and our biggest doubts – then maybe we just aren’t paying attention.


  • Subversive Verse

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 07, 2015


    Subversive VerseMost people who think they don't like poetry just don't like bad poetry. I'm with them.

    There's a particular broadcaster on a popular television show I regularly watch who periodically breaks into his homespun doggerel. At our house we love the program, but I find myself hitting mute every time he starts up with his "poetry." Tortured lines of iambic pentameter have never yielded so little save tortured clichés. His "poems" are the verse equivalent of every bad short story that ever began with the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night," and every public speaker who ever uttered the words, "Unaccustomed as I am to speaking."

    Most people who think they don't like poetry are just waiting for good poetry. And when good poetry comes, it is worth waiting for.

    Good poetry does all sorts of good things: Surfaces insights sometimes in the most unpromising places. Surprises us with new perspectives on things long taken for granted. Engages the mind in the business of the senses. Awakens an awareness of just how much we shape the world around us by our perceptions of it. Makes us confront terror and hatred, violence and the ugliest aspects of this world, but in a way that enriches the soul rather than depletes the spirit. And, of course, takes our breath away with passages of startling beauty.

    My friend Mike Mather, the pastor of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, often alerts me to good poetry. His recent recommendation reminds me of poetry's subversive power. The book Mike recommended is titled, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, collected, translated and with commentary by Eliza Griswold, and with photographs by Seamus Murphy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

    The book opens with these lines from a poem:

    “I call. You're stone.
    One day you'll look and find I'm gone.”

    Then this commentary by Eliza Griswold on the poem:

    “The teenage poet who uttered this folk poem called herself Rahila Muska. She lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most restive of Afghanistan's thirty-four provinces since the U.S. invasion began on October 7, 2001. Muska, like many young and rural Afghan women, wasn't allowed to leave her home. Fearing that she'd be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. In her community, as in others, educating girls was seen as dishonorable and dangerous. Poetry, which she learned at home from women and on the radio, became her only continuing education.”

    Accompanied by comments by Griswold and with stark and frequently beautiful photographs by Murphy, each short poem confronts us with the voice of a woman, usually rural, usually without the benefit of a great deal of formal education, always Afghan. Landay poetry is a form of folk poetry from Afghanistan which is well-suited to these women: each poem is a couplet, limited to 22 syllables, nine in the first line, 13 in the second, and written in the language of these women. While some rhyme, most do not. They are thrown and turned on the mind's wheel like a clay jar before being handed on. Griswold tells us that landays are usually sung, and once were shared around the fires after a day's work was done. These days, she says, they may be shared more readily with strangers than with people who know the authors well and who might betray them. "Familiarity breeds distrust," she writes.

    Imagine a verse form that can range from fury to comic lampoon, from lament to a call for justice, but then add the earthy, the vulgar, the ribald and the risqué. In other words, many of the best (and certainly some of the funniest) landays in this volume cannot be shared in this blog. Indeed, I can only share a few for the sake of space, with some comments from the editor about the women who wrote them, beginning with a landay that has been treasured for more than a century and which was written by a nineteenth-century Afghan "folk heroine" and "warrior poet" named Malalai.

    “I'll make a tattoo of my lover's blood
    and shame each rose in the green garden.”

    We can see why this poem has been handed down for generations. But as good as it is, it is rivaled by a modern example:

    “Your eyes aren't eyes. They're bees.
    I can find no cure for their sting.”

    While some landays seem so rooted in an ancient culture that reading them feels like we are entering the foreign country of the past, others brush past us on a crowded modern street.

    "Daughter, in America the river isn't wet.
    Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the Internet."

    Some landays speak of love and longing. Others ridicule erstwhile, awkward and cruel lovers. Through these verses women are given the power and a place to articulate their disgust, dissatisfaction and anger. Still, other verses, while rooted in domestic relationships, take us beyond the domestic subversion between lovers to a social protest against the betrayal and violence of those closest at hand.

    “When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
    When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.”

    And:

    “You sold me to an old man, father.
    May God destroy your home; I was your daughter.”

    One of the most poignant landays in the book, and the one from which the title of the volume is taken, reflects the powerlessness of these women. It was spoken to the editor by an elderly woman, Ashaba, in a refugee camp, sitting next to her dying husband:

    “In my dream, I am the president.
    When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

    The political subversion in these verses reminds us that Afghanistan has been contested territory not just for years, not even just for decades, but for centuries. Some landays speak against the Taliban, others against America or Russia or the British Empire, while still others remember combatants and occupiers from long ago.

    Often a verse breaks through that reminds us of the deep personal cost of every armed conflict:

    “Send my salaams to the Mullah. Tell him to let my beloved put down his gun and come home.”

    When we realize that the verse above is a modern adaptation of a much older landay, we see another facet of this lamentation:

    "Send my salaams to the Mullah. Tell him to let my beloved put down his book and come home."

    As Griswold observes:

    “In this modernization, a Talib's book becomes his gun. It's a subtle indictment of the role that religious teachers play in today's conflict. … And rather than places of religious study, their schools are commonly seen as training camps for holy war.”

    I have read few collections of poetry that have taken me to so many different places emotionally and spiritually while holding me captive to one geographical location. And I have read few books that in so few words express so much of the human condition.

    We often speak of someone speaking from the heart. Seldom have I come across a collection of poems that has made me realize just how rare that experience is, and how close together in the human heart lie tragedy, joy, longing, hope, comedy and horror. This volume reminds us how good good poetry can be.


  • Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 02, 2015


    Christ is RisenAnne Lamott retells a classic Hasidic story that has stuck in my mind. It is about a rabbi who always told his people “that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts.” One of the rabbi’s people asked him, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?”  He answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”1 Lamott’s comments remind me of Leonard Cohen’s wise observation that the light gets into our lives through the cracks in them.

    So what does this have to do with Easter?

    There is a version of Easter that, frankly, leaves me cold and untouched. It is Easter without Good Friday. It is an empty tomb celebrated, but without a crucified body mourned. It is celebration, but without broken hearts. And I have never found this version of Easter convincing. It is altogether too disembodied, too abstract, too ethereal, and, therefore, too ephemeral to get under my skin. It feels like a massive denial, as though the whole Christian church is averting its eyes from something we would rather not see.

    Easter without Good Friday is also remarkably unlike the first Easter in the Gospels in which a group of people knew Jesus’ shattered, broken and lifeless body had been laid in a grave, in which they experienced the utter loss of all their hopes in light of his death, and in which they cowered in fear. In the Gospels, when the news came fresh from Jesus’ grave that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty, these first disciples were stunned, disbelieving, shocked and disoriented. They were slow to believe because they knew what they had witnessed, and it was the death of Jesus.

    When the disciples come face to face with the risen Jesus (John 20:19-31), they discover something somehow just as startling as a risen Jesus. They discover that the risen Jesus is wounded. The risen Jesus carries the scars of crucifixion. Easter does not erase, deny or gloss over all that broke Jesus and placed him in a tomb. Those scars never disappeared. In this proclamation, we should hear the Good News of the Gospel, the Good News of a full-bodied resurrection. This has tremendous implications for our hope as Christians.

    The future redemption for which we long, and to which Easter bears witness, is redemption as human beings, not redemption from our humanity. It is resurrection of the body, not liberation of the spirit from a fleshly prison house. It is salvation from alienation and division to a way of being that is inconceivable to us as we now are, yet that is revealed to us in the risen Christ who took our flesh (broken body and spilled blood) into the very being of God. Our humanity resides there now in the being of God through the risen Jesus Christ, who has prepared a place for us in the heart of God.

    We cannot get to this Good News without entering into the surprising and strange teaching of the resurrection of the flesh. And it is a strange teaching, indeed.

    I remember a conversation my daughter, Jessica, and I had when she was a very little girl. It was about heaven. Jessica and I were riding along in the car when she asked me the question, “Will we eat in heaven?”

    I told her that I am not really sure that we will eat food in heaven. Our nourishment will come (I suspect) in some other way. Maybe we will be nourished somehow directly by the God on whom we depend for our very being. I mentioned something about Jesus after his resurrection having a body, but a different sort of body, a spiritual body, a body that bore the scars of his suffering, that was able to be touched, and was able to consume food. But, I said, I’m not sure that food was necessary to his risen life in the way that food is necessary to our present existence.

    She listened patiently as I rambled on. When I was finished, she furrowed her brow a little, twisted her mouth to one side, and shook her head. Then she said, “So we probably aren’t going to eat food in heaven?”

    “Well, no. I don’t think so,” I said.

    She sighed and said, “Okay. But it’s going to take a couple of weeks to get used to.” I think she’s right. It is going to take at least a couple of weeks. Maybe a couple of millennia.

    The fact that Christians believe in the resurrection of the body (not simply in the immortality of the soul), though it creates some interesting conundrums like the one that puzzled Jessica, speaks to the deep mystery of our faith in the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As Easter approaches, I want to encourage us to hear the Good News that makes very little sense at all if it is divorced from the flesh-and-blood reality in which we are living.

    An Easter in isolation from Holy Week and Good Friday has very little meaning for the Christian faith. Indeed, Easter in isolation from the Passion of Christ can represent such a distortion of the Christian message as to render it false.

    Lesslie Newbigin once observed that the resurrection of Christ is not the reversal of a failure, but the proclamation of a victory.2 The Christian teaching of the resurrection of the dead in Christ announces God’s redemptive goal for all humanity, a goal that decisively counters the ways and means of all the fallen worldly principalities and powers whose might rests on their ability to coerce through intimidation and to enforce their ways on pain of death. Christ reigned over all creation from the cross. When Christ was raised from the dead, God placed His stamp of approval on the life that Jesus lived which led to that cross. The scars which Jesus Christ’s risen body bore are signs of the victory he achieved, not lingering symbols of a defeat he suffered.

    There truly is no Easter without Good Friday, and not for any of us.

    So, this Easter, I hope we will “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Gospel stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus so that these sacred texts are on our hearts. That way, when our hearts break, the holy words will fall inside. “That’s how the light gets in.”3


    1Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 73.
    2Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (London: SPCK, 1986), 127.
    3Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” written by Shanna Crooks, Mike Strange and Leonard Cohen. Copyright: Shanna Crooks Songs/ATV Songs LLC, Stranger Music Inc.


  • Easter in the Dark

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 2015


    Easter VigilSome things we only learn by practice. In the case I am thinking of, liturgical practice, and I was late getting to the party on this practice. It happened like this.

    As a pastor, I led congregations through Holy Week services for well over a decade. We observed Maundy Thursdays and engaged in moving Tenebrae services. We chained the doors of the sanctuary on many a Good Friday and prayed in silence on many a Holy Saturday, when tombs were full and our hopes were empty. All of these practices prepared us for Easter Sunday morning and the full-throated celebration, "Alleluia! Christ is Risen!"

    It wasn't until I began to teach in a seminary, however, that I learned the age-old Christian practice of the Easter Vigil - a service of worship, which reminds us that Easter actually begins as the sun goes down on Holy Saturday. As the darkness falls, it is then that Christians have long made their way solemnly to some sleepy sanctuary to remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    I must credit my old friend, the late and utterly irreplaceable Professor Stan Hall for introducing me to this venerable Christian practice. Although it was Stan's predecessor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Professor Fred Holper, who introduced the Easter Vigil to that seminary.

    While I had attended the Easter Vigil a few times and always found it liturgically rich and moving, it was not until I preached at this service that its full impact struck me. Standing in the pulpit that evening, looking out at the congregation huddled in the resolute shadows that crept from every sacred corner of that chapel, the Gothic windows like gaping black holes lining the walls, our hymns of praise raised on high, I realized that celebrating Easter in the dark is not ironic, it is true. What might sound merely cheerful, merely happy on Easter morning amid sunshine and spring flowers, resounded in the darkness as joy. Joy. Not mere happiness. This is the Christian promise. And in no other instance have I felt the truth of the claim of Easter so powerfully than with darkness at every door of that sanctuary, the chill of winter not entirely vanquished, with only the hidden promise of spring in the night air.

    The truth of Easter makes its claim most powerfully with darkness at the door. The vigil reminds us that it was amid just such gloom that Christ was raised from the grave. And it is into our gloom that he steps risen.

    But perhaps there is another place where Easter speaks with just this power: at the graveside, or even on the way to the grave. Here we feel the echoes of the feet of death on the gravel path behind us, like a stalker stumbling in the dark. And it is here that we sense we are not alone on this path because we walk shoulder to shoulder with one who has taken our flesh through the gates of death and risen from the cold dark earth.

    My old friend, Stan, died slowly. It took years. He had a painful, debilitating illness that slowly stole life from him. For years before his death, Stan kept a wooden coffin in his office. The old-fashioned coffin had been made for him by Benedictine monks. And it stood erect in his office until that day when Ted Wardlaw and I unlocked Stan's office door and brought in the undertaker to take it away. Only a half hour or so before, Ted and I had helped the undertaker and the undertaker's assistant lift our friend's body into a hearse at Stan's home where he had died earlier that morning. It was a dark day, a day for grieving, and we kept that day holy like a vigil.

    I've not preached or led an Easter Vigil since the death of the friend who introduced me to this Christian practice. But as dusk approaches on Holy Saturday, I find myself now remembering that Christ was risen, though it was still dark. And however darkness may gather, Christ is risen indeed.


  • You Don't Have to be Mean or Stupid to Follow Jesus

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 23, 2015


    You Don't Have to be Mean or Stupid to Fololow JesusRecently the Reverend Charlene Han Powell, associate pastor for education and engagement at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, introduced me to an adult Christian education class that I was teaching at FAPC by repeating something I have said on several occasions: "You don't have to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus." Hearing someone repeat your words back to you is a lot like looking in a mirror. And I am grateful to Charlene for making me reflect anew on what really has become a personal conviction.

    These days, religious fervor seems to drive our country, and maybe our whole world, toward divisions fueled by anger, fear, ignorance and hatred. Not too long ago, while channel surfing, I was struck by the sheer volume of human noise - the rancor, incivility, abuse and vitriolic fury (real and pretended!) spouting from people who were sometimes literally shouting past one another. Packaged as "commentary," what was on display was a kind of vile consumer product, the appetite for which is ginned-up by distrust and fear of others. (Just to be clear about this: The programs I saw represented both "liberal" and "conservative" political ideologies and paid pundits for both major parties.)

    Sadly, faith does not seem to serve as much of an antidote to this sort of product. If anything, faith just becomes part of the mix.

    One religious leader implies that you can't be a "real Christian" unless you agree with him and his ilk. While another speaks contemptuously of those who are not "faithful" enough to join her group and share her views. Some decry the violence, hatred and radical exclusivism of another faith while (unconsciously?) fanning just such exclusivist flames among those who share their kind of Christianity. I recall a wonderful sermon I heard Fred Craddock preach years ago in which he claimed that the "dirtiest word" in the English language is "exclusive." Well, it is certainly one of the dirtiest.

    It all brings to mind that shortest verse in the Bible which we all learned as children, "Jesus wept." Although Jesus is seen in this passage (John 11:35) weeping with the sisters of Lazarus after his friend died (and before he raises Lazarus from the grave), I have often wondered what else Jesus might have wept over.

    There's a great line in an old Woody Alan movie, Hannah and Her Sisters. The character, a curmudgeonly artist, is commenting on watching some religious program on television. He speculates that if Jesus came back to Earth now and saw this kind of thing, he couldn't stop "throwing up." Maybe he's right, but I suspect that Jesus might just weep. Lamentations are in order.

    There are those who choose to define their faith according to whom they hate and whom they fear. I cannot bring myself to believe that this is the way of Jesus Christ, although it does seem to have been the way of some of the people who bitterly opposed Jesus for the most righteous of reasons.

    The generosity of spirit, the moral courage and devotion to mercy that characterize Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount (which I believe is the essential text for understanding the way of Jesus) embraces a spirit as expansive as the whole universe. Jesus refuses to define the neighborhood of God according to tribal, cultural or racial distinctions, or self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. We've all seen the bumper sticker, "Hatred is Not a Family Value." Neither is hatred a Christian one, not if Jesus is our guide.

    We simply must find ways to disarm those who hate without resorting to hatred and violence ourselves. We must also find ways to dismantle the hatred that hides deep in our own hearts.

    I believe that love, not merely as an affection but as a positive power for the sake of grace, is the key. Love, as exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi before him.* Such love rakes the hatred from our own hearts. As I said in a recent blog post, such love is a refiner's fire purging the hateful dross from us.

    Following Jesus just doesn't sit well with meanness and smallness of spirit. Neither does it require us to crouch in fear, afraid of thinking, suspicious of knowledge, resistant to new ideas and the best research in every field - scientific, historical, cultural and religious.

    Yet there are those who "brand" their Christianity by saying faith and knowledge can't go together. There are even religious folks - and quite a few irreligious ones as well - who staunchly maintain that Christians must be suspicious of education and that Christians cannot pursue the humanities and the sciences. All the while John Calvin reminds us that all true wisdom and knowledge comes from God. And Calvin, whom some of the most rigidly anti-scientific religious folk claim as their patron saint, was both a Christian and a Humanist. (His first book, we should remember, was on the pagan Stoic philosopher, Seneca.)

    We don't have to be anxious that the larger our understanding grows, the smaller God will become. God is not a delicate fabric we must keep out of the hot water of human inquiry. God is strong enough and durable enough never to be threatened by the increase of our knowledge and the expansiveness of our curiosity. God is big enough to encourage us to know as much as we possibly can. The expansion of human wisdom leads to deeper awe of God not to lessened faith.

    No, we do not have to be mean or stupid, cruel or ignorant to follow Jesus of Nazareth. I still stand by these words. If we want to show a family resemblance to our creator and heavenly parent, Jesus shows us a more excellent way.

    After all, when Jesus sent his twelve disciples out (Matthew 10:16), as he said, "like sheep among wolves," he encouraged them to be "as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves," not to be bird-brained snakes in the grass!


    *See Dr. King's interview with Kenneth B. Clark, for example, in which he says, "I think of love as something strong and that organizes itself into powerful direct action." James M. Washington, editor, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper, 1986) 335.


  • A Leadership Notebook: This Just in - Good People Make Great Leaders

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 20, 2015


    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    TOLLeadership032015A major new study reported in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (April, 2015)* provides an insight that may not be counter-intuitive, but it surely runs counter to conventional wisdom in much of the world of leadership. Researchers at KRW International, a leadership consulting firm in Minneapolis, have found that "CEOs whose employees gave them high marks for character had an average return on assets [for their businesses and non-profit organizations] of 9.35% over a two-year period. That's nearly five times as much as what those with low character ratings had." Those rated lowest in character had a return on assets averaging only 1.93%. Virtuous leadership is quantifiably better.

    The CEOs were rated on a 100-point scale: 50 indicated that the leader displayed the given characteristic "about half the time" while 100 indicated "always." Four character traits were rated: integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion. Eighty-four companies and nonprofit organizations were studied, with follow-up interviews and careful analysis of the data by KRW. In one of these interviews, Charles Sorenson, the president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare (one of the highest scoring leaders in the study), said that he would add two additional character traits: "the pursuit of excellence" and "the courage to do the right thing even when it's difficult or painful." I would strongly agree with Sorenson, though the study itself only focused on the first four traits named.

    Among the top-scoring leaders, like Sorenson, those termed "virtuoso" leaders in the study in contrast to "self-focused CEOs," employees described them as "standing up for what's right, expressing concern for the common good, letting go of mistakes (their own and others'), and showing empathy." As you might already anticipate, by contrast, the most self-focused leaders told the truth only "'slightly more than half the time,' couldn't be trusted to keep promises, often passed the blame to others, frequently punished well-intentioned people for making mistakes, and were especially bad at caring for people." In other words, these folks practiced what Barbara Wheeler, the former president of Auburn Seminary, once pointed out as the two rules of terrible management. "Rule Number 1: Hide. Rule Number 2: If they find you, lie." Great leaders, it turns out, neither hide nor lie. They take responsibility.

    Among the many encouraging findings in the KRW study, there are two others I found especially interesting:

    (1) The leaders who scored worst on character were "pretty deluded." They rated themselves relatively highly on all of the character traits, which should remind us that high among the characteristics of the clueless is the fact that they have no clue. Really.

    (2) Conversely, leaders who scored highest consistently rated themselves lower than their employees rated them. As the HBR article said, this shows "a sign of their humility and further evidence of strong character."

    The principal investigator of the study, KRW co-founder Fred Kiel, reflected personally on his own history of leadership, observing that when he was younger, while he probably would never have been guilty of the degree of self-centeredness exhibited among the worst scoring leaders in this study, nevertheless he is sure his co-workers would not have scored him among the virtuoso CEOs. Sometime along the way, well into middle age, however, he came to a realization that he felt morally and spiritually empty. This led him to inventory his attitudes and behaviors. In time, he learned to be more other-centered, more dedicated to the whole than to his own interests. He said it has taken him years to unlearn old habits and to set new ones, but he is greatly encouraged that we can indeed learn to be better.

    According to classical wisdom, virtues can indeed be cultivated and inhabited. We aren't hardwired to be self-seeking. This is good news for individual leaders, for the organizations they lead, and for all of those people who are meant to benefit from the missions of those organizations. Goodness can be cultivated, and goodness multiplies its effects through well-led organizations. This insight flies in the face of all of those management fads that tell us that "good guys finish last," and the exercise of power depends on personal ruthlessness, and self-interested leaders build stronger organizations.

    As someone who has written on what leaders can (and cannot) learn from the Renaissance master of political philosophy, Niccolo Machiavelli, I am often asked what is the most powerful force in the world of real-world leadership. The folks who ask me this question are often surprised when I tell them: The most powerful force in leadership is someone who will do the right things for the right reasons and who will tell the truth no matter the cost.

    If you want to freak out the self-serving, try that strategy. I guarantee it will serve our organizations better than looking out for number one.


    * "Leadership: Measuring the Return on Character," Harvard Business Review, April, 2015, pp. 20-21. The subheading of the article alone is enough to make you want to read it: "CEOs who are rated high on four moral principles deliver better financial results than those who aren't." Fred Kiel's new book Return on Character is published by Harvard Business Review Press, 2015.


  • Feeling Very Small and Insignificant

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 16, 2015



    Monty Python nerds like me will remember the lyrics to the "The Galaxy Song," but I'll share them with those of you who have done something more productive with your time than sitting around memorizing the musical antics of Trevor Jones and Eric Idle.*

    Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown
    And things seem hard or tough,
    And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
    And you feel that you've had quite enough,

    Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
    And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour.
    It's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
    The sun that is the source of all our power.
    Now the sun, and you and me, and all the stars that we can see,
    Are moving at a million miles a day,
    In the outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
    Of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.

    Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars;
    It’s a hundred thousand light years side to side;
    It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
    But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
    We're thirty thousand light years from Galactic Central Point,
    We go 'round every two hundred million years;
    And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
    In this amazing and expanding universe.

    Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
    In all of the directions it can whiz;
    As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know,
    Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is.
    So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
    How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
    And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
    'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!

    TOLImage031715If that doesn't make us feel small and insignificant, prepare to be dazzled by some facts not yet set to a musical score!

    Two astronomers, Tsvi Piran (of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Raul Jimenez (of the University of Barcelona) have been doing research on a phenomenon called gamma-ray burst (GRB). Their research is described in a recent article in the science and technology section of The Economist. A Gamma-ray burst is "the most energetic phenomenon yet discovered in the universe."**

    No one knows exactly why these phenomena occur. The scientists hypothesize that they may be caused by the collapse of a really massive star during the formation of a black hole or the collision of two neutron stars, or by something else yet to be detected. But, as the essay states, "what is not in doubt is their prodigious power."

    Get this! In most cases a gamma-ray burst "generates as much energy in a few seconds as a star will in its entire multi-billion-year lifetime."

    The article focuses on the implications of these unimaginably powerful phenomena for any potential life-bearing planets in their neighborhood, given that such an explosion would pretty much wipe out everything around it. The scientists speculate that these destructive outbursts may be one reason we haven't heard from any more advanced intelligent life forms on other planets. But these speculations are not what took my breath away. What amazed me when I first read this story, and what still stops me in my tracks, is the next sentence in the article, stated with casual nonchalance: "Fortunately, GRBs are rare."

    So, what's considered rare in universal terms?

    "Satellites detect an average of one a day."

    Given the size of the universe, and its "billions and billions of galaxies," as Carl Sagan once observed, that's reassuringly rare.

    So, to recap: events of such magnitude that they produce more power in seconds than a star produces in its entire multi-billion-year lifetime and that can wipe out the existence of entire solar systems happen somewhere in the universe on an average of pretty nearly every day. Just to be clear, that's something over 365 times a year (even a non-mathematician can figure that out!), not just this year, and not just last year, and not just next year, but forever. And, at that rate, GRBs are pretty rare, because the universe is so huge.

    Whether these facts inspire humility at the proportions of little old us in comparison with the UNIVERSAL EVERYTHING, or a deep conviction of ethical responsibility in the face of our own possible universal rarity as (well) relatively intelligent beings, or whether this information sets us to wondering at the teachings of Jesus Christ telling us that the Creator of all the numberless infinities numbers the hairs on our heads, if these facts don't inspire some sort of wonder, we need our theological imaginations repaired.


    *"The Galaxy Song," written by Trevor Jones and Eric Idle, published EMI Music publishing, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. Sung by Eric Idle in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life."
    **"Astrobiology: Bolts from the Blue," The Economist, October 18, 2014, pp. 81-82.


  • Endings and Beginnings

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 10, 2015


    TOLImage031015Disappointment must have been written all over my face. The class, at first, stared blankly back at me, then they began talking about how bad it was that the two main characters in the book had been guilty of adultery. Awkward silence followed.

    We were a couple of weeks into a Doctor of Ministry class that I was teaching on the subject of theological reflection on ministry. Our goal in the class was to make explicit something implicit, to take something we take for granted and make it visible so we can think about it critically and constructively. At that point, we had already looked at some good resources on what it means to reflect theologically on life and ministry and what it means to ask theological questions about what happens all around us and within us. Now we were engaged in an exercise.

    We had read Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair (1951), and the class was being asked to reflect theologically on it. But we were spinning our wheels. No traction at all. So, I thought, maybe it's time to toss a little cat litter under the tires.

    "Let's start at the beginning,” I said. “Not at the beginning of the novel, but at the beginning of theology. What's the basic concern of theology?"

    Silence. A classroom of eyes closely examining desks.

    So I tossed a little more cat litter under the tires. (Note to self: buy more cat litter when you go to the store.)

    "What's the basic question, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer?"

    We had just read a selection from Bonhoeffer's lectures on Christology, so I was pretty sure we were going to find some traction soon.

    Then, sure enough, we started to move. From one student: "Bonhoeffer said that the question we ask is the question of 'dethroned reason'. Who are you, Lord?"

    Another added, "He said the real question in theology is not a question about how, but who."

    "Excellent," I said. Now we were getting somewhere. "So what is the basic question of theology?"

    "Who is God?"

    "And," as I boldly kept at it, "who is God in this novel? Or, to turn it around a little, what is the God in this novel like?"

    From that point on, things in the class really got interesting. This God does things in space and time, and the things this God does change lives forever. Whether we like it or not.

    The story is about a single man and a married woman who have an affair during the blitz in London. One night, a bomb hit the house where they were meeting. The man, who had stepped out of the room for a moment, was crushed in the blast. The woman found his limp body on the stairs. Weeping, she ran back upstairs to the bedroom, knelt beside the bed they had just vacated, and prayed that God would spare his life. In desperation she made a bargain with God to end the affair if God let her lover live.

    Though she didn't believe in God at that point, she prayed to God to make her lover live (and she was quite sure he was dead). She would give him up, she would even believe in God. She would sacrifice the relationship with her lover so he could live and be happy again with someone else. She would lose him, but still be able to love him, just not see him. Like not seeing God, but loving God, she reasoned.

    This scene, scrambled, is told from different perspectives as the story unfolds. The novel pivots around it. Something happened that night. Did God make it happen? If so, what kind of God does this sort of thing?

    The woman comes to believe in a God she also eventually comes to love, though soon it becomes clear she is dying. She tries to explain that she has "caught belief like a disease. I've fallen into belief like I fell in love. … I fought belief for longer than I fought love, but I haven't any fight left." She has converted to Christianity under the instruction of a priest, and she is dying in the faith. Her disease that is killing her and the faith in which she is infected progress together.

    The man dis-believes in a God whom he has come to hate. He becomes God-obsessed. Yet he is obsessed with trying to convince the God he doesn't believe in that he doesn't believe in God. Toward the end of the book, he prays, "I hate You, God, I hate you as though You existed." This is not a love story, we gradually come to realize. Or is it?

    Our class pondered a whole series of theological questions that we found pretty unnerving. Maybe the most troubling of these questions was this one: "Do you want God to be like the God who is active in this novel?"

    In the end, the “no” votes were even unhappier than the “yes” votes on that question. Especially when we went back to the beginning of the book and read again the epigraph, which we had only given a glance at on our way to chapter one. It is a quote from Leon Bloy: "Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence."

    The gender bias of the quote fits the novel, but I think it reads better (and echoes Aeschylus more fully, when we make it plural: People have places in their hearts which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

    This is a sentiment straight out of Ancient Greek poetry. But is it Christian?

    There's a passage I wrote down ages ago on a sticky note and stuck on my writing desk. Every once in a while, I pick up the note and read it. It's by C.S. Lewis. I can't now recall which of his books it is from. "We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."

    I am very uncomfortable with the God who uses all of life to make us into the sort of people God wants us to become. And I know that this view of God has been used to justify some god-awful cruelty, violence and theological sadism. But I am sure too that we lost something valuable when we Protestants decided that, just because we believe that Purgatory is mythological, then God isn't in the business of burning away dross anymore in a purging, refiner's fire. As I said to this group of pastors, as we split our votes on whether the universe is better with the kind of God Graham Greene portrayed or a God who doesn't get quite so far up to his elbows in the muck and the mire, "Aren't there things in you that you long for God to burn away?"

    The end of the affair turns out to be the beginning. Again and again, we start over, trying to bring the whole world into focus, staring up into those eyes on the cross that see everything risen. Risen. And whole. But along the way, there are a lot of things broken, breaking and burning too. And something in me wants to believe that there's something more than blind fate in charge, that there's somebody behind it all, and that this somebody acts out of love.


  • A Leadership Notebook: Lincoln's Magnanimity

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 06, 2015


    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    LincolnAbraham Lincoln has been praised for possessing so many qualities of leadership. Fortitude. Humor. Humility. Persistence and perseverance. Vision. Shrewdness. Wisdom. Prudence. Political genius. Even ruthlessness.

    Among the qualities of leadership for which Lincoln ought to be praised, one in particular stood out when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005). Goodwin, herself, names the virtue: magnanimity. It has been some time now since I read her astonishing study, but I can't shake the portrait of Lincoln she paints.

    I find myself often asking, "How was Lincoln capable in the midst of the bitterness and hatred that divided his country and the vainglory and ambition that divided his party to stay the course with such grace? What made Lincoln so magnanimous? How might we as leaders learn to be more like him?"

    For many people who have read Goodwin's biography, the most memorable illustration of Lincoln's leadership occurs in the midst of the political battle that led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The House vote hung by the narrowest of threads. Lincoln took two of his political allies aside and charged them to find the two additional votes needed for passage of the amendment. As she tells the story, you can visualize this most persuasive of presidents grabbing the two representatives by their lapels as he says to them:

    I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come - a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.

    For students of leadership, there's a master’s-level seminar in leadership bundled into this exchange.

    Lincoln's humanity, his devotion to justice, and his commitment to erase the evil of slavery from American soil are all on display in his charge. So is his willingness to turn a blind eye to political chicanery if that's what it takes to accomplish the holy end of abolition. He appeals to the better angels of his two allies. His rhetoric raises this political moment above the mundane, touching the very hem of eternity. And yet a not-too-subtle implicit threat and an enticing partisan promise also hangs in the air. He reiterates the threat/promise twice, reminding these political operatives that he has the power to make good and bad things happen. (In the movie, Lincoln, Steven Spielberg placed Lincoln’s comments in the context of a cabinet meeting, which changes their tenor.)

    Certainly there's much about leadership worthy of contemplation in this emotionally and politically charged moment. But this is not what stands out most for me when I think about Lincoln's leadership, at least in light of Goodwin's account.

    What strikes me as most distinctive about the character of Lincoln's leadership is the complete lack of malice he demonstrated toward those who opposed him, undercut his leadership, ridiculed him personally and even plotted against him. I will take just two examples, both of them people whom Lincoln had placed in their positions of leadership: Salmon Chase, the man Lincoln named as Secretary of the Treasury, and George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln made a major general in the Union Army. Lincoln's magnanimous dealings with them would be entirely incredible were it not so fully documented.

    Chase, while serving on Lincoln's cabinet, wrote letters by the score to congressmen, journalists, even generals, pointing out failures in Lincoln's leadership. In one instance, Chase wrote to the editor of the Cincinnati Gazette to say: "I should fear nothing if we had An Administration in the first sense of the word guided by a bold, resolute, farseeing & active mind, guided by an honest, earnest heart. But this we have not. Oh! for energy & economy in the management of the War." Chase repeatedly proved himself unworthy of Lincoln's confidence, yet Lincoln persisted in his magnanimous behavior toward Chase.

    General McClellan's disdain for his Commander in Chief is the stuff of legend. In one instance, McClellan reported that he had gone to the White House on a Sunday after tea and there saw (referring to the President) "the original gorilla." McClellan wrote, "What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now!" McClellan's insults of the President extended beyond the verbal. He refused to meet with President Lincoln when the President came to his home to confer about the conduct of the war. And, though it is truly hard to imagine such insubordination, McClellan ignored orders given by the President. At one point, Lincoln wondered aloud whether, if the general were not going to make use of the army, perhaps he might allow the President to borrow it. McClellan, running as a Democrat, later opposed Lincoln for the presidency on a platform that, as one political observer wrote, could have been drawn up by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

    President Lincoln's toleration of the behavior of such men is remarkable. The factors which made him tolerant were complicated.

    President Lincoln, as many have observed, assembled the people on his cabinet and in the leadership of the Union Army whom he believed possessed the gifts the nation most needed at that moment of national crisis. He was mindful of the personal political risks he took with some of his appointments, but he overcame the distaste. Of his decision to appoint Chase, for example, he later told a colleague, that he "would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase," but he did it anyway because it was the right thing to do for the country. There were also political considerations in Lincoln's appointments which should never be forgotten. He tolerated some individuals in order to gain the favor of their constituents.

    Lincoln had a remarkable capacity to understand and accept the weaknesses of others because he seemed to understand in his very bones that one cannot successfully sever people's strengths from their weaknesses. He knew this of himself, and he saw the same principle at work in others as well. The ambitions that made both Chase and McClellan intolerable to many had the potential to make them invaluable to the country. But there was something else in Lincoln that goes well beyond his political savvy and humane pragmatism.

    Goodwin, early in her study of Lincoln, writes:

    Lincoln's abhorrence of hurting another was born of more than simple compassion. He possessed extraordinary empathy - the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.

    She quotes the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith to further illuminate her thesis:

    By the imagination we place ourselves in [another person's] situation … we enter as it were into his body and become in some measure him. … [This] is "the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others … by changing places in fancy with the sufferer … we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels."

    Such empathy can, in fact, crush the soul of the empathetic, paralyzing the person who enters into such profound "fellow-feeling" that he or she is rendered incapable of acting, even if matters of justice are on the line. (Hear Louisville Seminary Professor Scott Williamson's excellent convocation address to learn more about this.) In Lincoln, however, empathy was employed to enlarge his spirit. And while empathy, according to Goodwin, was related to Lincoln's profound melancholy, nevertheless "it would prove an enormous asset to his political career." And, we should add, to his leading our country toward a more just future.

    At times, Lincoln seemed almost to suffer the loss of every life on both sides of the Civil War as a personal grief. Yet, when it came to the political realm, Lincoln possessed a profound empathy and a kind of emotional detachment that kept him from taking personally the contempt and machinations of his foes. The result in Lincoln was a magnanimous spirit that towered above all those who opposed him and made those who admired him come to love him.

    Secretary William H. Seward, who at one time had been a genuine political rival of Lincoln's, eventually became one of Lincoln's most trusted colleagues. Seward said of the President "that his magnanimity is almost superhuman." Edwin Stanton, once Chase's close friend, was for a long time no admirer of Lincoln. But Stanton's admiration and affection, at long last won by the President, is remembered today as the man at Lincoln's deathbed who said, "Now he belongs to the ages."

    It may be questionable to what degree most of us mere mortals can benefit from observing the qualities of a leader like Lincoln. There is so much in his bitter losses as a child and in his defeats as a young person, in the formative influence of a beloved step-mother and the bonds of close friendship in his early working life, that came together to make Lincoln who he was and formed his virtues. But I take some comfort in an historic practice of the church, that is, its veneration of saints. Among the many reasons saints are remembered by us is because we believe that they inspire us to live more like them. There may even be something in the bonds of veneration that empowers us to be more like them.

    Maybe observing and appreciating Lincoln's magnanimous leadership can make us all better leaders.


  • Pandaemonium

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 03, 2015


    PandaemoniumPandaemonium is the opposite of Serenity. And, as John Milton, who gave us the term, knew, Pandaemonium is the domain of all the demons. But we don't really like to talk of demons, do we?

    Modern. Educated. Sophisticated folk that we are. With Rudolf Bultmann and his minions, we have so thoroughly demythologized Christianity that we have a hard time reading many of the Gospel stories about Jesus with a straight face.

    Yet the stories remain, starting with the reading often associated with the commencement of Lent: Jesus' earthly ministry begins with a demonic confrontation that in many ways defined his life. "Then Jesus was driven into the desert where he was tempted by the devil." (Matthew 4:1)

    We sometimes forget this, but Jesus was an exorcist. "When [Jesus] came to the other side [of the lake] to the territory of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs who were coming from the tombs met him. They were so savage that no one could travel by that road." (Matthew 8:28) And to ignore or interpret away the stories of Jesus casting out demons is to miss something at the heart of his identity as God incarnate.

    Indeed, Jesus's teachings take for granted the realm of personal evil. "When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it roams through arid regions searching for rest but finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my home from which I came.' But upon returning, it finds it empty, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and brings back with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they move in and dwell there; and the last condition of that person is worse than the first." (Matthew 12:43-45)

    Strange as it may seem, even after the horrors of two world wars and the Holocaust, after decades of existence under the threat of nuclear annihilation, and even in the shadow of international terrorism, we modern Western Christians seem a bit too smug to imagine that the biblical writers might have been less naive than we. So we avoid speaking of demons because we think that their absence from our philosophy makes us more responsible rather than less so.

    John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, in his introduction to The Praktikos of Evagrius Ponticus (to which I referred in last week's blog on "Serenity"), depicts modern society's attitude toward demonology by quoting Paul Valery, whose version of the Faust story has Faust informing Mephisto that the devil's "reputation in the world is not so grand as it used to be."1 Frankly, if I were a demon, I think I might prefer for people not to believe in my existence. More room for mischief!

    Evagrius's concept of demons is theologically astute and psychologically subtle. At certain points he reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who firmly believed in demons as fallen angels and enemies of God's goodness and self-giving love. From Lewis's perspective, demons are characterized as "entirely practical," simply motivated by a "fear of punishment" and "a kind of hunger." They also lack "a sense of proportion" about themselves and an inability "to see themselves from the outside." The defining sin of demons, we should remember, is pride. Thus, Lewis writes: "we must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment.” (C.S. Lewis, Foreword to the 1960 edition of The Screwtape Letters, originally published in London by Geoffrey Bles in 1942, xi-xvii)

    This last sentence is crucial, I think, for any of us who want to encourage spiritual and psychological health in ourselves and in our communities of faith. For Lewis, the fallen angels cultivate in humans all of the sins that make them miserable. They seek to multiply the misery they feel and the fear in which they exist. They wish to replicate among humans the characteristics of hell. The fact that a community is labeled “Christian” only makes it a more delicious target for the demons.

    Evagrius observes that while the demons attack the solitary holy men and women (hermits) directly in a kind of hand-to-hand combat (the story of the Desert Father, St. Anthony, as pictured memorably by Salvador Dali and portrayed by Gustave Flaubert comes to mind), demons work through the weaker and less mature members of communities to bring chaos and destruction. (Evagrius explicitly mentions monasteries, but all sorts of Christian fellowships and churches could be included.)

    The demons feed on human misery, anger and malice, and seem utterly powerful. But there is one thing the demonic powers cannot abide, as Christian thinkers such as Evagrius, C.S. Lewis, Martin LutherSir Thomas More and G.K. Chesterton all agree, and that is being mocked and scorned. (Lewis, xiii) It may be surprising that Evagrius speaks at times so light-heartedly as he explains the serious business of defeating demons. But he would readily have understood what Chesterton centuries later would say with such wit, that the devil fell through force of gravity and angels fly because they take themselves lightly. A sense of humor sets the powers of hell into a frenzy like poking a wasp's nest with a stick.

    Our minds can be such fertile ground for demons to set up shop and do their work. According to Evagrius, the only way to find peace is (metaphorically) to knock some demonic heads and take names. Naming demons correctly, it turns out, is especially crucial, according to Evagrius because we need to understand the nature of the spiritual forces assailing us. Fashionable or not (and in his own fourth century AD it was fashionable) he invests considerable energy in naming demons, describing their ways, and finding effective means to counter their wiles. For Evagrius, demons are slippery characters: he variously describes them as "temptations," "evils" or "spirits." He does the opposite of demythologizing the demons into non-existence. He enriches his complex psychological analysis of our humanity with a distinctively theological language. He speaks the names of the demons, and as he does so, we recognize them: Gluttony, Impurity, Avarice, Sadness, Anger, Acedia, Vainglory and Pride. Like a skilled stalker, he learns their ways. And he tracks them into their lairs.

    In a blog, it is impossible to go into detail about each of these demons or temptations, but I would like to suggest the relevance of Evagrius in his reflections on just four of those he names.

    1. Avarice
    "Avarice," Evagrius writes, "suggests to the mind a lengthy old age, inability to perform manual labor (at some future date), famines that are sure to come, sickness that will visit us, the pinch of poverty, the great shame that comes from accepting the necessities of life from others."(17)

    As someone who often wonders if, when I eventually retire, I will outlive my savings (a worry that is no less potent just because its possibility resides in the future) his words hit home, although I had never named this worry as Avarice. And certainly I never thought I was dealing with a demon. But for Evagrius, Avarice is a demonic power because it preys upon the mind by taking all the joy out of the present, infecting each day with anxiety in anticipation of the future. The demon comes disguised as responsibility or self-sufficiency or independence. And who does not admire these qualities. But like a con-man, the demon assumes the appearance of someone we can trust in order to defraud us of our Serenity. Evagrius's treatment of the subject of demons reminds us of Augustine's insight that every sin is a distortion or corruption of a good; the higher the good, the greater the sin.

    Yes, it is wise and prudent to invest for the future. Yes, we should do so with thought and care so as not to be a burden to others. And, yes, the alternative to doing so is irresponsible. But, the wisdom of this ancient theologian might just help us stay sane in the face of an unknowable future. It is possible to plan for the future without becoming fearful, grasping (avaricious) and so anxious and fearful that no one wants to share our company now.

    2. Sadness
    "Sadness tends to come up at times because of the deprivation of one's desires. On other occasions it accompanies anger." (17) Like a depth psychologist, Evagrius looks deeply into the root causes of our sadness. And like a Stoic philosopher, Evagrius encourages us not to place ourselves at the mercy of external circumstances. We should hold all the things of this world with love, but lightly, as a gift we have been given, but only for a brief season. Thus Evagrius would encourage us to rejoice in all things that come our way, in the knowledge that our lives belong (in life and in death, in fortunate moments and in distressing times) to the God who can be trusted to do better things than we can ask or imagine.

    3. Anger
    Anger is a particularly dangerous demonic spirit for Evagrius. It is "the most fierce passion" which boils and stirs up wrath "against one who has given injury" or a perceived insult. Reading Evagrius, I am reminded that in some Asian cultures, anger is seen as a kind of madness, a form of insanity. This is easy to believe for anyone who has ever been confronted with someone in the grips of uncontrollable fury. But Evagrius takes us deeper into the dynamics of anger and, with astonishing pastoral sensitivity, he discerns something that many of us miss, especially in the heat of the moment. The soul of the angry person, Evagrius believed, is characterized by profound sadness. What we may witness in some social setting as toxic anger spewed forth from one person onto others, may originate in self-contempt, in wounds too deep for any of us to fathom, reachable only by God's grace.

    There are ranks among the demonic legions of anger (resentment, indignation, and hatred, included), and they can only be dealt with by cultivating meekness, humility, i.e., a proper sense of proportion regarding ourselves in the presence of God, the ability to see ourselves more objectively but with grace. Knowing ourselves as small and flawed but loved and forgiven by God, we can afford to think largely of others.

    4. Acedia
    Perhaps Evagrius is most eloquent in his analysis of the demon Acedia. He calls it "the noonday demon." One might also call this "the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill" demon.

    "This demon," Evagrius writes, "drives [the person] along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life's necessities, more readily find work, and make a real success of himself."(18-19) The person under the spell of Acedia exists in a constant state of resentment against the present time and place, and the people who co-inhabit both with him, yearning for an elusive "elsewhere" among people who will finally appreciate him and his gifts.

    Interestingly, Evagrius says that wrestling with this demon over time produces "a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy." This makes me wonder if Evagrius himself (whose life took him from Pontus to Constantinople to Jerusalem to Alexandria, from the highest heights of Hellenistic intellectual culture to the simple hermits of the Egyptian desert), didn't perhaps know this demon intimately throughout his own life.

    The means by which we route all the demons are the Means of Grace, particularly the Eucharist and meditative prayer. Praying the Psalms, calling on God for help, practicing contemplation on the love of God, giving alms to the poor, these may seem commonplace, but these are the powerful weapons Evagrius encourages us to use against our own demons. And along with these, he invites us to submit to careful self-examination, observing when we are most subject to which temptations, how we feel when we are in the thrall of a particular demon, and how we have found our way out of its clutches.

    After reading Evagrius, I had a whole new perspective on why we begin Lent with the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is a story of our lives.


    1Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters On Prayer, translated and with an introduction by John Eudes Bamberger (Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 1972).


  • Serenity

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 23, 2015


    TOLImage022415Modern life assaults us on many fronts. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

    The local news lifts its headlines directly from the police blotter, the national and international news reports confront us with perils and tragedies. The media captures our attention with sensational teasers crafted to worry us into watching. Even the office water cooler offers little consolation with the latest reports of illnesses and losses from our coworkers.

    No wonder the most popular prayer in much of the English-speaking world remains the so-called “Serenity Prayer” written by Reinhold Niebuhr half a century ago:

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.
    1

    Evening prayers and vespers have always touched upon this theme because peace of mind is hardest to possess when the skies darken and the busy world is hushed. Of this I was reminded recently praying through the new revised edition of John Baillie's classic, A Diary of Private Prayer. I was particularly moved by the prayer which reads:

    Give me freedom from restless dreams;
    Give me control of my thoughts, if I lie awake; Give me wisdom to remember that the night was made for sleeping
    and not for harboring anxious or distressing thoughts.
    Give me grace, if I lie awake thinking, to think of you.
    2

    Some time ago, a friend whom I have mentioned before, John Wimmer, suggested I take a look at Evagrius Ponticus (345 - 399 AD), a father of the early church. Evagrius, he said, relied on Stoic philosophy for some of his key insights. And one of the greatest scholars on Evagrius, John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, had once been a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, Kentucky. Indeed, Father Bamberger did study under Thomas Merton and is described by Jean Leclercq as "a master of the monastic life and spiritual teaching who was one of the geniuses of our time."3 (xxi) I decided that during my next silent retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, I would meditate on Evagrius's two greatest works, his Chapters On Prayer (often referred to simply as "De Oratione," i.e., "On Prayer") and The Praktikos.

    What I discovered in Evagrius was a spiritual contemporary, a person of astonishing theological depth and psychological subtlety, who understands both the root causes of our restlessness and anxiety and the sources of serenity. This week's blog is devoted to "Serenity"; next week's to "Pandaemonium." Both themes reflect on the teachings of Evagrius of Ponticus.

    "The state of prayer," writes Evagrius, "can be aptly described as a habitual state of imperturbable calm." The Greek word he uses meaning "imperturbable calm" is apatheia, a term drawn directly from the Stoic lexicon. This apatheia he continues, "snatches to the heights of intelligible reality the spirit which loves wisdom and which is truly spiritualized by the most intense love." [On Prayer, 52]

    Apatheia is not to be confused with today's English word "apathy" any more than the classical terms "apology" and "apologetics" should be confused with saying "I'm sorry." Rather apatheia, as Evagrius uses the term, is similar to "the fear of The Lord." It is grounded in a due sense of proportion (creatures in contrast to the Creator) and an appropriate sense of justice (sinners in relationship to a righteous God). Saints, it seems, have a greater sense of the distinction between God and humans than most mortals. And saints possess apatheia by the bushel. This is why saints know how to love. As Father Bamberger explains, apatheia represents a state of calm "arising from the full and harmonious integration of the emotional life, under the influence of love." (lxxxiv) "Apatheia is not a leveling out of the human emotions to an equal degree of indifference towards all [people]. No, it is a state where all [people] can be loved! at least to the extent that one loves peacefully and without resentment towards others." (lxxxv) For Evagrius, then, "perfect love casts out fear" and the banishment of fear invites perfect love.

    There is no quick fix for our restlessness and anxiety, in Evagrius's thought. There are no easy-to-apply techniques that deliver us to lasting calm. What is required, if we wish to know Serenity, is not a set of relaxation breathing exercises, but a whole new orientation on life. This new orientation is grounded in a life of "unceasing prayer" even in the midst of activity, a rendering of our lives to God and a committing of all outcomes to God's providence. Serenity is not an escape from the world we live in, but a way of living in this world in grateful openness to God.

    Pray not to this end, that your own desires be fulfilled. You can be sure they do not fully accord with the will of God. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that 'thy will be done' in me. In every matter ask [God] in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as [God] does. [On Prayer, 31]

    God seeks to give us better things than we can ask or imagine, as the Book of Common Prayer teaches us.

    Evagrius confesses, in the next chapter, his own struggle to place his life entirely in God's hands, writing: "Many times while I was at prayer, I would keep asking for what seemed good to me. I kept insisting on my own request. …" [On Prayer, 33] With wry humor, he observes that God sometimes even allowed him to receive what he requested, just so he would see the folly of his mistaken understanding of his own needs. His comments remind us of that old saying, "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."

    Evagrius removes us from the driver's seat, relinquishes control of the steering wheel, but will not surrender us to the wheel of fate. Rather, he asks us to entrust ourselves to God alone.

    What else is there that is good besides God alone? Therefore let us cast all our concerns upon [God] and it will be well with us. Certainly, [the God] who is wholly good is necessarily the kind of person who gives only good gifts. [On Prayer, 33]

    Do not be over-anxious and strain yourself so as to gain an immediate hearing for your request. The Lord wishes to confer greater favors than those you ask for, in reward for your perseverance in praying to him. For what greater thing is there than to converse intimately with God and to be preoccupied with his company. Undistracted prayer is the highest act of the intellect. [On Prayer, 34]

    For Evagrius, the goal of life is love. For him, this means a full participation in the life which God shares within God's own eternal being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God uses all the tools at God's disposal in this world to draw us into that love. Even now, even in this world, we can enjoy eternal life.

    Thus Evagrius can say, "Renounce all things. You then will become heir to all." [On Prayer, 36] Which is another way of saying, "Seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33) The renunciation of all things is at the heart of the doctrine of apatheia which Evagrius borrows from the Stoics, but into it he breathes the gospel of Jesus. He calls us to do that "one needful thing" and leave off the distractions that trouble us. This is the source of Serenity, as Jesus himself teaches. Only when we seek the reign of God above all else can we take the next step with Christ: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for the day is its own evil." (Matthew 6:34)

    The proof of apatheia is had when the spirit begins to see its own light, when it remains in a state of tranquility in the presence of the images it has during sleep and when it maintains its calm as it beholds the affairs of life. … The soul which has apatheia is not simply the one which is not disturbed by changing events but the one which remains unmoved at the memory of them as well. [Praktikos, chapters 64, 67]

    Serenity, we learn, may be a habitual state of imperturbable calm, but it does not come without some discipline and practice. And the gift of prayer.


    1While there are various popular versions of the “Serenity Prayer,” as it was originally authored by Reinhold Niebuhr and published in a column in 1951, it read: "God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed; Give us the courage to change what should be changed; Give us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other." Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 290.
    2John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, updated and revised by Susanna Wright (New York: Scribner, 2014). Originally published in 1936.
    3Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters On Prayer, translated with an introduction and notes by John Eudes Bamberger (Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 1972). Numbered references in brackets refer to "Chapters" not pages; those in parentheses refer to page numbers.


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