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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Hidden Beginning

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 23, 2017


    Hidden BeginningDriving along wooded byways, it is not unusual to come across a sign that says something like "Caution: Hidden Entrance Ahead." And, sure enough, I have periodically been startled by the appearance of the hood of a pickup truck peeking out between tall hedges as I careened around a curve.

    Consider this essay as such a signpost on the byways of Protestantism.

    Warning: Hidden Beginnings

    If there is anything we tend to miss as Protestant Christians it is the hidden entrances and beginnings of the faith we hold. This can be taken to extremes.

    When I was a boy, I went to my pastor to enlist his help in working on the Boy Scout's God and Country award.* My childhood pastor was a fine man and a very good minister, and I have admired him all of my life. He read the material I gave him on how to earn the Protestant award, but then he told me that there was a serious problem with the award. He said something to this effect: "Mike, we aren't Protestants. We aren't protesting against anything. Baptists go all the way back to the beginning of the church. Even when the church strayed from time to time, there have always been Baptists." Then he gave me a copy of a book that taught that Baptists can be traced through a "trail of blood" through the history of the church, not only back to Jesus, but to John the Baptist.

    Now, however wonderful my pastor was, his doctrine was, of course, simply historically inaccurate. "The trail of blood" was a mythology. What we call the Baptist movement today dates from the English separatists of the seventeenth century, not from the first. And although I never stopped admiring my pastor, it was decided that I couldn't proceed with the God and Country award because there wasn't an appropriate award for our church.

    The "trail of blood" mythology my pastor taught had one thing going for it, however. It did try to connect the Protestantism of today (and I apologize, Brother Bob, but Baptists are Protestants, too) with the centuries of Christianity that went before the Reformation. Among the problems we face as Protestants today, one of the gravest is the inclination to think that "our church" (in my case, the Presbyterian or Reformed branch of Protestantism) began in the sixteenth century when, in fact, the reformers themselves were very clear that they were reforming the Christian Church which was already then sixteen centuries old.

    When, as a seminary student, I was introduced to the full spectrum of the church's history, I was astonished by the range of experiences, beliefs, and wisdom that poured out of the abundant treasure chest of this (our!!!) rich, rich church history. Suddenly, I saw that the saints, sages and scholars of the Ancient Catholic Church, of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and of Roman Catholicism all around the world were our ancestors and our conversation partners just as much as were the Protestant reformers. And, in time, I came to realize that through the gift of faith, I also could say to my children, "We were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand." (Deuteronomy 6:21)

    I suppose I've never gotten over the astonishment of that experience. It has only grown.

    What a gift to realize that Gregory of Nyssa is as much a part of our Christian family tree as St. Paul, John Calvin or Elizabeth Johnson, or that John Bunyan can be read alongside Lady Julian of Norwich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And what an opportunity to draw upon the insights of Abraham Heschel as well as Thomas Merton. Christianity didn't begin in the sixteenth century with a German Augustinian teacher named Martin Luther. It began in the life and teachings of a Palestinian Jew who never ceased being a Jew. And the faith our founder represents, despite our worst efforts, is about breaking down the walls that alienate us from one another and from God, not about reinforcing them or (God forbid) erecting new ones.

    As I am writing these words, in anticipation of various Protestant celebrations around the world that will culminate in late October, it is actually still summer, and I am sitting not in my office on the campus of a Presbyterian seminary, but in a small room in the Retreat House of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside Conyers, Georgia. I am the guest of this community of Cistercian monks who spend their lives seeking to praise God, to work faithfully in their fields and in the chapel, and to live according to a set of disciplines that are more than fifteen hundred years old. They have welcomed me graciously and allowed me to pray beside them in the choir and to receive the blessing of their abbot at Compline each evening before we retire. They and their brothers at Gethsemani Abbey have taught me to learn from some Christian ancestors who were, until meeting them, only vague names on the pages of history books, ancestors like John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus. And they have taught me practices of faith that can nurture the "prospective aspect of redemption" of which I wrote in the previous essay.

    Today, as I watch the soft rain fall on the garden below and the wooded hills beyond, I am reminded once more of the vastness of the being of God to whom our little ways bear witness. If our Protestant Christian faith works to make our minds broader and our hearts more generous, then it has performed well its function as a doorway to faith in God. But if it closes us off into ever smaller ways of believing in ever smaller gods, thus making us smaller of mind and heart, then it and we have failed.

    As we celebrate the Reformation, I think this is worth bearing in mind.

    The world, after all, is not waiting and longing to hear about the history of our various denominations; the people of this world are waiting and longing to hear about the way of life that lies beyond the hidden beginning of this faith.

    So, let's do enjoy the celebration of the Reformation by all means. Everybody loves a good party. But remember, this celebration pales in contrast to the one we get to have every year on Pentecost Sunday!

    ______________
    * Now, parenthetically, I just want to say something about the Boy Scouts of America, even at the risk of chasing a rabbit into the tall grass. I loved scouting and was active in it from Tenderfoot to Explorer. I am an Eagle Scout. Order of the Arrow. I learned some of the most fundamental lessons of life from scouting. I learned reverence, tolerance, and openness to people who are not like me. There were gay scouts in our troop and they were respected. They were friends and fellow scouts. I learned respect for the faiths of others also. That's ultimately what the God and Country program was all about: teaching us religious literacy both of our own faiths and the faiths of others. I have grieved in recent years at the struggles this organization has had in finding its way back to its own core values, and I continue to hope that it will not fall victim to the polarized politics so common in so many corners of our society.


  • Mountains of Solitude

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 13, 2017


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Mountains of Solitude


    "Better the thousandth in love," wrote Evagrius Ponticus, "than one alone with hate in inaccessible caves." His warning was to monks, hermits long ago living in seclusion in desert places, but his proverb deserves our attention today.

    Evagrius understood, as he intimates in another of his proverbs, that living in solitude with love will purify a person's heart, but living alone with hatred only corrupts and agitates. To allow our memories to cling to grievances is like covering a fire with a pile of dry wood chips; eventually a conflagration is bound to break out. His advice is both spiritually sound and psychologically astute.*

    Evagrius received his theological education from Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus (two of the three theologians of the fourth century known collectively as the Cappadocian Fathers; they were largely the source for the third article of the Nicene Creed, on the Holy Spirit). Evagrius served as a deacon under Gregory in Constantinople. He was forced to flee Constantinople under a cloud of scandal involving a woman who is believed to have been connected to the imperial court. Eventually Evagrius became a monk in the deserts of Egypt where he was discipled by both Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria.

    Evagrius seems to have fled not only the shipwreck of Byzantine society, but the shipwreck of his own life.** But perhaps in this he demonstrated the fullness of God's providence because Evagrius brought to the desert a first-rate theological mind and the keen analytical intuition of a psychologist. And he turned both of these resources to the service of spiritual direction for the benefit of all those who sought God in solitude.

    In some past blogs I have dwelt on specific teachings which Evagrius shared, but in today's essay I would like to consider a larger subject. I want us to reflect on the origins and value of spiritual direction.

    One often hears, especially among some Protestant Christians, talk about the recent popularity of spiritual direction, as though it is a new thing. It is also common, in these circles, to hear complaints about the relative poverty in Protestantism of resources related to spiritual direction. Only gradually have Protestants discovered that the history of Christian spiritual direction stretches over some two millennia and always has been, in the largest sense, a catholic issue, that is, a matter of importance throughout the universal church, East and West.

    How one explores one's relationship with God, with creation, and with other persons, how one grows and matures in faith, how one engages in practices, corporate and individual, which nourish the life of the Spirit, and how one learns to resist those forces that erode one's spiritual life and one's humanity: these have been matters of spiritual direction since the earliest days of Christianity. And because spiritual direction operates at the junction of the most personal aspects of human life (emotions, thought, behavior, and relationships), it has always drawn upon sources of wisdom that cross all sorts of boundaries: theological and ritual, psychological and philosophical, ethical and political, to mention only a few. The pattern for spiritual direction was set early in the church by Evagrius Ponticus and another theologian who also spent considerable time in the wilderness of Egypt: John Cassian (c. 365-435 AD).

    Colm Luibheid, in his preface to the "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition of John Cassian's Conferences, sums up the core task of spiritual direction as he introduces readers to Cassian:

    "For 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 deeper than the farthest reach of our own perceptual capacities? Is this - what we encounter - all of it? The old question refuses to go away. It nags and worries. ... Can this be all of it?" (Luibheid, Cassian, p. xii)***


    Spiritual direction is about learning to live a genuinely human life alongside a wise companion. It concerns the big questions of life's meaning and purpose. That's why it touches on every aspect of human feeling, thought and behavior.

    Spiritual living is living with the "whence," the "why" and the "wherefore" of existence clearly in mind. Spiritual living is living mindful of the origins, terminus and ultimate ends of human life. Spiritual living is living with care and compassion. This is why spiritual direction begins not with a set of rules or a template that all must follow but with the person in direction, wherever that person finds herself or himself.

    Cassian and Evagrius entered into the way of the desert. They shared in the wilderness and spoke from within the experiences of the hermits and anchorites themselves. They understood that the monastics whom we call Desert Fathers were "located" emotionally, psychologically and theologically in the wilderness, as well as just geographically in a desert. These men and women were wagering with their whole lives that everything one sees in this world is an outward sign of an inward reality, that creation is a sort of vast sacrament through which God communicates life and nourishment and meaning with humanity. They believed that we cannot know this deep reality unless we cut ourselves off from everything that distracts us.

    In one of his most moving passages, John Cassian tells us that human beings can see God face-to-face, but only if they go off with him into "the high mountain of solitude." Only in solitude can we be liberated from "the entire swirl of worldly considerations, of worldly disturbances." (Cassian, Conferences, 10:6).

    Owen Chadwick, in his Introduction to this same edition, comments of Cassian's "method," if it may be called that. Chadwick writes:

    "The soul seeks the ultimate unity or oneness of the world, which is conceived variously as a spiritual or an intellectual entity. The soul seeks this One, which is permanence, unity, foundation of the universe, Being beyond all being, ultimate Mind. Its method of seeking is to strip itself of all distractions that turn the attention to anything lower in the scale of value, that is, everything not the One." (Chadwick, Cassian, p. 3).


    One may debate why Cassian felt it necessary to turn attention away from that which is all around us in creation in order to seek the One (if, that is, the One contains all things in its Oneness).**** But we cannot argue, really, with the logic that the various distractions surrounding us do have a way of preventing us from looking more deeply into reality.

    We have found so many ways to drown-out whatever we don't wish to bring to consciousness; even the most ordinary facts of life (for instance, death) go largely unacknowledged, ignored, or denied as facts within our personal experiences. Somehow most of us live as though suffering and death are common facts of life for "other people," but we act as though an exception will be made in our case.

    Anyone who has dedicated time to solitude and silence attending to one's heart knows the terrors which lie therein - and the potential for grace. In solitude and silence one is confronted with one's failures and flaws. They rise up before us in the forms of regret and guilt. But, surrounded by God's mercy, while encountering our sin, we also can know the freedom that only love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness make possible. In solitude and silence one allows reality's chickens to come home to roost - including the personal consciousness of death - but in a context in which we are able to entrust what we are to the hands of God.

    What we find in such solitude and silence is the "space" to sort out our souls in the presence of God. We find space to differentiate between realities, illusions and delusions, to let go of the obsessions and anxieties and the clinging that characterize life unskillfully lived, and to recover compassion for ourselves which, in the secret places of our hearts, is transformed into compassion for others. And it is here, in what Louisville Seminary's own Lewis Sherrill called "the struggle of the soul," that we sense our need for a companion in our spiritual quest.

    As Cassian and Evagrius teach us, we need someone to remind us of the truths we know and to make us attentive of the falsehoods that trip us up. We need someone to keep us personally mindful of the realities of which we are only generally aware. We need someone to encourage us when courage is thin on the ground. We need someone we trust to go with us into the wilderness. This is why we need spiritual direction.

    The greatest spiritual athletes of all time needed that. Certainly we can do with no less.

    ____________
    *Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399 AD) has often been compared to the Stoic philosophers because of the austere sanity of his advice. His thought is similar especially to that of Epictetus (c. 50-135 AD). Both taught the value of attaining an equanimity that cannot be shaken by life's inevitable ups and downs. But in several of his monastic proverbs, Evagrius arguably is even more like the Buddha (c. 563 - 483 BC), whose teachings established a psychology and a philosophy that nourish the life of the spirit. One of Buddha's most familiar teachings (though often attributed to more recent thinkers) is very similar to Evagrius' "Ad Monachas" 8-10, cited above. Buddha said: "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."

    **There is no better starting point for understanding Evagrius than the volume of his writings in the "Ancient Christian Writers" series published by Newman Press (New York, 2003). Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, translates Evagrius for this volume; he also provides an excellent introduction and commentary.

    ***The "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition of Cassian's Conferences (Paulist Press, 1985) is a joy to read. The combination of Luidheid's translation and his brief but eloquent preface and Owen Chadwick's superb introduction make this one of the most valuable volumes in this respected series. One can easily see why Cassian had such a huge influence on the development of monasticism, and why Christians continue to turn to him for wisdom.

    ****The Neo-Platonic worldview saturates the mysticism of the theologians of this period, though it is a Neo-Platonism baptized into Christian faith and subtly transformed particularly through the influence of the early Christian theologian, Origen. Hans Urs Von Balthasar observed that, "there is no thinker in the church who is so invisibly all present as Origen." [Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (Crossroad: New York, 1991), p. 130.] This is doubly true of the fourth century, though one can trace Origen's influence throughout the medieval period; and forms of Platonic idealism are stamped even on modern devotional writers like C.S. Lewis, and to some degree on theologians such as Karl Barth. How to conceptualize reality's ultimate oneness in spite of its apparent divisions and oppositions without resorting to Platonic idealism has remained a challenge for Christian theology and spirituality to the present day. But it is possible.


  • The Neglected Redemption

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2017


    Neglected RedemptionOne of the great insights of the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell was that the dominant Christianity of his native Scotland had reduced the meaning of redemption merely to a release from the penalties of sin. He called this the retrospective aspect of the atonement in contrast to redemption's prospective aspect.

    The distinction he made is crucial. It is one thing to want to be delivered from the consequences of our sin (retrospectively) and quite another to yearn to be delivered from the prevailing power of sin in our lives (prospectively).

    This neglect of the full range of redemption is perhaps the besetting sin of the Protestant Reformation (especially as envisioned by Martin Luther). Although John Calvin, a second-generation Reformer, worked valiantly to correct this problem, for centuries his descendants would continue to emphasize the retrospective at the expense of the prospective, especially because of the way this perspective was codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

    McLeod Campbell, as a young pastor in the town of Rhu, west of Glasgow, even went so far as to question whether it amounted to Christian faith at all just to ask God to save us from hellfire and damnation. If we are only adhering to a set of beliefs in order to save our lives, in the hope that adherence to a creed serves as a kind of everlasting fire insurance, then we are surely missing the core of the teachings of Jesus who taught, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:35) So said McLeod Campbell.

    McLeod Campbell paid dearly for his departure from the Presbyterian orthodoxy of his day. He was tried for heresy and deposed from ministry while in his early thirties, going on to labor for the remainder of his long life, serving the needs of the poorest of the poor in the slums of Glasgow. But he never swerved from his teachings.

    According to John McLeod Campbell, God is the ultimate loving parent whose heart's deepest will is for us to share God's own Spirit of love and life. Christ came to earth to empower the children of God to know and to live the love of God, showing us the way of life for which we were intended and sharing with us the Holy Spirit who would make that divine love possible in our own hearts. God does not suffer from a split personality, demanding the satisfaction of his furious anger with a sacrifice of blood to "make" God merciful. Rather, from the heart of the divine parent comes the eternal child of God who lived God's life of love among humanity and was slain by humanity in its fear, ignorance, pride and vanity. In the unjust death of Jesus, we look into the very heart of the triune God. And there we see divine love beyond all measure in God's mercy and refusal to retaliate. In Jesus of Nazareth we also see the life of a human being lived the way God wants us all to live. And we are drawn by the life of Jesus Christ and by the love of the Holy Spirit of God to live the human life for which we were created.

    Jesus Christ is not, in McLeod Campbell's view, just a piece of a theological puzzle. Jesus Christ is not just another cog in a theological machine; just another doctrinal ingredient in a vast interlocking system of theological propositions. Jesus Christ is the love and life of God in human flesh. Christ's teachings about the life we are called to live matter as much as the life he lived. And the life Jesus lived matters as much as the divine mission on which he was sent, to unite in himself humanity and God.

    The proof, we say, is in the pudding. The life lived by McLeod Campbell argues more eloquently for the faith he held than anything he might have said.

    When, at his trial before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the full force of the most radical interpretation of federal theology within the Westminster Confession of Faith was brought to bear to condemn him, McLeod Campbell appealed to the verse of scripture that many of us learned first as children: "God is love." The point he wanted to make was that God is love, fully and eternally in his being; God does not merely love arbitrarily this person, whom God created to demonstrate his capacity to love, while eternally and arbitrarily God hates that person whom he created for no other purpose than to demonstrate his capacity to punish sin with eternal damnation. But when McLeod Campbell appealed to the Bible, quoting the Epistle of First John, his interlocutors cried foul. It was, they said, out of order to quote scripture at his trial before the General Assembly because the church had previously determined that the Westminster Confession definitively provided the interpretation of what the Bible means.

    McLeod Campbell's defense rested in his assurance that God would provide, no matter what his church decided. And when McLeod Campbell was declared a heretic and was deposed from preaching any longer in the Church of Scotland, rather than establish a rival denomination or wage a holy war against those with whom he differed, he simply turned his attention to the needs of others. By living among and serving those in great want, he sought to live the life to which Christ had called him. In those years McLeod Campbell wrote extensively, including what many consider the greatest book on the atonement of his time. And his thought was spread abroad influencing the next several generations of young ministers and theologians in his church, so much so, that before the end of his life, the Church of Scotland officially repented of its action in deposing him as a heretic.

    The Protestantism into which many of us were born and which has nurtured us throughout our lives has given us many great gifts. But as we observe this year the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement, and as we remember the significance of Martin Luther's great insight that "justification is by grace through faith," often rendered as "justification by faith alone," it is appropriate to remember that this doctrine is not the whole, it is not the entirety, it is not the comprehensive measure of the message of Jesus Christ.

    Not only are we released from the consequences of sin (retrospectively) by the grace of God, we also are called (prospectively) to live in the Spirit of Christ as we go forward. The retrospective view of redemption shows us only in part the magnitude of God's grace. To understand the wonder of that grace in full we must look forward, following Christ into the humanity to which he calls us, whatever the consequences may be.


  • A Nation of Laws

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 06, 2017


    Editor's note: This special post of "Thinking Out Loud" is in response to the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. Louisville Seminary extends its prayers to the victims and families of this heinous crime.

    "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." (Isaiah 2:4) NIV

    A Nation of LawsOne thing you can tell about us Texans of a certain vintage is that we grew up on Westerns. I suppose I learned some important lessons from those television shows. But the most important lesson I learned didn't come from a show. It came from my dad one night while we were watching a Western together. It might have been Bonanza, with Adam, Hoss, Little Joe, and Pa. Or The Rifleman. Or The Virginian. Maybe Wagon Train, with my father's favorite actor, Ward Bond. Or Have Gun Will Travel.

    As a boy, I thought it was pretty cool seeing a cowboy saunter down the dusty street, a handgun in its leather holster strapped to his leg, and the gun belt slung low around his jeans. So I asked my dad, "Why don't we still wear guns like that?"

    It was not an unnatural question. I lived in a house where the traditions of hunting were hallowed. My father, in his prime, owned several beautiful rifles, and we always had venison in the freezer. I was given my first air rifle at six, my first shotgun at twelve, and my first real rifle a year or two later. I grew up around guns. So, I was curious. "Why don't we still wear guns like the cowboys in the movies?"

    My dad, a Republican and the proud hunter that he was, answered: "Because we are a nation of laws. That was the frontier. It was lawless. But you can tell when a town got civilized. The police and the sheriff's department had guns, so regular cowboys didn't need to carry them anymore. People could go about their ordinary business safely. And you could tell a cowboy who meant to cause trouble pretty quickly if he insisted on carrying a gun."

    My dad had a keen respect for law and a love for the U.S. Constitution, both of which I inherited. And I recall him teaching me that no right is absolute. He used to say that my rights stopped at the end of my nose. (Did I mention he was an old-fashioned Barry Goldwater Republican?) And, as much as he loved the law, the Constitution, and a beautifully crafted gun, he would never accept the notion that the unlimited, unrestricted, and unregulated ownership of firearms is guaranteed by the Constitution. There are no absolute rights in the Constitution. They are all held in balance with other rights. It galled him that ordinary Americans had to submit themselves to metal detectors at courthouses and airports. And it appalled him that we have failed as a nation to institute sensible gun control to keep our society at least moderately safe from the kind of madness we witnessed most recently in Las Vegas. Clearly someone has decided that their rights don't stop at the end of one's nose.

    This is a dangerous world, and it will never be safe from every sort of peril. I know that, and so do you. But we still have laws to limit speeds, control certain drugs, and even limit speech in some situations, though the right of free speech is also guaranteed in the Constitution.

    Personally, I love to shoot, especially clay pigeons. I have a hard time recalling many afternoons when I was a teen that didn't involve at least target shooting. And I am committed to our nation maintaining a properly regulated militia (which, incidentally, doesn't mean a lot of camouflage-clad nuts and radicals who appoint themselves "militia men" and spend their weekends in the woods shooting off their mouths as well as their Uzis). Our militia is our National Guard.

    I would gladly melt down every weapon I have ever used, owned or touched if we could bring back even one of the lives lost in Las Vegas last weekend, or in Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, or Baltimore last week, or Sandy Hook, South Beach, or any of the other mass shootings and terror attacks that haunt our memories and cast a pall over our days. I know, like a lot of gun enthusiasts, that there is no Constitutional reason why we can't have rational gun laws; and there is every reason, not least for the safety and health of our citizens, that we should have them.

    This isn't a partisan issue. It does not have to divide us. We are a nation of laws.


  • The Green Frog Cafe

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 03, 2017


    The Green Frog Cafe

    "Old men with beer guts and dominoes lying about their lives while they played," sings the Guy Clark song, "Desperados Waiting for a Train." Every time I hear it, I remember my grandfather and our hometown's version of "The Green Frog Cafe" from Clark's song.

    The air inside was thick with the smoke of cigarettes and cheap cigars and the heavy smell of bacon grease and coffee as thick as creosote. Playing in the corner was an old Wurlitzer jukebox with a permanent skip in Hank Williams' "Jambalaya." The brown-and-white striped tin awning that hung out over the windows contrasted with the faded grey of its clapboard siding. There was no business sign. Those who came in knew it was a cafe. It was the sort of place I suppose that doesn't exist anymore. And it stood fifty years ago approximately where the driveway into the HEB grocery store now stands in Lufkin, Texas.

    It was the sort of place you'd never take a child. Except my sainted grandfather did.

    We would walk in, sit at a table and order coffee for him, and a Yoo-hoo and buttered toast for me. I liked the waitresses because they always called us "Honey" and "Sugar" and smiled and smelled nice. Coming to the cafe was a special treat for me because they had genuine factory-made Concord grape jelly in little sealed plastic packets on the tables. I was a country boy, and all I ever got at home was homemade strawberry and blackberry jams, Mayhaw jelly and fig preserves. I felt deprived not getting the factory stuff at home.

    My grandfather came by the cafe most days on the way home after finishing his rural mail route. If I wasn't in school, I got to go with him on his route. We stopped at nearly every country store along the way for a soda-water and gossip.

    Goolie's country store was always the first stop on Route 3. My grandmother made fun of Goolie's family saying they were so country that they ate "taters, maters and nanner puddin'" which sounded good to me and was probably the menu many nights at our house, too. I liked Goolie okay, but I liked his daughter, Wanda, a lot more. She was my first girlfriend. Second grade. Which means that we held hands during the hygiene and civil defense films at school.

    Anyway, back to the Green Frog. We'd sit and talk, my grandfather and me, about serious things. My grandfather never talked down to me. But he also didn't talk to me the same way he talked to the men at the other tables. I noticed that. It was on visits like these that my grandfather would line up musicians to get together to play. He was a natural musician. Fiddle, guitar, accordion, piano. He never met an instrument he couldn't master in a rainy afternoon. He sang a nice tenor he called Irish, though he was a Scot. With a name like Bonnie Corley Fenley, you can't fool anyone about where you came from.

    One of these musical events stands out from all the others. One very ordinary weekday afternoon, we pulled up to a frame house on the outskirts of town. Other cars and trucks were pulling up about the same time. We parked my grandfather's old pickup truck on a long sandy drive. Behind the house was a small frame outbuilding off the side of a carport. It was so decrepit it looked like it should have fallen down years ago. But inside, I swear, was heaven: a room full of guitar players, fiddlers, and accordion players, all warming up. Laughing. Joking. My grandfather had a fiddle case under one arm, a guitar case in one hand, and an accordion case in the other. A weathered piano that looked and sounded like it had survived the great Galveston hurricane leaned against a wall.

    I have played in a lot of bands. Good bands. Jazz, blues, R&B, rock, and country. And I've attended some great concerts headlined by everybody from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to Chicago, to George Harrison, to the Band of Heathen. But I have never experienced music that could compete with what happened in that shack.

    There wasn't a sheet of music in the room. Music just poured out of these guys and their instruments like they were breathing. The music flowed from one to the other, back and forth, like communication, but deeper somehow. They changed keys as though they shared a single mind, maybe a single heart, beating out music. They'd laugh trying to catch each other not paying attention, but they couldn't. I suspect that every band I've ever played in, I was just trying to recapture the joy of that experience.

    At the time I didn't know it, but I was getting my first lesson in the subtle reaches of Trinitarian Christian theology. Or maybe it was my first lesson in reality. And perhaps it takes a whole life to unwrap what we are accidentally taught as children.

    What I felt there in that shack was that somehow the best thing in the whole wide world is a roomful of people making music together, playing off each other, respecting each other, loving what they were doing and what they were making together, enjoying the music that flowed among them, that came out of them and entered into one another and freely flowed to anyone listening. And that, my friends, is what the heady doctrine of the Trinity is trying to say in human languages far less eloquent than what was spoken by the guitars and fiddles of the denizens of the Green Frog Cafe.

    High-flying Greek terms like perichoresis have been drafted into Christian theology to describe the subtle interplay of divine being originating in the one person of the triune God and returned to another, first penetrating, then merging, blending without confusion, like streams of sparkling water or rivers of rich hot blood, giving life and love to all that is. But for me, it will always be the music that says it best without resorting to words.

    Anyone who has ever had the privilege to improvise with other musicians will know what I mean. But I do wish you could have heard those old guys from the Green Frog Cafe who played us into the presence of the mystery of the world in a buddy's derelict shack on a very ordinary afternoon.


  • Zen Masters of the Ancient Church

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 29, 2017


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Zen Masters of the Ancient Church


    They fled civilization, they said, like sailors abandoning a sinking ship. At first they fled social disdain and sporadic persecution - regarded as early Christians were as atheists by the denizens of the Roman world whose taste for gods was omnivorous and insatiable.

    By the mid-fourth century, however, they were fleeing a nominally Christian empire in which their church had won the status of legal recognition, but had lost something far more precious. If anything, the church's newly sanctioned status only provided new impetus to these men and women who had come to believe that their hope lay far beyond the horizons of history, even though history appeared to be running in favor of the officially sanctioned Church at that moment.

    While many Christians made peace with the world, the men and women who left behind the great cities of the ancient world to live as hermits in the deserts of Palestine, Syria and Egypt believed that only by separating themselves from society could they follow Jesus.*

    Sister Benedicta Ward writes in the introduction of her superb edition of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003):

    "Detachment from selfish concerns was always of the essence for Christianity. The invitation of Jesus to the young ruler, 'Go, sell all you have ... and come and follow me' (Luke 18:22) provided a central theme for Christians in the first three centuries; it was seen as the most direct way of discipleship, the surest way to learn what it meant to be with Jesus before the face of the Father. ... [T]he phrase 'Maranatha, even so come, Lord Jesus' (Rev. 22:20) was not a vague hope but an immediate and joyful expression; 'Let grace come and this world pass away,' Christians said in their corporate prayer at the Eucharist." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. viii)


    Dr. Ward goes on to quote a visitor to Egypt who, in the fourth century, observed that hardly a village or town could be found that was not ringed by hermitages where these early ascetics waited in the desert for Jesus to return, like loyal children waiting for their parents to come home from the fields.

    Their names resound through the spiritual traditions of the Eastern church: Macarius the Egyptian and Amoun of Nitria, Arsenius of Rome and Agathon; the beloved Moses of Ethiopia, who was one of the most revered of all the hermits; Mary of Egypt, a former prostitute in Alexandria who fled to the deserts of Palestine; Poemen, renowned for his gentleness and grace; and, of course, Antony the Great, the best known of all the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) because he was the subject of the first Christian biography (by St. Athanasius of Alexandria).

    They were virtually all laypersons, these hermits and monks. Most were uneducated, with very few notable exceptions (such as Arsenius, a highly educated Roman of senatorial rank). Though they were hermits, they did favor one another's company upon occasion, for instance, when seeking advice or table fellowship. Their cryptic acts and sayings resemble more closely those of the ancient Zen masters than they do the doings and writings of medieval Christian mystics. Some could be coarse and abrupt in their social engagements, even toward other monks; others were startlingly gentle, as when Poemen responds to the question, "What do you do when a brother monk falls asleep during public prayer?" he says, "I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. xvi)

    The Desert Fathers (and Mothers) did not invent monasticism itself. Solitude, silence, celibacy, prayer, poverty and contemplation were firmly established religious practices before the Christian faith came along, and there were already people living lives devoted to these disciplines. But the Desert Fathers did baptize these practices, and they demonstrated how they could serve the way of Jesus. They also inspired their own theologians, Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian, thinkers of the highest rank who provided guidance useful to the practice of the faith in their time, and who laid the groundwork for virtually every religious order that the Church would know from the followers of Benedict of Nursia to the contemplative monastics of Christianity today.

    The Desert Fathers excelled at what I call "wisdom spirituality." They sought in solitude and through conversation with one another how to live as God would have them live. Their teachings often possess a proverbial and pragmatic feel, as we see in a conversation between Pambo and Antony the Great: Pambo asked Antony how he should live his life, to which Antony replied, "Do not trust in your own righteousness. Do not go on sorrowing over a deed that is past. Keep your tongue and your belly under control." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. 3)

    Their teachings often could be characterized as advice. But, if so, it was advice of a peculiar kind, advice intended to school a person in the way of Jesus, advice meant to form and nurture particular qualities of life in the Christian, advice intended to increase the follower's dis-ease with this world while it sought to heal the follower's spiritual disease. The qualities the Desert Fathers sought to nurture in themselves and among one another ran against the currents of the third and fourth centuries as surely as they run counter to those of contemporary society. They did not seek to provide comfort, but discomfort, for the sake of nurturing the gospel.

    One hermit is said to have taught that we should pray for God to give us "inner grief of heart" and "humility." He assumed that gaining the virtue of humility will be painful. Indeed, humility, which is essential to being a follower of Jesus can only really be nurtured by the loss of a false image of ourselves. Losing one's good reputation can be, according to the Desert Fathers, a good thing. To be unjustly shamed was seen as a gateway to authentic humility, provided one does not attempt to recover the good opinion of others. This same hermit also discouraged his listeners from entering into argument with others on controversial issues. The drive to win arguments with others, which can trump mercy toward others, must be driven from our hearts if we are to follow Jesus. It is simply too easy to stake out a position which we will defend "come what may," a position that requires us to nail our ensign to the mast and to keep our guns blazing until the antagonist is crushed into submission. If someone tries to tempt us into arguing, the hermit teaches, we must just listen. If the person says something edifying, say, "Yes." If he "speaks ill," don't fight back. Just say, "I don't know anything about that." (Desert Fathers, Ward, p. 7)

    The wisdom of the Desert Fathers invites us to sanity. That is why it seems so strange. And it does this so that our lives might be prepared to respond more readily to the movement of the Spirit among us. The Desert Fathers encourage us to seek solitude and silence so that we will not allow ourselves to be distracted from our own spiritual quandary. Only in solitude and silence is there room to see ourselves for who we are and to open ourselves to the grace of God. Crowds, noise, and busy-ness ensure that we will be distracted from our spiritual tasks. In contrast, the Desert Fathers encourage us to slow down, not just to "smell the roses" but to discern the presence of God among us, in one another, in creation, and in ourselves.

    Their teachings challenged conventional logic as much as conventional notions of respectable living. They were deliberately bewildering, at times maddeningly paradoxical in their statements. They assumed that there are no straight lines when it comes to divine wisdom; God's genius for living bends with the weight of the gravity of God's grace, its fractal borders are shockingly uneven. At times the Desert Fathers appear quite insane, but this is because they are possessed by the supra-rational madness of God.

    One hermit affirms the biblical teaching that God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), but goes on to notice how often the wood God tries to burn is wet through-and-through, and try as we might to get the fire going, all we get is smoke in our eyes.

    Another hermit, named Sylvanus, describes a vision he has had. It terrified him. In his vision he was transported to the judgment seat of God where he saw many worldly sinners being accepted into heaven while many holy hermits took the down elevator. Utterly confused and disheartened, it is said that Sylvanus retired to his dwelling and only rarely emerged ever after.**

    And to a group of hermits who came to Macarius the Great seeking wisdom, he told them simply to "Flee." But when they said they had already fled to the desert from the world, he placed his finger upon his lips and said, "Flee this."

    Such teachings awaken in the listener the awareness that wisdom is something one must seek, and seek, and seek, again and again. Wisdom requires dying daily, living in conscious awareness of our brokenness and mortality, yet soaked in grace. Wisdom requires risk. It demands sacrifice. You have to search for it with your whole life. Salvation is a gift, but wisdom requires sweat. And sweat these hermits did.

    In ancient traditions, as Bernard McGinn writes, the desert ordinarily was thought of as the place of demons, not of humans. And certainly the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness prefigures this tradition [McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991) p. 136]. But, through their lives and their participation in Christ's own wilderness experience, the early hermits helped sanctify the desert. They helped to make of it the place where godly humanity is born and nurtured.

    The Desert Fathers were indeed tempted in the wilderness. Antony, the Father of the Desert Fathers, was tempted beyond human limits, some say driven to madness.*** However perverse, however grotesque the temptations, the Desert Fathers knew that the desert must test them, because it is a refiners fire, a place where holiness is forged from molten lives by the shuddering force of the hammer blows of God, through simplicity of life, prayer and contemplation, solitude and silence, remembrance of Christ's words, imitation of Christ's way, having entrusted one's precarious and short life to God.

    Later monasticism, however strict the orders became, would be tame in comparison to the Desert Fathers. They never did fit neatly into any approved ecclesiastical mold. They were not - to use the term from the 1950s - "company men." But that was their great and enduring gift to the church and to the world. By their very existence, they called into question the direction the church was taking by fleeing the society in which the church had made its comfortable home.

    Like Zen Masters at the edge of the village, the Desert Fathers remind us what it looks like to be human and to be free. Their lives challenge us to find and forge the wisdom of the wilderness where we live, even if it is at the heart of village.

    ___________
    *The theological intuition of the Desert Fathers periodically has re-emerged in intellectual history. Franz Overbeck, the distinguished Church historian and one-time colleague of Karl Barth, thought that Christianity as a movement reflective of its founder had more or less ended by the time Constantine granted the church official imperial status in the fourth century. Overbeck himself was an agnostic, and, perhaps for that very reason, was less sentimental than many other historians of the church. He perceived that the vitality and authenticity of the strongly eschatological faith held by Jesus' earliest followers had been replaced by something else, something perhaps socially necessary and institutionally more viable, but something different nonetheless. Barth saw at least a theological connection between Overbeck's strident view of church history and Søren Kierkegaard's critique of "Christendom." The theological connection between Kierkegaard and William Stringfellow has often been noted.

    ** We would wait centuries for Flannery O'Connor to give legs to this vision in her disturbing and hilarious short story, Revelation.

    *** Salvador Dali's "Temptation of St. Antony" expresses his holy struggles, as does Gustav Flaubert's wonderful novella, in its own way.


  • Privileged

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2017


    PrivilegedSomething I've noticed is that people of privilege usually have a hard time interpreting any limitations upon their privileges as anything other than injustice.

    Something else I've noticed is the way people of privilege find it easy to identify the mote of privilege in the eyes of others, but have a hard time seeing the same luxuriating log in their own eyes.

    Why is this?

    Human nature, one might quickly answer. Fallen human nature, or sin, a Calvinist or Augustinian would quickly offer as an amendment. But all we have said with either of these responses is that everybody does it and it isn't good. Such responses beg the question "Why?"

    Why do we not recognize our own privilege? Why do we feel that any infringement on our privilege constitutes an injustice?

    The old saying goes that fish swim in water they can't define. And many of us swim in a sea of privilege we take for granted. In fact, in the United States the overwhelming (OVERWHELMING!) majority of us live with a level of privilege that is virtually inconceivable for many of the world's inhabitants. It is not so much that we are bad or evil (well, not necessarily) as that we are inured to our own condition of privilege.

    Being thoughtless isn't the same thing as being evil. But if we cultivate a habit of thoughtlessness and seek to find refuge in our thoughtlessness so we don't have to face the suffering of others, well, the end result can surely be the same as possessing evil intentions. So, what can we do?

    The nineteenth-century writer Anthony Trollope had a remarkable gift for painting human failings and foibles with an almost bemused divine detachment. In his novel, The Warden, Trollope tells the story of an elderly chaplain of a group of elderly men living in what we might today call a rest home, a small set of cottages near a great cathedral where these elderly working class men (who would have been lonely and indigent but for their small pensions, room and board) lived together and benefited from the church's charity and their chaplain's pastoral care.

    In Trollope's story, a newspaper reporter was tipped off that, while these men lived in total dependence upon the charity of the church, their chaplain, a man of their age, earned a generous salary as a minister. He lived in a nice manse and had ample funds left over to pay for the music he wrote for his cello to be published.

    When the newspaper story hit the public, instead of becoming defensive, the elderly chaplain became penitent, sensing that the men for whose spiritual care he was responsible had suffered an injustice - although unintended - at his own hand. The truth, of course, as Trollope unwraps the story, was much more complicated than the newspaper reported or the old chaplain interpreted. The Warden, the pensioners, the reporter, the church that employed the chaplain and provided the pensions and housing for the elderly men, the newspaper for which the reporter worked and the public that purchased the papers were all part of a system and structure of complexly interrelated privilege, a society that reinforced and replicated roles, all of which were assumed virtually entirely without consciousness on the part of any of the individual players.

    What is really interesting in this particular story is not so much the role the reporter played, though it is easy not to be sympathetic toward him. We learn soon enough that he is not seeking justice but, in his own way, is cynically exploiting the plight of the elderly pensioners to advance his career. The really interesting point in the story is that an individual, the elderly Warden and chaplain of the retirement home, in an act of conscience, attempts to understand and live into a consciousness of the role he plays in this system of privilege.

    Having spent the majority of my adult life in vocations both churchly and academic, I can say that few of us in either of these vocational worlds recognize the incredible privilege in which we live. And, of course, we aren't alone in this.

    I remember a conversation many years ago between Johnny Carson and Kris Kristofferson on the old "Tonight Show." They were talking about the acting profession. Kristofferson described the daily grind of make-up, rehearsals, and filming. At some point Carson said something to the effect that most people probably don't realize what hard work acting is. Kristofferson responded, yeah, but Johnny, we both know that what we do isn't real work.

    It so happened that Kris had actually worked for a living before his songs started selling. He knew as he sat there on Johnny Carson's sofa that he lived a life of unimaginable privilege in comparison to many of the working folks he had known.

    I can't tell you how often I have felt that Kristofferson could have been speaking for my chosen professions and a lot of others. I don't engage in a career as demanding and perilous as the folks who catch the fish I love to eat. And I know full well that I don't work as hard as the folks who make sure that potholes are plugged in the roads along which I drive my car or that my garbage is regularly collected and disposed of. (I know these examples from personal experience because my first two jobs were working on a sanitation truck and laying asphalt highways.) In fact, if pay were linked to the Common Good, sanitation workers would be on scale with heart surgeons and public school teachers would make more than U.S. senators.

    Privileges questioned will be privileges ruthlessly defended. But I guarantee you our arguments wouldn't convince the prophet Amos with his contempt for temples where the peoples' sacrifices were consumed. But, then, there are so many such temples in our henotheistic society.

    This is why I've often felt that if we really want justice to roll down like waters, we might best start by looking first at our own checkbooks, credit card statements and calendars before going on the rampage against OPS (that is, Other People's Sins). Maybe the hope lies in whatever change might occur in the hearts and minds of individual persons, individuals who would be willing to question and to change their own participation in the structures of privilege and prejudice in our society.

    This is something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hinted at in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail back in April 1963: "History," he writes, "is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals."*

    A great cloud of witnesses gathers round us, and angels stand on their tip toes watching to see if finally we can and will transform a society that has systematically resisted sharing privilege. May we not let down the angels. May we not let ourselves down, too.

    ___________
    * James M. Washington, editor, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (HarperCollins, 1986), p. 292. As those who heard my remarks at the Fall Convocation a few weeks ago, I have asked our seminary community to read or re-read Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail, truly one of the most profound and significant documents in American history.


  • What is the Purpose of Education (part 2)

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 19, 2017


    Purpose of Education 2Last week, we explored how a good education helps us learn and learn to keep on learning. It helps us to see the promise in threats and the opportunities in change. As important as adaptation is, however, education does even more.

    Education can make living worthwhile.

    Just having a steady job does not guarantee a life lived fully. There are many people who can make a good living but have no idea what makes a good life.

    In her recent book, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street (Random House, 2017), author Sheelah Kolhatkar tells the story of Steven Cohen, a hedge fund trader who was either a money-making genius or a criminal mastermind of insider trading and stock manipulation. Or, perhaps, both.

    In a review of Kolhatkar's book in The Economist, among the lessons that stood out to the reviewer was the "hollow life" led by Cohen. The reviewer comments: "Clad in a fleece, surrounded by 12 [computer] screens, masseuses, a manipulative wife, a hostile ex-wife and a cast of millionaire sycophants whom he periodically culls, Mr. Cohen cuts a sad figure." Undoubtedly many envy what he possesses, but few would exchange his life for theirs.

    We know that financial wealth and a rich life do not necessarily go together, that fame really is an illusion and the adoring public is notoriously fickle. We know this in our heads. But too often we stand all-too-ready to sacrifice what is most precious to us for something that isn't real and a little more of what we know does not last. And we will find our culture only too ready to reward us in the short term in exchange for what we are willing to sacrifice in life's long game.

    Our culture calls workaholism an addiction while praising it as a virtue, and many ministers, counselors, teachers, lawyers (the list could go on and on) begin every conversation by bragging about how overworked and overbooked they are in an attempt to prove their importance. I suspect planning calendars outsell Bibles, or at least get a better workout on a daily basis.

    We all know people who spend their lives working every waking minute, even when they aren't "at work," because they fear stopping and facing themselves and what they may encounter in the emptiness of silence and solitude.

    We all know people who, when the workday ends, must divert themselves endlessly with activities and entertainments to fill their empty hours before they return to the busy-ness of business.

    We all know people for whom even their moments alone are either occupied with distracting chatter or the endless loops of mental recordings inside their own heads to keep up the false selves they spend their active hours projecting.

    Others we know become addicted to substances or something else to distract themselves from themselves.

    There's another category, of course, those who, when work is done for the day, plug what is left of their brains into a television set, shift their minds into neutral, sitting day-after-day on their couches waiting for God to collect their bodies.

    The purpose of work is to make a living. The purpose of education is to make a life worth living.

    Among the most poignant moments in the Gospels is that moment when Jesus of Nazareth turns down the devil's dinner invitation with those immortal words: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

    There's more to us than our appetites. There's the need to be nourished in our spirits. And the purpose of this nourishment is to make of us the people God had in mind when God first imagined us. Wherever wisdom is to be found, God is its author. And human life is nourished by the words that originate in the heart of God more than by bread alone.

    A good education opens us to this wisdom, makes us learned in this learning, and gives us the ability to think well enough to live before we die.


  • A Stairway to Heaven?

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 15, 2017


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Stairway to HeavenIs there such a thing as a stairway to heaven?

    The Led Zeppelin song says yes, and "she's buying" it. But, after more than twenty centuries of debate, Christian theology remains resolutely ambivalent on the question: Resolute, because so many individual theologians, priests and preachers have weighed in "definitively"; ambivalent, because the Christian tradition as a whole can't decide.

    I am very pleased about the ambivalence. It shows a rare humility in a tradition that has sent far too many people to the stake or the gallows because they had the temerity to disagree with the religious majority.

    As we begin our yearlong exploration of Christian spirituality, I want to begin by considering the perspective of a contemporary writer whom I have admired for many years, Karen Armstrong. She is not only a thoughtful writer, she possesses an openness that goes far beyond mere tolerance, and she explores her own spiritual journey under the suggestive title, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (Anchor, 2005).

    I've twice read this book, the first time on my own, the second time with a group of students with whom I met weekly for prayer and study of classic literature on Christian spirituality. I was so moved by Armstrong's honesty and intelligence that I wanted my students to consider her perspective.

    Here is a woman who, at seventeen, entered a convent. She did so with the conviction and passion of an idealistic young person seeking to know God better. Seven years later, she left the convent to pursue the study of English literature at Oxford University, feeling herself a failure because she didn't "succeed" at being a nun. She writes:

    "I had tried. I told myself … I had not been the best nun in the world, but I had honestly done my best, and my superiors had tried to help me. But it was just no good. If God did exist, he clearly wanted nothing to do with me, and right now I couldn't blame him." (Spiral Staircase, p. 45)

    The "darkness" in the subtitle of Armstrong's book, from which she says she climbed, included physical illness and psychological struggles that only exacerbated her spiritual crisis. In the midst of a long period of extraordinary personal anguish, Armstrong studied T.S. Eliot's sequence of poems titled "Ash Wednesday." Feeling alone, feeling like a failure, and in the throes of a terrifying illness, she found herself "thrilled" by Eliot's poem, noting especially the lines:

    "Because I cannot hope to turn again
    Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
    Upon which to rejoice."

    She comments on this passage:

    "There was nothing depressing about this deliberate acceptance of reduced possibilities. It was precisely 'because' the poet had learned the limitations of the 'actual' that he could say: 'I rejoice that things are as they are.'" (Spiral Staircase, pp. 141-142)

    Despite her academic brilliance, Armstrong's life seemed for some time to be tumbling out of control. All the while physicians and psychiatrists tried to help her toward stability and health through a variety of treatments and medications. Even as she was writing her first book, she was fired from her beloved teaching position. Wondering if, indeed, she could ever "hope again," she gradually was able to make peace with the universe. In the midst of her "darkness," she apparently came upon something like what one medieval mystic called "the cloud of unknowing" and another described as a perception of the "groundless ground," the sense of transcendent understanding, of enlightenment, of intuition more profound than mere knowledge.

    Just as everything she tried to make fell apart, she found the key for which she had searched. She writes:

    "This must be the way that human life worked. He who loves his life shall lose it; he who loses his life shall save it. This was not an arbitrary command of God, but simply a law of the human condition. If you cast your bread upon the waters and were prepared to give it up for good, it would somehow come back to you - albeit in another form." (Spiral Staircase, p. 142)

    Her own "loss of life" was far from theoretical. Each time she labored to construct a life, it seemed to fall apart. But when her grasp failed, what she sought was placed in the palm of her hand, though "albeit in another form." The other "form" of life which came "back" to Armstrong arrived through her intellectual interest in the various ways different peoples and cultures experience God. She had been reading about the things that separated - often violently - Christians, Jews and Muslims.

    "Why not explore also the things they held in common?" she thought.

    Armstrong began to explore other faiths empathetically, attempting to understand and articulate the perspectives of other faiths authentically enough that practitioners of those faiths would recognize themselves and their convictions in her descriptions. At the same time, she also tried to articulate the reality of these other faiths in terms that could be understood in idioms more familiar to herself and to those who come either from Christian or secular traditions. She became both a translator and an honest broker of religious pluralism. She refused to smooth over differences, but neither would she resort to caricature others.

    Among the most important insights to which Armstrong came was this one:

    "All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it. Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality. Most would agree with the Greek Orthodox that any statement about God had to have two characteristics. It must be paradoxical, to remind us that God cannot be contained in a neat, coherent system of thought; and it must be apophatic, that is, it should lead us to a moment of silent awe or wonder, because when we are speaking of the reality of God we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do." (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    The greatest heresy begins in our compulsion to force God to serve as the exclusive representative of our metaphysical opinions and social values. This compulsion may originate in our desire to make gods of ourselves, which itself comes from our insecurities, our fears and sense of powerlessness in the face of mortality, our inability to come to terms with the starkness of reality; therefore, we feel the need to believe that “Someone Exactly Like Us” ultimately is in charge of the universe and that this Someone will guarantee our interests. When we speak of humility, religiously speaking, we are describing the fundamental rejection of the temptation to craft gods in our own image and likeness.

    Armstrong discovered in her quest to understand other faiths, what had eluded her in her struggle to understand her own. Drawing on the thought of Cantwell Smith, Armstrong came to the realization that all our ideas about God are by necessity human constructions, and that the compulsion "to equate faith with accepting certain intellectual propositions about God" was a modern preoccupation dating from the eighteenth century. (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    This seemingly startling and startlingly humanistic conclusion is shared by some of the most orthodox of Christian theologians: St. Augustine of Hippo and Karl Barth, for example. Both of these great Christian thinkers warn of the "idolatry" of worshipping our ideas of God (which amount to projections of ourselves and our wishful thinking) as though our ideas about God are identical with God.

    Armstrong, though working from a basis of comparative religion rather than constructive theology, comes to a position reminiscent of John Calvin, at least with respect to the meaning of "belief." Armstrong writes:

    "Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary. … The Middle English word beleven originally meant 'to love'; and the Latin credo ('I believe') probably derived from the phrase cor do: 'I give my heart.'" (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    Reformed folk may want to read John Calvin's writings again, this time with his personal motto in mind: "I offer (or give) my heart to God promptly and sincerely." And we may want to examine again St. Anselm of Canterbury's famed statement of faith, usually translated, "I believe in order that I may understand," in light of Armstrong's insight; if we do, we will discover that Anselm might just have meant, "I love so that I may understand."

    Rather than joining the throng ready to go to war over our doctrinal differences, Armstrong proposes "a more excellent way." She rejoices in a kind of faithful agnosticism, again, not unlike what we find in some of the most orthodox Christian thinkers of all time. As St. Augustine once wrote, "If you think you have understood God, it is not God which you have understood." When one considers that this humility in the face of divine incomprehensibility originated from the same pen that bequeathed to the world untold thousands of pages of carefully reasoned Christian theology, one might well pause before demanding one's dogmatic way.

    So, is there a stairway to heaven?

    Maybe the question is just wrong. Maybe the whole intellectual scaffolding for asking the question is just wrongheaded.

    Perhaps we are beckoned by “SomeOne” beyond our knowledge to love that which we do know: the world and the people in it. That seems to be what the Epistle of First John was getting at when it warned us that we can hardly claim to love God, whom we cannot see, if we don't love the people we can. And maybe that same love will help us to entrust all that lies beyond the boundaries of our knowledge to the One who beckoned us to love in the first place.

    Maybe taking life "on faith" is less about believing the unprovable and more about loving the unlovable. In other words, if faith doesn't start and end in love, we're not headed in the right direction, wherever a stairway claims to go.


  • What is the Purpose of Education (part 1)

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 12, 2017


    Purpose of Education part 1Trick question: "What's the purpose of education?"

    According to generations of our ancestors, at least since Socrates queried his way through the streets of Athens or St. Augustine sat in northern Africa writing more books than anyone could possibly read, the purpose of education has been to make us knowledgeable and wise.

    Education might also make us more humble, teach us to reflect analytically, cure us of the disease of dogmatic certainty, and make us conscious of the fact that the more we know, the more questions we will have. But first and foremost, a good education has been seen as equipping us with knowledge and wisdom.

    No longer, I am often told these days, is this the purpose of education.

    Politicians regularly get elected these days on the platform that the purpose of education is to get us a good job. And even some educational leaders today draw thunderous applause by parroting this message.

    They are wrong.

    Now, let me be clear about this: I believe that it is a good thing to have a good job, and most good jobs benefit from educated people doing them. Not only do I believe it is a VERY good thing to have a good job, I believe that it is among the most sacred joys of life to work; it is a joy and a blessing to employ the gifts God has given us to earn our daily bread, to support our families, to stand on our own, and to care for those who are less fortunate. I believe that work bestows upon a person a sense of purpose and human dignity and personal maturity that few other things in this life can equal. I believe, conversely, that a person without work is like a puzzle with some vital pieces missing. A person without work often longs for a sense of purpose and worth. Work is good.

    The purpose of education, however, is not to get a job, not even a good one, not even a job to which we believe God has called us. This is especially true today, because no matter how well-educated and well-trained we might be for a particular job, it is entirely possible that this job won't exist in ten or fifteen years. And, even if the job for which we trained is still around, our own vocational aspirations might alter in a decade. Many of us these days will have a half-dozen different jobs before we retire, each requiring its own specialized skills and technical knowledge which will require additional vocational training and continuing professional development.

    Something more is needed from education than job training, however. Something more has always been needed from an education. And this goes double for a theological education.

    One needs the capacity to think well and to think deeply in a disciplined manner and to develop the capacity and skills to keep learning throughout one's whole life.

    One needs the ability to know how to accumulate accurate knowledge and worthwhile information, certainly, and also the ability to rethink what has previously been learned in light of new information.

    One needs a lively appreciation for this very wide world that belongs (every bit of it) to the God who loves it and everyone in it, and one needs opportunities to allow this appreciation to expand previous horizons so that the world becomes even larger.

    One needs the confidence to adapt to changing environments, but also the wisdom and discernment to distinguish between fads and trends, potentially good ideas and potentially bad ones, to "hold fast to what is good," the received wisdom of the ages, not with tight greedy little paws, but loosely with generous and grateful hands.

    And one needs the character necessary to delay gratification (what our grandmothers meant when they expected us to eat our vegetables before having our dessert) and to stay with something to which we've committed ourselves however onerous that task becomes (what Sir Winston Churchill expressed when he said, "When you're going through hell, keep going!").

    These are all the good fruits of a good education. This is why, no matter what happens to job markets, a genuinely well-educated person has the capacity to adapt to changes, maybe even to stay ahead of changes, and maybe to be the author of important changes.

    Cliché Alert: Change is one of the few constants you can count on in life.

    But, cliché or not, it is true.

    There are many cautionary stories, but I will tell you only one.

    The venerable Eastman Kodak Company, which dominated the photography industry for generations, disappeared virtually overnight, and corporate analysts shook their heads in wonder. How was it possible for people who knew their industry so well to misread so badly the moment in which they lived?

    The answer: This company was shackled to one technology (film) as another technology (digital) took over, without ever realizing that they were perfectly positioned to dominate the emerging industry by doing something they had always done well - innovation.

    Unfortunately in this critical moment, they mistakenly thought their mission was to make film. In reality, their mission was to produce images. Because they couldn't imagine producing images digitally, they now make nothing. Keep in mind that photography hasn't stopped. The art of photography continues apace. Great photographers are still taking our breath away with spectacular pictures. But Eastman Kodak is gone.

    A good education helps us learn to learn.


  • A School for the Lord's Service

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 05, 2017


    HumilityOne day this summer, just a couple of weeks before the beginning of our fall term, I decided to read The Rule of St. Benedict straight through.

    What began as an act of discipline, and, frankly, a bit of a chore, quickly became a delight. I had never before read the whole thing in one sitting, but reading it that way, especially right before the school year began, I saw parallels I had never before noticed between the mission of Benedict's monastic community and that of the seminary.

    Anyone who has been following the literature on theological schools for the past twenty-five years or so will know that our seminaries don't suffer from a lack of analysis. That can be helpful. But, then, as one leader quipped a few years ago, most organizations fail for "non-analytical reasons." (They don't do the things they know they ought to do.) Sometimes analysis keeps us paralyzed from taking action, particularly analysis that divides us into opposing camps. And anyone who has followed the literature on theological education also knows that we have been locked in something of a feud over exactly what a theological school is for a very long time.

    One model of theological education sees a seminary as a "school of the church," primarily an institution where future ordained leaders in a denomination are taught what is expected of them by their tradition. Another model sees the seminary as a professional school, where men and women receive the educational qualifications they need to function in their chosen profession of ministry. Still another model understands the theological school as a graduate school, the purpose of which is to provide the latest and best academic scholarship and tools to conduct research in the various theological disciplines.

    All of these models reflect realities. All of these models are reflected in one way or another in every good theological school. And all of them require not only that students be educated but also formed in various ways: churchly, professional and academic.

    There is another model that I haven't yet mentioned, and it is the oldest by far. It is the model that lay the cornerstone for all future theological schools, and, indeed, for all the great universities. It is the model of theological education that is grounded in discipleship, forming persons in the faith with the understanding that such personal formation as Christians is essential to all the knowledge we acquire and every task we undertake.

    This model need not be placed over/against the others, as though it is "the right" model. Really each model needs the others in order to achieve that balance essential for education and formation for ministry. But I would like to single out this last model today because the need is so great for seminaries to take on the role of passing on the faith and forming persons in it. We simply can't take this for granted any more. And to help us see better the potential of this model, I would like to return to its origin. This is the model that dominated St. Benedict's experience and was the result of his Rule, a small document from the sixth century consisting of seventy-three short chapters which, according to some, is second only to the Bible in the influence it has had in shaping Christian behavior for a millennium and a half.

    Benedict envisioned a learning community of a very specific sort. God calls people, says Benedict. But they need to learn and to be formed in order to live the life God calls them to live and to do the work which the Lord calls them to do. "Therefore," Benedict writes in the Prologue to his Rule, "we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service." With a clarity that has never again been achieved in an official church document, Benedict writes what he calls a "little rule ... for beginners." (Rule, p. 96)

    As I think about the students who are just entering Louisville Seminary, Benedict's words, although intended for a monastic community, provide wise counsel to those of us in leadership and those of us who teach, as well as for our students.

    "In drawing up [the community's] regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love." (Rule, pp. 18-19)

    Benedict's Rule sets its sights on the ends and purposes of the learning community. He writes:

    "If you hear [God's call to follow] and your answer is, 'I do,' God then directs these words to you: If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim. Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers, and even before you ask me, I will say to you: I am here." (Rule, 16-17)

    Benedict's Rule not only casts a grand vision, it also gets into the nitty-gritty of the way his monastic community should live together. At first I suspected that the sections dedicated to the various offices of the monastery and other institutional details wouldn't be applicable to a seminary, but I was wrong. On virtually every page I discovered valuable lessons we would do well to learn.

    Offices of the community are described (such as the abbot, deans, monastic cellarer and prior) with their responsibilities and authority; tools for living well together are provided in great detail; penalties for not living up to the community's covenant are explained, with restoration to community always the goal; orders for daily prayer, including which Psalms are sung when, are spelled out; principles of governance are laid down, placing a high value on what we would call a democratic approach, though reserving certain decisions for particular offices and bodies, tempered with a deep respect for order and a touch of political realism which I found surprising. The Scriptures provide the atmosphere the Rule of St. Benedict breathes, giving the motivation for virtually every regulation, from obedience to the abbot to the unconditional welcoming of guests (no matter what their faith or nationality or social status) into the monastery.

    Members of the community are to place "the work of God" (that is, the services of daily prayer and worship) above every other duty, but they are also to engage in assigned manual work for the sake of the whole community and in study for their own edification. Repeatedly, woven into instructions in almost every section of the Rule, one finds a reminder that community members are to live together in humility, competing with one another in doing good. Again and again, particularly in what I have come to regard as the heart of the Rule, chapter 4, "The Tools for Good Works," Benedict marshals passages from every corner of Scripture to admonish the community members to love as Christ loved, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to never repay evil with evil, to refrain from judging others, to renounce yourself and to reject pride. Closing this section, Benedict describes the community as a workshop, what we might call a laboratory, where all of these virtues are practiced daily until they become habitual. (Rule, pp. 26-29)

    It was while reading this section that I remembered something that happened several years ago, in the first years of my tenure as the academic dean at another Presbyterian seminary. I led that faculty into a revision of the school's curriculum. Before we began the fairly conventional work of looking directly at the curriculum, what we expected students to learn and how we envisioned that happening, we spent two years engaged in self-reflection and research, asking how we could better serve the church and society. In looking into the results of one of our research projects, as we disaggregated the findings of our study, isolating the responses of lay persons from those of ordained clergy and other groups, we found something fascinating.

    When we asked the lay persons in congregations what they valued above all else in a church leader, they overwhelmingly said, "humility."

    This was especially surprising because, given the variety of populations we were polling, this finding hadn't shown up before. The larger aggregated group included pastors, other church professionals such as Christian education directors, judicatory leaders and other religiously related professionals like chaplains, counsellors, leaders of social service agencies and so forth as well as the lay persons; these other categories of respondents simply had overwhelmed by their sheer numbers the findings from the lay people. The aggregated data told us that people value knowledge, expertise, and character in church leadership, but humility had only shown up way down the list of characteristics.

    But the lay people, when their voices were allowed to be heard on their own, overwhelmingly, said that they wanted leaders who are humble. They said they wanted leaders who were not proud or puffed up. They wanted leaders who listened (as one lay person said) "as if I've got a brain too."

    Someone in a group to which I presented this information asked, "So, how in the world is a seminary going to teach humility?" To which another member in the group responded, "I don't know, but we sure as fire have figured out how to teach arrogance in some schools. Why not humility?"

    Maybe St. Benedict shows us a way to do what we need to do educationally and formatively to provide to the church and society the best leadership possible. We often say that seminary can't put in what God left out. But maybe it is more accurate, with Benedict, for us to say: "What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace." (Rule, p. 18)

    Let us construct a life together in seminary that, while not short-changing the vital theological education we all value and the crucial knowledge that grants perspective and depth to our ministries, also provides the formation of character and Christian faith even more than professional formation, and which prefers wisdom over the mere acquisition of information, so that those who graduate from our theological seminaries will be the kind of persons from whom and beside whom and among whom the people of God will want to learn, worship and live.


  • The Most Important Thing

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 29, 2017


    BY DR. ASHLEY HICKS WHITE

    Ashley HIcksEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by Ashley Hicks White, an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at Louisville Seminary. Ashley is also the seminary’s fall 2017 Convocation speaker. She will deliver her Convocation address, “Toward a Relational Approach to Social Justice,” on Thursday, September 7, 2017, at Caldwell Chapel (1044 Alta Vista Road, Louisville, Ky. 40205). The Convocation service begins at 11:30 a.m. All are welcome.

    Over the last year, I have experienced a number of major life milestones and transitions. I finished graduate school, got married, moved to a new city, started a new job, and purchased our first home. All of these new experiences and transitions were good. I looked forward to each of them with joy and excitement, nervousness and fear. Some would say that in the last year I have accomplished a lot. Friends and family talk about how proud they are of all my new accomplishments. And I would agree, that I am excited and grateful to have been blessed to experience all of these things. I count myself very blessed and privileged to have the opportunities that I have. I know that some are not as fortunate as I, and I never want to forget that I carry a measure of privilege and subsequent social responsibility. However, this summer I was reminded that all of these accomplishments are not the most important thing.

    This summer I have been reading a book entitled, The Relationship Principles of Jesus by Tom Holladay*. It is a book that I purchased over three years ago but never had the chance to read it until this summer. Holladay’s book reminded me of what the most important thing is in life: RELATIONSHIPS.

    In his book Holladay tells the story of how he was reminded of the importance of relationships while reading a book on time management. The quote that stuck out to him and has stuck out to me all summer is this: “God does not demand of me that I accomplish great things. He does demand of me that I strive for excellence in my relationships.” Since reading this quote, I have written this statement on an index card and taped it to my computer monitor on my desk. I read it every day at work, and I come back to it to help ground myself during this busy season of life full of transitions and milestones.

    Relationships are the most important thing. I can accomplish wonderful things in this life, but if my relationships are weak, then what is the point?

    My training as a marriage and family therapist draws this point home to me even further. As family therapists we are trained to focus on relationships. We think about larger systems and processes, interactions, and patterns. This helps us in the therapy room and it helps in our everyday lives. We live in a world that is becoming more and more divided by difference. Tension is increasing, and some relationships are becoming more explicitly hostile than before. As a therapist I can utilize my skills to help facilitate difficult conversations and repair relationships among individuals, couples, families, students, neighbors, congregations, and communities. As a Christian, I am called to prioritize relationships, first with God and then with others. Sadly, it is easy to forget about relationships in our attempt to accomplish good things or to be good ourselves. I am hopeful however that just as I have been reminded of the importance of relationships this summer, you will be reminded of what is most important.

    Ask yourself these questions:
    1)    What do I place the highest value on in my life right now?  
    a.    If it is not relationships, consider what I might have to shift in order to focus more on relationships.
    2)    What is getting in the way of me being all I aspire to be in my relationships?
    3)    What can I do right now to become more like my aspirational relational self?

    * Holladay, Tom. The Relationship Principles of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.


  • We Are Pastors

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 22, 2017


    BY REV. EMILY MILLER

    Emily MillerEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Emily Miller. Emily is the Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Louisville Seminary. She is also a Louisville Seminary alum (MDiv ‘09) and a Minister of the Word and Sacrament for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She previously served as Associate for Recruitment and Relationships for the Young Adult Volunteer program of the PC(USA)’s national office.

    The conversation usually goes something like this:

    Other person (OP): What do you do?
    Me: I’m a pastor.
    OP: Oh, what church?
    Me: I’m actually the Director of Admissions at Louisville Seminary.
    OP: Neat! But what church do you serve?
    Me: Well, I GO to church, but I don’t serve one as their pastor. This is where I serve.
    OP: Oh …
     
    If I had a dollar for every time in the last four years that this conversation has happened, I'd be able to pay off my student loans a lot faster. These conversations don't bother me, as I thought they would when I started my work outside of the congregational walls. In fact, these conversations help me do something that I've hoped to make a part of my ministry and call since my ordination seven years ago: to redefine what a pastor looks like.
     
    In my current role, I experience the breadth and depth of ministry in an educational context. I regularly have discernment conversations with prospective students who come from different places - denominationally, geographically, and/or in their discernment processes.

    I hear everything from, "This is a dream and call I've had for so long, but only now is it possible," to, "I'm interested in therapy, but didn't realize I could become a therapist at a theological institution. What does that look like?"

    I get to meet people who may know exactly what they want to do, but have no idea how it will translate into life after seminary - or, at the end of the day, if they can get paid to do the work their heart is set on.
     
    When I began my studies at Louisville Seminary in 2006, I knew that I wanted to go into ministry, in whatever way became clear later, because at the time, I didn't have a plan. As time went on, I realized I wanted to be ordained, and within that, hoped to show that it could look like many different things. Becoming part of the Young Clergy Women International showed me that there are women all over the world who have been called by God to serve the church - inside and outside of traditional contextual walls.

    We are seminary employees, chaplains to persons experiencing homelessness, executive directors of nonprofits, denominational staff, camp directors, faculty, and bi-vocational ministers working part-time in a congregation and part-time in retail. We are pastors. We are called by God to serve those who have been put in our paths, in this place, in this time, and to be ministered to as well.
     
    Sometimes I look at my desk stacked with the lists of people I have to call, meetings I need to set up, or events I have to register for, and I remind myself that this, too, is a holy call. My friend, Sherry, reminded me recently that our students are not just our students: they will be our colleagues and perhaps our friends in the years to come. If walking alongside those who I will one day call a colleague doesn't help define what a pastor looks like, I'm not sure what will.


  • The Story Continues

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 15, 2017


    BY G. TODD WILLIAMS

    G. Todd WilliamsEditor's note: Today's "Thinking Out Loud" blog post is written by G. Todd Williams. Todd (pictured) is a Louisville Seminary alum (MDiv. '99) and is the 2017-2018 president of the Louisville Seminary Alum Board of Directors. He is also a chaplain at Houston Hospice, a nonprofit organization that provides physical, social and spiritual support to individuals with a life-limiting diagnosis, and their loved ones, irrespective of their ethnicity or beliefs.

    A few months ago Michael Jinkins asked if I would be a guest blogger for “Thinking Out Loud.” It didn’t take me long to say “yes,” but it has taken me longer to think about what I would share with the Louisville Seminary community.

    It has been nearly twenty years since I was a student, however, I still consider my life to be filled with new lessons about life and God each day. I am just returning from a weeklong camp with a group of junior high youth from Southeast Texas. Talk about daily life lessons! I was asked to serve as the keynoter for the camp, with our theme being loosely focused on the adventures of Indiana Jones, and scripture being from Lamentations 3:23-24:

    “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”
    While I thought about God’s mercies, and how the word “mercies” is connected to the Hebrew word chesed, I was reminded of what God’s compassion and everlasting covenant of God’s love looked like.

    One of the things that I learned early in my ministry is that being vulnerable invites God’s mercies to be seen and shared.

    I spoke to the youth of an experience I had eight years ago that changed my life completely in a matter of minutes. I was in a terrible auto accident returning from work one day. Within a few days following an accident, I would learn that I had cancer and that I would need to do treatment or I would die within a year.

    There are no words to describe the hopelessness that enters when you suddenly realize that your options involve moments of desperation, regret and pain. While it is easy to embrace the darkness often associated with a diagnosis like cancer, I had to work to see God’s compassion in this situation, even as I lost my job, my home, and sometimes, my faith. There is no amount of theological training that can prepare any of us for all of the moments of our life’s journey.

    As I shared with the group of youth, I discovered that part of me was back on that journey. I thought about the questions that I had asked God, and I suppose that I realized that once again there were simply no answers. I was reminded, and commented, as I read the beginning of Ecclesiastes chapter 3 to the youth one session, that there are times for all things. While that chapter is closed, there are still pages that I revisit from that period of my life.

    I thought about my camp experiences as a youth, and that, like the writer of Ecclesiastes shares, they were times with definitive beginnings and endings. Significant chapters that shaped my life, but also, my cancer experience served as a chapter that forever changed me.

    The significance of the chapters we breathe helps us to understand the importance of God’s presence and the unending availability of God’s mercies in our lives.  Prayerfully I shared that the importance of each chapter, whether good or bad, eventually serves as the means by which we can relate chesed to one another.

    For any of us, the idea of God’s everlasting mercies can sometimes remain a mystery, while our ability to be bearers of that love to one another must prevail.

    As I closed my week out with these youth, I have to admit, I looked into the rearview mirror as I drove away from the camp and asked that God remind me of the newness of each day. That I could close that chapter once more and simply give thanks.

    I hope that each of you may find a way to be the living expression of God’s compassion and love.

    Stay in God’s grip!


  • The Good News: Community and Food at Louisville Seminary

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 08, 2017


    BY STEVE COOK

    Steve CookEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest written by Steve Cook (pictured). Steve is Registrar and Associate Dean of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    Faith traditions and schools share many values in common. Among the most widely shared is a commitment to creating and sustaining community through eating together. Formally or informally, as an expression of belief or not, eating together nourishes people through the development of common bonds and respect for differences and offers the chance to reflect on how time together prepares us for our work in the world. Surely a seminary, of all places, must be attentive to how it promotes the ability to eat, learn, and grow as a community.

    Faith traditions and schools also know how hard it can be, financially, to promote common meals. Put simply, it costs money to equip and staff a cafeteria, and there has to be enough business to justify the expense. The expense/revenue challenge was fully felt at Louisville Seminary when our campus cafeteria service ceased completely in February 2017 after the seminary’s on-site catering company went out of business.

    Consider the above comments as prelude to the good news on which I want to report. I make this report, mind you, not as someone who oversees the cafeteria’s financial stability. I am the seminary’s registrar, and I have never been too aware of our food services budget. Rather, I write as someone who has been blessed by eating with others in religious and educational settings.

    The good news is this: Louisville Seminary is once again eating together because the community values it and wants to make it happen. Further, we have gained a renewed sense of why we eat together and who constitutes our community.

    The first expression of the resolve to maintain community through food occurred because our students took it upon themselves to organize “Loaves and Fishes” lunches every Thursday after the 11:30 a.m. chapel service. In most ways, it was just a weekly potluck. But it soon became apparent that it could reteach all of those raised in the ways of the church potluck just what the tradition means. “What do you have to offer?” we asked ourselves each week. Maybe it was a favorite recipe, or a box of Girl Scout cookies, or nothing at all.

    Each week also brought reminders: Bring whatever you have, and most importantly bring yourself. If you see someone you do not know, meet them and bring them. It’s “Loaves and Fishes” day, and there will be plenty. Our “Loaves and Fishes” lunches were spirited events. While we ate and talked, we did other things, too. We heard each other read aloud during African American Literature Week. We learned from students who returned from January term travel seminars. We were entertained by youth from arts programs supported by our donations to The Fund for the Arts. When the spring semester was over, I was sad to see “Loaves and Fishes” lunches end, but I was proud of our seminary.

    This summer, Louisville Seminary took a new approach to how it could provide meal service five days a week. Having a kitchen staff, employed by the seminary, would be too expensive. Hiring an outside company, which we had effectively done most recently, would not be possible because of our small size. Instead, the seminary invited the New Legacy Reentry Corporation – a community organization that helps ex-offenders overcome barriers to success after incarceration – to use our kitchen for a vocational training and apprenticeship program. While the New Legacy program serves breakfast and lunch at prices they set, they also use the seminary’s kitchen space to fulfill their own contracts (ex. for a city-wide lunch program that helps youth impacted by hunger when school is not in session).

    As the New Legacy Café, the Winn Center cafeteria is open again with new food and friends and with more chances to share meals together. This relationship is already giving our students fresh opportunities to serve as they have volunteered to help deliver summer meals in the local area.  While the New Legacy culinary arts program helps its participants learn new skills, both cooking-related and interpersonal, it provides Louisville Seminary with new ways to live, eat, and learn in community.

    Have you heard the good news? There is community and food at Louisville Seminary. Please come and join us. There is always plenty.


  • Community or Chaos

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 01, 2017


    BY LAKE LAMBERT

    Lake LambertEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is written by Lake Lambert, Ph.D. (pictured) who is president of Hanover College (Hanover, Indiana). He has also served as dean of Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts (Macon, Georgia) and professor of religion and Board of Regents Chair in Ethics at Wartburg College (Waverly, Iowa). Additionally, Lake was the founding director of the Center for Community Engagement, a $2.5 million program funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. His research has focused on workplace spirituality, professional ethics, and church-related higher education. He is the author of Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace (NYU Press 2009).

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 49 years ago in Memphis. The year was 1968. It was a time of incredible tension in our nation and a period when a great political divide was also present. Our nation was divided over an escalating war abroad, protests at home and especially in our cities, a growing awareness of economic inequality, a continued desire to end racism but division over what was still required, a feeling by many in the heartland that a so-called “silent majority” had been ignored, and a feeling there and elsewhere that the American dream was increasingly unattainable.

    Not long before he was shot in 1968—and in the midst of this social and political turmoil—King published his last book. The title seems to speak to both our time, and King used a question as the starting point. The book was entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

    King knew that there could be different answers to the question. The subtitle of his book named the two he could foresee. He said that America and the world could choose chaos or community. I am amazed how this choice still seems to be the one that faces us now—and perhaps it always has been and always will be—but I am also convinced that it is not only a societal and global choice but also a personal and even existential choice as well.

    As individuals, we have before us the choice to make a positive difference in the world, the choice to fashion a life of meaning and purpose in service to others, the choice to nurture bonds of community in multiple settings or the choice to pursue self-interest at all costs, the choice to leave the concerns of community and the world to others, and the choice to deny the entire idea of vocation, meaning and purpose in life apart from the acquisition of personal wealth, power, satisfaction and privilege. As a people, our choice may be community or chaos, but as individuals it seems that our choice is between community or nihilism.

    To describe his vision of community in the book Where Do We Go From Here?, King offered his own parable, the story of a novelist who left at his death the outline for a new story as stated thus: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” King goes on to say:

    "We have inherited a large house, a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who because we can never live apart, must learn how to live with each other in peace" (167).

    Joining King, I would say that we have been given a false choice today between valuing a global community or valuing local community. A liberal arts education has long sought to encourage global perspectives and engagement. We have embraced the Stoic idea of being “cosmopolitans,” literally “citizens of the world.” This is what liberal arts colleges should and must continue to do.

    However, I worry that we may not have done enough to teach the skills and values of local citizenship. Small-town Indiana does not sound as interesting as Brussels or Taipei, and I fear that college students who have been detached from local communities may not be prepared for or even interested in engaging the communities where they find themselves after graduation. I must add that indifference is just another path to chaos.  It is not chaos with a fist or gun but chaos with a shrug.

    As higher education becomes almost exclusively focused on individual career development, church-related liberal arts colleges must stand apart as places for vocational discernment and preparation. An individual’s work can be part of living out that vocation, but it cannot be all of it. Community life is an equally important place of vocational responsibility, and it too requires discernment and preparation. This is a form of institutional vocation and one not without risks. Students and families may conclude that education for citizenship isn’t worth the investment, threatening our financial solvency, and colleges cannot determine the life paths of their graduates, meaning that we may provide skills that can be used just as easily to foster more chaos. No calling is without risk, and even an institution must have a form of faith. We must have hope.


  • On the Repentance of Whiteness

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 25, 2017


    BY MICHAEL LOUDON

    Michael LoudonEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by Michael Loudon (pictured). Michael is a retired professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. He served as acting coordinator of EIU’s African American Studies program from 2006-2008. His research focused on New Zealand writer Patricia Grace; the experience of Pacific Islanders during WW II; South African literature; memoirs from South Sudan; twentieth-century Korean poetry; and the work of poet Kwame Dawes.

    I want first to thank President Jinkins and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for this opportunity to write for “Thinking Out Loud.” Since retiring from university teaching after thirty years and turning to raising cattle in an effort to revive an old family farm in Southern Indiana, I have been blessed to maintain my divergent interests in cattle and academia by participating in the Black Church Studies Consultations over the last three years at Louisville Seminary. This past spring’s consultation on “Mass Incarceration” awakened me once again to the horrifying reality that white supremacy has managed to extend the enslavement of African peoples long past Abolition in the nineteenth century through Jim Crow and segregation, American apartheid, and well into the twenty-first century through the disparities in our criminal justice system.

    Too often we white people are simply oblivious to the ugly underbelly of our own history, which Jim Wallis has written of in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. If you’re white, or think of yourself as white, and haven’t noticed the stunning rise in the number of murders by police officers of black “suspects” in the last few years, then perhaps you are sleeping too deeply during the daylight hours.  Seeing Ava DuVernay’s film 13th at the consultation stirred me to comment in the discussion that followed our viewing of it.

    After I had spoken, probably at too much length, my wife touched my arm and said that I sounded far too angry. I was, and I am, and that is my sin with which I wrestle, for I do not understand fully why white people and especially white Christians are not also outraged at denying themselves their own full humanity and a much greater participation in the unity of Christ than is too often the case not only in our daily lives, but also even in our Sunday morning worship services. To pursue and to address my ignorance, I have, as the weather breaks and pastures and cows need attention, been reading and re-reading Reverend Michael Eric Dyson’s new book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. He reminds me of much that I already know, having taught in Africana Studies for three decades but most persistently driven home by the many hours in conversation with black students in my classes who would stop by my office in the late afternoon to talk—and I am honored to have listened and to have learned from them all those years. As valuable as the scholarship may have been and as much insight as the black voices in literature have offered, those students have been my best teachers.

    They have taught me that whiteness is not a condition of my skin at birth but a cultural construction that I can all too easily accept growing up in white America.  White privilege is a “natural” status that makes my lack of color seem “normal.” Consequently, unlike my students, no one follows me in Wal-Mart up one aisle and down the next suspecting that I am there to shoplift whatever I seek. No one yells a racial slur at me as I walk down the street to campus for my early morning classes assuming I have not earned my admission into the university like every other “normal” student. No one assumes I am teaching among my colleagues as a consequence of affirmative action. No fellow student or professor looks at me with a gaze of probable intellectual inferiority, wondering from the first days of class whether or not I will do my reading and submit my homework. No police officer pulls me over because a white person committed a burglary on the other side of town. No police officer ever stops me because I am white behind the steering wheel. No one inflicts these daily stresses and strains on me because I am “normal,” because I enjoy the four hundred years of white privilege born of institutional and individual white supremacy.

    So how do we white people wake up? Taking Dyson to heart, we need to repent of our whiteness: we can address our ignorance by realizing we do not have to accept the construction of our privilege. We can study the history of all of us in this country—and it doesn’t mean we need to go to school. We can choose what events we attend, we can choose what books we read, and we can choose what films we watch. We can choose to give a person five minutes in conversation to begin to know that person rather than falling prey to the invisibility of white blindness that fails to see a person precisely because of the visibility of her skin. We can choose to listen to a man because we see him clearly as a fellow human being.

    But those gestures are far from enough. We can tear open our own whiteness and expose its lies, we can reject our too often unconscious privilege and we can begin to heal ourselves by addressing our white guilt and the grieving that accompanies it. Doing so permits us to see how easily we construct an awkwardly deceptive innocence that drives us further away from the unity in Christ. We can forgive ourselves, through our repentance, and we can seek the redemption offered not only by Jesus, but also from the many black people who have extended it to us, whether we have noticed or not, through exceptional  tolerance, generosity and compassion across the centuries of the brutality inflicted by white supremacy. We can seek to transform our anger at this pervasive racial injustice into love. We can go to work.

    For help, I have turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. She reminds me of the African concept of Ubuntu, the sense that I cannot be fully human without you being fully human. I cannot realize my humanity unless I permit you to realize your own. You cannot see my face until I see yours.

    Will you go to work to repent of your whiteness along with me? Will you work through white guilt and denial, rejecting a false innocence that diminishes us all? Will you help me in transforming my anger into love?  
    _____________________________________________________

    Ava DuVernay, dir. 13th Netflix, 2016.
    Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
    Martha C. Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 228).
    Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Brazos Press, 2016).


  • Radical Hospitality

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 18, 2017


    Steve YoungBY STEVE YOUNG
    Editor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by Steve Young (pictured), executive director of Living Waters for the World, a Christian ministry that provides sustainable clean water, emphasizing relationships between volunteers and community partners. He is also a documentary filmmaker, guitar player, songwriter, husband and father of two. His blog, “Living in the Flow,” is available at https://livingintheflow.wordpress.com/.

    We were temporary residents of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, in the fall of 2008, halfway through our two-month stay to adopt our first child, Lily Grace. Our interpreter, Julia, was a godsend, helping us navigate the many conversations required each day, translating from Russian to English and back again. Along the way, we began to get to know more about this bright young woman, who had learned English to make a better life for herself and her family.

    When we learned that she still lived at home with her parents, we decided to invite the three of them out to dinner – it seemed like the least we could do. Julia was stunned, as apparently no one had ever done this before. We had a wonderful evening in a local pub, getting to know her father, Slava, a driver for a bank executive, her mother, Sveta, an administrative assistant, and sharing stories, hopes and dreams.

    Radical HospitalityWeeks passed, and finally the time to leave Kazakhstan was drawing near. One morning, Julia greeted us with, “My family would like to invite you to have dinner with us this Sunday before you leave, if that would be okay.” We were touched by the invitation and enthusiastically accepted.

    Sunday arrived, and we bundled up 10-month-old Lily Grace to make the drive through the snow and ice to the small apartment in a Soviet-era high-rise where Julia had lived with her parents all her life. When we walked in, we were warmly greeted by Julia, her parents – and her aunt, cousin and grandparents.

    Rounding the corner, our jaws dropped. A table had been beautifully set and could barely contain all the bowls and platters of food, many Kazakhstani specialties among them. The family had begun cooking the day before, providing the best they had to celebrate with us.

    We were overcome with emotion by this extravagant demonstration of hospitality, deepening bonds between new friends.

    In a world so divided, how does this happen? How do bridges get built in spite of it all?

    The Rev. Todd Jenkins, a Living Waters for the World volunteer leader, shares that the practice of “radical hospitality” as demonstrated by Jesus to those he encountered is “an invitation to deliberation and depth in relationship; a hospitality that allows our guests to be the focus of everything that we do.”

    Our Living Waters partners strive to do this at every step along the way, in the warm embrace, the negotiated covenant, creating a banner of handprints and yes, even in the construction of a water system.

    The opportunities lie around every corner. Soon to be nine years ago, strangers from the other side of the world became friends, sharing bonds of love in the context of hospitality. Today, Julia is married with a little girl of her own – some of those shared hopes and dreams fulfilled.

    This day and every day, with loved ones near and far, may you experience and practice the radical hospitality made possible by God’s grace.


  • Sources of Spiritual Wisdom

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 11, 2017


    Upcoming Special Series of Blogs


    Spiritual WisdomAs readers of the "Thinking Out Loud" blog will be aware by now, next year (2017-2018) is my last academic year as president of Louisville Seminary, following which I will enjoy a year of terminal sabbatical. Thus next year will be the final year of this blog as well.

    During the coming year, it is my intention to continue the Tuesday blog on a variety of subjects as always, but the Friday blogs (on alternating weeks) will reflect on what I consider to be the most significant sources for Christian spirituality.

    The purpose of this series will be to explore classics from the Desert Fathers to Lady Julian of Norwich, including familiar resources such as the venerable Thomas à Kempis and the relatively less-familiar such as The Cloud of Unknowing and Meister Eckhart.

    As anyone who has spent time with the writings of Thomas Merton knows, the spiritual life goes hand-in-glove with a life committed to practices of love, compassion and justice. Far from leading to quietism, dedication to prayer, contemplating and meditation open one up to the suffering of others and call upon the individual to seek to serve others practically and actively.

    My hope is that readers will discover at least one or two significant new sources with whom they would like to continue to spend quality time. I can say from experience that a year invested in contemplation of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love or Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ can be life-changing. And I would be willing to predict that some of the best surprises await discovering a writer whom you have never read before, maybe you haven't even heard of yet.

    I hope you'll join me for this special series on alternating Fridays next year as we close out eight years of "Thinking Out Loud." In case you're wondering about the Tuesday blogs, as usual, I haven't the foggiest idea of where they will go yet.


  • Owner's Manual of the Republic

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 04, 2017


    Constitution

    First there was discontent. Then came a Declaration of Independence. This we celebrate on the Fourth of July. A war followed, then the Articles of Confederation which proved to lack the unifying power needed for the new nation. Finally, there emerged The Constitution of the United States, a document which has at least two things in common with the Christian Bible: (1) It is far more often talked about than read; (2) It is most often used to support ideas its champions already believe. (Those parts of it that contradict its champions' views are usually ignored.)

    When the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia advocated some years ago that every school in our country should devote a day to celebrating the United States Constitution, I happily signed on. Why? Because I believe that this document is the Owner's Manual of the Republic.

    Most often we think of it, if we think of it at all, as containing the Bill of Rights, which is a set of constitutional guarantees in the form of the first ten amendments. A Baptist minister (a member, at that time, of a small, outlier and minority brand of Protestant Christianity) was among the most vocal advocates for the Bill of Rights, especially the freedom of religion. The first amendment requires that the federal government not establish its own favorite religion or religious institutions and that the government not intervene in the religious practices of its people. This amendment holds even if the religion in question appears strange or repugnant to the majority or is practiced by only a small handful of people. This same amendment also guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom to petition the federal government to redress grievances. If these first ten amendments had not been part of the package, the Constitution would not have been ratified by the states.

    Again, we usually think of the Constitution in terms of the freedoms it enshrines, especially through the Bill of Rights. But it also enshrines responsibilities and obligations, principles of self-governance and virtues of citizenship, assumptions about human nature, a commitment to the common good, and the need for and benefits of government.

    Famously, the Constitution provides for a balance of powers (checks and balances) among the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the government and appropriate limits on official powers, but it also embodies the assumption of competing values. It assumes, in other words, that even very high values stand in relationship to other values. It is suspicious of any value that attempts to claim an absolute position over other values. The Constitution is a living thing, trembling with life and with tensions. Thus, I have freedom of speech but that freedom is not absolute. It is balanced by the rights of others. Given this fact, as has often been said, I am not entitled to endanger the lives of others by shouting fire in a crowded movie theater. The same tension exists among all the rights guaranteed in the constitution.

    Someone (I think G.K. Chesterton) once observed that Americans are big on preserving their freedom to speak, but notoriously lax about exercising their freedom to think. That's worth pondering, particularly in light of the mindless and vicious squabbles our politics engenders these days.

    What sets our Constitution apart from so many others is its genius for assumptions, including its assumption that it is as fallible as the human beings who framed it, who offer amends to it, who govern using it and are governed by it. From the very beginning the Constitution assumed that it did not represent the last word on many issues of national, even universal, importance. This is why the process for amending the Constitution was baked into the original document.

    Most owner's manuals make certain assumptions. The manufacturer of my car assumes I will not want it breaking down on a lonely highway far from help. So the manufacturer assumes that I will be intelligent enough to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" the car's owner's manual, at least the section about getting regular service. The deeper assumption behind this assumption is that enlightened self-interest motivates me because I live in a rational world. This is not a safe assumption. I know many people who have never cracked open the owner's manual to their car and only become curious about maintenance when the "check engine light" comes on.

    There is a similar flaw woven into the fabric of the assumptions guiding our republic's owner's manual. The manufacturers of our republic knew from the beginning that a republican form of government, which is the kind of liberal democracy we inherited, requires the governed to invest time and effort into understanding how the whole thing works and some energy into maintaining the thing. This means more than just popping the hood to check the oil periodically.

    One of my most formative memories was watching the late Barbara Jordan of Texas, then a member of the House Judiciary Committee, during the closing chapters of the Nixon era. With a cadence borrowed from Winston Churchill and a moral heart shaped by the Old Testament prophets she had heard preached in her father's pulpit, Barbara spoke in the impeachment hearings on July 25, 1974. I still recall standing in the television room of our college dormitory witnessing the events unfold. You may be able to quote her from memory: "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution." The constitution assumes this kind of active investment on our part: rational, moral, more committed to the common good than to personal interests and private gain.

    During that awful time, as I watched the first president for whom I had ever voted leave office in shame, I recall being profoundly sad. But, however sad I felt to witness this national tragedy, I also felt proud of my country and its leaders.

    The Owner's Manual of the Republic saw us through. God knows it isn't perfect. Like all human inventions, it has had its failures and has reflected our devils and not just our better angels. But it saw us through. And I believe it will continue to do its job. But it will be able to do its job only to the degree that we fulfill our obligations and responsibilities as citizens.

    So, this Fourth of July, let's not just celebrate our independence. Let's celebrate our interdependence. And let's celebrate the document that still makes it possible for us to live together as a people.
    _________________
    The winners of the Grawemeyer Award in Education this year is particularly interesting in the context of teaching responsible citizenship in our public schools. I hope you'll take a look at it: Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (New York: Routledge, 2015).


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