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Thinking Out Loud
  • Our Original Vocation

    by Michael Jinkins | May 22, 2018

    Original VocationThe first thing we learn in the Bible about God is that God is Creator. This seems to be God’s vocation.

    And one of the first things we learn about humanity is that we are gardeners. It seems that this may be our original vocation.

    This came to mind recently as I was searching for a response to someone I met at a local gardening center who asked me, “So, is gardening your hobby?” After a long pause, during which I tried not to appear too awkward, I answered, “I suppose.” But the longer I thought about it, the less true my response seemed.

    When I was a child I had several hobbies. I put together model cars, for example, a fact that has led to a lifelong love affair with great cars. I collected comic books and read them voraciously, and I still love the stories and images of the great comic writers and artists who gave us memorable heroic characters. I think it is natural, by the way, to connect the word “hobby” with the word “love.” The purest sense of an amateur is one who engages in something purely out of love. And so many of our hobbies are expressions of the spirit of the amateur. But not all.

    Gardening, for instance. Gardening is not a hobby. Gardening goes much deeper.

    There’s something about the humus that makes us human. We came from the soil. We return to the soil. And, in between, we are nourished by the soil. And if we are very fortunate, we get to cultivate the soil.

    I come from a long, long line of farmers. I grew up on a farm in deep East Texas, in an area my family was farming when Texas was still Mexico. Subsistence farming with a little left over to sell, mind you, not corporate farming.

    My grandfather turned the soil behind a big mule, gee-ing and haw-ing down row after row with me tripping over the clods of dark soil right behind him and that mule. Years later we got a tractor. That’s how I learned to drive at ten years old.

    We lived by the rhythms of the seasons, the rhythms of the soil, the yin and yang of emptiness and plenty, rest and endeavor; early summer crops gave way to late season, fields left fallow in the fall, fields invested with manure, then left to mature, fields over which we sweated again in the spring from dawn to dark. Year after year.

    We didn’t just garden to eat. We gardened for the sake of beauty. My grandmother’s house was surrounded by flower beds, festooned with zinnias, sunflowers, petunias, irises (my favorite), gladioli (her favorite) and roses, blooming bushes like bridal wreaths and flowering trees like red buds. Half my memories of my grandmother are of when she has a hoe in her hand hacking away at those darned weeds.

    A garden requires work. But not necessarily toil. Work bears fruit.

    A few days ago, at the end of a day in my garden, I sat down on the porch to have a cold drink (never you mind what of) and to survey what I had accomplished that day. And, perhaps, this is the most important aspect of our original vocation, the thing that separates gardening from a hobby however much you love your hobby, the thing that guarantees that, however hard we have to work at it, we are renewed by this work and never burned-out by it. You see, as the experts in such things will tell us, burnout is never simply the result of hard work, not even lots and lots of hard work. Burnout is the tragic product of incessant toil that seems in vain.

    This is why even when a gardener is having to replant perennials after an exceptionally cold winter has killed some of her most beloved plants, the gardener is glad for the excuse to go back to the nursery to choose new plants, glad to pull out the dead, glad to enrich the soil again with rich homemade compost, glad to dig new holes and plant and cultivate again. The promise ultimately is worth the work.

    Adam and Eve, those soiled children of the earth, longed to participate in the thrill of the Creator. Gardening is in our bones, just as creating is in God’s.

  • President's Charge to Graduating Seniors

    by Michael Jinkins | May 15, 2018

    I am haunted by something I saw almost exactly a week ago, something I might easily have missed: Just a scrap of paper with a short message on it, which read:

    “God Please Help Me.”

    MaryThe scrap of paper, hardly three inches square, was somewhat crumpled, as though someone had held it in their hands, perhaps their hands clasped in prayer. Whomever wrote the note had left it at a statue of the Virgin Mary in the small chapel beside the church at Gethsemani Abbey.

    There were some other people on retreat at the abbey last week while I was there for silent retreat. As I looked at the note I wondered which of them might have written it. I am fairly certain it was one from the group on retreat. I had been by the statue earlier and didn’t see the note, and not many other people had visited the abbey on that rainy day when the Kentucky Derby was being run in Louisville.

    Could it have been the young woman I saw visiting with one of the staff just after lunch, worry chiseled in her face? What could have driven her to open her heart? Had unpaid bills piled up, collection agencies hounded her, working full-time but still unable to make ends meet for her and her child?

    Could it have been the elderly man who struggled to his feet every time we sang the doxology, almost never making it up till we were well into “world without end, Amen”? But always, always trying.

    Could it be the wife of a soldier at Fort Knox, a young husband deployed now in Afghanistan? There was that woman who arrived first and left last from every prayer service.

    Melanie HardisonSomeone’s crying Lord, the song says. Someone’s praying. Someone’s begging God for help.

    Suffering assumes many shapes. Substance abuse. Spousal abuse. Sexual abuse. Traumas abound. Had someone just received a seemingly hopeless diagnosis? Had someone gotten a frantic call from a friend whose husband has been picked up by immigration agents? What loss, what danger, what sorrow, what need lies behind that message left before the statue of Jesus’ mother, the woman who prayed the most revolutionary prayer ever, the Magnificat.

    All we know is this: Sometimes there seem to be more dead ends than thoroughfares in life. And caught in one of those dead ends, someone wrote a prayer: “God Please Help Me.”

    They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I don’t know, there may be. But I would never want to diminish the faith of anyone in a foxhole anywhere who cries out for God’s help. It is significant, I think, that every prayer service in a Trappist monastery like Gethsemani, begins with the same antiphonal response: “God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”

    “God Please Help Me.”

    DMin gradsWhen I found the note with its plea to God, not knowing who had written it, I prayed, there and then, that God would help the person who wrote it. They asked for God’s help, and I wanted to join the chorus, because I’m sure that others on retreat also saw that note and also prayed.

    I wished I could have prayed with whomever had left the note, that I could have listened to them, that I could have done something. The note immediately throws me into problem-solving mode, and I don’t even know if what the person is facing is a problem, or something considerably more difficult. In moments like that I try to remember what my CPE supervisor said to me in seminary: “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”

    So I stood there, my hand on the note, and I prayed that God would help them. I also prayed that they would reach out for help from someone who will, in the name of God, be there with them because so many times in life the thing we most need is not a solution but a companion.

    That’s where you come in, graduates.

    My charge is really more of a series of open-ended questions, but here goes:
    If our note-writer makes his or her way to your door, will you be there for them? Will you stop what you are doing, and be there for them? Will you lay aside the important work in which you are engaged, and be there for them? Will you realize that ministry happens in the cracks between our plans, and be there for them?

    Well, maybe, I do have a charge after all: Graduating Class of 2018, be there for them.

  • The Power to Form and Deform

    by Michael Jinkins | May 08, 2018

    Form and DeformI have been actively involved in writing apologetics in defense of theological education for over thirty years. My first such essay was for the The Times of London, in the nineteen-eighties, when, under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, subjects such as theology, philosophy, and ethics were under fire in the great universities of Great Britain.

    Thirty years on, I am still an apologist for theological education, though a chastened one. The longer I have served in the world of higher education, the more clearly have I seen its blind spots and failings as well as the great good it does. In particular, today, I am reflecting on the ability of the theological school to form and to deform its students. At times I am in awe of the power for good which theological education holds, but I have become progressively fearful of this power. Perhaps it is sensible to be both.

    On one hand, we all recognize the extraordinary power of a theological school to form persons for ministries of care, ministries in which your first thoughts must be for others, for the community as a group, and, yes, the community as an institution. We recognize also that ministers and counselors have a distinctive responsibility for the individuals in the community, each with their own experiences, needs and concerns. Only secondarily can a minister think of himself or herself. The vocation demands an uncomfortable degree of love for others. Theological schools have a sacred duty, often performed very well, to prepare people to engage in vocations of Christian ministry. Theological schools, especially free-standing seminaries like ours, have the power to help form a world of habits and virtues, along with instilling essential knowledge and wisdom, in those who care for others.

    On the other hand, however, theological schools have unrivaled power to deform those in their care. This deforming may fall into the obvious category of propagandizing rather than educating. Or it may take more subtle forms, such as using techniques of favoring and ignoring, rewarding and punishing students who either conform to the teacher’s perspective or do not. Amazingly, Pavlov’s bells still make graduate students salivate on cue, sit, lie down, play dead, or bite. When students are formed merely to take on the fashionable values and causes of academia, no matter how good those values and causes may be, rather than to think for themselves, their deformity will affect the church and society adversely, and will only further alienate communities of faith from legitimate scholarship.

    “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”
    I recall one cold winter’s night when two faculty colleagues, a distinguished visiting scholar, and I huddled by a fire, drinks in hand, discussing the purposes of theological education. We listened as our visitor, a senior colleague, brilliant and widely-respected, explained to us that every teacher secretly wants every student to become just like him or her. The joy of teaching lies, he said, in watching the most gifted become like us.

    My colleagues and I immediately rushed to say, “No.”

    To which our distinguished guest said, “You are fooling only yourselves.”

    His argument is not a superficial argument, nor an unworthy one. Throughout history teachers have had gifted disciples who have shared their values and causes and made extraordinary contributions to society and church. But, here’s the rub: the greatness of such disciples does not correspond to the degree they conform to their teacher’s ideology, but to the degree they share their teacher’s passion for knowledge and commitment to think and act for themselves.

    The deforming of a generation of students can be as simple as the change that has occurred in the lives of so many candidates for ministry who arrive at seminary from communities where wealth and education are in short supply. Along with theological knowledge, these seminarians often also acquire a whole range of cultural affectations that make it difficult or even impossible for them ever to return to be effective ministers in the communities that produced them and sent them off to school.

    The late Will Campbell often spoke of a process of sophisticating (in contrast to educating) that alienates a preacher from his or her roots; thus Campbell (a graduate of Yale Divinity School) once famously said that the form his love took as a preacher was not to transcend his people (in the farming country of mid-Tennessee). There is at work in theological education such a thing as a “seduction of the spirit,” to recall Harvey Cox’s phrase, the temptation to regard the acquisition of knowledge to become our goal, when the end of theological education is not the mere growth of our knowledge, but our perfection in love.

    The deforming can take on explicitly political tones in some schools (whether of the left or the right) so much so that students come to equate the gospel of Jesus Christ with the “cause du jour.” These students, upon graduation, either may be called by congregations that share their views, thus contributing to the echo chamber that is the American political and social scene of today. Or they may be called by congregations who, seeking a minister who will love them into the gracious reign of God, discover instead that they have recruited an activist and advocate for a variety of social causes who will blame them for every ill and expect them to foot the bill.

    We live in a fallen world. And there’s not one scrap of it that isn’t infected with sin, even our best motives and greatest commitments. No surprise, then, that the pervasive unsatisfactoriness in creation of which sages have spoken for centuries should extend to theological schools and churches. Given our desire, however, somehow to reflect the character of the Christ who calls us and whose Spirit lives in us, we cannot simply surrender to our own impulses to deform.

    Theological schools are a great gift to the church and to society, not least as they seek to carry out their mission of formation. But it is worthwhile for us to be mindful of the apostle’s words, spoken to everyone who follows Christ but especially appropriate to theological teachers, to preachers, pastors, counselors and other ministers who hold in their hands the power to form and deform.

    “I urge you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans, 12:1-2, NAB)

  • Bearing Witness

    by Michael Jinkins | May 01, 2018

    bearing witness 2Periodically someone will argue that seminaries ought to have courses on bearing personal witness, the most basic form of evangelism. The argument reveals an anxiety, chiefly about the decline in numbers sitting in pews on Sunday mornings. I have become convinced that the anxiety itself prevents us from seeing the real concern.

    We talk about that which we love, about that which changes us, about that which gives us joy and hope. For example, I did not need a course in talking about my grandchildren. All I had to do was meet them the day each was born. I fell in love with each of them. I adore them, take delight in them, and find in them an endless supply of stories. They changed my life in unexpected ways. I will bore you to death talking about them. Unless you also have grandchildren, you will think me mad because I talk about them so much.

    It isn’t hard to talk about grandchildren. In fact, it is hard not to do so. If a grandparent doesn’t have to throttle himself or herself, and use every restraint they can muster not to pull out the photos for every passing stranger, the problem isn’t with his or her communication skills. Bearing witness to the love we have for our grandchildren is natural.

    Why, then, do so many Christians find it hard to talk about their faith?

    I’m tempted to end this blog right now with the words, “for those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” I’ve already answered the question. I think I’ll give into that temptation, and stop right here.

  • A Spirituality of Ephemera

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 24, 2018

    A Spirituality of EphemeraIf you’ve ever watched the "Antiques Roadshow" you will be familiar with the category of ephemera. These are items such as posters, concert programs, book jackets, and photographs, often made of paper, which are particularly susceptible to the ravages of environment and time. They can be quite valuable.

    A first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is rare, but if the book still has its original dust jacket in good condition it is far more valuable.* Baseball cards from long-forgotten teams and players (forgotten by all but the most diehard memorabilia junkies) are more valuable than those I kept in a cigar box as a kid, and much more so than the cards my grandchildren might collect (if they still collect baseball cards).

    Recently, I was thinking about ephemera and the ephemeral, when my mind turned to my favorite biblical book, Koheleth (aka Ecclesiastes). It so happened that I was sitting in the den looking at our garden in full spring bud. My view was further enhanced by a beautiful Phalaenopsis orchid, a gift from one of our trustees when my father died almost two years ago. For some reason this spring the orchid has taken off and is blooming promiscuously.

    I was struck by the ephemeral character of everything, absolutely everything, I was looking at. I was also struck by its incalculable beauty and value.

    Koheleth, of course, brims over with what you might call ephemera consciousness, so much so that it has provoked some people to say that it does not share the spirit of the gospels.

    “A puff of air, a fleeting sigh, just the whisper of a breath: such is life,” says the sage who gave us Koheleth. That’s what the Hebrew says in that word we translate into English in this context as “vanity.” {In a couple of weeks, I plan to revisit this chapter of Ecclesiastes again, by the way.}

    The garden beyond my window shows not only the tender shoots of spring but the ravages of last winter. The gains come, but losses preceded them. The leaves that turned to mulch, that decomposed into elemental minerals and found their way to hungry roots stare back at me slyly from their previous perches on the branches. The new life is vital, bursting forth in every shade of green, blossoms from tulip trees, dogwood, redbud trees abound, but as full of life as all of this is, it is also so fragile.

    My domestic Phalaenopsis in the den waxes and wanes, from a cascade of blooms to naked stalks, then blooms again. If I water it too much (just two jiggers of tepid water once a week!) it will flounder. If too little, eventually it will die. Even its pale white blooms remind me of life’s fragility. Gossamer light, the slightest sigh ruffles them.

    In the face of the ephemeral, one is compelled to ask: what makes something valuable? It is a question as old as life itself.

    Is life cheapened by its brevity, less meaningful because of its fragility? Or is the fleeting all the more precious because of its ephemeral character?

    Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, in a fascinating Dharma talk on the subject of eating brown rice (yes, you heard me right: eating brown rice), describes the process by which the food we eat becomes us. He says: “When we digest food completely, what will become of it? It will be transformed, changing its chemical nature, and will permeate our whole body. In the process it dies within our body. To eat and digest food is natural to us, as we are always changing.”

    “This organic process,” Suzuki Roshe said, is called ‘emptiness.’”

    The concept of “emptiness” is one of the most tenacious and puzzling in all of Buddhism. And it has a great deal in common not only with Koheleth (as we might expect), but also with Christianity (which we might not have expected). Obviously, the concept of emptiness in Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity (and within different traditions of each) varies greatly and is subject to its own changeableness depending on the historical and philosophical contexts in which it is considered. But there are echoes among these philosophical and faith traditions; there is deep resonance that can only be denied by shutting one’s eyes.

    “The reason we call it emptiness,” Suzuki Roshe continues his thought, “is that it has no special form. It has some form, but that form is not permanent. While it is changing, it carries on our life energy. We know that we are empty,” writes Suzuki Roshe, “and also that this earth is empty. The forms are not permanent.”

    Koheleth meditates on the folly and futility of clinging to that which does not last, the emptiness of all that comes and goes. Koheleth does so without sentimentality. He does so with courage and dispassion. And although some have found Koheleth devoid of good news, I find in this sacred book a sense of restfulness, peace, and wholeness in the face of reality.

    This is, we believe, God’s world, shot through with joy and sorrow, love and loss. I don’t know about you, but even with its pain, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the thrill of just being alive for awhile.

    Even as we sing our praises to God, “world without end, Amen,” we know that all our little worlds end. One generation is born as another dies. One kingdom arises as another falls. The sun sets; the sun also rises.

    The gospels tell us that God not only created this world, but in Christ, entered into its changing nature. Christ, though having the very form of God, emptied himself and became human. Christ was born. Christ matured. Christ died. These facts among other facts of history represent the original and essential scandal of Christianity.

    What shocked so many in the ancient world was not the idea that a god could rise from death, but that God could die. The most famous early heresies of the early church originated in paying God a mistaken metaphysical compliment. Those who committed these heresies said that God is utterly immutable, God is utterly changeless. They imported from Greek philosophical thought an idea which they applied to the God of the Bible because, from their perspective, to say that God is mutable, that God can change, is to say that God, along with all material things, will rot. This was so offensive to these early Christians, that many of them, like Arius, said that Jesus Christ could not have shared the same quality of being as God. Orthodox Christianity, by contrast, dove off into the most radical theological territory imaginable. God didn’t just dress up in a human costume. God became flesh and blood, suffered and died.

    As we live in the afterglow of Eastertide, I invite us to linger a little longer beside a tomb. Jesus, our liturgy tells us, sanctified the grave by his presence in it. Not even in the grave are we separated from God. God lives there, and to enter there is to live in God, in the fullness of God, in the perfect emptiness of God.

    * If you’re wondering what’s the most valuable first edition of a fictional work on offer these days, incidentally; it is James Joyce’s Ulysses (published in 1922 by Shakespeare & Company, Paris). It will set you back right at $200,000.

  • Apologia Pro Vita Sua

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 17, 2018

    ApologiaI’ve been thinking a lot about the Reverend John Henry Newman lately. And once I hopped aboard that train of thought, I took it to the last station on the line.

    T.S. Eliot, I believe, described Newman as a spectral figure moving among the ancient columns and fixtures of the University Church of St. Mary, Oxford, more of heaven than of earth about him. The key figure behind one of the greatest ecclesiastical movements of nineteenth-century England, seeking to restore Catholic spirituality to the English Church, seemed entirely too immaterial to have sparked the debates, arguments and divisions that trailed in his wake. As Vicar of St. Mary, Newman inspired many to restore the rituals and spirituality that the Anglican Church had jettisoned; and, later, he motivated many others to follow him into the Roman Catholic Church.

    Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons are still in print, and can still move one as profoundly as they did Eliot and Matthew Arnold. Newman placed his stamp on higher education as well as on high church. And he wrote one of the most influential spiritual autobiographies of all time, his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a defense of his life. The title suggests that the decisions he made and the spiritual path he chose required some sort of defense in his homeland. Newman was the great "seeker" of the nineteenth-century church.

    Again I don't really know why, but lately I have been thinking a lot about Newman. As long as I can remember, I have admired him: the sanctity of his life, the beauty of his writing, and the courage of his convictions. Eliot said that prayer and poetry arise from the same place. Newman's great prayer of farewell to life confirms this observation. Generations of Presbyterian ministers have stood by countless gravesides committing those we love with Newman's prayer, our eyes opened to the lengthening shadows, our ears attuned to the hush of this busy world, our hearts sensing the breaking of that fever that afflicts our lives. That prayer alone would have been enough in my view to guarantee his place in the history of the church's letters and liturgy.

    But as I have thought about him lately, it has been in connection with the autobiography for which he is known, his "apologia," because I have become more and more convinced that our lives cannot be defended: not to other people (such would be an act of foolish vanity); and not to God (because God does not seek a defense from us, only the desire of the heart that we may return to his embrace and live in his love).

    This is where every earthly religion (and all religions, I am convinced, are earthly, the products of well-meaning human beings living at various historical moments) departs from the way of life to which Jesus of Nazareth invites us.

    Please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that religions are necessarily bad. But neither are they necessarily good. They can be good, bad, or indifferent. But they do seem inevitable, given human nature.

    Human beings are a mishmash of good and bad and indifferent. And so are their religions. Religions can lift us up, inspire us to be better, be more compassionate and be seekers of peace. But they are often merciless in demanding that adherents conform to the behavioral standards of a culture, which are assumed to be consistent with and determined by God, even when inspired by our lowest motives.

    Religions are often pitiless in judging those who do not adhere to these very human standards. In virtually all religions, judgment between righteousness and unrighteousness is viewed as a sort of prerogative that descends from God to the faithful of that religion. Behaviors of all sorts can be judged, from “proper” liturgical rules to personal morality to corporate ethics. There is virtually no human virtue that has not been sacrificed in the name of religion.

    Of course, when I make these points, I’m not saying anything any of us don’t know. Religions abound, religions of the left and religions of the right, religions that promise Utopias and religions that are fully apocalyptic and are only looking for the exit from history.

    One doesn’t even have to have a god to have a religion. A comprehensive worldview rigorously enforced will do (remember, for example, the Communism and Fascism that both flourished in the mid-twentieth century, the former of which offered a sweeping eschatology for the sake of which any present evil could be justified, the latter substituting the state and the national leader for the divine, and a false mythology of race for the gospel).

    Religions love symbols, rituals (including, ironically, apparently non-ritualistic rituals and non-credal confessions). Religions love sacrifices, sometimes the bloodier the better. And they tend to vest authority in their sacred books, codes and officials (even when these officials give every appearance of spurning authority).

    What often throws us off, however, is our confusion of religions (good, bad or indifferent, sick or healthy) with God. And this is where Jesus comes in most prophetically.

    Jesus didn’t confuse religion with God. He didn't even confuse his own religion (Judaism) with God. His most radical teachings (and, frankly, most of his teaching were and remain pretty radical) told us that God, the Master of the Universe, the Un-named “I Am,” is not the private patron of any tribe or people or nation, nor is God the divine legitimator of our cultural standards, norms and codes.

    God is a peculiar sort of king, according to Jesus, who seeks to reign inside us. God is a wholly other kind of parent who runs out to meet us and forgive us however far we have roamed, however undeserving we are, or however much we have tried to make him suffer. And what holds us together in whatever “community” we make up is not a common religion, a common liturgy, a common book, a common moral code, or a common set of beliefs or common values, but God’s own mercy which has no limits.

    We don’t need to defend our spiritual lives to each other. No apologia pro vita sua is necessary, nor really possible. God doesn’t seem to take any note of the babbling of the prodigals who run down the path to their Father’s house.

    Which brings me back to that unlikely and unworldly spectral figure with whom I began, the Reverend John Henry Newman. Ultimately, Newman knew that no “apologia” was required for him either, and that no defense of his life really mattered. The only judgment that mattered belonged to God. And God's judgment is mercy. This remarkable man who charted a course beyond the Anglican Church that had nurtured him and into the folds of a Roman Catholicism which, despite bestowing the title of Cardinal on him, never really took him to heart, knew that as the shadows lengthen, as the busy world is hushed, when the fever of life is ending, there's only one to whom we turn, and that one is all love, all grace, all truth, all mercy.

    Thanks be to God.

  • C.S. Lewis as Spiritual Director

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 10, 2018

    LionMy relationship with C.S. Lewis has long been if not a love-hate relationship at least a love-disappointment one. From youth I've read him; eventually I introduced my children to him through The Chronicles of Narnia. Not only have I taught courses on him, but have made pilgrimages to his home, his church, his grave, and his colleges at Oxford and Cambridge.

    My disappointment with him primarily relates to his apologetical writings. Far too glib, too superficial, too rationalistic, too narrow: these writings often try to browbeat the reader into Christian faith, ignoring the fact that this was not the way Lewis himself came to faith, not really. Lewis came to faith through the illumination of his imagination, not simply through rationalistic argument.

    Lewis could be a bully in debates. That's hard to love. The story goes that being trounced soundly in a debate about Christianity by Elizabeth Anscombe (a brilliant philosopher and student of Ludwig Wittgenstein whose Christian Faith was far from simplistic) Lewis largely turned away from apologetics and toward writing those beautiful works of imagination, which win us with their wonder more than the force of reason alone. Whether that story is true, it is the very human Lewis that I love, the Lewis who adores George MacDonald, that universalist preacher from Aberdeenshire whose fairy tales have never been bested. As disappointing as Lewis sometimes is as an apologist for Christian faith, he is matchless as a sort of literary spiritual director.

    I believe that it is because Lewis is a theologically perceptive lay person that he writes so well about the spiritual life. He is not a professional theologian, but an expert in late medieval and Renaissance literature. Thus, when he takes up the subject of the Psalms, he is capable of articulating precisely the kinds of questions biblical scholars are less inclined to spill ink over. Indeed, were he writing about a literary subject he would not give himself permission to speak as freely or personally as he does when writing about faith. As Lewis himself says: “I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.”

    Lewis, a very private man in many ways, opens up in the writing of perhaps his least read (and, I think, most wonderful) book, Till We Have Faces. Lewis seems liberated to become more vulnerable in this book, I suspect, because it is a retelling of a pagan story. In these pages he allows himself to say things that his orthodoxy might otherwise have censored.

    On the surface Lewis is relating the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche, but in reality it is something altogether different, a plumbing of depths, a stripping away of detritus and untruth, a relentless excavation of the human spirit. Toward the close of this book, there is a paragraph that rivals anything Thomas Merton ever wrote about the plight of the "false self." Here it is in full:

    “When the time comes to you when you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think they mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

    Readers are drawn through the narrative to find themselves in the story, to locate themselves in the character who eventually speaks these words.

    To read this book with empathy is to engage in the most profound spiritual direction. A person can have many faults as a writer, a teacher and a human being, but if he can find it in him to strip away the nonsense and misdirection and lies to be as true as Lewis is in this book, one has to love him. And to listen.

  • Seeing in the Dark - Part Two

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 03, 2018

    Seeing in the Dark Part TwoCompline is my favorite service of the day. This is true, I suspect, for many people.

    The music, even when awkwardly sung by less than the most musically gifted monks, is hauntingly beautiful. But it is not the music alone that makes this service my favorite of the day.

    The service ends with the blessing of the abbot, who sprinkles us with water in remembrance of our baptism, as we enter the Grand Silence and are sent off to our rooms to rest. But this is not what makes this my favorite service.

    What makes this last service of the day my favorite is the fact that for much of the year the greater part of this service happens in the dark. Like a blanket the darkness wraps around us. The darkness holds us in a sacred embrace. It promises rest. It promises silence. It promises to show us that which is invisible to the glare of day.

    There is a moment, toward the close of Compline, when the minimal artificial light allowed throughout most of the service is turned off entirely. At that moment, the only light in the sanctuary comes from two small candles beneath the icon of Mary and the infant Jesus. In partial light one only vaguely notices the icon before the dousing of the lights. In the darkness it is unignorable. Surrounded by darkness the icon glows as from within. Jeweled colors, gold highlights, and ebony shadows capture your vision – colors so deep and rich you do not so much see them as sink into them.

    Many times after Compline, I will walk out into the naked darkness of the night, out from the monastery and the church to the top of a nearby hill where the stars may be shining on a clear night or where an even more profound darkness will surround me on a cloudy night, and I will sit on a bench listening to the sounds of the night.

    In religious literature there is as much linking darkness to evil as there is in popular culture. Not only does Darth Vader relish the “dark side of the force,” proving his deficit of good, so also the Bible often equates darkness with evil.

    Barbara Brown Taylor, in her beautiful and wise book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, explores the spirituality of darkness and observes the tendency of scripture to judge darkness as “bad news.” But she also reminds us of those paradigmatic biblical stories, such as the tales of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, in which God shows up in the dark. Abraham can only count the stars in the darkness, Barbara tells us; Jacob meets the Angel, and Joseph dreams his dreams only at night.*

    This strikes me as good and true. I confess that I find it harder to worship in a bright New England Congregationalist church house than in a dark and shadowed Romanesque Cathedral. It seems right to me that sacred spaces have dark corners, lots of shadows, and obscure labyrinthine passages. Clear spacious windows looking out on a bright crisp day don’t hold wonder for me in the way that shrouded interiors where motes of dust float visibly only through the occasional in-breaking of shuttered light refracting through stained glass clouded with cataracts of long wear.

    Perhaps this just has to do with my own conception of God, as one Mystery hidden in mystery, the Unnameable unto whom I commit my unknowing soul, the Numinous, the Mysterium Tremendum of Rudolf Otto, the Groundless Ground of Meister Eckhardt, the Holy who, as C.S. Lewis once observed, cannot be known through a medium clear like cold spring water so much as through warm dark blood. Even revealed, God is hidden. Even known in the flesh, first hand and face-to-face, God remains ultimately unknowable and unknown.

    Is my preference just the manifestation of a theological bias? Perhaps.

    Is it just another aspect of my peculiar aesthetic sensibilities? Possibly.

    But there might just be more to it than that.

    Again, I return to Barbara Brown Taylor’s thoughts on darkness and the divine where she provides a lengthy passage drawn from the fourteenth century classic of Christian spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing:

    “This darkness and cloud is always between you and God, no matter what you do. ... and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must be in this cloud and in this darkness.”**

    We see God as in a mirror and in the dark, the mystical apostle, St. Paul, says. In a sense, the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, to which Taylor refers, could be taken as an extended commentary on the Pauline fragment. The anonymous author of The Cloud invites us into a consciousness of our union with Christ, but it is a consciousness that cannot rely on the structures and props of our knowledge or sight.

    As Simon Tugwell, writes in his preface to a well-known edition of The Cloud:

    "The contemplative does not ‘see God’; he enters into God's seeing. The abolition of any clear notion of God in the cloud of unknowing thus goes with the abolition of any clear awareness of the knowing subject. Our being must approach God in such nakedness that it is clothed not even in itself. Only so can it perform the ‘nothing’ in the ‘nowhere’ that our author recommends. Only ‘nobody’ constitutes no obstacle to this work.”***

    However esoteric this passage may seem at first (or fifth) reading, clothed as it is in the philosophical language of medieval mysticism, nevertheless the core ideas expressed are biblical and familiar to us all. When by faith we are united with Christ, says St. Paul, ‘it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20)

    We are stripped bare of self in the divine encounter so that Christ might give us our true selves. We cannot understand this reality through reason alone or personal experience. The God from whom we receive our true selves is so totally beyond our knowledge and experience it is madness to pretend that we can describe him. God is not a thing among the other things of this world, God is “no thing,” and to encounter this God is to take a leap into “unknowing.”****

    Barbara Brown Taylor returns us to where we began in the previous blog, with St. John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul. Taylor reminds us that for St. John of the Cross “the dark night” is God's “best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your idea about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics of manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.”*****

    Ultimately it is not so much “seeing in the dark” we need. Rather, what we need is to rest suspended above heaven and earth in an empty vagrancy of the spirit which has “no visible means of support.” We need to make that leap of faith, of which we so often speak, not into the well-structured credal “beliefs about” that offer instant belonging or that promise a nice soft landing in a well-lighted place. The leap of faith, if it is trust in the living God, is always a leap in the dark with no guarantee of a safe landing.

    Thanks be to God. Our undoing is our making as children of God.
    * Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne, 2014), 39-49.
    ** Taylor, Dark, p. 48.
    *** James Walsh, SJ, editor, The Cloud of Unknowing, Preface by Simon Tugwell, (Paulist Press, 1981), xxii.
    **** One of the monks at Gethsemani Abbey who worked most closely with Thomas Merton is fond of answering the question, “What did you learn from Merton?” with the answer, “Nothing,” and a wry smile.
    ***** Taylor, Dark, p. 145.

  • Seeing in the Dark - Part One

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 27, 2018

    Seeing in the Dark Part OneThere are still places that you can look up into the night sky and see the Milky Way, that smudge of stars spilled on heaven's tablecloth reminding us of our true scale. But they are dark places. Not the darkness of our backyards if we happen to live anyplace close to a city, but a darkness unadulterated by ambient light.

    High in the mountains between North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, for example, there are places where you can stand and see the stars blazing unobstructed by artificial light. And it is there that you can understand the gift of darkness.

    There is a darkness into which the soul also can descend from which we can see the heavens blazing. It is this darkness I would like to reflect on today. But first, a confession.

    Like most people, for most of my life, the classic spiritual text by St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul provided only a convenient phrase which I used to speak of a time of grief, or sadness, or anxiety, or of other such seasons. I did not realize that I had rendered one of the most powerful and positive descriptions of a profound spiritual state into a mere cliché, until, that is, I actually read the book. I was using the term to describe those inevitable “ups and downs” of life. Thomas Moore says, in his foreword to an edition of this wonderful text, that this is a common mistake. Moore elaborates:

    “At the end of struggles people sometimes claim that they have gone through an ordeal and have come out happy on the other side. One senses a degree of pride in the accomplishment. But I'm not convinced that these victories signal the kind of darkness John describes so carefully.” (p. xi)*

    Now, I would want us to be very clear about this: To say that such trials aren't the same as what John describes isn't to dismiss their reality, nor to diminish the pain experienced in the life of a person who endures them. We simply need to make a distinction. But it is a crucial distinction. It is similar to the distinction Dietrich Bonhoeffer made between common human suffering (however painful it may be) and our sharing in the suffering of the cross of Jesus. No one makes the distinction more clearly than John himself. However, in order for us to understand what John is teaching about the life of the spirit, we need to know a bit more about his life.

    As Mirabai Starr explains in her excellent introduction to The Dark Night of the Soul,** John was born, John de Yepes y Álvarez in 1542 into an impoverished itinerate family, moving from place to place desperately searching for work. As an adolescent, gently caring for patients dying of syphilis, he came to the attention of a Carmelite priest who offered to provide John with a theological education if John took Carmelite orders. The poor young man, eager to grow in faith and knowledge, accepted the offer. But he was soon disappointed.

    John had sought a purity of practice and devotion that he could not find in the established order of the church. He was considering leaving the Carmelites altogether to become a hermit when something occurred that changed the course of his life. He met Teresa of Avila.

    When he met Teresa, John was a twenty-five-year-old Carmelite priest. Teresa was already a mature fifty-two year old nun fully engaged in reforming the Carmelite movement. But it was one of the greatest meetings of souls of all time. Suddenly, John had met possibly the only person who could “get” him. Teresa seems to have understood John through and through. Teresa saw this young man's value, felt his spiritual struggles, and put him to work as the confessor to the nuns in her first reformed Carmelite convent.

    The reformed movement of which Teresa was the leader came to be known as the “Discalced Carmelites” because they rejected wearing shoes in favor of the rough sandals worn by the poor. As with many genuine ecclesiastical reform movements, the reaction of the church establishment was resistance. In this case, violent resistance.

    In 1577, again as Starr tells us, a group of conservative friars kidnapped the by now thirty-five-year-old John, took him to Toledo where he was imprisoned, and they tortured him. Their intention was to force John to denounce the reforms which Teresa and he were leading. Held in solitude in a tiny closet that had served as a toilet, John repeatedly was brought out to the refectory of the monks, not to eat, but to be beaten while they ate their meals. Suffering for his dedication to Christ, in addition to beatings and torture, John endured near-starvation, freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer heat, while his clothes literally rotted upon his body.

    During his imprisonment, John sought solace in contemplation and prayer. Perhaps inevitably he came to feel Godforsaken. Yet, in the midst of this period when he felt God had abandoned him, John composed and committed to memory (because he long had no writing materials) a passionate divine love poem in the spirit of the biblical “Song of Songs.” When, eventually, he escaped his imprisonment, John returned to the reformed Carmelites, and at the encouragement of his “Discalced” Brothers wrote "The Dark Night of the Soul" as a kind of commentary and exposition on his poetry.

    John came to see the torment of the apparent abandonment by God as God's gift through which alone the soul could understand the radiance of God's love. The darkness of the night was essential, he realized. It provided the environment necessary for the soul to behold God's love as all in all.

    Only when John descended into that state in which he felt all the props of the self kicked out from under him could he comprehend that God is all that supports us. Only when the self was reduced to this state, could it realize that there is nothing we can claim as our accomplishment, nothing to take pride in. It is then that the soul realizes the gift of emptiness. As Richard Baxter would say centuries later, the one thing we can bring to God is our emptiness, ready to be filled.

    What John discovered in the darkness and emptiness of apparent separation from God is that God is inseparable from us. Whatever life and light and love we know is God.

    Thus John writes toward the close of chapter six (and I shall quote him at length):

    “In dark contemplation, the soul suffers the suspension of all her natural supports and perceptions, which is terribly painful, like hanging in midair unable to breathe. God is purging the soul, devouring all the imperfect habits and inclinations she has contracted through her entire life, as fire consumes the tarnish of metal. Besides the natural and spiritual poverty, she is likely to suffer interior torment from the radical undoing of all the remaining imperfections rooted firmly in the substance of the soul. ...  Purified in this forge like gold in a crucible, as the Wise Man says, the soul feels as if she were coming to an end. ... God greatly humbles the soul now so that he might greatly exalt her later. And he makes it so that when these feelings are quickened in the soul they are soon stilled; otherwise she would die within a few days. The soul is only aware of their vibrancy at intervals. These souls descend into the underworld alive.”***

    Commenting on John's description of descent into the dark night, Starr observes that the soul is plunged into absolute, impenetrable darkness so that we cannot rely on any of the old tricks by which we maintain a false image of ourselves, either as holy, or good, or evil. Plunged into utter darkness, the soul cannot maintain its self-sufficiency, the illusion of existing separately from God.

    Starr comments further, taking on the voice of the soul speaking directly to God:

    “Take all my juicy spiritual feelings, Beloved, and dry them up, and then please light them on fire. Take my lofty spiritual concepts and plunge them into darkness, and then burn them. Let me only love you, Beloved. Let me quietly and with unutterable simplicity just love you.”****

    A paradoxical shift occurs in the soul which descends into this place of darkness.

    The apparent narrowing of love only to the Beloved, turns out to be a universalizing of love toward all, including one's self, because in the depths of contemplation the self lets go of the illusion of its separation from God and knows the truth of that ancient word of wisdom spoken by St. Paul echoing the philosophers on Mars Hill: it is in God that we all live and move and have our being.

    God renders all things holy by virtue of their presence in God. The empty soul at last is ready to be filled with the love of God, because at last it truly is empty, ready, and unable to conjure up delusions of its own spiritual prowess. The empty self dissolves into the love that is all there is, but that is only visible in and through the gift of darkness.

    St. John of the Cross, in chapter fifteen, writes:

    “Just because I have endured the storms of anguish, doubt, and fear ... do not think that I have for a minute run the risk of being lost. Quite the opposite; in the darkness of this night I have found myself. ... I am especially secure in this night of purification because my appetites, inclinations, and passions have been put to sleep, humbled, and stilled. Awake and vitalized, they would never consent to this journey.”*****

    When the darkness becomes complete, then can we see. That which we thought a curse is God’s great gift. Heavens await those who endure this darkness.

    *All references to St. John of the Cross's classic are from the excellent edition published in 2002 by Penguin Putnam Press under its Riverhead Books imprint, translated, and with an introduction, by Mirabai Starr. Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, wrote the foreword to this edition.

    ** Starr provides an excellent introduction of John's life, on pp. 3-9 of the edition above, from which I have drawn this brief account.

    *** John's own description of descent into the dark night of the soul here quoted occurs on pp. 105-106 of the Starr edition.

    **** Starr, introduction, p. 10.

    ***** John's reflections here quoted from p. 145 of the Starr edition.

  • When Justice Goes Mad

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 20, 2018

    “A time is coming when [people] will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.’” St Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356)

    When Justice Goes MadIn some cultures anger is considered a form of madness. While British English traditionally has kept the two separated, in American English, “I am mad” and “I am angry,” became virtually synonymous. I've been wondering about the relationship between these two terms in light of a dinner conversation I overheard not long ago.

    Two colleagues were talking about a young person they both admire. One said to the other something like this: She is really working hard for justice. I've seen her on the front lines of protests. She is angry about the right things.

    The sentiment of the conversation as a whole had to do with the vital role that anger plays in motivating us to “fight for justice.”

    This conversation became a sort of pebble in my soul. Usually I'll just stop, take off my shoe, and dump out the offending stone, but, for whatever reason, I decided to walk around with this one for a while.

    Something just didn't feel right about the conversation. What was it?

    These colleagues and I are like political peas of the same pod. I'm not sure I could find a social, cultural, political or religious issue on which we would disagree. So that wasn't it.

    The longer the pebble dug in, the more clearly I realized what bothered me. I really don't think that anger is a good motivator when it comes to justice. Indeed, anger and madness are so closely related that it might just be that our anger is the source of many of our most intractable social conflicts.

    I'm not saying that anger has no role in our moral lives, nor that anger always leads to madness. Far from it.

    Recently, for example, as I watched the father of sexually abused girls as he leaped across chairs and tables to physically assault the doctor who had abused his daughters and scores of other children, my initial response was, “Give that man a tire tool and leave him alone with the doctor for five minutes.” At that moment, I would have to doubt the moral seriousness and sanity of anyone who didn't understand and empathize with that father. But, of course, we also know the judge was morally serious, sane and right in having the father restrained and that the father was right later to apologize.

    However, I still doubt that anger makes a reliable engine of motivation for justice. Anger clouds our minds and in extremity does result in a kind of madness. Even (maybe especially) righteous anger tends to narrow our vision, thwart our moral imaginations, and divide humanity into simplistic categories beyond just right and wrong: Good person/Evil person. Victim/Victimizer. Godly/Ungodly.

    Anger allows us to praise some and damn others with impunity and without remorse. Anger tends to calcify into hatred. And however much anger may motivate us to get up and march, hatred will inevitably lead us to march in the wrong directions; and to march, sometimes, with a single-minded compulsion and obsession, disregarding and treading underfoot anyone who gets in our way.

    “What might be a more adequate motivating force for justice?” I wondered.

    As with so many things, a helpful perspective was waiting in biblical texts that many of us know by heart. In this case, the key seemed to rest in a passage probably most of us have quoted: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

    Suddenly a possibility emerged in this text that I had never before contemplated. It may be that this text is reminding us that TO DO JUSTICE we must LOVE MERCY, and we learn to love mercy by WALKING HUMBLY WITH GOD.

    This thought took me to another recent conversation.

    I had the pleasure of having lunch with one of our alums, David Park, on a recent visit to the west coast. David graduated from Louisville Seminary but quickly discerned that his best gifts were in another area than pastoral care, so he went back to school to study engineering at Purdue University and went from there to Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. Every time I get to visit with David I learn new things. He possesses a genuinely unique perspective, so unique I am tempted to use the word “genius.”

    During our long conversation that day, he was telling a story about someone when he paused to make this small side observation. "You know, people are complicated," he said.

    We are complicated. We are a mixture of all sorts of influences. We are unevenly mature and unevenly wise and unevenly good and bad. We are morally messy beings. I couldn't help but recall, later thinking about the conversation with David, that classic country song by the great Kris Kristofferson, “Don't Cuss the Fiddle.” Because “that picker there in trouble, boy, ain't nothin’ but another side of you. If we ever get to heaven, boys, it ain't because we ain't done nothin’ wrong ...”.

    So what in the world does this have to do with justice?

    Just this: I have come to believe that compassion is the best motivation for justice because compassion works for the restoration and redemption and reconciliation of the damaged and those who do the damage and those who damaged the damaged before they hurt others.

    Idealism tends to breed anger, but it often also breeds contempt and cynicism. I've met few cynics who are not disappointed idealists. Realistic compassion, by contrast, starts with a truer and more humble assessment of ourselves; it acts in love to restore the broken and the breaker; and, instead of using its moral energy longing for a perfect utopia that never comes (and never will), it just keeps showing up for the sake of love and forgiveness for all who need it while trusting God for the ultimate outcomes.

    Someone might argue that compassion only leads to "compassion fatigue," but I have found that with most of us, it isn't the compassion that wears us out. It is our arrogance, our vanity, believing that we are the indispensable solution, that our way is the right way, and that we can make it all right.

    That way leads to yet another form of madness. But we'll leave that conversation for another day.
    A selected bibliography for reflection on this subject:
    There's probably nowhere better to start than with Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, 2012). Truly a landmark book. In examining our own humility, compassion and tendency toward anger, I don’t think anyone has done it better than The Desert Fathers. As in the past, I highly recommend Benedicta Ward's distinguished edition of their sayings (London, 2003); and in this same vein I suggest taking a fresh look at Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert (New York, 1960) and Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (New York, 1981). It is from Nouwen that I took the epigraph today (p. 33). Finally for those seeking to understand and deal more effectively with their own anger, I highly recommend the delightful book The Cow in the Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger by Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston (New York, 2010).

  • A Chilling Moment of Clarity

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 13, 2018

    Chilling Clarity

    There’s a particularly chilling moment of clarity in an old spy movie when the person who had been orchestrating the sale of weapons to our country is seen on a train orchestrating the arming of our country’s enemies. When confronted later with the evidence, the arms dealer explains that he is simply a businessman looking for new markets. Morality, patriotism, freedom, the rule of law: they are all just words he uses to close a sale. Nothing more.

    Recently there was for me a more chilling moment of clarity. I was reading the morning headlines. An old idea often touted by weapons dealers and their lobbyists was being articulated by elected officials: “The way to stop school shootings is by arming teachers.”

    Suddenly it hit me.

    Our country is not locked in a principled argument about core Constitutional values. That’s what the weapons dealers want us to believe.

    Rather, the U.S. Constitution, and precious concepts such as freedom, security, personal safety, and defense against tyranny are all just phrases in the hands of the cynical to close the sale. We as a nation have fallen into the grips of weapons dealers who are pursuing their business plan with a vengeance.

    They have insinuated themselves into the halls of power by using the oldest political trick in the book: legalized bribery. They are promoted by a sophisticated marketing machine that taps into our worst fears and prejudices, our most pernicious hatreds, and our deepest insecurities. They will not be satisfied until every man, woman and child has purchased their own private arsenal.

    With the connivance of their political operatives they have created a climate of helplessness and blame in which rational and well-meaning people find themselves making deals with the devil, accepting, as though it is somehow a normal and inevitable fact of nature, that our society will find itself periodically confronted with mass shootings, in addition to the gun violence that plays out routinely on the streets and in the homes of our towns and cities. But we know this situation is neither natural nor inevitable. Nor has it been historically a part of our national story.

    After every mass shooting, we find ourselves shocked, grieving and feeling helpless, while elected officials tell us that now in the immediate aftermath of a shooting is not the time to discuss sensible gun control. The reality, however, is that we are now always in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

    Now is the time to find the national will and resolve to solve this problem.

    The schools which many of our children attend already look like prisons, many with metal detectors, locked doors and perimeter fencing. I find it ludicrous that school officials and parents are blamed by lobbyists and politicians for not providing better security. The alternative to a society in which everyone lives in a continual posture of armed defense and insecurity is clear.

    And, yet, the merchants of death and their acolytes maintain their relentless sales pitch apparently without concern except for their bottom line. Sadly and too often our elected leaders are financially too beholden to them to represent us. Many politicians, it seems, have only one concern: to win the next election and maintain their grip on power. In the meantime, sensible people, citizens on the left and the right, including the overwhelming majority of sportsmen and gun owners (including myself), want meaningful gun control.

    The Constitution is not a punch line in a sales pitch to sell guns. The Constitution enshrines the sacred franchise of the voting booth. “We the people” have the power to demand better laws.

  • I Just Love Right Now

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 06, 2018

    I Just Love Right Now'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the preschool all manner of small creatures were stirring, scurrying, and squealing with anticipation. Granddaughter Grace's class was practicing for the big musical program they would present to their families. They celebrated final rehearsal with juice and cupcakes. Jessica, my daughter, saved a cupcake from her office party and presented it to Grace when she picked her up from school. Music, friends, Mommy, and a two-cupcakes day!

    Jessica watched Grace laughing and singing in the back seat. When Grace realized she had her mom's attention, she smiled and said, "I just love right now."

    May I introduce you to the natural citizens of the Kingdom of God, and, incidentally, the greatest practitioners of Zen on the planet: children.

    If there were children on the hillside when Jesus said, "Take no thought of tomorrow," I'll wager they were saying something like, "Of course!!" in response. And if there were little guys toddling and cavorting around the knees of the Buddha when he explained that the past does not really exist and neither does the future; all you've got is now, I'm pretty sure they said, "Duh." There are likely equivalent teachings in the wisdom of all the world's faiths. I'm sure Rumi understood this, whirling around singing his songs to God, just like children on a whirligig at the park.

    I just love right now! A four-year-old is wise enough to know. But are we?

    Recently I was reading John Green's new novel, Turtles All the Way Down. The protagonist is an utterly delightful teenage girl (“Holmsey,” her best friend has named her) who doesn't realize how wonderful she is because she suffers from a chronically profoundly low self-esteem that manifests itself in self-destructive behavior, obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical depression and high anxiety. With the most astonishing empathy, Green takes us into the inner world of this young woman as she struggles with becoming a mature person in relationship with other persons. It is a beautiful and moving novel.

    Holmsey struggles especially with griefs and regrets that won't let go of her and fears about what might happen. She calls these thoughts "invasives" because they come un-beckoned and take her places she does not want to go. In one conversation with her therapist, the doctor explains to her that these invasive thoughts are like cars running up and down the freeway. You can watch the cars go by without having to hop in one and let it take you away Of course, as her therapist and she both know, it just isn't that easy.

    Life is inherently risky. It is brief. It is precarious and fragile. And if one is fortunate enough to live a long time, one will lose many if not most of the people one loves. From the first tooth we lose to the day when we find ourselves gumming our peaches again, life entails pain. We are frail creatures of dust. We come into the world naked and crying. We're taking nothing with us when we go. And even the most beloved of us will likely be forgotten in three generations.

    The trick it seems is to enjoy those two-cupcake days when they come, but not to live in dread of tomorrow because it may not involve any cupcakes at all.

    And, of course, it helps to really love just being here, because even on the most challenging days, it's a miraculous if bumpy ride. The one thing I've noticed consistently is that when I spend my time wondering if someone else is bringing the cupcakes, I don't tend to be as happy as when I decide it's my turn to bake them.

  • For All the Saints

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 02, 2018

    For All the Saints

    "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12:2

    In two conversations with Christian groups this fall, I've posed a question that at first just puzzled me. Now, my question is really beginning to bug me.

    The first conversation occurred toward the end of September at the annual gathering of our President's Roundtable, a wonderful group of friends of Louisville Seminary who come together on campus once a year to attend classes, spend time with our students, enjoy a special class presentation designed just for them by leading professors, and to worship. On Saturday mornings, I usually make a brief presentation, and we have a conversation.

    The second conversation occurred toward the end of November, as a sidebar in a retreat I was doing for a wonderful group of elders at the First Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia.

    Here's the question I posed in both conversations, one formally, the other informally: "What do we (the Church) make?"

    I know this may sound like a gauche question, even a vulgar one, bringing the language of the manufacturing world into the life of faith. But I think it is a useful and potentially clarifying question.

    "If the Church has a product, what is it? What do we make?"

    We recognize, theologically, that it isn't us at all ultimately doing the making (it is God, of course). Yet we recognize also that God chooses to work through the earthen vessel of the Church and that this earthen vessel is the very Body of Christ. And we recognize that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, does the work of "saint making" using all sorts of means, including us. Nevertheless, I think it is not inappropriate to use the shorthand question: "What does the Church make?"

    Both conversations bounced around for awhile in each setting, until, uncomfortably and shyly, we came to the same conclusion.

    The Church exists to make saints.

    Oh, by gosh by golly, that’s scary. And humbling. And a lot of other things too.

    Now, for just a moment, let's put out of our heads the idea of "saints" as Super Christians. I know that our brothers and sisters in Roman Catholicism reserve this word for the few, the proud, the Marines of Christianity, in whose names miracles are wrought. But that's not us as Presbyterians. We believe that “saint” is a synonym for a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, dirty fingernails, warts, failures and all. And this, my friends, is what makes us blush and look down at our shoes when the conversation comes up with this answer, because if the Church exists to produce saints, we know that something's not quite right, because we seem to be producing a lot more of us who would much rather admire Jesus from afar than follow him.

    But doesn't it make sense to get our goal right? We are much less likely to hit a target if we don't know what we're aiming at. And if making saints is our goal, it seems to me we may want to examine what we are doing when we do Church. How might we go about making saints, with the consciousness that a saint is someone who reflects Jesus's own grace, mercy, love, compassion, and peace, the resistance toward judgment of self and others and the dedication to obeying God whatever the cost? Perhaps we might learn from tested formational processes that know their goal (what they seek to make) and craft an educational-formative environment where this goal can be achieved.

    [Please allow me, at this point, to provide a Trigger Warning: If it annoys you for a Christian writer to draw lessons from another faith, you'll want to stop reading right now, because one of the two following examples comes from Buddhism.]

    Clinical Pastoral Education
    When I was in seminary, I went through Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). This was in 1978, long before the "kinder, gentler" CPE began to emerge. The goal of CPE was never to produce hospital chaplains, of course, although the educational process usually happened in a clinical setting (mine was at the Baylor Medical Center in Dallas, Texas). The goal was to turn ministry students into reflective practitioners of pastoral care. And to do that, they put us through a process of pastoral practice under clinical supervision, analyzing the case studies we assembled from our engagements with patients, asking critical questions about how we responded to patients' statements, trying to determine how well we listened and how wise we were in reading people and situations.

    CPE put us through grueling self-examination to find our weak spots. And it assembled us into small groups for Interpersonal Relations (IPR) which varied from soul-searching confessions in the context of unconditional group support to near fist-fights when defensiveness and fatigue boiled over. The individual supervision could be even more direct, intended to push students to their emotional limits. And this was all done because this educational process was proven to produce what CPE wanted: Highly reflective practitioners of the pastoral arts.

    CPE was, in many ways, the most wonderful educational experience I ever hated. But recently I discovered a new contender for the title of Heavyweight Champion of Educational Formation.

    Training in Mindfulness
    After years of regular participation in silent retreats with Cistercian monks (I didn't keep count, but I must have done something like fifteen or more retreats over the course of seven years?), and years of individual practice of meditation, I plunged into my first "immersion training" in Buddhist Mindfulness and Insight Meditation last fall in the remote (really remote!) mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee.

    Throughout the training we observed a "Noble Silence" during which we refrained from unnecessary or casual speech. Rising by 6:15 a.m. each morning we made our way to the Meditation Hall for chanting meditation and sitting meditation for about an hour prior to breakfast. We meditated between twelve and fifteen hours a day, until we went to bed around 10 p.m. Twenty-five men and women living in a single lodge equipped with just two full bathrooms and one half bath, everyone either had a roommate or slept dormitory style in bunks. In addition to formal sitting meditation, chanting meditation, guided meditation and walking meditation, everyone also served on a work crew for working meditation. (I was responsible for waking us all up the first morning and keeping us all on time the first day by ringing the community's bell; I also was on KP duty, helping wash breakfast dishes and helping prepare meals, throughout the retreat). There were also teaching sessions and small groups. The process provided an environment in which we were "softened," in which we were forced out of our comfort zones and made increasingly vulnerable. I'm sure the German language has a word that conveys the level of intensity we experienced, but English does not. The goal was clear from the beginning: to help us become more mindful.

    Both of these formative processes have very clear goals. Both of them are confident enough of their processes that they do not flinch from allowing participants to become profoundly uncomfortable, uncomfortable enough to want to leave. Indeed, the teacher in the Mindfulness program, in his first Dharma talk (think sermon, then forget that I used the sermon analogy), quoted a famous Buddhist master as saying: "Never underestimate the temptation to bolt." It was at that point that I realized probably most of the other participants wanted to leave too. Realizing this, I suddenly also realized that the feelings I was experiencing were all part of the process and I determined to stick with it, saying "yes" to whatever came next, no matter how hesitant I felt.

    So here's the point I'd like to leave with us today, in the form of a question: What would it mean for us as Christians to do and to be "Church" as though our goal is to make saints?

    I have to wonder in the consumer-oriented world we live in, if we would be willing to be made uncomfortable in order to become saints? I wonder if we would be willing to support our pastors and sessions if they were suddenly seized by the goal to make sure our Church provide an environment conducive to saint-making?

    I surely don't know the answers to these questions. But I do think they may be worth asking.

  • The Truth About Fiction

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 27, 2018

    Truth About Fiction

    Recently in an intensive mindfulness workshop, someone made some not very complimentary comments about fantasy literature. Actually he made some not very complimentary comments about all literature of the fictional sort, opining that it provides nothing much but distraction. But he singled out the fantasy genre in particular as escapist.

    My hunch is that this person's prejudice is held by a lot of people. My vow to maintain "silence" throughout the retreat prevented my articulating a rationale as to why literature in general and fantasy in particular are neither mere distractions nor escapism. (I'm doing better with vows to refrain from speaking than I am with vows to refrain from judging, frankly, so I'm going to think out-loud with you about this prejudice.)

    Many folks share the opinion expressed by a scientist friend who, a few years ago, responded to my question, "Have you read any good novels lately?" by saying "I never read fiction. I only read nonfiction. Life is too short not to read the truth." What my friend had confused was the distinction between facts and truth.

    Information however factual doesn't necessarily grant access to truth. And, conversely, good fiction is all about truth. Sometimes you can only tell the truth by making up a story. For example, I would wager that we can learn as much, if not more, about the human cost of modern warfare from Tim O'Brien's collection of short stories The Things They Carried than from a massive nonfiction tome on the Vietnam War.

    Sure, you might say, this is true for serious fiction drawn from deep in the experiences of our great literary writers. But can we say the same about other genres of fiction?

    First, a word about literary genres, and here I have to confess a bias of my own. I've yet to meet a genre I didn't like.

    That obviously doesn't mean that everything written in any particular genre is good. However, it does mean that there are good books in every genre.*

    Historical fiction sometimes gets a bum rap. However, the genre of historical fiction includes Hilary Mantel's phenomenal series on Thomas Cromwell through which our empathetic imaginations are liberated from the strictures of history to consider a Cromwell very different from the typical picture. Mantel has produced a vulnerable figure, as beloved by some as he is feared by others, struggling to survive under the iron rule of a capricious and cruel King Henry VIII.

    But, let's go where genre investigators often fear to go, the genre of romantic fiction, sometimes described derisively as "bodice rippers." If you can stretch romantic fiction to include A.S. Byatt's brilliant, magisterial novel Possession (and, like it or not, you must because at its heart that's what this novel is) then even in the most commonly disparaged genre, there can be genius.

    We don't have to have contempt for detective novels just because we love Dostoyevsky, nor for Westerns just because we enjoy Flaubert. And anyone who thinks they have outgrown children's books or young adult fiction hasn't grown up enough.

    Second, a word about the purpose of literature. We've been telling stories to one another since we were sitting around camp fires munching on wildebeests. And once we figured out these stories could be written down as well as handed on by word of mouth, we started scratching away at clay tablets. Why?

    Well, I'm about to make a huge crazy overstatement, but it's almost entirely true. This statement is actually made in the film version of the play, Shadowlands, which tells the story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. In a conversation between Lewis and one of his Oxford students, the young man tells Lewis that his own father, a provincial school teacher, always maintained that the purpose of literature is to remind us we are not alone.

    That statement just about says it all. Just about! We read to know we aren't alone in our human skin. But I will add one more thought to this.

    The authors who speak through their pages to those of us who read not only share with us the fact that we are not alone, and not only the feeling that we are not alone, but the fruit of not being alone. They refract wisdom to us about our own lives through the prism of their experiences and their own imaginations.

    When I finally met John Irving after having read his extraordinary novels like A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp it felt like I was meeting a good and wise friend - though, oddly, for the very first time. He had already allowed me to enter into his imaginative world, and he had already enlarged my understanding long before I heard him speak in person. I've felt the same reading Doris Lessing, Ann Padgett, Penelope Fitzgerald, and, yes Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

    Which brings me to my third point. I'd like to say a word or two in favor of a genre sometimes singled out for an extra helping of disparagement. For convenience sake, I'm going to include in the fantasy category everything from science fiction, to futurist novels, to fairy tales, to fantasies proper, whether in conventional novels or graphic ones. I'm speaking here of everyone from those Grimm brothers to Ray Bradbury.

    There are the classics. George MacDonald, the Aberdeenshire storyteller behind The Princess and the Goblin, C.S. Lewis whose Narnia chronicles touch both the heart and the soul, and J.R.R. Tolkien, the greatest of them all; these are world creators. But there are so many terrific contemporary or near contemporary fantasists too. Gaiman's American Gods should, I think, be required reading in every seminary, and the novel he co-authored with Pratchett, Good Omens, is the funniest book ever written about the antichrist. Doug Adams' The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy turns the search for ultimate answers on its ear and reminds us that we are really only very small and really quite daft. And George R.R. Martin's remarkable series of books (now adapted into the popular Game of Thrones television series), through the guise of fantasy, ushers us into a world of political realism that would make Machiavelli's real-life Borgias blush.

    Fantasies make great tutors. They teach us so much.

    Fantasies teach us to feel wonder, which is, of course, the twin sister of reverence. They teach us what lies on the other side of our shattered hopes, in the lands where our puny dreams fall at the feet of dreams so large we never dared dream them before. Fantasies teach us to fear the right sorts of things (even while they instruct us, "Don't Panic!"). And they remind us we can find the courage to meet life's dangers even if we are ever so small and ever so timid, safely ensconced in a snug Hobbit hole. From Perelandra to Disc World, from deep underground London to a cave in the Black Mountains, we are drawn ever higher up and ever deeper in so that we might see the world we inhabit every day with reborn eyes.

    Sometimes fantasy can do a better job of revealing reality than the grittiest portraits of literary fiction. And fantasy can reveal tendencies within all of us which we wish we could deny, as in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Indeed, sometimes it is the fantasy that can get around our own defenses opening our eyes to realities we don't want to admit. This is why some very wise historians today are encouraging us to read or re-read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, two political critiques cleverly disguised as dystopian fantasies, both of which might prove especially "informative."

    There's one thing more that at least some of the best representatives of the fantasy genre do: they evoke joy. They can lift up our hearts. The adventures on which they lead us can make us laugh, often at ourselves and our own foolishness. They can make us feel like children again. They can be fun, even when they aren't funny, and even when they get pretty terrifying.

    But I've said enough. If you believed me in the beginning, you probably believe me now. And if you didn't, well, I doubt if I'm all that persuasive.

    Right now, I'm going to put away my iPad and read something by Neil Gaiman, not to escape, but in the hope that I can go a little higher up and a little deeper in. I invite you to come along.

    *And sometimes we can miss some great fun by being too snooty to read some poorly written books, as a friend taught me several years ago when she encouraged me just to hold my nose and read those darned Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels. She was right. Charlaine Harris is no Anne Rice, but the books were fun, especially at the beach. You can love Brahms and Chopin as much as I do, but if you're sailing, I'll wager you crank up Jimmy Buffett too.

  • Only Small Fish Swim in Schools

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 20, 2018

    Isaac Bashevis Singer on the Joy of Reading

    Joy of ReadingI have three works of fiction on my bookshelf that I've tried to read several times, but have never succeeded in finishing: James Joyce's Ulysses, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and (though it shames me to admit it and would be most disappointing to one of my heroes, Carlyle Marney), Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Being an avid reader, I feel guilty about not finishing these literary masterpieces. Recently, however, I read something that made me feel a little better. It appeared in an interview Professor Richard Burgin conducted with the late Isaac Bashevis Singer, arguably the greatest writer in the Yiddish language and one of the greatest storytellers of all time.

    Singer's vast literary output oeuvre has largely been translated into English. He is chiefly honored today as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. His short stories, novels and memoirs have the power to transport the reader to lost worlds, especially the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe before the Holocaust and the New York of the 1930s when the city bustled with energy as immigrants poured in from Europe.

    In Singer's extensive recorded conversations with Professor Burgin, he considers the relative merits of giants of literature like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. But it is while discussing Franz Kafka that Singer was most helpful to me, at least in easing some lingering guilt. I'd like to quote him at length so you can get a sense of the full context of his remarks.

    "I feel in Kafka, as I said, a great power, but the truth is that the literary idols of this generation are not my idols - neither Kafka nor Joyce. I have to make a great effort to read them and I don't think that fiction is good when you have to make an effort. After you read, say, fifty pages of 'The Trial' you get the point. I see already that we will never know what the crime is, so I'm not as hot about Kafka or about Joyce as most people are. I'm not even so hot about Proust. He's written eighteen volumes about his family, it's too much. I think that there should be a law that no book should be larger than a thousand pages. I don't believe in forced reading, where students are forced by professors or they compel themselves to read. Since I believe that literature is basically entertaining, the quantity is as important as the quality. A play of ten acts is a bore even if it is good. We must enjoy art. No commentary or footnote should explain our pleasure. It is true that there are vulgar readers who enjoy kitsch but the enjoyment of kitsch is better, in my eyes, than the masochism of the reader who reads out of duty or to adjust himself to some vogue of art. It is also true that the great writers were all sufferers but they never wanted the reader to suffer - the very opposite, they wanted him or her to forget their troubles while they read. We have now a whole bevy of writers who take pride in annoying the reader. They make him feel guilty and bore him. The great writers gave joy to the readers even in their tragedies. Kafka, Joyce, and Proust are great talents, but Kafkaism, Joyceism, and even Proustism have become a burden to young students. The fact is that all isms are bad for literature. Every ism is by its definition a cliché. In literature and in art generally all schools and disciples are bad. The various schools and isms of literature were invented by professors. Tolstoy didn't belong to any school. Only small fish swim in schools." (pp. 30-31*)

    It has been a couple of months since I first read that passage. I've thought about it a lot since then. Certainly Singer is painting with a very broad brush. He is speaking deliberately provocatively. And, I imagine, he is poking a little fun at his interviewer and other literary scholars. You can almost see the twinkle of mischief in his often mischievous eyes as he talks about the books with which professors torment their young students.

    Certainly Singer's comments can be taken out of context to justify never reading any author or book that might challenge or stretch us or require us to work at the joy of reading. And that isn't his point. Some of his own books will challenge and make the reader uncomfortable.

    It seems to me that taken in context, and taking Singer's gift for rhetorical overstatement into account, Singer is decrying our compelling of students to read not so much to stretch them intellectually or emotionally as to force them to fit literary orthodoxies, to require that they conform to the latest fashions. He seems also to be calling into question the vanity of reading (or, at least, carrying around a book) primarily to impress others or to demonstrate one's adherence to a vogue or a school of thought.

    Anyone who has read Singer will know that while his stories do "entertain," to use his word, they also require leaps of imagination and deep intellectual engagement. (For example, his stories such as Gimpel the Fool (1957), The Spinoza of Market Street (1963), and A Crown of Feathers (1974) are intricately woven narrative rich in symbols and cultural echoes). Singer was one of the most adept practitioners of grafting fantastic, magical and supernatural incidents into mundane narratives of real life. He requires readers to work hard, to give considerable attention to detail and to enter empathetically into the experiences of others.

    I seriously doubt that one would enjoy reading Singer (or, again, find him "entertaining") if one didn't have a capacity for intellectual curiosity and the courage to look deeply into the human psyche and spirit. There are places where Singer demands as much from a reader as does the great Toni Morrison (in her Beloved, for example) or William Faulkner (in The Sound and the Fury). But, of course, Morrison and Faulkner, for all the demands they place on their readers, clearly love and respect their readers also and long to draw them deep into stories that will change their perspectives, even transform their lives. Much the same can be said of Singer.

    Having spent most of my adult life as a professor, I have to say that Singer's words sting a bit. They remind me of something John Updike once said about novelists being more like literary athletes than literary scholars. I can almost visualize the sprinting Updike trailed by a clutch of tweed encrusted academics puffing behind. Singer is right. Scholars and professors do have a penchant for adopting isms, schools and ideologies. And, as he says so memorably, "Only small fish swim in schools." The Giants of the Deep don't follow fashions into the shallows, they redefine whole genres often in lonely and inky depths.

    More than anything else, what I take away from Singer's comments is a fresh perspective on the joy of reading. That, and an encouragement to follow that joy, and to yield to our own peculiar interests as readers. He warns us of the pointlessness of groaning through books we are expected to read or which will make us appear more clever or fashionable. He invites us instead to follow the pleasure of the text to an enlargement of heart and mind.

    *Isaac Bashevis Singer and Richard Burgin, Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986), pp 30-31.

  • The Imitation of Christ

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 16, 2018

    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!

    Imitation of ChristOne prays more than reads Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ.

    This is partly because it is written in the form of a conversation between God and a person at prayer. But it is also because the entire book is suffused with a spirit of sanctity.

    My Penguin paperback edition of The Imitation of Christ is some thirty years old. Judging by the various colors of underlining and the layers of highlighting, I must have read it three or four times by now. One year in particular, when I was a pastor, it sat on my desk all year long. I would read, reflect on and pray one or two short chapters at a time each morning.

    Thomas has never stopped surprising me. Even shocking me. As when he says to God:

    "Lord, it is good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your justice, and banish all conceit and presumption from my heart. It is good for me that I have suffered humiliation, that I may seek comfort in you rather than in others."

    At times, Thomas sounds more like the Greek Stoics Seneca and Epictetus, or like the ancient Buddhist teacher Shantideva than a Christian monk, as when he writes:

    "Whatever one is unable to change ... he should bear patiently until God ordains otherwise. ... Whenever such obstacles confront you, pray to God that God will grant you help and give you grace to endure them in good heart. ... Strive to be patient; bear with the faults and frailties of others, for you, too, have many faults which others must bear. ... Times of trouble best discover a person's true worth; they don't weaken you, but reveal your true nature."

    At other times, Thomas reframes in his own simple eloquence the very heart of the gospel of Christ, as when he speaks to his fellow monks, referencing two of their most sacred vows, "to stability" and “to conversion of manners":

    "If you wish to achieve stability and grow in grace, remember always that you are an exile and pilgrim on this earth. Be content to be accounted a fool for Christ's sake."

    I still recall reading for the first time his warning that nobody can live in the public eye without risking his or her soul. This caution was so timely to me as a pastor, living in one of those glass houses we call manses or rectories or parsonages. But this caution came home even more somewhat later in life when for fifteen years I took on the roles of an academic dean and seminary president. The opinions of others, if we let them, can disquiet the soul as surely as the drumbeat of the news cycle, steadily pounding away, reducing our peace of mind to rubble.

    How remarkable that this man who never led an institution or a community could sense the peculiar spiritual dangers of leadership! How amazing that one who lived in the 13th-14th centuries could speak so well of the dis-spiriting power of "the news of the world"!

    He understands something it took me most of my life to realize - and only then with the gracious persistence of my spiritual director: God's will for us is love. God is not impressed by our outward accomplishments.

    As Thomas himself says so well:

    "Without love, the outward work is of no value; but whatever is performed in love, be it ever so small, is wholly fruitful. For God regards the greatness of the love that prompts a person, rather than the greatness of his achievement. Whoever loves much, does much. ... And he does well, who serves the community before his own interests. Often an apparently loving action really springs from worldly motives; for natural inclination, self-will, hope of reward, and our own self-interest will seldom be entirely absent."

    The struggle with ourselves is won not by sheer reason, not merely by dint of human effort, but by humble submission to Jesus Christ. When we discover this, we transcend even reason "on the wings of a burning love for God."

    This love vanquishes envy and judgment of others. It gives us a perspective that realizes that every earthly thing is full of vanity. Only love endures.

    Sounding at times more like Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) than a fourteenth century monk, finding peace in the fleeting short breath, the sigh, that is life, Thomas says, "Of what use is a long life, if we amend it so little?" "Few people," Thomas observes, "seem to get more spiritually healthy by enduring sickness, and most of the people who travel hither and yon on pilgrimages don't acquire any additional holiness by doing so."

    In the midst of these reflections, Thomas pens a passage I wish might be nailed to every lintel: "Would to God that we might spend a single day really well."

    I confess that I have sat down again and again (and again and again!) in vain to write a blog about Thomas' Imitation of Christ for this year's series on spirituality. He is a giant in a Lilliputian land. A miracle of loaves and fishes that has endured for centuries and fed multitudes without number. And try as I might, I couldn't find the right way briefly to commend him or place him in a proper context or summarize his devotional thought. At one point, I had decided just to reproduce ten or twelve of the beautiful prayers contained in this book, but that was just a failure of nerve. However inadequate this little essay is, let me say that if it were an eloquent book of five hundred pages, it still would not do justice to the writings of this simple monk.

    As the children at play were overheard by Augustine to say: "take and read."

  • Ash Wednesday

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 14, 2018

    Ash WednesdayThe old trainer of championship sheep dogs, border collies all, when asked if he had any regrets, said, "It's all regrets."

    The dogs are always smarter than we are, and better "people" too. You lose your temper with a young dog and scold him only to realize later that the dog was right all along. You regret it. You wish you could undo it. Fortunately, the dogs are blessed with the character of God, and they forgive you. They just keep forgiving you, however undeserving you may be.

    "Mistakes were made." It is a classic formula of misdirection, better only by degrees from a false denial. "I made mistakes" - that's the only true statement we can make. And it would be a full-time job to say it true.

    Sunday afternoon before another Ash Wednesday, my sixty-fourth, I sit in front of my fireplace on a cold misty Kentucky day, a glass of red wine at my elbow, and I rehearse regrets.

    I say, "I'm sorry" to George, my best friend in high school, the most gifted percussionist I have ever known. After college and the Air Force, he took his talents on the road and played in some of the top professional music groups, jazz, rock and even country, throughout his career. He could wear the everlasting fame, "He played on Carson," just like we all wanted to.

    George and I only saw each other a few times as adults, once for a miserable blind date I set him up on in Fort Worth, Texas. What a mismatch! I asked his forgiveness for that for sure.

    I left America for Britain. He moved to Nashville. I saw him once on a music video, and I meant to call him. I really did. And then, one morning in Austin, I got a call telling me that George was dead. The most pacific man I've ever known, went out and bought a gun, and the next day shot himself. I imagine George has gotten over his suicide, but I never have.

    They aren't all regrets, our relationships. But many end there. Stories that lack a proper climax. Unclear. Muddy. Ashy gray things.

    Ash Wednesday has a way of bringing to mind ashy thoughts for me. They remind me of another friend's story. He was a pastor. Fresh out of Notre Dame, he introduced the ritual of the imposition of ashes to his Protestant congregation. He took it for granted that everyone would know what to do with the ashes. But the first person who came forward didn't wait for the pastor to impose ashes on his forehead. This congregant, accustomed to receiving a piece of bread when he came forward at Communion, dipped his finger in the ashes and put his finger in his mouth.

    Regrets. They taste just like ashes.

    Moments of love and friendship and hope burned in the furnace of experience. The fireplace grate collects the ashes grown cold when the embers finally die. This is the cremation of our pasts.

    I do not believe I could remain a Christian if the wisdom of our faith didn't include Ash Wednesday. I am so much more at home here than on any Easter morning.

    Among all the hurts we have inflicted that we cannot heal, and all the sadness we have caused that we cannot relieve, and among all our disappointments small and large to ourselves and others, together with the palm fronds from last year's Palm Sunday, they are all consigned to the fires of God's relentless, ruthless love.

    How right that our mistaken parade in honor of our concept of a Messiah should be incinerated along with all our regrets.

    Our hopes are not big enough to imagine God's future for us. And so, today, upon our brows we wear the sign of regret, if not of repentance. But we must remember, however much we have cost God, that God does not number us among God's regrets.

    That, my friends, is grace. Pure grace, undeserved. That alone can wash away the ashes.

  • Slow Conversation

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 13, 2018

    Slow ConversationMost of us are familiar with the Slow Food movement, an international effort to recover and celebrate the joys of real food grown by real people on real farms, prepared with care by people who know how, and consumed by people who appreciate the richness and variety of flavors, textures, colors and nutrition you can only get by eating good food.

    Eric Schlosser, in his preface to Corby Kummer's popular book, The Pleasure of Slow Food (2002) writes:

    "The Slow Food movement stands in direct opposition to everything that a fast-food meal represents: blandness, uniformity, conformity, the blind worship of science and technology. ... If fast foods are the culinary equivalent of a sound bite, then Slow Food is an honest, thorough declaration of intent. Many tastes are better than one, this new movement says."

    Recently, on a visit that my associate Sally Pendleton and I had with native Louisvillian Owsley Brown III at his office in San Francisco, we noticed with interest the title of a journal sitting on his coffee table: "Slow Money." The Slow Money movement, it turns out, was started by Woody Tasch in 2008. It is dedicated to organizing investors and philanthropists to provide capital to organic farms, smaller food producers, and local food systems.

    The Slow Money movement takes its name from the Slow Food movement and invests in cultivating the kinds of relationships that ensure that people have access to good food, real food. The movement is having a terrific impact on philanthropy by encouraging a deeper engagement by givers in the organizations that receive their gifts. The movement invites philanthropists to make a long-term difference by investing in the health of others, and not just to relieve a momentarily urgent need by writing a single check. The Slow Money Institute to date has invested in excess of $50 million in five hundred organic and local food enterprises.

    Shortly after returning to Louisville from this visit, Sally said to me that she had discovered a corresponding "Slow" movement in the field of communications, too. So, I started looking into it.

    Turns out that Anthony K. Tjan (CEO of the venture capital firm, Cue Ball) introduced the idea of "Slow Conversation" in an essay in the Harvard Business Review in January of 2013. Tjan's concept of "Slow Conversation" has a particular feature in common with "Slow Food" and "Slow Money." It seeks to restore a sense of reality to communications, a sense of authenticity, of truthfulness and of relationality to listening and speech.

    At a time when both the speed and media of communications tend to truncate and depersonalize messages thus rendering them incendiary or useless, and when seeds of distrust are sown routinely for the sake of short-term interests and political gain, it is especially timely to hear from Tjan.

    He writes:

    "I can't help feeling that the proliferation of new communication channels and 'smart' devices has only further fragmented and strained the flow of real conversations. It has obscured content that is worth consuming. ... it has frequently gotten in the way of what we are trying to optimize, which is connectivity. In fact, it is clear that in many instances it has diluted the quality and relevance of our conversations. ... Speedy, frequent, high-volume communication does not necessarily equate with thoughtful and effective communication."

    Building on his observations, Tjan made three "New Year's Resolutions for 2013" which he encouraged the readers of his essay also to adopt. If anything, they are even more timely in 2018.

    1. Focus on being present in the moment, not recording it.
    2. Focus on creating new moments worth commenting on, not commenting on someone else's.
    3. Face real issues and real priorities with real conversations.

    Tjan admits that his resolutions may sound retrograde, even reactive, to the flow of a society which believes that fast is always better than slow, and more is always better than less. And he makes clear that he is a "fully connected" citizen of the hi-tech world. But neither of these disclaimers undercut his basic message. And, although I am a citizen of the same hi-tech world, though not a native to it, based on my observations of current culture, I think Tjan is onto something important.

    We are malnourished, not only because of poor dietary nutrition, but because of poor relational nutrition. We hunger and thirst for wisdom and reliable knowledge in a deluge of facts and lies. We are struggling, often unsuccessfully, not only to bring real food unadulterated by chemicals and toxins to our dinner tables, but to face one another across those tables in civil and constructive conversation.

    There are many potential applications to Tjan's resolutions: business, education, politics, philanthropy and faith communities. But I would like to demonstrate the relevance of his ideas with examples we are seeing increasingly in theological schools.

    People coming to theological schools today are often less capable of having deep, sustained, constructive and critical conversations face-to-face than many of us have ever seen. Many students and staff prefer to text and tweet, and some of the older ones to email, rather than simply to walk next door to have a conversation. The messages they send are economic in words, and sometimes provide just what is needed in the situation. The apparent efficiency of these virtual communications, however, is sometimes undercut by their very economy and by their disembodied character.

    If we aren't speaking and listening with care, and particularly face-to-face, it is far easier to misread important interpersonal signals. Sometimes the smallest signals lead to large unintended and unforeseen conflicts, and sometimes these conflicts are only exacerbated by trying to respond to one another via the medium that helped cause the problem in the first place.

    A modicum of respect and trust is necessary for people to work together. But this is doubly true for churches, other faith communities, and the seminaries that prepare their leadership. Reading people's faces and bodies is a skill as essential for good ministry and counseling as reading any biblical text. And it is especially ironic that a faith built upon the incarnation should not understand this. John's Gospel, after all, says: "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son," not, "For God so loved the world that he sent a tweet."

    Another, and possibly even more important idea is contained in Tjan's resolutions: Our communications are at their best when they are grounded in real personal experiences and real personal relationships. And these take time to cultivate. There is a sense of personal responsibility woven into all of Tjan's resolutions. He asks us to resolve to be present in the moment with others, to act creatively instead of just critically, and to converse about things that really matter and that can lead to positive action.

    Real conversations happen between real people in real time. Real conversations often advance because of the thoughtful pauses that occur, the slight signs we give to one another, a nod of agreement that says "I'm tracking with you," a verbal, "ah, I see," when comprehending the roots of the other person's meaning. Empathy requires presence to be communicated, received and reciprocated. And the communication of empathy often leads to greater cooperation. Recent studies, in fact, have indicated that conversational signals (only really possible face-to-face) actually may be essential aspects of human and human-social evolution. They seem to have been a key part of that wondrous progress of our species that made it possible for us to cooperate together and coordinate our actions for the common good.*

    So often we don't come up with our own ideas (Do we?). This essay, for good or ill, is a product of a slow conversation that started a few weeks ago on the West Coast, that moved forward yesterday in Louisville because of new insights shared by one partner in the conversation, and culminated this morning in this essay by the other.

    We are all conversation partners in enterprises of discovering new ideas together. "Thinking out loud," we might call it, as words and pauses and grimaces and smiles, a raised eyebrow here, a sigh there, give birth to thoughts we would never have had on our own.

    If we take the time to allow conversation to be cultivated, to grow, to be nurtured and to come to maturity, we may find that conversations stretch not over minutes, or even hours, but lifetimes, nourishing us and our communities. When we sustain them, we are sustained by them.

    So how do we practice "Slow Conversation"?

    When in a retreat, I often practice the discipline of walking meditation. The purpose of this approach to meditation is to slow us down physically so we can actually notice our walking, so we are more conscious of how our bodies move, so that we attend better to present situations, so that we are more aware of ourselves and others and our whole environment. It is a practice intended to teach mindfulness.

    A similar conversational discipline might encourage us to slow down, and think, and maybe NOT to press “send” on our electronic device after writing a hasty and angry response. It might encourage us to slide our chairs back, cross our legs, take a few deep, slow breaths and pause awhile before reacting to something disagreeable or threatening that someone says to us or about us. It might encourage us to repeat a person's argument back to them with such care that they will recognize it as their own, before we begin to formulate any response to them. It might even encourage us to let some apparently ill-intended comments fly right past us without any reaction at all. In other words, it will encourage us to disconnect ourselves from those seemingly automatic impulses that make us react, to slow ourselves down enough that conversations and relationships have a chance to grow.

    Slow Conversation is a great idea for a movement; let's just not move too fast.

    * See the fascinating essay, "The Importance of Pauses in Conversation," in the December 16, 2017 issue of The Economist, p. 78.

  • A Charge Worthy of Us All

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 06, 2018

    Convocation 2
    Last Thursday, we had the privilege of installing Marcus A. Hong as Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Trustee Elizabeth Clay and I, on behalf of the Board of Trustees, installed Marcus, presenting to Marcus the vows which every professor here takes. Marcus asked Student Body President Brittany Hesson to deliver a charge on behalf of the students. It was one of the most powerful charges any of us have heard, and it was suggested that we find a way of sharing it with the larger seminary community.

    The charge is indeed worthy of hearing again, not only as a charge to Marcus, but to all of us. With Brittany's permission, it is printed in full. Thank you, Brittany, for your willingness to speak from your heart and from the heart of your experience as a student at Louisville Seminary.

    Louisville Seminary Spring 2018 Convocation
    Student Charge to Marcus Hong
    Brittany Hesson, Student Body President

    Brittany Hesson with captionThe search for the Director of Field Education occurred during my second semester here at Louisville Seminary, and I remember that it was during his chapel service that I knew that, out of all the candidates, Marcus Hong would be the one to join us here on campus. I was at the point of my seminary experience where I spent too much energy on being critical and not enough energy on being vulnerable, wondering if I was cut out for seminary at all. It’s a scary place to be, but during that chapel service, I found myself in honest personal reflection, and I once again felt comfortable just being moved by the word of God. After that, I left this chapel saying, “We need him here.” And we really do. I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from Marcus over the past year-and-a-half, and I have not been disappointed. This charge today comes from that experience. Marcus, nothing here is new, as you have been doing all of this all along, but is simply a request to keep doing what you have been doing. With that, Marcus Hong …

    I charge you to … Teach us.
    Teach us that theological education, with all its new terminology and eye-opening experiences, doesn’t have to be scary. Teach us to think critically and openly. Teach us that the Psalms can be used for more than just a Presbyterian call to worship. Teach us that spiritual disciplines enhance not only our communal work in ministry, but our personal relationship with God.  Teach us how to be good stewards of our years of theological education. Teach us how to share what we have analyzed, processed, dissected, and discussed with people of all ages and identities in our current and future contexts. Teach us that we can still love the Bible and the ministries in which we serve, even on the days when that seems too difficult.

    Because words aren’t the only way to learn, I charge you to … Show us.
    Show us your passion for ministry and the text; in the classroom, in committee meetings, in field education, and in worship. Show us an example of quality leadership (and not just the do-all-the-things-and-do-them-well type of leadership either). Show us how to find joy in our work, whatever and wherever that may be. Show us that all of the -ologies we learn about in the classroom are more than just words on paper. Show us how they are manifested in our real, everyday life. Show us where to find God in our case study scenarios. Show us that it’s okay to not have all of the answers. Show us that we don’t have to lose who we are to do what we have been called to do.

    And finally, I charge you to … Remind us.
    Remind us that, even on our busiest days, we can take a break. Remind us that honest vulnerability is also an asset. Remind us of the importance of the simple act of showing up. Remind us (especially when the inevitable emails roll in asking about when our papers will be graded) that you, too, are human. Now, because we all know that ministry is not limited to the person who holds a title, these final words extend to the whole Hong family. Remind us that there is life outside of these walls and there are priorities beyond assignments, meetings, and deadlines. Remind us that laughter and dancing are good for the soul. Remind us that we are beloved children of God. Remind us that we are never in this life alone.

    Thank you. I look forward to what the coming years will bring for you and Louisville Seminary.

  • The Strangest Faith We Can't Imagine

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 02, 2018

    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!

    Strangest FaithImagine, if you will, a bizarre religious ritual, a secret initiation ceremony, conducted by a strange sect. The neophytes have only ever been exposed to a portion of the regular ceremonies of the faithful. The most important, the most sacred, portions of the worship services of this sect remain closed and shrouded to the public, open only to the initiated. These parts of their worship are called the Mysteries.

    You have heard rumors of what they do and how their beliefs run counter to the whole culture, but you are only able to glean the most vague and general ideas of their core beliefs. It's all a little disconcerting, especially given the contempt in which this sect is held by many of the most trustworthy voices in respectable society.

    You have heard from a friend who took the plunge into this sect, that after several weeks of teaching (you've wondered if it shouldn't be called “indoctrination”), those who endure are taken into the community in the initiation ceremony that is held only once a year. The ceremony coincides with the feast day of one of the most ancient of goddesses, a divine being who promises to bring fertility and rebirth year after year to the dead earth. Your friend says that it is only coincidental that the pagan holiday happens at the same time. Who knows?

    In this ceremony, according to your friend, they enter the most exclusive section of the sect's temple. The faces of neophytes are veiled, maybe they are blindfolded. You're not sure about that. They are told that they await their god's cleansing and purging. They strip. Yes, they take off their clothes. Words are said over them, and rites are performed involving oil and water. After which they are clothed in white. It is as though they are planted in the ground and emerge to new life, he says. Then, for the first time, they are admitted to the central Mysteries of the sect's life together in which they share some sort of love feast that involves blood and flesh by which they are said to unite with their deity, though how this all works was not made clear.

    This is a strange faith. No doubt about it.

    As you surmised, somewhere along the way, I am describing the rite of baptism in the early Christian Church as it is described primarily by the early father of the church, St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his appropriately (and cryptically) named "Procatechesis" and "Five Mystagogical Catecheses."*

    Long before covered dish suppers, Mothers' Day, and Sunday school, long before those vast Gothic cathedrals rose above European capitals, before mendicant friars and monks trudged onto the scene, even before the great councils of the Church hammered our Christological and Trinitarian controversies into orthodox confessions, this is what we looked like. Shrouded in darkness, moving among the shades and shadows that remind us that we are dealing with holy and not common things, our spiritual forebears performed these rituals as a part of their spiritual and mystical participation in the realty of God among us.

    They renounced the devil and all his works, his pomp and his minions, just as we do. But when they called the devil a roaring lion walking about, seeking whom he might devour (I Peter 5:8), they glimpsed the pacing beast in the gathering darkness from the corner of their eye; they smelled the scent of the beast on the breeze; they still trembled when the devil slipped among them, unlike us, who when we think of the devil at all think only of Halloween costumes.

    When they stripped off their regular clothes, they did so to emulate the naked Jesus hanging shamed upon the cross. Naked, the oil of exorcism was poured upon their heads. And thus they entered the waters of baptism, so that when they rose from baptism, and put on those robes of white, they might also know in their hearts some semblance of being "clothed in Christ."

    I have read and re-read the accounts of baptism in Cyril of Jerusalem, even as I have read again and again the Shepherd of Hermas, the martyrdom of Polycarp (that early father who personally knew St. John the Beloved Apostle), and other early texts of our faith. And, again and again, I am confronted by the profound strangeness, the stubborn otherness, and the obdurate foreignness of our faith.

    Reading these earliest accounts of becoming and being Christian, I have come to a conclusion: feeling familiar in and comfortable with one's faith is vastly overrated. In fact, the domestication of Christian faith and practices may explain to some degree why it has become increasingly an option many people can do without.

    Several years ago some popular books and articles told pastors and lay leaders of congregations that if they wanted to appeal to modern worshippers, they needed to make their places of worship more convivial, more accessible, and less removed from everyday life. People want the familiar, we were told. Church architecture, therefore, started imitating banks and shopping malls and fitness centers. Sanctuaries looked increasingly more like high-tech theaters, and chancels became stages for performance. In a way, the church and its message (converting grace into unconditional acceptance and evil into bad habits, and the gospel into self-realization) became so relevant that gradually it became just one more path to a happy life that, frankly, we could take or leave. In other words, the Christian faith in its quest for relevance became irrelevant.

    But what if redemption is really quite different from self-realization?

    What if the self isn't something to be actualized, but lost?

    What if reconciliation is more than just "connecting" in a weekend encounter group or virtually? What if our relationships, so often characterized by sorrow and regret, can only be healed at a cost we cannot pay?

    What if the genius of our faith lies in its very strangeness, not on its familiarity?

    I ask these questions not as a retrograde theologian seeking to return the church to some imagined past when theology was pure. I ask these questions as a seeker myself and as one mystified by the difficulty of relating to the people closest to me. We skate along on the surface of a frozen pond, only dimly aware of the shadowy creatures lurking in the icy mud under the crisp thin surface. And if those who are closest to me are so shrouded in mystery, what of the Being of Being, the Groundless Ground, That Which Resists Being Named?

    C.S. Lewis, in his wonderful novel, Till We Have Faces, reminds us that the sacred is not thin and clear like water, but thick and dark like blood. I have long believed that the best sanctuaries have dark corners, and the passages of scripture most to be prized are those that resist comprehension. Nothing possible can save us, said poet W.H. Auden. I believe because it is impossible, said Tertullian of Carthage. Give it to us strange not straight, I would say, if we want to brush up against the divine.

    Union with God isn't a normal aspiration we chat about at Starbucks. And what if dying on a cross isn't just a metaphor to which we resort in the spring in that odd week we call “holy” between Palm Sunday and Easter? And what if resurrection isn't the cozy promise of an everlasting family reunion but a new creation in a new heaven and earth, in which we discern at last that the selves we clung to so tenaciously in life and the identities we fought so fiercely to defend were the very things that kept us alienated from one another.

    I recall an odd conversation with a student in one of the first theology courses I ever taught, something like twenty-five years ago. After lecturing on the power of God's love to burn away all the dross in us, to purge us of sin, to render us worthy of the presence of God, a student said to me, "This all sounds depressingly Catholic to me. Are you saying that we have to go to Purgatory in order to go to Heaven?" My response was, "I don't know anything about Purgatory or Heaven. But, aren't there things in yourself you long for God to burn away? And what if after passing through the fire of God's love, there's nothing left but the love of God?

    What if Christian faith is up to something so important, in other words, that we can't domesticate it?

    "Thou wert called a Catechumen," writes Cyril at the dawn of the church, "which means, hearing with the ears, hearing hope, and not perceiving; hearing mysteries, yet not understanding: hearing scriptures, yet not knowing their depth. Thou no longer hearest with the ears, but thou hearest within; for the indwelling Spirit henceforth fashions thy mind into the house of God. When thou shalt hear what is written concerning mysteries, then thou shalt understand, what hitherto thou knowest not. And think not it is a trifle thou receivest."*

    This faith is strange, bizarre, unclear, even incomprehensible, if we get it right. Thank God.

    When we are dealing with the mysteries of holy reality, don't expect to feel at home. Expect to feel the ground dropping out from under our feet. Approaching burning bushes, we remove our shoes. It doesn't matter that we don't understand why.

    "Think not it is a trifle you receive."
    * The most accessible translation of which is provided in a wonderful edition On the Christian Sacraments from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (1986), which, helpfully, provides the Greek text as well as a serviceable English translation. Citation, pp. 43-44.

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