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Thinking Out Loud
  • Thin Places: Nameless Mystery

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 30, 2015

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Nameless Mystery 2The traditional viva voce at the culmination of the British system of doctoral studies can be intimidating. The candidate sits in a room alone with two examiners, one internal to his or her university, and the second, the external examiner, comes from another university. They can ask any question within a discipline, and the experience can be so terrifying that I have known of people, long finished with their coursework and dissertations, putting off this examination for years.

    My external examiner was the late Professor Colin Gunton of King's College, University of London, one of the most brilliant theological minds of his generation and a scholar I had long admired. In the course of my examination, he did something unexpected. He made a personal observation that had a profound effect on my faith as much as on my theological and philosophical inquiries. He observed that John McLeod Campbell, one of the subjects studied in my research, seemed to view the triune God almost like an idealized Victorian family. "Very cozy," Gunton said; but he asked if this is really adequate.

    His comment, in time, rubbed a blister on my soul. I had, after all, only recently and only gradually returned to faith while I was in my doctoral studies.

    Believing in God was a huge step for me. Believing in a personal God, bigger still. But Gunton's question grew there in my mind quietly after I graduated, as I continued to serve as a pastor, and, eventually, when I started teaching. I've noted before in this blog how faith is given by God and, I believe, can be withdrawn by God - how God's apparent absences can be gifts of the Living God who refuses to be at our beck and call. Now, however, I found myself experiencing something rather different from doubt or belief, something different from a consciousness of God's absences or presence. I began to sense the ways God might deconstruct our beliefs and ideas about God, however pious these beliefs and ideas might be, however much we might have learned from them and gained from them, been blessed and even sustained by them.

    The dogmatic chickens let loose by Colin Gunton had come home to roost, and gradually I realized that it wasn't just John McLeod Campbell's concept of God that resembled a cozy Victorian family. It was mine, too. And something in me was outgrowing the parlor in which this family passed its long winter evenings.

    The discontent may have begun long before Gunton said what he said. Perhaps it had begun with my study of the famed Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus; the fourth-century students of Evagrius Ponticus; and, ultimately, of Origen Adamantius. Perhaps it had begun even before this, when as a young pastor I read Paul Tillich and Karl Jaspers voraciously, or as a high school and college student, when I fell in love with Lev TolstoyNikos Kazantzakis and Fyodor Dostoevsky. It could have been so many factors. We all are made up of so many factors, flowing, intermingling, ever changing, never fixed. We are ourselves Heraclitus' stream one cannot step into twice.

    It all came to a head for me in 1999 while I was on sabbatical at Oxford. I was reading God's Funeral, A.N. Wilson's brilliant study* of the loss of faith in Victorian England at the rise of the modern scientific era. Wilson, who is known for his award-winning biographies of Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis, works his way through the nineteenth century when Britain and much of Europe began to see the tenets of Christian orthodoxy as inadequate to explain life's origins and meaning. Ironically, by the end of this book, Wilson finds himself not so much aligned with Thomas Hardy, whose non-belief is expressed in the poem that gives Wilson the title of his book, God's Funeral, but with William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, whose generous agnosticism carries in its heart an affection for humanity, a respect for transcendence and a longing for that ultimate reality we designate as "God."

    This intellectual pilgrimage left me longing for faith larger than my Victorian parlor had afforded, and I found myself in a new place spiritually. And, yet, not a new place at all. Paul Tillich had urged us to consider that while "God is not a person," God "is not less than a person,"** just as Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus had signaled that when we speak of Trinity, of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, we are not speaking the "name" of the unnameable God, but are describing a relationship, the plurality and unity that lies at the heart of Being, that mystery that cannot be named, reverence for whom reduces us to awed silence before the Word that God sent.***

    All of which takes me to my back porch, where a few months ago I sat engaged in mindfulness meditation. I had been sitting there a very long time in silence when something came across my mind that was at first awesome beyond words. It was as though I was looking over into the trackless vastness of limitless space, dark and cold, beyond all whirling galaxies, their black holes hidden at their darkly sparkling centers, their stars only dimly distant. As I looked into this deep space, quite suddenly it was as though a voice said to me, "the universe has no regard."

    The meaning seemed clear. The universe does not care whether I exist or I don't. This field of energy and matter is, what it is and I am utterly insignificant to it. As I said, at first this scene was only awesome. Then, something else dawned on me, not fear exactly, but sadness; then resignation, if not acceptance.

    As one does in the practice of meditation, I sat with these feelings as much as possible without judging them or wishing them to be otherwise. Then without warning, a face appeared in the midst of these thoughts. It was the smiling face of one of my granddaughters, Clara. We have all seen such smiles a thousand times - a smile of pure, simple affection and love, a smile of which only a small child is capable. And, as though my mind were engaged in a conversation beyond me, I was conscious of something like an insight forming: "A universe in which that smile is possible cannot be without love."

    There are moments when a theology comes full circle. Perhaps there is a naïveté beyond the second naïveté. And, perhaps John McLeod Campbell's God, whose every act is motivated by filial love, is not so distant from William James' being behind and beyond all the universes and multiverses that stretch out forever. Perhaps. And perhaps D.S. Cairns also was right when he insisted - against so much evidence that was stacking up against every argument for the existence of a loving God - that at the heart of the universe there beats a parent's heart.**** Or, perhaps, the loving heart of a very small child.

    *A.N. Wilson. God's Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization. London: John Murray, 1999.
    **A statement which Thich Nhat Hanh reflects on in his Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 12-13.
    *** An especially beautiful and accessible expression of this theological insight can be glimpsed in "The Second Theological Oration" of Gregory of Nazianzus; see the edition published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (2002) under the title, On God and Christ: Five a Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, translated, with notes by Lionel Wickham.
    **** D.S. Cairns, The Riddle of the World (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1937), 321-327.

  • To Do A Very Beautiful Thing

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2015

    Beautiful thingThe phrase, "to do a very beautiful thing," is from Seneca, the ancient Stoic philosopher, and is found in his essay on giving gifts ("De Beneficiis"). For Seneca, a person's attitude toward giving was an essential aspect of character. In the passage where our opening phrase appears, he is encouraging the giver not to allow even the ingratitude of a recipient to prevent him or her from giving. After all, Seneca says, "not even the mortal gods are deterred from showing lavish and unceasing kindness to those who are sacrilegious and indifferent to them."

    Lucius Annaeus Seneca lived at the beginning of the Christian era. He was a public intellectual and a politician. He incurred the wrath of Roman Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero, the latter of the three permitting him to commit suicide after he was accused of participating in Piso's plot against Nero (whom he had once tutored). Seneca's brother Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, is mentioned in the Book of Acts (18:12); Paul was brought before Gallio's tribunal.

    Seneca's primary goal as a philosopher was to teach virtue, how to live a life according to the will of God. According to Seneca, wisdom is fundamental to goodness. As he famously said, "There is no philosophy without goodness, and no goodness without philosophy." The word "philosophy" means for him, as for other Stoics such as Epictetus, the love of wisdom and not a technical academic discipline. Seneca wants to show the way for people to align their will with the will of God, to submit themselves so thoroughly to God's way that no circumstances of life nor actions of others can sway them from doing that which is true and right. Thus, his reflections on giving, whether the recipient is grateful or not. Why should we allow the ingratitude of a person receiving a gift to prevent us from doing something very beautiful, i.e., giving?

    Seneca's understanding of giving reminds me of something an old friend, Dr. Lou Adams, once said to me. As I recall, I was attempting to determine whether or not I should give money to something or the other. Lou allowed me to talk for awhile. He was good at listening. (His day job was as director of the counseling center at the Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University). When I stopped talking, Lou said something to the effect of this: "Well, of course, from a Christian perspective, God doesn't seem to expect us to evaluate the worthiness of the cause or the person to whom we give. Our responsibility is to give, and that's between us and God, not us and the recipient of our benevolence." As bizarre as it may sound, this had never occurred to me. Then Lou reminded me of Jesus' observation that "the rain falls on the just and the unjust," a saying of Jesus that is similar to Seneca's observation.

    It is striking to me that the Stoic and the Christian so often wind up in the same neighborhood, though we may drive down different streets to get there. Seneca described giving as "the chief bond of human society." The relationship between givers and those who benefit from giving is a sacred bond. And, while our liberality ought not to be conditioned by the gratitude of those who receive a gift from our hand, we may, according to Seneca, discover that generosity begets generosity. As he says, "Even wild beasts are sensible of good offices, and no creature is so savage that it will not be softened by kindness and made to love the hand that gives it."

    Whereas it is conventional to assume a kind of hierarchy of virtue between the giver and the receiver, an expression of a power relationship based on generosity, especially when considering charitable giving, Seneca presents an illustration in which the students of Socrates are placed in the role of givers, and the great philosopher is the receiver. Seneca's illustration does not stop merely at reversing the usual power relationship so often assumed in charity. Seneca tells how one of Socrates' students by the name of Aeschines confesses to his teacher that he possesses nothing valuable enough to give Socrates, except, that is, himself.

    "This gift," says Aeschines, "such as it is, I beg you to take in good part, and bear in mind that the others, though they gave to you much, have left more for themselves."

    Socrates acknowledged the greatness of his student's gift, and promised that he intended to return the gift to him in time. When he did at last return Aeschines to himself, Socrates hoped to return him "a better man" for the education he received.

    Seneca comments on the story: "You see how even in pinching poverty the heart finds the means for generosity." Hearing this illustration, it is hard not to think of Jesus' story of the widow's mites.

    The relationship between the one giving and the one receiving is complex. Humility is called forth in both the giver and the recipient; as Seneca says, "Nature's rule is that a person should first become a debtor, and then should return gratitude."

    The one receiving a gift clearly benefits in this relationship, but so does the giver, who often feels a sense of joy that is unique to giving. And so the bond of reciprocity is strengthened. Even when a gift is freely given, even when given without any expectation of an expression of gratitude, the giving creates the opportunity and invites the possibility of creating a grateful heart, indeed more than one grateful heart, because everyone who gives knows they have first received.

    Doing "a very beautiful thing" encourages us to do even more.

    NOTE: All references to Seneca are to the Loeb Classical Library bilingual edition of Seneca's Moral Essays, Volume III, English translation by John W. Basore (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935).

  • Thin Places: Accidental Pilgrim

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 20, 2015

    A Spirituality Notebook

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Accidental Pilgrim 1I made my way up a side aisle of Durham Cathedral to a chair near one of the tombs that stand between the great supporting columns. Looking around sheepishly, I knelt down and stumbled into prayer.

    The day before, I had participated in a tour of the cathedral organized by the university. Among the crowd of "ruin bibbers," as poet Philip Larkin might have called this mixed group of pilgrims and liturgical tourists, I craned my neck peering up into the dim recesses of walls and rooflines trying to discern the difference between Romanesque and Gothic architectural details. I listened appreciatively to the guide's stories, historical and legendary. Along with everyone else, I marveled at the beauty of the building and the ethereal sounds of the choir as it rehearsed.

    We visited, as both thorough tourists and faithful pilgrims must, the tomb of the Venerable Bede at one end of the cathedral and the shrine of St. Cuthbert behind the High Altar at the other. For months I had been pursuing textual rabbits through the tangled hedgerows of ancient English Christianity, and had spent a lot of time in the company of the Bede, reading his  Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the legends of Cuthbert and his contemporaries and other Christian writings from what we have often called "The Dark Ages." But, for whatever reasons, I had not connected these months of historical study with the fact that I would be spending extended time in a place sacred to the memory of these two British saints. But there I was, and being in that place, I had gradually begun to suspect that maybe I had been suckered into this ostensibly secular venture by a couple of long-dead monks.

    I had not come to Durham as a pilgrim, at least not intentionally. Far from it. I had come to explore the possibility that I should "fess up" and leave the Christian ministry. I had come to take an interdisciplinary course on Shakespeare's dramatic cycle of Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V and their relationship to late Medieval English history. My academic interests had steadily but surely strayed from my original discipline of historical theology and philosophy of religion to the areas of history and literature. That was actually why I had begun to read the Bede and other early historians in the first place. I had come to Durham incognito, my clerical dog collar stowed in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I served a congregation and was engaged in research toward a Ph.D. in theology. I had come to Durham, if anything, to run away from just such a situation as the one in which I found myself.

    As I took my seat in the nave of the cathedral and slipped slowly to my knees, I felt about as conflicted as you can imagine. I prayed: "God, I don't really believe you exist. But we really need to talk."

    The past few days in Durham had only heightened my confusion, but the roots of my confusion extended back through months and years of doubt and uncertainty. They culminated in a conversation with my wife, Debbie, on a Sunday afternoon the previous spring. We had just returned to our home following church services at the historic Beechgrove Church, where I served as a pastoral assistant. Our children romped into the house ahead of us and clattered up the stairs to their rooms to change into play clothes. We walked into our bedroom. As Debbie slipped off her coat and hung it in the wardrobe, I took off my clerical collar, studied it in my hands for a moment and tossed it onto the duvet.

    I looked at Debbie and said, "You know, I don't believe any of it anymore." She said, "I know." And so began our conversations about what I should do.

    It is a painful thing for a minister to discover he doesn't believe in God. At least it was hard for me. I have come to believe that profound, even extended, doubt is but an aspect of faith, and an important aspect at that. Doubt, I have come to believe, is like a refiner's fire through which our faith can pass burning away the dross of superstition and sentimentality. I have come to treasure my experiences with doubt as a gift from God. I have even come to believe that the pain I felt during those months in Aberdeen was one of the surest signs of God's love. But, at that moment, all I could feel was sadness and anxiety and emptiness.

    What, after all, is a minister to do if he or she no longer really believes in God? I could not proceed with business as usual, not if I had any integrity. And, so, we decided that I should quietly explore other vocational options. I was, after all, a teacher. I was doing post-graduate research in a university. If I wished, I could change disciplinary fields.

    Therefore, when an opportunity came to take an intensive summer course at another university, a university where I was not known, I jumped at it. This was a perfect chance, I thought, to test other vocational options.

    As it turned out, I was right, but I could not have foreseen the outcome.

    Seldom in my experience does life turn on a dime. I am as doubtful of sudden conversions as I am of faith untested. I didn't "lose" my faith overnight, and it didn't "return" instantly either. I had drifted into unfaith, slowly and steadily, over the period of several years.

    Accidental Pilgrim 2As a pastor, first in a busy suburban parish and later in a black-dirt farming community in Central Texas, I preached and studied and tended the needs of my people. Even more important, I reveled in marriage and the birth and early childhood of our children. After I finished a third degree, Debbie earned her master's degree. She taught school. We both served on professional committees, community councils and in civic clubs. We were deeply committed to the life of the communities in which we lived. We were busy with all of the things that young parents are busy doing, including having a lively social calendar with friends who had children the same age as ours. We loved it all. And I loved to preach, write and study. My intellectual curiosity was like a wonderful thirst that nothing could quench.

    Somewhere in the midst of all of this busy living and all of this loving and all of this ministering to the needs of others, I just stopped believing. It was like my personal faith had been coasting down a long hill. At first, the hill was steep, and I coasted just fine. Then slowly, gradually, the way flattened out, until I realized one day there was just no more momentum. I still loved theology. I really enjoyed the study of historical theology, investigating the historical and social and political sources of beliefs as they emerged in faith communities. I was dead set on pursuing a Ph.D. in the subject. But it had become more of an intellectual enterprise than an affair of the heart, as though the ultimate reference point - the actual subject of the study - had gradually dimmed from my view. I had grown skeptical as to whether theology really was speaking of God at all or was just talking about human experiences, feelings, aspirations, compulsions and anxieties under the cloak of "God-talk." I don't know how it happens with others who experience crises of faith, but for me, it happened so gradually that I simply did not notice until, one day I looked up and realized that actually believing in God had slipped through my fingers like water.

    Within the first few weeks of arriving at the University of Aberdeen, it became clear that the real gap was not between areas of research but between my theological interests and my personal faith. Busyness kept the awareness within bounds. I kept my lack of faith hidden. I was quietly miserable for a very long time, unwilling to talk to anyone about what was going on in my heart and in my head. Not surprisingly, I was also profoundly lonely. Longtime mentors and friends were thousands of miles away. Mail was slow. (This was well before the days of email and international phone calls were expensive.) So I held my peace - or what passed for peace. Until the God I didn't believe in sent me a friend.

    Gary arrived late in that first academic year, a death holding up his family's move to Scotland. We almost immediately became friends, and, as our friendship developed, I eventually confessed to Gary that I no longer really believed in God. Gary didn't try to argue me into faith. He knew that would be futile. In fact, he agreed with my contention that you can't lay one proposition behind another and mount a convincing argument for God's existence. We were both students of philosophy and religion, and both saw this fact clearly.

    One day, however, Gary took what I now realize was a considerable risk in our friendship to offer me an analogy regarding belief in God. He said he understood Christian faith more as a pair of spectacles through which we see and make sense of the world around us than as a set of propositions adding up to a convincing proof for God's existence. The pragmatism of his analogy appealed to me. He invited me to put on the spectacles again to see if the world came better into focus. I was intrigued. But really that was all. When summer came I left for Durham to test other options.

    Arriving the day before the seminar began, I had moved my suitcases up to my small and Spartan dorm room in the residential college that would be my temporary home for a few weeks. I was unpacking when I heard weeping coming from the stairwell. Upon investigating, I found a young woman, perhaps in her late twenties, sitting alone on the stairs crying. She was one of the housekeepers for the college. I asked her if I could be of any help. She invited me to sit beside her and she poured out her heart. After listening to her tell her story, I asked her if she would like to pray. She said she would like that very much. And I prayed with her.

    I went back to my room, and she went on about her business. As I stood beside my small dresser continuing to unpack, suddenly I asked myself, "Why did I ask her if she wanted to pray?" Force of habit? Social convention? I had sometimes found it awkward, even as a pastor, to ask a parishioner if they wanted to pray in the hospital. How was it that I (who didn't believe in God anymore!) offered to pray with someone I didn't even know? What was this tug of vocation in the heart of someone with such profound doubts? Or, to put it even more directly, how was it possible to be "called" when I didn't believe there was someone out there to do the calling?

    As the days wore on, and I engaged in the course of study, I found myself further conflicted and self-stymied (if that is even a word). As the class worked through these wonderful Shakespearean dramas with our tutor, I kept resisting what one might call any "transcendent point of reference." The more I did this, the less real, engaging and interesting the world seemed. Without a transcendent point of reference, the less sense was I able to make of life.

    I have often heard people talk about cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable struggle of the mind to hold together contradictory or conflicting ideas, to make sense of incongruities and ambiguities. Such dissonance can be very creative. Cognitive dissonance can also make you pretty miserable. And it was a miserable person who found himself on his knees one late afternoon in Durham Cathedral asking a deity he did not believe in for help.

    Accidental Pilgrim 3Since that day in 1988, I have prayed in Durham Cathedral many times. If there's a picture by the definition of "Thin Places" in my personal dictionary, it would be J.M.W. Turner's interior painting of the cathedral. I believe it is the most beautiful cathedral in all of Europe. Even with crowds of uniformed school children being herded through its cloisters by their teachers, even with the dim rumble of chatter from tourist echoing through its hallowed aisles, the place whispers holiness, apartness. Its whispers pervade the space and prevail over any din, and it continues to invite prayer.

    Kneeling there recently, I remembered clearly the conflict I felt as I knelt there some twenty-five years ago. I remembered the silence in which I knelt. I remembered also that when I stood up again to leave that spot, I had been given the gift of a glimpse of a promise of a beginning of faith again.

    There was a great deal that lay in the future that day, twenty-five years ago, beyond that moment in the cathedral. Over time, I came to believe that God had been behind my loss of faith. In time, I began to suspect that maybe a couple of long-dead monks were somehow complicit in God's project to bring me back to faith - an idea I find both arrogant and humbling. I also gained a sense that my vocation as a pastor somehow did run deeper than my identity as a person.

    This renewal of faith began so mustard-seed small that I could hardly have seen it if I had held it in my hand. But in time I even engaged in my friend Gary's thought experiment and came to believe that life does come into focus better through the spectacles of faith.

    None of this happened overnight, and there was far more going on in this recovery of faith than I can possibly put on any page. There were ironic turns and roundabouts and long conversations with other friends. What did become clear, and very quickly, was how little control I really have over what I would call "my faith." This awareness has never left me. Whether I find myself in a stairwell, a classroom or a cathedral, faith seems more than ever a gift for which we cannot take credit when we have it. Nor do I think we should blame others when they do not. Wherever we find ourselves, the thinness of our own capacity to entrust life to God is yet another aspect of faith's givenness.

  • Compromise

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 19, 2015

    Compromise“Compromise” has become a dirty word in America. Maybe in the world beyond America, too.

    Some presidential candidates pout and call others names when their ideas are challenged. More than a few fellow citizens demand that their values must rule the day "or else." Political parties thrive on "my way or the highway" demands. Sadly, too many religious groups confess creeds of contempt for those of other faiths, damning those who differ to hell. I want to believe that we, the people, are more reasonable, more humble, and more generous than the polls portray us, but there are days when one wonders.

    As the author of the book of Job asks, "But where can wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?" (Job 28:12) Where indeed?

    Being philosophically minded, I am tempted to place the blame for our unwillingness to compromise with Plato and his ilk who gave us what Sir Isaiah Berlin once called the philosophia perennis. This "perennial philosophy," which has dominated Western thought (and often butted heads with the far more pluralistic vision at the heart of the Bible's multiplicity of contrasting texts and multitude of perspectives), basically holds to three doctrines:

    (1) Every legitimate question has one and only one right answer. Every real problem has one and only one right solution.
    (2) All right answers and right solutions are knowable if you use the right methods of discovery.
    (3) All right answers and solutions are ultimately compatible with one another forming a harmonious whole.*

    The fundamental belief behind this perennial philosophy is that all true values are absolutely universal, consistent with one another and can be formed into a seamless hierarchy. Thus, no true values should ever come into conflict or need to compete.

    In reality, of course, we see values (important and true values) conflicting all the time. Do we value free speech? Of course we do. We enshrine this value in the U.S. Constitution, but we know that there are occasions when even a value as highly prized as free speech must be constrained. Am I free to shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater? Of course not. We could run through the entire Constitution finding deeply held values that live in tension with other values.

    From a Christian perspective, we believe that anything which assumes the place of an "ultimate value" (as theologian Paul Tillich put it in his little classic, The Dynamics of Faith) is our God. And no relative value (and all human values are relative values) can assume the place of "ultimate value" in substitution for God without our committing idolatry. The living God who revealed himself by becoming human seems particularly resistant to being reduced to any fixed set of human values, however uncomfortable this makes us, and however hard our hard little creeds work to make God as small as we are.

    The philosophical perspective inherited from Plato et al. has even affected the way we read the Bible. Biblical interpreters have been working overtime trying to come up with "harmonies of the gospel" when the Bible itself is perfectly content to give us four separate accounts of the life of Jesus, each one titled simply "According to" in the Greek of the New Testament. (I'll never forget my shock as a young religion major in college when I discovered this fact the first time I took up the New Testament in its original language.)

    As much as I'd like to place the blame with Plato, I suspect that the problem goes much deeper. I suspect the real problem is not philosophical but theological. Maybe we are simply too arrogant and self-centered to believe that the questions we pose have lots of right answers instead of the ones we have come up with, that problems have lots of good solutions even if they cause us some other problems, and that the values we hold most precious may need to be balanced and compromised when they come into conflict with other competing values.

    As the song insists: Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto. Let's call the whole thing off. Frankly, when "the whole thing" we are tempted to call off is the experiment of this strange republic, which has always been committed to finding a way to hang together when we don't share identical views, I think the price tag on not compromising is way too high. That doesn't even begin to touch on "the whole thing" of trying to live together as a human family - all of us made in God's likeness and image!

    Pragmatists have always assumed that no one has all of the right answers, and we are better, smarter and stronger by integrating our ideas. Pragmatists have always assumed that great solutions surprise us when we listen to one another. Pragmatists have always been suspicious of absolutizing our favorite values at the expense of other values. And pragmatism is a distinctively sane way of thinking and living (and it is even a distinctively American philosophy of life).

    We often hear these days that the folks who refuse to compromise are the strong and smart ones. I'm not remotely convinced of that idea. Certainly the refusal to compromise has not been shown to make us a stronger or a smarter society. In fact, those who are least flexible and most dogmatic are often the most insecure. Compromise is a sign of intellectual and moral strength, an indication that one is realistic in facing the complexities and ambiguities of life and of forging a good society. However difficult it may be to compromise, this is a word we must learn to speak again if we are going to learn to live together in this world.

    Sir Isaiah articulated these ideas in a variety of essays, but I will mention only two. See his "The Pursuit of the Ideal" and "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West" in his book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy (London: John Murray, 1990).

  • Transparency

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 12, 2015

    Transparency"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer" - by debates about transparency in the political world. I'm pretty sure that was The Bard's first draft of this highly ironic passage, or would have been if he were around now.

    The debates about the virtue of transparency have emerged again, whether related to the White House, potential presidential candidates, the continuing fallout from the Snowden affair, or controversies about cloaking in secrecy the decision-making of legislators. We hear highly responsible officials argue in favor of less transparency for the sake of security. We hear their critics equate a lack of transparency with a lack of accountability, implying that any official is irresponsible who does not swear to make every policy conversation public. I have heard one journalist comment recently, with surprising frankness, that despite his general preference for transparency, he admits that there's no way if you are in leadership to be transparent enough to satisfy your critics.

    On the whole I think the debate about transparency is good for the republic. Like so many values in a democracy, the virtue of transparency exists in creative tension with other virtues. It is not, nor can it be, nor should it be, an absolute value.

    Most citizens would accept a relatively low level of transparency in times of war, for example, when the element of surprise is one of the most crucial weapons. We recognize that lack of information on the part of the public is justifiable because we don't want our enemies to know what our troops are planning. Most citizens would expect, however, a high level of transparency when it comes to making decisions like planning a new highway or bridge project. A variety of interests, needs and concerns need to be weighed in such circumstances, and a variety of voices should be heard. We know how often vested interests insinuate themselves into public works projects when fat government contracts are at stake. But most citizens are also aware that a good deal of decision-making in the public interest and for the public good lies someplace on the continuum between these cases of war and public works.

    The late great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book, Secrecy: The American Experience, makes a compelling case against the cult of secrecy and the needless proliferation of categories of documents and conversations held in confidence. His experience as a senator convinced him that far too many matters are cloaked in secrecy and far too many pretty routine papers are unnecessarily marked "secret." He knew from bitter experience that the veil of secrecy not only covers the work of the virtuous, but allows vice to operate safe from public scrutiny. (Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Secrecy: The American Experience. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.)

    We worry, with good cause, about the balancing of conflicting values such as security and privacy, national interests and individual civil rights, to mention just a few concerns among many. Michael Ignatieff's Gifford Lectures, delivered in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ignited a firestorm of controversy among political policy-makers, ethicists and theologians. But, in many ways, Ignatieff was simply pointing to irreducible stresses which refuse to settle neatly into a hierarchy of values none of which contradict any other values. (Ignatieff, Michael. The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.)

    The current debates about transparency leave me without a final conclusion, and that is as it should be. But I have come to some preliminary principles which I think may be of value in a variety of organizations and institutions.

    First, the fundamental quality that transparency is intended to promote is trust, and trust is indeed essential to our common life and common endeavors. An institution, organization or nation cannot long endure where trust has eroded. Leaders who lack the trust of the led are not long entrusted with leadership. Of course, trust is something that people withhold from others for all sorts of reasons, some of which are irrational. So, while we may agree that transparency can engender trust, it is also possible for the withholding of trust to create an environment which makes it very difficult for transparency to flourish.

    Second, the fundamental quality which transparency is intended to preserve is accountability, and accountability ensures that decision makers pursue the ends of the institution, organization or nation above their own narrow or private interests. History teaches us that we are sensible to be suspicious of back-room deals and secret pacts. But transparency alone cannot preserve accountability when a culture determines that the ends of a good society are not worth pursuing, particularly when that pursuit requires placing limits on individual interests or rights. This is one reason why our debates about certain amendments to the U.S. Constitution have become intractable.

    Trust and accountability: these are important principles. But there are other principles, no less lofty and no less sensible, that complicate matters.

    I have found that one of the most bedeviling principles of organizational leadership is the principle of unintended consequences. You can count on this principle rearing its head just when you think a decision is really going to do some good. Unintended consequences, frequently really bad consequences, often attend the very best ideas made for all the right reasons.

    In the spirit of transparency, for example, it seemed a no-brainer to broadcast all sorts of public sessions of our national lawmakers. I applauded loud and long the fact that we would be able watch our legislators at work. I was especially delighted when the votes of each legislator became public. "Now cometh the light," I thought, and no lawmaker will be able to hide his or her dirty little deals in a smoke-filled back room ever again.

    Unfortunately, the fact that the votes of every lawmaker are more visible than ever means in practice that they are even more subject to the pressures of special interests with the deepest pockets. The quiet deals legislators used to be able to make, doing what they knew would be unpopular with a vocal minority or among the richest lobbying groups, but which they knew were good for the many, have become harder to make. The pork barrel politics have not ended, but crucial legislation for the common good is often held hostage by very narrow interests. Score a big one for unintended consequences!

    The principle of transparency does not guarantee that we are privy to every argument, every concession made, and every aspect of the decision-making process. But it should ensure that we will always know who is responsible for making what decisions.

    Of course, we should never forget that venality, self-interest and corruption will find their way in like a persistent water leak in the basement. I am reminded of a passage by Reinhold Niebuhr in which he says the best in humanity makes democracy possible, and the worst in us makes it necessary. So the debate about transparency goes on. And it must.

  • Freaking Out: Some Thoughts on Thinking

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 06, 2015

    Think Like a FreakEarly this summer I participated in a panel for the Louisville Institute's Vocation of the Theological Educator program along with two friends: Craig Dykstra, formerly senior vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, Inc., now a professor at Duke Divinity School, and Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Theological Seminary. Our audience consisted of Louisville Institute Fellows - young scholars, all of whom have recently completed their doctorates in areas of theological studies. Through this program, Louisville Institute places them in theological schools around the country for a two-year resident fellowship, during which they teach and participate in the life of a faculty and school. They also explore the vocation of teaching men and women who are preparing for ministry.

    As you can imagine, these young theological educators face some serious questions with immediate personal implications: "What are the trends in religious faith? With most mainline and many evangelical churches declining in numbers, is there a viable future for theological education? With the financial pressures on higher education, is there a future for theological schools? What will students do after they finish their two-year residency? Will there be jobs for them? If so, what kinds of jobs will there be?"

    Being fairly typical of my type, in response to their questions about the future of churches and seminaries, I reported on some studies I have seen and conversations I've sat in on that might give us some indication of where the culture seems to be headed and what we might do in response to it.

    After I finished saying what I said, Craig Dykstra said something amazing, disarming, and really insightful. He said, "I don't know."

    With those three words, "I don't know," Craig suddenly placed all of us in a better position to figure out some things.

    The temptation to speculate on why things are the way they are and to predict the way things will be in the future is really strong. The fact that we have few (and sometimes no) real facts to work with seldom prevents most of us from opining on all sorts of questions. Most of the answers we give are a rehash of party lines and threadbare orthodoxies, conventional wisdom, prejudices, biases and wishful thinking. Relatively few of our responses are the consequence of careful original thought based on evidence.

    As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explain in their newest venture into the realm of Freakonomics, Think Like a Freak (New York: William Morrow, 2014), such speculation is strongly incentivized in our society. One is almost always rewarded for speaking up rather than saying, "I don't know." Indeed, in our society, the blame game often starts with attacking people who are willing to leave a question open rather than those who demand that others blindly toe the line of some orthodoxy. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 29.) Incidentally, the orthodoxies espoused are not always representative of some hidebound institutional traditionalism. Many orthodoxies that get spouted are "edgy," "out of the box," just as fraught with conventional wisdom, and just as brutal as the traditions they are meant to replace in their enforcement of absolute unquestioning adherence.

    Indeed, the more dogmatic one sounds, in many contexts, the more likely one is thought to be smart - a person of conviction, "real leadership material." We see this often in the fields of politics and religion. Levitt and Dubner refer to the proponents of such thinking as "entrepreneurs of error," using a term introduced by Edward Glaeser, an economist. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 22.)

    Of course, we often see this among people who speak with great authority on complex issues they know little or nothing about. As Levitt and Dubner observe, "just because you're great at something doesn't mean you're good at everything." They give the scientific name for a malady that has reached epidemic proportions, and not just in church and academic settings: "ultracrepidarianism," or "the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one's knowledge or competence." (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 28.)

    However, even experts speaking on subjects about which they are experts tend to get it right a surprisingly low percentage of the time. A few years ago, I mentioned in a blog the excellent research of Philip Tetlock who found that experts with postgraduate degrees did only slightly better in their predictions than a "dart-throwing chimp" would have done. (Philip E. Tetlock.  Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.) Levitt and Dubner draw on Tetlock's research as well as on studies conducted by Jerker Denrell and Christina Fang in the field of economics, and Christopher Avery and Judith Chevalier on the subject of betting on professional football.

    The reason experts consistently do so badly in analyzing political, social and economic issues (even if these are their areas of expertise!) is because of their dedication to a particular dogma, "an unshakeable belief they know something to be true even when they don't." (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 24-25.)

    These observations remind me of an experience I had several years ago. A colleague at the University of Texas asked me to serve on a panel with three economists at the business school. He asked each economist to make a presentation. Then, he asked me to respond to their presentations from an ethical perspective. Their presentations were fascinating, but they could hardly have been more different: a Friedmanian Free-Market Capitalist; a Marxist who believed the world has been on a downward spiral since the end of Mesolithic society (I'm not making this up); and an eclectic pragmatist. I took pages and pages of notes, and when they had finished their presentations, went to the podium and told the audience:

    "I felt really intimidated being asked to participate in this panel on economics tonight. Economists, I thought, deal in the world of hard numbers and facts. I'm a theologian. Theologians construct more-or-less logical edifices on the basis of faith assumptions. What I've discovered tonight is that economists are just like theologians."

    Our "biases" and "the incentives to fake it are simply too strong" to allow most of us the freedom to speak the truth about so many of the most important questions confronting us when the truth is that much of the time we simply don't know. It takes courage and a special brand of intelligence to admit ignorance. But this kind of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. When we admit that we don't already know the answers, we are liberated to investigate, experiment, inquire and learn. (Levitt and Dubner, Think Like a Freak, 29 and 47.)

    Admitting we don't know is just one aspect of dealing with the really difficult problems and seemingly intractable questions facing us, of course. We also would do well to agree to suspend our dogmatic adherence to party lines, our compulsion to blame others, and to score points on people with whom we find ourselves in disagreement. I suspect this would come hard to some of us engaged in politics and religion. But if we hope to deal with some of the biggest problems facing our society and our church today, we need to learn, and learning requires a genuinely open mind.

  • Thin Places: The World Has a Heart

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 02, 2015

    A Spirituality Notebook

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “spirituality notebook.” E-mail us!

    Thin Places 3cThe world has a heart, and on a summer night you can hear it beating to the rhythm of cicadas in a southern forest. I was driving home along the two-lane road connecting Lufkin and Trinity, Texas, circa 1971. The night and the forest and the sound of the world's heart poured in through every open window of my car.

    Seventeen years old and preaching my first revival series. I was licensed as a preacher the previous Sunday in an evening service in Lufkin, where I preached my first sermon, memorably and, at least for my family, regrettably titled, "Possum Stew." Calvary Baptist Church, my home church, did the licensing.

    A church that splits from a "First" Baptist Church in most every southern town seems to be a “Calvary” because they want to be closer to the cross, it is said. There were a few hundred people in attendance that night, and the service was broadcast over the local AM radio station. My family was all there. So were most of my friends. I was too young and too dumb to be scared.

    A week later I was preaching my first full-week revival service. As Kinky Friedman said of his gubernatorial bid, "Why not?" Well, Kinky said it with more gusto, but you get the idea.

    Going home from the first night's service, late Sunday evening, there's not another car for miles. The ventilation system of my 1966 Volkswagen bug gulps down every scent as I drive through the Neches River bottom. Sweet, heavy woodland aromas mix with the sweet, rotting smell of roadkill. Possums and raccoons are thick as thieves in an East Texas river bottom, and the blacktop holding the day's warmth is a temptation to which many succumb to their demise.

    Deep East Texas is more like Louisiana or Mississippi than it is the other parts of Texas, typified by Dallas, San Antonio or Austin - a fact that bewilders outsiders. Everyone who isn't from within twelve miles of where you're born in East Texas is an outsider. Driving east, once you cross that north/south line running from Houston to Dallas along Interstate 45, you enter East Texas, and you enter the South. The Southwest is in your rearview mirror. The accents twist and turn, draw out and torture every vowel until they yell “UNCLE,” and the forest hides the horizon. This is not "Big Sky Country" but "Big Pine Country."

    I sing as I drive through the night, indiscriminately skipping from hymns by Fanny Crosby and Thomas Dorsey to the music of Buddy Holly, B.B. King, Lennon and McCartney. I'm slightly intoxicated by post-homiletical adrenaline. That's all the intoxication I'm allowed. Exhilaration runs through my veins and something else too, something beyond exhilaration.

    Surely God is in this place. I can smell God's breath, hot and sweet and heavy. The breath of a deity unashamed to be a creature, unafraid to be born, willing to die, willing to rot alongside the smallest creatures, despite what I later learned of Arius or the Gnostics or the nervous Nellies of Neo-Platonism who always seem to want God to be more spiritual than God seems willing to be.

    A few years after that night - post-college, post-seminary - going through the battery of psychological tests required for ordination in the eminently sane Presbyterian Church, a psychiatrist in Dallas asked me to draw a picture representing my childhood. In pencil I drew a forest. A deep and shadowed wood. Great dark roots gripped dark earth, branches spreading upward into a dark canopy.

    The psychiatrist assumed I must have experienced an unhappy childhood, but "no," I said. Not unhappy at all, except for the loss of my sainted grandfather who died when I was a boy of twelve. Not unhappy. Just deep and dark, rich in smells and senses, like piney woods and hickory smoke and the juice from sassafras roots. Happy, but maybe a little dangerous too. Like the woods. Beautiful, with an occasional cottonmouth snake lurking somewhere in the moist pine straw in the path ahead.

    To this day, when I think of my childhood home this is what I think of first, before faces and before childhood friends. I think of a dark forest. Sacred dark. Numinous dark. Rudolf Otto dark. Holy Jesus dark.

    There's no way for me to tell this story truly, the story of what thin places mean and how we experience God, without starting in a deep wood along a narrow southern road.

    Unlike Dante, whom I would study for the first time in a college classroom a few years later, who found himself in a dark wood midway through his life's journey, I started in the woods and was only later midway through life's journey enchanted by the distant horizons, the trackless plains and later the boundless Atlantic Ocean. And through the disenchantment of disbelief that lay before me, I returned like a child, an older child, to God and that first primal darkness. I was slow in recognizing God in the places I found myself, more like Jacob who confesses, "Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it." (Genesis 28:16)

    I used to joke that I was raised on U.S. Highway 59, on a farm geographically between Lufkin and Nacogdoches, but spiritually between Billy Graham and Tennessee Williams. It was no joke. Elvis drove down that East Texas highway in a pink Cadillac convertible, right past our house, to visit a girl in Zavalla. So said my mother. Maybe Elvis drove by our house at night when I was thrilling to his blue suede shoes. Bob Wills, Muddy Waters, Hank WilliamsBooker T and the MGs filled the dark, wet, sweet air the attic fan brought into the house and across my bed at night. We'd sleep in the summers, our heads across the foot of the bed to catch the breeze in those days before air conditioner made the South more bearable. I'd wake up halfway cool and wholly sticky with nighttime humidity clinging to my skin and the sheets, my radio still going from the night before, the static still buzzing, the dial still tuned to the station that carried Wolfman Jack's late night program.

    Surely God was in these places, all of them, my first thin places, before I ever knew the phrase or its ice-thin ironies, or the human inevitability and the theological problem of tying God to places. Before I ever knew anything except the thin awareness, knife-sharp, that the line separating us from God, separating life from death, is so thin you can't see it at all, but you can't see through it either. All you can see, all I really knew, was the surge of life or the vestiges of death, my first childish tastes of life's longings and death's cold leftovers. All I could figure out from what evidence (if you can call it that) I ever saw was that the line between the sacred and the profane passed through the places where we lived and lit up the ordinary with what I took to be the presence of God.

    But knowing that much, just knowing that much and not knowing so much more, was enough to set me on the road to the Dorcas Wills Memorial Baptist Church in Trinity, Texas, to tell the good people there good news in sermons so bad that God has mercifully erased my memory of them. I pray to Whomever May Be Listening that the good folks who heard those sermons have long since forgotten them too.

  • The Dopeler Effect

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 29, 2015

    Dopeler EffectSeminary trustee and friend, Sumpter Logan, sent me an email recently presenting the results of the “Washington Post’s Mensa Invitational.” Each year, readers are invited to take a word from the English dictionary and alter it. You can add, subtract, or change a letter in the word, and provide a new definition. There are some great new words here. Some of the funniest can’t be shared in this blog. But one of my favorites was, “the dopeler effect,” which is defined as, “The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.”

    Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, in their excellent study, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School (New York: Teachers College Press, 2012), observe that one of the factors that can improve learning in schools is “mindful teaching.” They mention research done by Liz MacDonald and Dennis Shirley with a group of urban Boston public school teachers who are proponents of “mindful teaching.”

    “One of the seven principles of mindful teaching these teachers developed was simply ‘stopping’ – ‘reflecting on the rush of events and attending to forms of learning … that find scant realization’ in a test-driven curriculum. What prevents mindfulness and reflection, MacDonald and Shirley say, is not lack of willingness by teachers, but a school environment that is overloaded with tests and targets, awash with data and spreadsheets, and overcome by a frequent frenetic rush of endless interventions.” (Hargreaves and Fullan, Professional Capital, 98.)

    Their book, incidentally, which was jointly published in 2012 by the Teacher’s College Press of Columbia University in New York and the Ontario Principals’ Council in Canada, won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Education from the University of Louisville last year.

    Their observation is astute, and not only for schools. Virtually every aspect of our society operates as though it were addicted to speed (both the pharmaceutical and the temporal varieties). Tests and targets, data and spreadsheets, the rush of endless interventions, as well as demands for instant results, instant feedback, instant judgments, instant gratification; we are surrounded by a churning rush of high reactivity that feeds on itself and is aided and abetted by technologies and “news” media encouraging every reply to be as brief and as fast as possible and to be disseminated broadly. In such a culture, “the dopeler effect” threatens to make dopes of us all.

    Hargreaves and Fullan explain further: “Our point is that mindfulness must be cultivated and that the norms and conditions of work must deliberately foster it.” They advocate for “reflection about action,” a concept they have adapted from Donald Schon’s widely-respected work on “reflective practice.” [Schon’s books, the first of which is over thirty years old, remain valuable for teachers and other professionals, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic Books, 1983); and Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions (Hoboken: Jossey-Bass, 1987)].

    Schon described “reflecting in action,” as the ability to think through a situation or a problem while you are in the midst of it, making adjustments and improvising as necessary in the midst of a changing environment, and “reflecting on action,” as the kind of reflection one engages in when one has completed a task, asking questions, experimenting with alternative scenarios and hypotheses that might benefit future activity. Hargreaves and Fullan advance the practice of mindfulness with their advocacy of “reflection about action,” that is, “reflection about the things in their environment that distract them from what’s important, that get them so immersed in busy activity there is no time left to think, and that are an endless set of responses and reactions to other people’s agendas instead of actions driven by purposes that are teachers’ own.” (Hargreaves and Fullan, Professional Capital, 99.)

    The value of their insight is obvious when one is thinking about a harried middle-school teacher, living under the compulsion to insure that students achieve high test scores on standardized exams while deeply concerned also that students learn the kinds of things that will make the students more knowledgeable and wiser; the teachers pressed and shaken by these demands while also being buffeted by conflicting expectations of politicians, school boards, school administrators, parents and (Oh Yeah!!!) a room full of young people supercharged with raging hormones. But the mindfulness Hargreaves and Fullan advocate, cultivating the habit of “reflection about practice” is also valuable for anyone in leadership who is trying to keep an organization moving forward purposefully while the organization’s energy and assets are besieged and threatened by people who want to co-opt them to accomplish private agendas (to mention just one application beyond the classroom).

    How do we as teachers, pastors, leaders of various organizations and communities, cultivate this “reflection about practice” so that we can experience less of “the dopeler effect”? Like Jesus once remarked about exorcizing some particularly tenacious demons: “This takes a lot of prayer.” I’m reminded of the example of John Wesley, a founder of the Methodist movement. He was famous for spending hours each morning in prayer, starting at 4 a.m. When asked how it was possible to devote so much time to praying, he replied that if he didn’t pray that much every day, he would never get all his work accomplished. And, yet, prayer, reflection, meditation and contemplation are often scorned by many of those who are most active, virtually guaranteeing that our hyperactivity will be as fruitless as it is frenetic. Indeed, about the only thing that could make “the dopeler effect” worse is the introduction of stimulants. (A sign hung above the coffee maker in the president’s and dean’s suite of a school I once served said, “Drink more coffee! Do stupid things faster and with more energy!”)

    Can we be more mindful, more reflective, thus insuring that our practice is more fruitful?

    I believe it is possible. Of course, there is the problem that another of the Mensa words reminds us of: “Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.”

  • What's Trending in Congregations?

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 21, 2015

    CongregationsThere are a lot of folks today with a lot to say about the state of churches. Some of what gets said is, sadly, of the bloviating variety, an ecclesiastical version of the overblown rhetoric of certain political candidates and self-proclaimed expert punditry. But there are others in the churchly world whose perspectives are extremely valuable and are based on extensive, deep experience and careful, often minute, observations accumulated and analyzed over a long period of time. These folks are often pretty modest about the claims they make, even reticent. You may have to drag their insights out of them, they are so genuinely humble.

    One such observer, who occupies a vantage point somewhere between the 35,000-feet aerial view and the on-the-ground imbedded pastor-reporter, is the Rev. Dr. Timothy Shapiro, President of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The Center is a “supporting organization” of both Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Christian Theological Seminary of Indianapolis. Louisville Seminary is proud to claim Tim as a two-time alum of our school (MDiv ’86 and DMin ’00). In a recent meeting of the Center’s board of directors Tim’s report laid out seven “emerging congregational trends” that he has been observing over the past couple of years. Most of Tim’s observations are of congregations in Indiana.*

    Tim’s observations, while modest in their claims, are simply fascinating, frequently contrary-to-ordinary conventional wisdom, and highly suggestive for church leadership and for theological education.

    With his permission, I will share them with you:

    Emerging Congregational Trends

    "1. Evangelical non-denominational congregations are less isolated from historic practices of Christianity than they were just ten years ago. This is particularly true regarding forms of prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

    "2. Some congregations that have culturally been characterized as mainline liberal have become more explicit about speaking about God in non-Trinitarian terms. The story of Jesus is still honored. Historic formulas about the person of Jesus Christ are not so much challenged as folded carefully and put away for the season.

    "3. Congregations are actively externally focused. Local mission is replaced with community engagement. There is less distinction between helping members live faithful lives and relating to community members who are not members. Even in congregations that have membership rolls, who is and who isn’t a member is less important.

    "4. For leaders in congregations, approaching every congregational challenge through a collaborative leadership style is experienced as limiting. Leaders who have the spiritual and emotional range to apply situational leadership modes are experiencing effectiveness.**

    "5. For every sociological data point about congregational decline, there are exceptions to the rule in Indiana congregations. Sometimes the exception is the congregation with worshipers the average age of twenty-two. Sometimes the exception is the rural congregation in the middle of nowhere (well, almost nowhere) experiencing a 30% increase in attendance over three years.

    "6. In many areas, more congregations are opening than closing. However, very small congregations are experiencing prolonged hospice stays.

    "7. Congregations that view the resource base as an open system often are the ones that find deeply spiritual solutions to their difficult challenges. By an open system resource base, I mean resources that are not exclusively from the ecclesial world."

    The Indianapolis Center for Congregations reflects a philosophy which another staff member, Sue Weber, Evaluation Project Coordinator at the Center, put into words beautifully. “We do not see the congregation as a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be embraced.”

    I’d like to leave Tim’s observations with you without any additional comment. They make great fodder for further reflection. And they remind us of the extraordinary value of those people who serve, resource and provide care in a wide variety of congregations. They take careful notes on what they observe and allow those observations to be tested against what they see in other communities.

    May their tribe increase!

    *According to the Indianapolis Center for Congregation’s 2014 Annual Report, the Center held 131 educational events and meetings last year attended by 1,696 lay and ordained congregational leaders representing 695 congregations from eighty-two faith groups or denominations. They are on track to serve even more congregations this year. The Center is non-sectarian, thus it resources churches across the theological spectrum as well as some non-Christian congregations. The Center is funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

    **Those who would like to read more about “situational leadership” may want to look at last year’s “Leadership Notebook” blog, where this subject was taken up in some detail and resources were shared.

  • Thin Places: Trusting What We Cannot Know to What We Cannot Name

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 18, 2015

    A Spirituality Notebook

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “spirituality notebook.” E-mail us!

    Thin Places 2The conventional understanding of "thin places" runs something like this: In some places in the world the boundary between the eternal and the terrestrial is especially "thin." So, when we talk about a sacred geography we're really focused on the places where we are more likely to meet God than in other places. There are lots of people who are happy to chart the location of such "thin places" for you.

    While these blogs will relate experiences of the spirit and they take us to a number of places you can find on a map that have become holy to me and to some other people, "thinness," I have come to believe, is an experience that is eminently transferable. God makes any place thin when God finds us there.

    In other words, thin places are not so much about intersections of longitude and latitude on a map as they are about the intersections of histories, experiences, people and places. There's no particular magic in a particular place, except that God breaks through for us there, or perhaps we break through to God. Or maybe we just discover, in certain places, that the "boundary" between sacredness and profanity is only an imaginary line. The place becomes holy because we believe the Holy has brushed past us there.

    "Thinness" may also be a better way to conceive of the relationship between life and death than the timeline from the cradle to the grave which most of us hold in our heads and which most of us bring to mind whenever we contemplate our mortality. We shall explore this and other ideas more fully as the year unfolds. And we shall, from time to time, even subvert one idea or insight with another that stands in tension or contradicts what we just said. We shall do this because our experience of the Holy demands it. Consistency is not only the hobgoblin of small minds, as Emerson warned, it also fails to convey anything like the depth and richness of our varieties of experiences of God.

    The Hebrew Bible often relates the stories of patriarchs who stumble onto holy ground and take off their shoes to show a proper respect. Others awaken from divine encounters and only then realize that the place where they lay their heads is sacred. Many believed you cannot see God and keep on living. Others reported that they had seen God and survived to tell the tale. Maybe we're always on holy ground. Maybe we're always on the verge of this boundary. Maybe we're always "walking on thin ice." Life and death are always only a hair's breadth apart. God is closer to us than our next breath.

    Any place might in the blink of an eye become thin. Suddenly our eyes open, and we see, not just the whole world, but even its smallest corner as Gerard Manley Hopkins saw it, shot through with "God's grandeur," "charged" with the sacred, "like shining from shook foil," bright, shimmering, radiant beyond imagination. Or we might come to ourselves in a dingy ordinary place, like a prodigal recovered. If you pressed me on the question, then, I'd have to say that the utility room in your basement could just as readily become a "thin place" as an ages-old monastery chapel on a secluded mist-shrouded island.

    The other point I want to make is just as important.

    We meet God someplace. Some "place." We don't meet God nowhere. We don't meet God merely in abstraction. God meets us amid this matter in which we live and move and have our being. God does not abhor nature, but wallows hoggishly in the stuff. I might find it hard to credit some of the elements of certain pagan beliefs, but the idea that God can be found in an oak or a windy granite ridge or a peat bog I'll never contest.

    Often, we remember a place where something extraordinary though hard to define happened, and we remember and treasure the place because of who met us or what happened there. The place becomes wonderful to us, perhaps awesome, maybe thin to us - even holy ground.

    You may be surprised, as I hinted earlier, by the eccentricity of the selection of thin places in this collection of blogs.

    The reasons these places were selected have to do with my own spiritual life and my very limited experience as much as with the lives of saints and sages past. There are other places explored here in which the distant pagan past overshadows the relatively brief Christian history, where our common prehistory speaks in holy whispers. There are other places still at which my engagement with Stoic philosophy and Asian spirituality has taken on larger significance. All these places have become thin to my tread.

    You may be surprised by the lack of chronological ordering of these reflections. I have chosen to present them as they occur to me rather than to present them in any sort of sequential scheme. For me, at least, this is how reflection often operates. One recollection leads to another, but frequently by circuitous paths.

    I'll leave it to you to determine if the exploration of places that have become thin for me is at all helpful in your discernment of the presence of God in your world. I hope, if nothing else, that these stories will assist you as you seek to be attentive and receptive to the mystery that lurks "just beyond" or "just beneath" until it breaks through. As for me, I shall entrust that which I cannot know to that which I cannot name.

  • In the Name of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 14, 2015

    Not in God's NameRabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has been described by Prince Charles of Great Britain as "a light unto this nation," referring to his moral, spiritual and intellectual leadership in the United Kingdom. While recognizing Sacks' distinctive contributions to Britain, where he served from 1991 to 2013 as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and where he continues to be one of the most respected public intellectuals, this is too narrow an assessment of his significance. Jonathan Sacks is an enlightening presence for the whole world, and his message resonates today more powerfully than ever.

    In his influential book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002), he lamented: "For too long, the pages of history have been stained by bloodshed in the name of God." Jonathan Sacks won the 2004 Grawemeyer Award in Religion from the University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for that book, and his presence in our community and his presentations on the subject of religious pluralism before a variety of audiences are gratefully remembered. Indeed, I am sure his thought contributed to our seminary's own commitment to preparing the next generation of Christian ministers to respect, understand and work closely with people whose faith differs from our own.

    Rabbi Sacks has returned to the subject of religious difference in a new book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015). The book, which was in bookstores in Britain this past summer, will be released in the United States in October.

    Rabbi Sacks opens the book with a familiar passage from Blaise Pascal: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions." Sacks' own opening sentence is arguably even more powerful, and it sets the tone for the entire book: "When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps." From the pages of the Bible to the pages of today's newspaper, religiously justified violence meets our gaze. Despite the claims of divine sanction made by those who commit these acts, Sacks writes, "God speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamor of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What he says at such a time is: Not in My Name." (p. 3)

    Not in God's Name is a passionate exploration of the religious sources of violence, warning people of faith of the danger of legitimizing their own lust to destroy while appealing to divine endorsements. While it is all too easy for us to see motes in the eyes of adherents of other faiths, we continue to resist seeing the beams in our own eyes. Rabbi Sacks provides a mirror so we can take another look at ourselves. And, by doing so, he helps us understand the tragedy of our world's religious justification of violence. As he says in this new book: "To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege. It is a kind of blasphemy. It is to take God's name in vain." (p. 5)

    Sacks uses the term "altruistic evil" to describe violence committed for religious reasons while recognizing that the term includes causes of evil that go beyond religion. All sorts of movements, for example, which see themselves as ultimately benevolent (especially those Utopian ideologies that promise a perfect society in the long-run) have justified all sorts of cruelties, repression and violence in the short-term. His discussion of the most common three ways in which violence is linked to religion de-mythologizes some secular arguments against religion as the principal cause of violence in the world today (in fact, studies show that religion is not by any means the primary cause of violence), while it also corrects misguided and inaccurate arguments that try to minimize any connection between the motives of certain military and terrorist groups and their religious faith. He also critiques the "in-group biases" that operate within us all: "Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority." (p. 11) This is as true for religious groups as for any other. Sacks' discussion of this bias may help us comprehend how it is possible (according to a study not cited in Sacks' book) for only 11% of Kuwaitis and 3% of Pakistanis to believe that those who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Arab Muslims. Of course, Christians have our own biases. Rabbi Sacks reminds us that such biases run deep and can affect people of any faith including his own Judaism.

    Throughout this book, Sacks' analysis reflects an erudite mind fully engaged with philosophy, politics and social studies of the most rigorous kind. It is when he turns his attention and all of these resources to a theological engagement with the connection between religious faith and violence that he makes, what I believe is, his greatest contribution in this book. After reflecting on a variety of ways that various people and states have attempted to intervene in the violence of our time, the spread of religious and racial hatred, he says, "The work to be done now is theological." (p. 20)

    He continues:

    "As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorize unbelievers? Have we read our sacred texts correctly? What is God saying to us, here, now? We are not prophets but we are their heirs and we are not bereft of guidance on these fateful issues." (p. 21)

    I cannot think of a more important new book for people of faith to read and study together than this book. It is so important, in fact, that I am tempted to walk through its contents. But a blog of thousands of words is no longer a blog, and you would be better off investing your time in reading Sacks' book anyway. I do encourage you to read this book, especially Jonathan Sacks' exploration of why the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been so often so toxic and how the very texts that divide us can provide a solution to the problem.

    In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Rabbi Sacks asks, "Can the world be changed?" "Yes," he answers. "And the proof is one of the most uplifting stories in the religious history of humankind: the changed relationship between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust." In particular, he mentions a statement written in 2013 by Pope Francis that says: "God's fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed, and ... through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church but also as humanity." (pp. 261-262).

    Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims share common ideals and commitments deeper than our differences. Because of these high ideals and deep commitments, we "must stand together, in defense of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honor of God. … The real clash of the twenty-first century will not be between civilizations or religions, but within them." (p. 262)

    The problems we face are real problems, problems with long histories and tangled causes, but they are not insoluble. There are things we can and must do, among the first of which, according to Rabbi Sacks, is this:

    "We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world of diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity. There must be an international campaign against the teaching and preaching of hate." (p. 262-263)

    For those of us engaged in theological education, these are badly needed words of encouragement, especially in the face of opposition to this mission.

    Sacks continues:

    "We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbor and stranger, the insistence of peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of a case, forgiving the injuries of the past and focusing instead on building a future in which the children of the world, of all colors, faiths and races, can live together in grace and peace. These are the ideals on which Jews, Christians and Muslims can converge, widening their embrace to include those of other faiths and none." (p. 263)

    Rabbi Sacks calls upon us to have hope; not mere optimism, but hope grounded in the deepest sources of our faith. Like a builder, digging down to bedrock to sink beams that support a great temple, he recalls the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to our common source. He reminds us that God's love, mercy and justice are not the exclusive possessions of any one faith, but are the gifts of God for the sake of all.

  • Magna Carta and the Social Covenant

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 08, 2015

    Magna Carta
    "It is a collection of promises extracted in bad faith from a reluctant King, most of which concern matters of arcane thirteenth-century legal principle. A few of these promises concern themselves with high ideals, but those are few and far between, vague and idealistic statements slipped between longer and more perplexing sentences describing the 'customary fee' that a baron ought to pay a king on occasion of coming into an inheritance, or the protocols for dealing with debt to the Crown, or the regulation of fish-traps along the Thames and the Medway." [Dan Jones, Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of The Great Charter (London: Head of Zeus, 2015) 7.]

    So writes Dan Jones, the author of a popular new introduction to the Magna Carta, a medieval document often celebrated as a basis for the limits and balance of power among the governed and those who govern.

    "For the most part, Magna Carta is dry, technical, difficult to decipher and constitutionally obsolete,” even in England, the land of its framing. And, yet, this author goes on the explain that, "it is very much alive, one of the most hallowed documents in the world." (Jones, Magna Carta, 7.)

    Indeed, as the Reverend Robert Willis, Dean of  Canterbury Cathedral, observed in his sermon at the Choral Evensong commemorating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, among the places on earth most influenced, even profoundly shaped, by this feudal agreement between a king, his barons and the bishops of his realm, is the United States of America. Amid the pageantry of the commemorative service at Canterbury at which Dean Willis preached in June, amid the grand procession of "the good and the great," the appearance of luminaries such as the Lord Lieutenant of Kent and the Lord Mayor of Canterbury (no one knows how to put on a show better than the English in their finery and fancy dress), it was striking to Deborah and me, as we sat in the congregation, that a direct line was drawn by Dean Willis between the events that occurred at Runnymede in 1215 and our own American republic.

    The Dean's comments were generous, but they also reminded us of the challenges we continue to face as we seek to renew and expand upon something of the spirit (both practical and idealistic, born both of grievance and of hope) preserved in the Magna Carta. Four days after Debbie and I attended the service commemorating the Magna Carta in Canterbury Cathedral, we heard the first reports emerging from Charleston, South Carolina. The racist-motivated slayings in Charleston came in the midst of a year (and more) in which we have witnessed the tragic spectacle of our nation struggling to come to terms with systemic, institutionalized racism and violence and abuses of power. We have witnessed other such abuses of power. And we have seen terrible acts of violence apparently in retaliation, reminding us that violence only multiplies violence. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, only leaves the world toothless and blind, as Mahatma Gandhi once said.

    Manga Carta reminds us that our laws represent a kind of social or political covenant into which we have entered, a covenant that does not start and will not stop with words on a page. We, as a people, express our commitments, our aspirations and our identity through the laws we make, the laws we hold one another accountable to obey. We often enshrine our respect for our common humanity through these laws. Our laws, at their best, express our dedication as a people to justice for all. And our laws bind those who enforce them as well as the rest of us. Whatever else we may draw from the Magna Carta, that mixed and muddled feudal bag of idealism and self-interested oligarchy, this at least we may learn. But there is more, a lot more, we know to be true as Christians.

    As the Protestant reformer John Calvin reminds us, laws exist as an expression of grace. And even the most mundane, even the most commonplace of laws can articulate something about the soul of a people and something of the grace of God. I say this because I have heard so often and in so many contexts the idea expressed that laws may enforce behavior but they can't change a human heart. These arguments seem pretty thin to me. Perhaps the history of the sometimes ironic influence of the Magna Carta can be helpful to us as we seek to understand the role of laws in expressing the highest hopes and convictions of our hearts and in actually shaping our hearts for the better.

    When a group of twenty-seven thirteenth-century church leaders and barons framed the Magna Carta, as they crafted those words on behalf of King John of England, beyond and underneath their tangled interests, these men of power also allowed something profoundly moral, something vital to the human heart, to enter into the legal agreement they forged with a reluctant king. They put into law the notion that no one, not even a king, stands above the law. And, although they could not have imagined it at the time (and would have opposed it if they had imagined it), they also laid the foundation for an idea that in time would inspire constitutional evolutions and revolutions and eventually give birth to democracy, the idea that the legitimacy of any government ultimately depends on the consent of the governed, even as the governed also live within certain social and political constraints that guarantee that majority rule does not descend into a tyranny of the many over the few.*

    Trust is essential to such a social covenant - trust that endures through all the attempts of a hateful few to amass power for their own selfish ends or the efforts of bitter and broken individuals to wreak vengeance in the name of their own private sense of justice. This trust is guarded by the sentinel of law - law that is a human product, imperfect, provisional, yet expressive of a peoples' hopes and values.

    These convictions rendered in a "charter" (carta) emerged some eight hundred years ago from human hearts with all their mixed motives. These commitments depended on both the better angels of the human heart and some very fallen ones too. Although this legal charter did not immediately soften the heart of King John, nor many of the kings who followed him, nevertheless eventually the charter helped shape the history of England; it contributed to the development of Britain's constitutional monarchy, the evolution of the parliamentary governments of that nation and many others over the centuries, and made imaginable the birth of democratic republics, like ours. It did all of these things because it gave expression to something that has become essential to the political consciousness of a people, the covenantal orientation toward our life together, the conviction that we are held together as a people not by our similarities whether of race, ethnicity, or religion, but by mutual agreement to be "a people."

    Laws can shape hearts for the better. Laws can make us and our society more humane. Ideas like "equality before the law" (enshrined in the United States in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution) have their origin in moral convictions about the nature of our humanity as children of God, and can give birth to changes in perception among even the most reluctant and recalcitrant. Laws can protect those in a society with less power and influence from the abuses of those more powerful and influential. Laws can protect those charged with making and enforcing the law so that our society can flourish.

    Laws can even remind us that when we treat another person with contempt, we express contempt for ourselves and for our own humanity, and we undercut the civil bonds that make us civilized. When we accord respect to others, our self-respect grows as does the social contract that makes us a common people. This particular gracious gift of the law is in need of recovery, especially in our time. Laws can express grace in a multitude of ways. When fairly written and justly administered, and when enforced with respect for the humanity of every person, laws can make us better people.

    The Magna Carta does not enshrine all of these lessons, but our faith certainly does.

    *To see the influence of Magna Carta on the development of democracy, read Locke: Political Essays [Mark Goldie, editor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997], and note particularly Locke's "An Essay on Toleration" (1667).

  • Thin Places: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 04, 2015

    A Spirituality Notebook

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “spirituality notebook.”
    E-mail us!

    Thin Places 1"Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, 'Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it!' And he was afraid, and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'" (Genesis 28: 16-17)

    Credibility matters in matters spiritual as much as in anything else. I feel this to be true particularly as someone who has spent a good deal of my adult life cast in one leadership role or another. In these roles, I've encountered people only too ready to serve as experts on various subjects. My skepticism regarding the credibility of some of these experts (and I think this applies mostly to the self-appointed and self-anointed ones) runs high, especially of those who serve as "consultants" in areas of expertise in which they have very limited experience themselves. Their tribe only seems to increase.

    As a minister, an educator and a seminary administrator, I often consider the spiritual needs of people – not in the least, people who lead busy, hectic lives heavy with obligations, pressed down and shaken by responsibilities public and private. In doing so, I realize that I could have no credibility in helping them in their spiritual lives unless I find my own measure of spiritual wholeness. Probably as much as anyone else, I struggle with anxiety, worry, restlessness, and the other minions of the mind that clamor, compete and make messes of us. "Physician heal thyself," we are aptly reminded. And, so, as I shall relate in this blog series, over the course of some years, I have undertaken practice spiritual disciplines that are strangely paradoxical, as illustrated by the title of today's blog. These are disciplines I have sometimes at least initially resisted until undertaking them became more a matter of life and death than merely an option for deeper spiritual enrichment or personal improvement.

    “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” came to mind because of Flannery O'Connor's use of the phrase in the title of a disturbing short story, and because this phrase is used in the title of a group biography on O'Connor and her fellow Catholics, Thomas MertonWalker Percy and Dorothy Day.* The title suggests, I think in part, the irony of the human spiritual predicament and the reason why we have such difficulty figuring out some important things about ourselves.

    We cannot save ourselves from the things that most threaten our lives, our relationships and our humanity. Try as we might, by dint of human effort alone, we can't construct that tower that raises us to heaven. We can't even extricate ourselves from the mire that sucks off our boots in the various sloughs of despond in which we find ourselves. We are saved by grace alone, as St. Paul so eloquently put it, and "that doesn't come from yourself."

    And yet - and yet! - without availing ourselves of what Christians have long called the "means of grace," those disciplined practices through which God channels new life to us, we will not really experience the fullness of life which God's grace freely makes available to us. These "means of grace" include: participation in the community of faith (which is the living Body of Christ), receiving the visible signs of such community (which we call the Sacraments of the Lord's Table and Baptism), engagement in prayer, meditation and contemplation, acts of compassion and mercy, especially to the poor, and listening for the Word of God in the Bible and proclamation. Through these "means of grace" faith is nurtured and tested in us so that habits of grace can become habits of being. God's free grace becomes lived grace.

    We can't save ourselves. That's true enough. But we can't realize our salvation at the ground level without doing something. Grace calls forth participation.

    This year on alternating weeks I will post blogs on the subject of "the spiritual life," which (as my spiritual director, Father Paul Scaglione, has often said) is just another way of saying "human life." These blogs will take as a recurring starting point the metaphor "Thin Places," a pretty common phrase in some of the popular literature on spirituality, though it is a phrase in need of refurbishment, critical reflection and perhaps more.

    Place matters. What place we're talking about makes a difference to the sort of discussion we have, whether historical, social, cultural, religious or some other kind of “place.” Indeed, "place" might serve as a kind of metaphorical shorthand for all sorts of personal and spiritual "locations."

    Where do we find ourselves on the universal GPS? Where and who and how have we been in the course of our lives, aware as we are that we are not the same today as we were twenty years ago, nor, really as we were two weeks ago, not if we are growing and maturing? Where are we and who are we, knowing that we are not experienced precisely the same way in a conversation with an aging parent as we are in a conference with one of our students, or with a business associate with whom we are negotiating a deal, or in a discussion with our spouse, partner, brother, sister, son, daughter or best friend?

    That which I call "myself" is not rigidly fixed, not if I am healthy, spiritually and emotionally. Neither is "myself" utterly fluid, not if I have integrity. We live, as Heraclitus reminds us, floating down that stream that is always roiling, flowing, moving, never precisely the same from moment to moment though it remains the same stream rolling down the years. The thinness of our place psychically and emotionally is as much a part of our spiritual identity as the thinness of the places we worship or pray or meditate, or the thinness of our place in existence, realizing how fragile and fleeting life is. I will use the phrase "thin places" mostly to speak of where we meet God, but I will also use this phrase to describe where we meet every "other." We'll explore this theme, and use it as an excuse and a tool to explore other ideas, though not from a clinical or academic perspective.

    We'll explore thin places like children in a dark wood, hungry and sleepy, who come upon a house built entirely of gingerbread. We will look at thin places like a hill walker who comes upon a cavern on a leisurely Sunday ramble, and, grabbing hold of a root in the cavern wall, scales it with a flashlight down into the dark and the deep chasm. We will set sail upon a sea of thin places letting prevailing winds take us where they will, sometimes flying upon the wind's back, sometimes tacking into it, as the occasions and the seas and the boat demand.

    In our journey, we will find, I believe, that we are guided in all of these adventures by an invisible hand. We will discover, I believe, that our craft can be entrusted to the wind, that footholds await us in the rocky walls, and that the gingerbread house is inhabited not by a wicked crone but by a friend who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

    It needs to be said from the outset that the thin places we'll explore are not chosen from among all of the places of this wide world because they have been found especially unique in some literature on the subject or on the basis of a poll of spiritual seekers, but simply because they are places I know that have become thin for me. The choices, then, are idiosyncratic and sometimes eccentric. But I believe a writer should write about that which he or she knows. Otherwise a writer has questionable credibility at best. This raises an even more basic question about credibility in spiritual matters.

    I cannot claim any real credibility in matters of the spirit. I am not a spiritual expert. If any such person exists as a spiritual expert, I am not one. Indeed, I am barely a novice, if that. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that I know virtually nothing, and probably the “virtually” in this sentence is a reflection of my false self. Far from being an experienced swimmer in the infinite ocean of the spirit, I feel like a person wading from puddle to puddle on the shore. Often I wonder if the sand is really a beach lapped by waves at all, or is really just a desert and the waves a mirage. Whatever "credibility" I might have must reflect this profound ignorance, this unknowing, this utter dependence on realities I trust but do not understand.

    Thus it is that my own "credibility" (and speaking of credibility, in this application the word must be written within quotation marks to remind us of its dubious character) along this path is not the “credibility” of the guide who, knowing every path and every wrinkle on a well-worn map, can unerringly show us the way. My "credibility" is just that of a beggar who, as the great D.T. Niles has said, has some experience in finding bread for the journey.

    *Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).

  • The Pope "Minds His Own Business"

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 01, 2015

    Pope Francis Blog LargerThe political commentator's argument was unequivocal. He said that the pope should restrict himself to spiritual and religious matters and stay out of politics. According to him, the pope should mind his own business. The pundit's ire (and I didn't catch his name on the radio) was provoked by Pope Francis's most recent encyclical, Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home. In it, the pope calls for all of humanity to unite to care for our planet and all that dwell upon it, especially the poor and most vulnerable.

    There are many things in Francis's open letter to the world which commend its reading and study, and I will speak to just a few of them in this blog. But before I do that, I want to address the commentator's argument that the pope should mind his own business.

    According to Christian theology and the deepest streams of the Judeo-Christian traditions, there is nothing that is more the pope's business (and, indeed, the business of all Christians) than the stewardship of God's creation and our theological and spiritual reflection and proclamation regarding God's creation. The pope, to use language the pundit might understand, is “minding his own business” when he speaks of the environment.

    The Bible begins with God's creation of the heavens and the earth. The Psalms bear testimony to the wonder of God as Creator and the glory of God's creation. The opening of the Gospel of John reiterates this message. Jesus himself repeatedly calls upon us to be stewards of God's creation. Christian scripture climaxes with promises related to God's redemption of a creation that groans for God's restorative grace. Along the way, we, as God's agents (i.e., God's stewards) upon this earth, are charged to care for this world which God loves and for which Christ gave his life. (Remember, for example, the verse most of us learned as children, "For God so loved the world …", John 3:16).

    The political commentator, and perhaps others, may resent Pope Francis's entry into the conversation about global climate change and other topics regarding the environment. But the pope's entry into the conversation reminds us that the current debate has been distorted and politicized in ways that are not only counter-productive, but also irresponsible. Francis is reclaiming the discussion of the environment for Christian theology in a manner that is both responsible and spiritually appropriate.

    His letter begins by evoking the proclamation of that other Francis. The encyclical begins:

    "'Laudato si', mi' Signore' - 'Praise be to you, my Lord.' In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. 'Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.

    "This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she 'groans in travail' (Romans 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Genesis 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters."
    [Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015), 7]

    There are several striking things about Pope Francis's letter. First, it represents a powerful example of practical theology, allowing the resources of sacred scripture and the theological wisdom of the ages to engage a subject of real and immediate concern. Second, the letter presents profoundly biblical reflection, not only providing wisdom from biblical sources, but also recasting the contemporary discussion in biblical categories. Finally, it offers good news, both hope for our planet and hope for a humanity recalled to responsibility for "our common home."

    Francis's letter arrived in my mail box this summer just a few days after I finished reading another book on our human "home" by another Francis - in that case a study of prehistoric Britain by the archaeologist, Francis Pryor. While Pryor, an atheist, might find it hard to agree with any number of things any pope has said, on one thing he would agree with Pope Francis. In the words of Glynis Jones, another prehistorian Pryor approvingly quotes: "Home is not the house, but where the garden is." (Francis Pryor, Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from British Prehistory (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 80.

    Of course, the "garden" to which Pope Francis draws our attention is the one which is co-created and nurtured by God and humanity as symbolically represented in the creation stories of Genesis. As Francis writes:

    "The creation accounts in the Book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. … It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture." (Francis, Laudato Si', 47-48).

    I have mentioned before in this blog the value of what is commonly called The Daily Examen, a form of prayer popularized by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. The Examen provides a form of meditative prayer in which we daily recall to mind the fact that we live every moment in the presence of the God who created us in love and desires above all else to share this love in and through us. The Examen asks us to recall specific things for which we are grateful and to give God thanks for them. It also asks us, in this context of remembering the love, grace, goodness and generosity of God, to examine our lives, reviewing the large and small things we have done, those things through which we experienced the loving presence of God and those things which we regret. Laying our failings and regrets before God, we ask for God's forgiveness, and we pray for God's Spirit to empower us to live and to express God's love in our lives.

    If anything, Pope Francis's most recent encyclical confirms that he is not only worthy to bear the name “Francis,” but that he is a student of Ignatius and a Jesuit. Laudato Si' is an "Examen" addressed to the whole world, inviting us to examine our lives and our consciences in the presence of the God who created us and all things in love and who calls us to lovingly and responsibly care for this world. The explicit call to repentance that is essential to this encyclical is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. In this matter, our repentance not only will allow us to participate in the redemption of the world, but in our own redemption as children of God.

    At the close of the encyclical, Pope Francis invites us to pray two prayers. I will close with the opening lines of the first of these:

    "All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty." (Francis, Laudato Si', 158.)

    (The edition of Pope Francis's encyclical used in this blog was published by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Huntington, Indiana. It includes a study guide. I hope you'll consider using it in adult study groups in your church.)

  • Deepening Our Interreligious Learning

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 25, 2015


    Christine HongEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Dr. Christine Hong, assistant professor of worship and evangelism at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Hong (pictured) previously served as an adjunct professor of worship at Louisville Seminary and as an associate for interfaith relations at the national office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She began her tenure-track with the seminary this past July.

    Louisville Seminary’s commitment to making interreligious learning and dialogue central to training people for ministry is a significant step toward transforming theological education. As we engage in interreligious learning in our classrooms and in other areas of our lives, we live into our commitments by internalizing humility as our posture of learning and pushing beyond what is comfortable. Here are two basic principles of interreligious learning that help us deepen our commitments to the good work before us.

    1) Proficiency is fallacy: Repeat after me: There is no such thing as interreligious or intercultural proficiency. The word “proficient” assumes that the mastery of a subject or issue is possible, but can anyone claim proficiency in the inner workings of other human beings, let alone ourselves? Precisely because of this, our posture when learning with and among our neighbors of different religious traditions and cultures should be one of openness and humility. Active participation in interreligious learning and community requires us to accept that no matter how much we study, there is always more to learn and deeper ways to listen to one another’s stories.

    For example, even though I am a Korean American woman who is bilingual and bicultural, I cannot possibly know all there is to know about Korean and Korean American culture. Along the same vein, even though I am someone who professes Jesus Christ and claims the Church, I am not suddenly an expert in all Christian histories, all human experiences with the Divine, or the rich diversity represented in the Christian tradition. In fact, the more I learn about the cultures and religious traditions that are part of the fabric of my personal identity, the more I am astounded by how little I actually know and how much more there is to discover.

    There are no experts in interreligious dialogue and life, only commitments. Even within those commitments, there are depths we can never fully plumb. We can never reach the point where we have learned all that there is to know about one another. This is a wonderful thing; it means our work together will always remain fruitful. It reflects the great mystery of God, a testament to the beauty of Imago Dei (image of God). So, let’s put aside our assumptions of mastery and for proficiency.

    2) Deepen solidarity: Nowadays, it is common practice to highlight both differences and similarities in interreligious relationships and dialogue. These are often theological or cultural, but there are other differences and similarities - harder realities - that are unsettling for some of us to discuss. For instance, the differences and similarities in the ways American Muslim and Christian communities of color experience law enforcement and surveillance or the way Christian privilege coupled with systemic white supremacy perpetuates a cycle of oppression and violence against both American Sikh and Christian communities of color. These are tough but necessary conversations that require a great level of risk to unpack. The risks are more significant for some communities than others. Acknowledging this disproportionate risk, we work together to move past our fears and hesitancies in order to support and advocate for one another, especially for our partners and communities constantly under threat.  

    When we are open to advocacy, we commit ourselves to a new level of partnership with our neighbors, one of deeper solidarity and friendship. If we only wrestle with the most surface issues between our communities, we are not doing enough to usher in the societal transformation we seek. Let’s lean into the difficult conversations and broach the dangerous topics, challenging one another to focus less on our need for the familiar and more on what our community needs to thrive.

    Interreligious learning and interreligious commitments mean that we will never be experts in the lives of others or even of our own communities. Interreligious learning and commitments push us to come face-to-face with our best and worst selves and to repent and seek reconciliation. The relationships we have with our interreligious and intercultural partners invite us into a deeper form of solidarity that at times takes significant risk. It is hard work worthy of our attention and best effort.

  • Thin Places: A Spirituality Notebook

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 17, 2015

    We want to thank you for the very positive response to this year's series of supplemental blogs, "A Leadership Notebook," which Michael posted on alternating Fridays. Beginning Friday, September 4, Michael will post a new supplemental blog series exploring spirituality.

    The new series will be titled "Thin Places," and, as you will see, not even that well-worn phrase will be taken for granted. We hope you will enjoy the new series, which will be posted every other Friday in addition to the weekly "Thinking Out Loud" blogs, which will continue to publish every Tuesday.

    Thin Places

    "The Isle of Mull from Seil Island" was taken by Michael Jinkins in 2012. This photo was taken from a hill overlooking the village of Ellanabeich, looking westward toward the Atlantic Ocean. Ellenabeich is a small village on the isle of Seil - an island on the east side of the Firth of Lorn, 7 miles southwest of Oban, in Scotland. Some people call this lookout "the most beautiful view in the Inner Hebrides."

  • Black Church Studies is for Everyone

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 10, 2015

    Felicia LaBoyEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Dr. Felicia Howell LaBoy (pictured), Louisville Seminary’s new Associate Dean for Black Church Studies and Advanced Learning. LaBoy previously served as Director of United Theological Seminary’s Center for Urban Ministry. Her forthcoming book, Table Matters: The Sacraments, Social Holiness and Evangelism, will be available through Wipf & Stock Publishers.

    Like many of you, I watched in horror as the news reports rolled in with regard to the massacre of nine persons, including many of the pastoral staff at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in June. As I processed my own grief and reached out to students and colleagues in South Carolina, amazing events occurred that captured not only my attention, but also the attention of others, especially those for whom organized religion has become irrelevant.

    From the slain nine martyrs; to the Shelby, North Carolina, woman who spotted the gunman while praying for the victims and their families; to the words of forgiveness spoken from the victims’ families to the gunman; to the words of reconciliation, hope and commitments to justice spoken by state officials; to finally the eulogy given by President Barack Obama, the Church of Jesus Christ was on full display demonstrating itself as a relevant, reconciling and transforming agent of healing and hope.

    As Obama talked about the faith of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney specifically and of the long heritage of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, several ideas began to solidify for me and reaffirmed the importance of the strategic commitment that Louisville Seminary has made with regard to its Doors to Dialogue and Black Church Studies programs.

    Quoting Rev. Pinckney, Obama educated all present on the historical, theological and ethical heritage of both the A.M.E. church in general and Mother Emanuel specifically as the context by which all Americans could move beyond dialog and rhetoric to a more just society. He maintained that the historical and contemporary witness of Mother Emanuel and people of goodwill everywhere show us that we have the ability to dismantle structural and systemic racism that masquerades in civic pride or abstract liberalism.

    While Obama is to be congratulated for an outstanding eulogy, what is also apparent is the great impact of theological education. As evidenced by Obama’s deep theological knowledge of black church history and ethics as the catalyst for social change, it was evident that his eulogy had to have been crafted by someone intimately familiar with engaging theological discourse and praxis. And until this eulogy, it had been easy to forget that the faith of Obama and his family was nurtured not only at Trinity United Church of Christ, but also by some of the best black and white pastor-theologians and laity across a wide diversity of denominations in his work as a community organizer.

    While the media caricatured Trinity’s commitment to be unapologetically Christian and unashamedly black as anti-Christian and anti-white, they missed the fact that many of the most pre-eminent black theological scholars from some of the top seminaries in Chicago served as Sunday school teachers and small group leaders at Trinity. Under the tutelage of then-pastor Dr. Jeremiah Wright and these faculty, Trinity’s members were challenged to engage critically Black history, theology and ethics such that they:

    …embod[ied] the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it's about [our] collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.1

    In highlighting Obama’s “theological” training as a lay member at Trinity, we also cannot forget that Rev. Pinckney, as well as Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., were graduates of Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary. The impact of theological education was also on display in the ministry of the white Lutheran pastors and bishops who presided over the congregations where the alleged gunman and his family are members. While comforting the family and congregation, these sisters and brothers in Christ acknowledged the need for theological discourse that leads to transformative heart change and systemic social action.2

    While we can see the fruits of theological training, especially as it relates to Black Church Studies, it is also evident that we need a more comprehensive way forward. We need in the corridors of our theological institutions places to have honest discussions about race and social justice that build on history and enable us to think deeply and act justly in the midst of color-blind structural racism. Black Church Studies cannot only be for African Americans seeking to address theologically the world in which they find themselves. It must be a critical component for those seeking to lead the church to see the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States not as something to be suppressed, but as God’s gift.

    With this in mind, I envision three purposes for Louisville Seminary’s Black Church Studies program. First, the program must provide clergy and lay with a strong foundation in historical and contemporary black church theology and ethics.

    Second, it must deepen the theology, preaching, pastoring and community engagement of students by building on current courses and programs, and by engaging preeminent theologians and practitioners from within Louisville Seminary and beyond.

    Third, it must couple theology and praxis with an emphasis on the administrative and practical skills necessary for graduates to implement and assess current and future black church ministry. Equally important will be to consider how this program serves as a resource for the general church such that the inclusion of Black Church Studies in other academic areas will allow all students to create new insights and praxes. In this way, the Black Church Studies program at both the master’s and doctoral levels can develop a new generation of theological scholars in the Black Church tradition who are able to dialog effectively within other disciplines.

    It is my hope that as we saw the fruits of theological education coupled with creative and prophetic action from both clergy and lay as related to the Charleston massacre, the Black Church Studies program will function such that we too will create outposts of Christian witness that furthers the cause of open dialog, racial reconciliation and a just society. It is my prayer that through the Black Church Studies program, persons within and outside of the church will live into Rev. Pinckney’s assertion that we must know and value one another’s histories and discover that Black Church studies is indeed necessary for everyone.

    1President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President in Eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney (Washington, DC: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary), June 26, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/26/remarks-president-eulogy-honorable-reverend-clementa-pinckney, last accessed July 8, 2015.
    2For more on this see Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, Long Season of Disquiet Letter (Chicago: ELCA News),  June 18, 2015, http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/long_season_of_disquiet_letter.pdf, last accessed July 8, 2015.

  • Christianity and Commitment to Service

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 04, 2015

    Tom JonesBY TOM JONES

    Today’s blog is guest-written by Thomas L. (Tom) Jones (MDiv ’55, MTh ’59, DMin ’77), ambassador-at-large for Habitat for Humanity International and a former vice president and faculty member at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Tom is also a 2006 recipient of the Louisville Seminary Distinguished Alum Award.

    My conviction is real and deep: 100 years from now, when historians write the ongoing story of the people of God for our present era and beyond, Christian movements/organizations such as Habitat for Humanity International, World Vision International, TearfundChristian Aid Mission and the like will be seen as key parts of the story.

    After wonderful opportunities for ministry as a national staff person of the former PCUS Board of National Ministries and a stint as vice president and member of Louisville Seminary’s faculty, and after satisfying Presbyterian pastorates including Harvey Browne Memorial Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., at my request in 1992, National Capital Presbytery approved me for full-time specialized ministry with Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI). Following our family’s recent move to Georgia, Northeast Georgia Presbytery has approved me for my ongoing HFHI ministry, where I continue on the HFHI senior leadership team.

    I have been very, very blessed with opportunities for Christian ministry in every chapter of my life. None has had more significance than my time with Habitat for Humanity.

    From its beginning in 1976 in a chicken house in a Christian community called Koinonia Farm in rural southwest Georgia, Habitat has been, is and will continue to be committed as a Christian organization. Clarence Jordan, a Southern Baptist preacher with a doctorate in Greek and the founder of Koinonia community, is considered the spiritual founder of Habitat. Millard Fuller, the organization’s founder, then a 29-year-old millionaire lawyer, with his wife Linda decided to give their money to serve the poor and came to Koinonia.

    From its beginning, Habitat took the call of the Gospel seriously: to serve the poor, and to save the rich. In its efforts, Habitat is completely inclusive in who can serve and be served. It is non-doctrinaire (the one doctrine being that if you don’t have a Habitat bumper sticker on your car, you are living in sin!) Habitat states its mission:

    Mission Vision: A world where everyone has a decent place to live.

    Mission Statement: Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.

    First of five Mission Principles: Demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ.

    Habitat has never wavered from its intent to be a Christian organization. Habitat’s basic principles from the beginning have been “not a hand out, but a hand up.” Thus, potential Habitat homeowner partners do hundreds of hours of sweat equity, working on their own home and the homes of others. They assume a no-profit mortgage which they repay. Habitat challenges the volunteers to the Gospel call to give their time, talents and material resources to serve others.

    Habitat is taking seriously research* which shows why so many groups start as Christian organizations, but after 50 years no longer are such: American Red Cross, Harvard University, Barclay Bank, YMCA, Save the Children, and many other colleges, universities, hospitals, etc. Habitat has established an ongoing “Process for Keeping God at the Center.” This is led by a leadership team of 24 persons, world-wide, from every level. All serve by choice. This team provides spiritual growth resources, devotions, prayer guidance, theological reflection tools, study materials, event suggestions, and the like for individuals and groups living the Christian faith by serving human needs.

    The goal of Habitat is “to reach its 50th anniversary - and beyond - as a vibrant, vital, global Christian organization.” As such, Habitat is committed to provide the structure for Christians to join together “to prove what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect.”**

    Further, grounded in its Christian faith, without any threat to basic Christian beliefs - or the beliefs of other faiths - Habitat is secure to join with other religious faiths who are also called to care for the poor and who believe that shelter is a core issue. Habitat’s commitment is “to be a global leader toward all religious faiths working together toward ending poverty in the world.”

    Habitat invites all persons around the world who pray - regardless of religious faith - to become Habitat Global Prayer Partners (see www.Habitat.org/pray). Everyone in the world is invited to pray regularly for “a world where everyone has a decent place to live … bringing together those who seek to put God’s love into action by building homes, communities and hope.”

    But the real concern is not what the writers will say 100 years from now. Rather, to live the importance now of Habitat for Humanity and like Christian groups in the ongoing living story of the people of God!

    *“Keeping the Faith: Maintaining a Christian Mission in a Changing World,” by Larry Reed, former CEO of Opportunity International Network.
    **Romans 12:1-2

  • Meaning from the Mountaintop

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 28, 2015


    Chrissy WestburyToday’s blog post is guest-written by Chrissy Westbury, a Louisville Seminary Master of Divinity student from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

    Colossians 3:12-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
    12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

    This passage from Colossians was the theme passage at the Massanetta Springs Middle School Youth Conference this year, and I attended the conference with six middle school youths from a local congregation.

    I often hear complaints and concerns about the youth of today: they are entitled, self-absorbed, apathetic, and obsessed with instant gratification. However, my experience with these six youth and the dozens of others I met at Massanetta reminded me that these youths could teach most adults a thing or two about compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. During the course of the four days I spent on the quite literal mountaintop with more than 200 young teenagers, I regained my hope for the future of the church.

    It is easy to look at the church, and at the North American religious landscape as a whole, and become overwhelmed to the point of despondency. There is no doubt that our congregations are growing older and shrinking. The relevance of the church in the twenty-first century is in question. We cannot seem to attract or keep young families, we struggle to find volunteers, and the sense of community and family that many of us remember from our churches growing up seems to be fading. In a fast-paced world of constant movement, how can we ask people to be still and know God? How can we compete with sports, brunch and Netflix for those precious hours on Sunday morning? How can we tear young people away from their devices long enough to engage in deep discourse around the Word?

    But, here’s the thing - these young teens that I met in the mountains of Virginia are not only capable of that discourse, they are thirsty for it. They gladly put away their devices for the vast majority of those four days (they were only allowed to have them during their brief moments of free time in their rooms) and immersed themselves in theological conversations guided by high school students just a few years older than they. Adults participated in the conversations, but only peripherally. The guidance was offered by high school “Enablers” and the bulk of the discourse centered on the thoughts and words of eleven- to thirteen-year-olds.

    When asked about a moment they felt God at work, or a time when they needed to ask for or offer forgiveness, they were not entitled or apathetic teenagers. They were people of strong faith with stories to tell – some uplifting and others soul-crushing – of their own journeys. They listened to one another with compassion and openness that I have rarely seen in adult conversations around questions of theology. They accepted one another with humility and meekness, regardless of whether they agreed with or understood the other’s thoughts on a particular topic. They demonstrated in every way what it means to clothe oneself in love.

    As I returned from this mountaintop moment, I was thrust back into the world of social media and the evening news. Pundits and presidential candidates were all competing to see who could speak the loudest, assuming that their voice was the only one that mattered. Grown adults seemed incapable of treating one another with kindness and compassion, of stopping long enough to consider, with humility, what the other side had to say. It was a toxic spill of negativity and hopelessness. And all I wanted to do was return to the teenagers, to sit quietly in their circle as they explored their faith, their strength, and their world together.

    There was so much passion for a better world, so much hope, and yes, idealism. There were good answers and even better questions. And most of all, there was kindness, compassion, humility, and love.

  • Share the Healing

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 20, 2015


    Today’s blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Michael Mather, pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and author of Sharing Stories Shaping Community: Vital Ministry in the Small Membership Church (Discipleship Resources, 2002).

    The last year has made clear the violence, abuse and trauma in the lives of the people of our nation.  

    Fifteen years ago in my parish in South Bend, Indiana, I dealt with two cases of domestic abuse in one weekend. The next Monday, I went to a clergy meeting, where I asked my colleagues how they handled such things. Their response was, "It never comes up." We are too often blind to it all around us.

    One Sunday at my current parish, Broadway United Methodist Church, the poet Mari Evans spoke in worship about “Shattering the Silence.” (You can hear her remarks at http://goo.gl/GBjqlH).

    Mari challenged us to pay attention to one another. She talked about finding out that her son was sexually abused as a child by an adult female relative. This news came just two months before Mari’s son died at age 58. I have heard Mari speak about this publicly three times. Each time, her story has challenged me to really pay attention to what is going on in the lives of folks around me.

    A few of us from our parish visited Dr. John Rich at Drexel University. Dr. Rich worked as a physician in an inner city hospital where he was seeing young African American men (who looked like him), who had been shot and stabbed. He hired them to be “community health advocates” for a program he initiated called the Men's HealthCREW, a program to train inner city young men to become peer health educators who focus on the health of men and boys in their communities. As a result he won the MacArthur Genius Grant. When we visited with Dr. Rich, he asked us two simple questions that were beautiful in their simplicity and that have stayed with me over the past couple of years. First, he asked, "Who are the healers in your community?" Next, he asked, "How do you support the healers?"  

    Healing is present in the midst of the disease, illness, brokenness, violation, pain and evil. The healers are often the ones who have come through "many dangers, toils and snares."  

    A parishioner wrote me last week and shared a liturgy she was writing as a part of reaching for and recognizing God’s healing in her life. I think of the passage from the Gospel of Mark where people were coming to Jesus "begging to touch the hem of his garment.” When we recognize in our lives that level of hunger and thirst for healing that this represents, then our eyes become open, I believe, to the healing that is present.

    Today I write my liturgy of healing.

    I begin with God.

    God of love and light,
    I ask for liberation.
    Freedom to live in and celebrate

    God of Resurrection,
    On the night Jesus prayed in the Garden,
    He cried out to you.

    I cry out to you:
    Forgive my sin of self-denial;
    Forgive my sin of grasping,
    clinging, holding on
    to pain in place of peace
    of physical pleasure
    in place of whole life-living love.

    Like Jesus, I have asked that
    You take this cup from my lips.
    It remains.

    I am the woman with the issue of blood.
    I seek only to touch the hem of the garment.
    I seek only to be healed.
    God, I seek healing.

    There is a pain - a shadow - that
    from age 6 has haunted me.
    Though I bear no physical scars
    my heart and soul still ache
    for a way to feel whole
    having been broken.

    I give the brokenness to you Dear God.
    I give the pain, the shame, the self-doubt,
    the feelings of nothingness – victimization - to you.

    I release myself to the faith that I hold dear.
    I ask that you will grant this simple prayer
    that I be
    to know/show/share
    love in all of its facets
    free from the pain of the past,
    free to welcome and experience joy in the present,
    free to welcome and experience joy in the future.

    On the promise of the cross, I come to you
    believing in the promise of resurrection.


    We see the healing when we invite those who have suffered and are suffering to name their own healing, their own desire for it. We support the healers when we share it with others. That's where the healing begins to multiply, because we can see it at work.

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