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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Invisible Revolution of Eastertide

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Subversive Verse

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 07, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

    The book opens with these lines from a poem:

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

    Then this commentary by Eliza Griswold on the poem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    As Griswold observes:

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

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

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

  • Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 02, 2015

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

    So what does this have to do with Easter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Easter in the Dark

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Feeling Very Small and Insignificant

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    So, what's considered rare in universal terms?

    "Satellites detect an average of one a day."

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

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

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

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

  • Endings and Beginnings

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

    Silence. A classroom of eyes closely examining desks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Who is God?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A Leadership Notebook: Lincoln's Magnanimity

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 06, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Goodwin, early in her study of Lincoln, writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Pandaemonium

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 03, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Serenity

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A Leadership Notebook: When the Circus Comes to Town

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 19, 2015

    TOLLeadership-022015Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    “Strategic planning is really important,” I said. “But, sometimes as a leader you’re really more like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus than anything else. And you’re just trying to keep the lions from eating the clowns.”

    My comments were made in the context of a Skype conversation with students in a strategic leadership course at Duke Divinity School taught by Dr. Craig Dykstra and Dr. Greg Jones. They asked me to reflect on various factors contributing to transformational thinking in a religious institution. By the way, I refused to say who I think the lions and clowns might be. Some lions are pretty funny, and some clowns can be scary.

    The point of my reflections was not to detract from the importance of strategic thinking or of planning sweeping changes in an organization. Far from it. Strategic thinking and long-range planning are crucial to the health of an organization. But I did want to raise up an aspect of planning that sometimes gets overlooked.

    What I would call “big picture” planning is very important. When we plot out major strategic shifts, our planning can energize an organization. Such “big picture” planning can inspire an organization. It certainly can help a group of people break out of old patterns and imagine new possibilities for themselves. It can assist an organization to transform threats into opportunities.

    However, the accomplishment of “big picture” plans requires hundreds, maybe thousands, of much smaller day-to-day steps forward. Yes, we must see the big picture, but we achieve great things by achieving many small things, steadily, one step at a time.

    One of the most common mistakes organizations make related to strategic planning occurs after the “big picture” plan has been adopted. Often they print the strategic plan. They place it in some sort of attractive folder. They make sure every office has a copy. They place the bound strategic plan on a shelf. Then they move on as though nothing has changed.

    Well, of course, nothing much will change in this case because they have neglected to chart the small goals that need our attention in order for the “big picture” to become a reality. These small goals, if I may return to my circus analogy, might include developing a better system to ensure that the trapeze artists stay in shape, or create a more reliable breakdown and setup process to transport the circus tents from one city to another.

    Keeping tabs on the small goals and gains (and setbacks) also helps us make the necessary adjustments in our plan that inevitably crop up in light of unforeseen developments. Charting the small goals and gains (and setbacks) also helps us keep our eyes on the relationship between dreams and realities. A few years ago, following a catastrophic financial crisis in a seminary, for example, I asked a colleague who knew that particular seminary well what had happened. He said, “Every day there was a circus parade, and nobody was cleaning up after the elephants.”

    Great successes in organizations usually require strategic thinking, as well as good fortune, but great failures often have as much to do with a lack of attention to relatively small matters as they do with a lack of vision.

    When Ellis Nelson was president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, he wrote a little book with the rather unpromising title, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975). In a section on “Developmental Decisions,” Nelson discusses the tendency of many leaders to assume that once a direction is determined, all that is necessary is for an organization to more-or-less automatically move in the chosen direction. A few years ago a faculty colleague in another seminary expressed this misunderstanding when he said that the job of administrators is “to watch the machinery work.” In fact, according to Nelson, it is at this point when an organization has charted the direction for change that the organization is most vulnerable. In essence, the leadership of the organization has made a wager that certain changes will produce better results. They are making this wager on the basis of hypotheses which may not yet have been tested. They may not know precisely how to make the small changes that will lead to the larger transformation they are seeking. They almost certainly do not know what the unintended consequences of their changes will bring. “So we are now in a zone where anxiety reigns,” wrote Nelson.1

    Drawing on the research of David Braybrooke (an ethicist and philosophical thinker) and Charles E. Lindblom (an economist and political scientist), Nelson examines how “the mind” tries “to project from the immediate past into the immediate future with minimum risk to the seminary and maximum opportunity to move ahead.” According to Braybrooke and Lindblom, the secret to navigating an organization toward real and lasting transformation is the employment of disjointed incrementalism. They believed that “sure progress in human affairs proceeds by small steps taken in a prudential mood with pragmatic reasoning.”2

    Nelson’s lesson is perhaps more important today than it was in the nineteen-seventies. In a time when churches and seminaries feel besieged by cultural shifts beyond their control and often beyond their understanding, and in the midst of financial and social instability, making appropriate and sometimes big strategic changes may be the only way for some religious organizations to survive. However: “If a seminary (or a church or other organization) launches out on a great new plan and fails to deliver the goods, such a school suffers for a generation or more from the memory people have of its failures.”3

    Fear of failure can, however, prevent leadership from making the bold changes that can lead to an organization’s viability and excellence. Indeed, anxiety can itself cause catastrophic failure by inducing paralysis when purposeful innovation is most needed. In other words, freezing in place before a threat may not be a better option than trying to escape it by jumping in the wrong direction.

    This is where Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s “progress principle” makes a creative advance on disjointed incrementalism. The gap between an organization’s present location (faced by various threats) and its strategic ends (where it converts environmental threats into opportunities and achieves a stronger position) lies in the work of “managing for progress.” As Amabile and Kramer observe, this is the next step after what Jim Collins describes as “getting the right people on the bus.”4

    While keeping in mind the organization’s strategic ends, good leaders help the people in their organization succeed with lots and lots of small wins. This produces greater buy-in to the organization’s strategic goals and greater care in attending to the day-to-day steps necessary for success. These small (incremental) successes fuel the enthusiasm of those in the organization to greater ends. Encouragement in achieving relatively small goals translates into much-needed energy toward the large strategic vision of the organization.5

    Obviously, this means much more than just keeping the lions from eating the clowns. It even means more than attending to tent transportation and the fitness of our acrobats.

    It is a reminder that the small stuff is worth sweating.

    1Ellis Nelson, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975), 63.
    2Ibid., 63.
    3Ibid., 64.
    4Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2011), 10.
    5Ibid., 20-41.

  • Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2015

    Ash Wednesday
    If there's an equivalent of the "urban legend" for nursery rhymes, one of the most popular is related to:

    Ring around the rosie,
    A pocket full of posies,
    Ashes! Ashes!
    We all fall down.

    I have heard it said - with great authority in Ash Wednesday sermons no less - that this nursery rhyme is about the plague. In fact, this is pretty doubtful.

    The dates of the origin of the rhyme (c. late eighteenth century by the oldest estimates) just don't fit the plague hypothesis: not nearly old enough for the Black Death, and the symptoms don't fit the plague that swept England in the mid-seventeenth century. The plague explanation for the rhyme first occurs in the twentieth century, anyway. (See The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren and The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, both by Iona and Peter Opie.) So let's leave medical explanations to one side, shall we?

    Let's just say that as I've been driving around town recently, seeing signs going up at local churches reminding the faithful that Ash Wednesday is on our doorstep, my mind keeps going back to the children's rhyme. Not because it cryptically speaks of plagues. Nor even because of its eerie echo of the words every minister has spoken at the graveside, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." I've been thinking about the nursery rhyme because it reminds me that "we all fall down." And not just physically.

    "We all fall down." As it happens, this is the central message of Ash Wednesday. The collect for the day from the old Book of Common Prayer reads:

    Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    There's something in this prayer that gives me hope whenever I feel mired in guilt and regret.

    Apparently when God creates a "new heart" in us, it is a "contrite" heart. When we take this "new heart" out for a spin, we find ourselves "worthily lamenting our sins." When God renews one's heart, in other words, the new heart is much too busy acknowledging its own wretchedness to go around judging others.

    I find this fact strangely comforting, and just a little bit disturbing. Because it means that whenever I'm engaged in righteously looking down on the behavior of others and judging them, I am not acting from a new heart. I'm likely acting from an old and cold one.

    This leads me to make a modest proposal for Lent. In addition to or instead of the usual things we give up, let's give up judging others. At least for Lent, let's just go on a "judgment fast."

    We can pray that God will create in us "new and contrite hearts" so that we can worthily lament our own sins and acknowledge our own wretchedness. But even here, let's lament, but leave the judgment of ourselves to God. We're just not qualified to engage in the judgment business, however good at it we may think we are.

    One of the traditional readings for Ash Wednesday is Joel 2:12-13 which reads:

    Turn even unto me, says the Lord, with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning. Rend your heart, and not your clothing, and turn to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and great in kindness …

    According to the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the goals of contrition are that we may be bathed in the love and mercy and grace of God, so that we may extend the love, mercy and grace we have received toward others.

    "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down." None of us is immune to falling. Let's help one another up this Lent.

  • On a Roll: New Verse from Christian Wiman

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 09, 2015

    New VerseThere are few things more exciting in the world of letters than a poet on a roll.

    I felt this way when Louise Glück wrote the run of slim, achingly beautiful volumes beginning with “Ararat” (1990), that included “The Wild Iris” (1992), “Meadowlands” (1996), “The Seven Ages” (2001) and culminated in the incomparable "Averno" (2006). During that season of verse, I don't think anyone was writing better poetry in English than her, not even the magnificent Seamus Heaney, God rest his soul.

    These days it is Christian Wiman who is on a roll. His “Every Riven Thing” was astounding. His My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), though prose, sings like verse wrung from the tempered soul. Now Wiman's Once in the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) speaks with a voice so original that comparisons to previous poets seem contrived. Yet I shall try. If there's any writer to whom I might compare him, it is Aeschylus, but only because the most haunting poem in this new volume (“Memory's Mercies”) seems to me (and this may be pure eisegesis) to echo the agonistic lyricism of Agamemnon. But that echo may be purely in my own brain, i.e., contrived.

    Wiman takes us home, and not just because home for some of us was shaped by the vast empty features of the Texas landscape. He could just as easily have taken us to the plains of Kansas or the forests of Oregon or the shores of Troy, I suspect, if any of these places had been home for him. He does what great poets do. He takes us deep into a place, deep into a common experience, making the familiar unfamiliar so we can see our lives anew. He locates us so as to dislocate us. He forces us into our own skin by inviting us to feel the world through his.

    He has been compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins. There are grounds for such a comparison. But, reading Wiman, I do not find myself hearing the voice of another poet so much as listening to a voice speaking from within myself, yet speaking to me from outside too. Like words given to my own doubts - and my hopes - this verse shares secrets buried I thought only inside me. How humbling to discover they belong to others, maybe many others. How humbling, and yet what consolation.

    There's no better place to start than with a few lines from "Memory's Mercies."

    Memory's mercies
    mostly aren't

    but there were
    I swear
    veined with grace

    like a lucky
    electrically over

    whatever water
    there was -

    Or, from "Prayer" with which he opens the volume:

    even now,
    my prayer

    is that a mind

    by anxiety
    or despair

    might find

    a trace
    of peace.

    And, then, there are the outrageous passages that surprise you, that lift up your heart, the way life and grace do, as in the beginning passages of "We Lived":

    We lived in the long intolerable called God.
    We seemed happy.

    I don't mean content I mean heroin happy,
    donkey dentures,

    I mean drycleaned deacons expunging suffering
    from Calcutta with the cut of their jaws

    I mean the always alto and surely anusless angels
    divvying up the deviled eggs and jello salad in the after-rapture

    I mean
    to be mean.

    Dear Lord forgive the love I have
    for you and your fervent servants.

    I don't want to stop quoting him. You won't want to stop reading him.

    I pray he won't stop writing, not while he is on a roll.

  • A Leadership Notebook: Firefighting

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 05, 2015

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

    Scott WilliamsonThis spring our "Leadership Notebook" blog will look at particularly interesting and helpful insights that have emerged from a variety of sources. I am grateful to my old friend David Forney for sharing Karl Weick’s fascinating insight with me. David, now the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Charlottesville, Virginia, was associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia Seminary when he shared Weick’s article. Most people in leadership have brushed up against the rhetoric Weick explores though few have gone to the depths he has, unless, of course, like our own Professor Scott Williamson (pictured), they actually know the world of firefighting from the inside out!

    “Oh, putting out grass fires today. How about you?”

    This is not an unusual remark from the lips of folks in leadership, in response to the query, “What have you been up to today?” Most of us have said something similar at some time.

    A few years ago, Karl E. Weick, sometimes referred to as the “dean of educational administration,” decided to take our rhetoric about firefighting seriously. Seriously enough, that is, to do some research into the experience of real firefighters, particularly the sort who fight wildfires.

    Weick’s thesis is straightforward (and directly related to educational leadership): “The ways in which wildland firefighters preclude failure when they fight fires in forests have direct relevance to the ways in which educational firefighters can preclude failure when they fight fires in schools.” Weick’s findings are fascinating and highly applicable to all sorts of organizational leadership, including, of course, the church.

    Part of Weick’s research was documentary, studying the infamous Mann Gulch fire that occurred in 1949 in which “15 young smokejumpers and a forest ranger were trapped near the bottom of a 76 percent slope in western Montana by an exploding fire at 5:40 in the afternoon.” The story of this tragedy is told in Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire (University of Chicago Press, 1992). [Maclean is best known for his beautiful book, A River Runs Through It (University of Chicago Press, 1972)]. Weick summarizes the Mann Gulch experience:

    Thirteen were killed when they tried to outrun the fire. Of the three who survived, one lived by burning a hole in the fire and the other two squeezed through a break in the rocks at the top of the slope. The person who lived by building an escape fire had ordered others to join him in the area cleared by his fire, but all refused to do so. (Karl E. Weick, “Fighting Fires in Educational AdministrationEducational Administration Quarterly, Vol. 32 (October 1996) No. 4. p. 566).

    Weick found that the manner in which these firefighters was organized actually contributed to the disaster.

    There were weak interpersonal ties among people on the Mann Gulch firefighting crew because they had been assembled from several different crews.

    Leadership kept shifting because two people informally vied to replace the formal leader.

    The crew’s radio was destroyed, which made it impossible to get the big picture of what was happening around them.

    They received no briefing on fall-back positions, safety zones, or escape routes.

    There was a solution within the group to the problem of how to cope with a fire that blows up (build an escape fire), but only one person understood it, and that person could not persuade others that it was a solution.

    They ignored clues that the fire was becoming more dangerous to confirm their prior belief that it was an easy fire to suppress.

    They were unable to communicate with each other because of the noise and smoke.

    They had little experience with fighting fires in grassy terrains (they had been trained to fight fires in timber) or with fighting fires where they were the first ones on the scene (9 of the 13 were first-year jumpers with little prior experience fighting established fires)
    . (Weick, 567)

    Weick observes that management teams in schools (and other institutions) are often organized in precisely the same way that the Mann Gulch team was organized. Our organizations are, therefore, vulnerable not only to wildfires (that is part of nature), but also to the kinds of failures that lead firefighters to get burned, literally. Weick moves from the descriptive, however, to the prescriptive.

    Based on his research drawn from a variety of sources, Weick explains that there are basically five conditions “under which it seems likely that fires will be contained rather than explode in both wildlands and schools.” Effective firefighting can happen, he writes:

    1. When people appreciate the complexity of small events and mobilize complex systems to sense and manage them;
    2. When people know what they do not know and simultaneously trust and mistrust their past experience;
    3. When people have a model for the origin of rogue events;
    4. When people strive to manage issues rather than to solve problems; and
    5. When people improvise after first putting into place a system of lookouts, communication, escape routes, and safety zones (LCES).
    (Weick, 567)

    Some of the lessons he draws from his research may seem obvious. For example, “You can never afford to be complacent. Alertness is your most valuable asset.” (Weick, 568) Other conclusions may be surprising. For example, while most of us would not be startled to learn that many fireline accidents occur among firefighters with only two years of experience, we would likely not expect that the other group of firefighters who tend most often to be injured or killed have 10-15 years of experience. Obviously, the first group doesn’t know enough about the varieties of peril to stay safe. The second group, however, may have come to believe that the fire has nothing new to teach them. Humility and a teachable spirit, in other words, might just save your life.

    Weick also reminds us of the value of holding on to fundamentals of good practice. Many firefighters who get hurt, he reminds us, know but ignore basic practices that would have kept them safe. One firefighter who was caught up in a disastrous accident admitted later, “My ditty bag contained a copy of standard fire orders and watch-out situations. I considered looking at it, but didn’t. I knew we were violating too many to contemplate.” (Weick 575) It is also true that the group of firefighters Weick considered in the South Canyon fire disaster simply “did not know a lot of things they should have known. That ignorance cost 14 of them their lives.” (Weick, 573) This is especially pertinent for firefighters or leaders who confuse the contexts they are in, assuming that everything they learned in another context transfers to the new one, or that nothing does. It takes wisdom and good judgment to apply knowledge in different contexts.

    It won’t surprise anyone that communication is a crucial issue in firefighting. But what some may not realize is that communication is not simply a matter of imparting information, but, even more, of trusting those who share the information. As Weick put it: “Fire is not the problem. The problems are alertness, trust, trustworthiness, respect, candor, and ‘the will to communicate.’” (Weick 574) He reminds us that one of the firefighters in the Mann Gulch fire did precisely the thing that would have saved the team’s life, burning an escape route, but none of his partners trusted the well-tested practice.

    One aspect of Weick’s analysis of firefighters is reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, always making sure you have a reliable escape route. Weick, in fact, thinks there should be several viable escape routes in any combustible situation. Flexibility is extremely important “under fire,” because leaders need options, not only if they want to survive to fight the next fire, but if they want their organizations to thrive.

    Weick’s essay is exceptionally helpful. Every time I re-read it, I discover new insights because it speaks to new experiences.

    Stay safe out there!

  • SWOTting the Future: Theological Education "For the Time Being"

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 02, 2015


    “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all,”i writes the poet W.H. Auden toward the end of his, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Auden’s phrase has been on my mind a great deal as I read three particularly timely documents:

    The “Schmidt Report,” as the first of these has been dubbed, raises crucial questions about the leadership of boards for the future of higher education. It illuminates the fact that serving on the governing board of a university, college or seminary is far from a merely honorary position. The legal, fiduciary and custodial roles of trustees has become more crucial with every passing year.

    The “Auburn Report” makes for sober, but ultimately hopeful reading. Its co-authors make it clear that strategic planning based on a careful, critical analysis of the best research available has become essential for theological schools.

    Today, however, I would like to reflect primarily on the third of these documents: the grant proposal submitted by ATS to the Lilly Endowment.1

    The authors of the ATS proposal seem almost to be writing a churchly riff on Auden’s poetic phrase when they say: “we seem to be in the messy moment between the decline, but not dissolution, of the old and the emerging, but not yet mature, structures of the new” (ATS proposal, p. 7). This comment relates directly to the contemporary situation among Christian denominations especially in North America. Denominations seem to be caught “in the time being” between the large corporate institutional structures that dominated the religious landscape for much of the past century and whatever these forms will be (largely inchoate for now), which are just emerging. The comment could apply to forms of ministries, congregations and theological schools as well.

    Dan Aleshire and his colleagues at ATS, in their grant proposal, sketch some of the monumental shifts in churches and theological schools since 1936 when the Conference of Theological Schools (an earlier name for ATS) decided to begin accrediting seminaries. Leaders in theological education across the country then realized that “theological education needed to become more advanced to serve the needs of churches because they had grown to new levels of capacity and patterns of ministry in the modern era. Pastors and other religious leaders were (then) being educated in ways that did not fit the changed reality of churches and changing patterns of ministry” (ATS, p. 1).

    The Conference of Theological Schools in the 1930s adopted accreditation standards for theological education that reflected a rapidly changing environment, especially, but not only, related to the increasing professionalization of ministry and the greater complexity of church leadership. These standards were revised periodically throughout the twentieth century culminating in the redeveloped standards adopted by ATS in 1996.

    As ATS looks forward, it is raising questions which would not have been out of place in 1936, though the answers to these questions will certainly differ at crucial points:

    Is theological education providing the patterns of education that fit the needs and realities of congregations? Are schools educating leaders in the ways most needed to serve the changed and changing realities of religious leadership? How are religious leaders best educated for their work? What education do religious leaders need?

    What educational models and methods are theological schools currently using to prepare leaders for the variety of areas of service? What is the relationship between sustainable economic models and effective educational practice? What educational models and practices enable theological schools both to fulfill their missions and to sustain economic vitality? What resources do the schools need to implement new models?

    Which models are most effective for which educational goals and ends? What are the common elements of good educational models and practices, both curricular and extra-curricular?

    What role should ATS assume to provide appropriate organizational support for schools to implement models that serve their constituencies more effectively, to become more nimble, and to realign their work better to reflect the changed and changing realities of communities of faith and the social location of religion in North American society?
    (ATS proposal, pp. 2-3, italics added.)

    The questions raised in the ATS proposal touch upon virtually every aspect of theological education from pedagogy to governance, from recruitment to placement, from fund development to financial stability to intergenerational stewardship of resources in schools. These questions remind us that seminaries and other theological schools are servants not of their own interests and ends, but of the needs of the churches and the communities which send us our students and to which we send our graduates.

    These questions also remind us that even as seminaries are servants of needs beyond the walls of the schools, our responsibilities extend beyond our present moment. We are responsible to use the resources left us by previous generations in ways that benefit generations yet unborn.

    Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats … and Hope
    Recently I heard a respected educator say that seminaries must face the fact that in the future the dominant form of ministry will be bi-vocational, that seminaries must adjust their programs and their expectations both to accommodate and to prepare people for “tent-making ministries.” Her advice was sound - as far as it went. Demographic and economic factors are conspiring in many places to require those who serve as pastors to be able to support themselves at least partially through vocations other than ministry.

    But bi-vocational ministry is only one face of the emerging reality. In addition to tent-making ministries, and in addition to traditional pastoral ministry and multi-staff ministry -  both of which do, in fact, survive and in many places thrive - there are many other opportunities for new church development, pastoral counseling, social work, legal advocacy, community organization and various forms of nonprofit leadership. Some of the emerging ministries are sanctioned and supported by traditional denominational judicatories, but many more are not. Many of these require considerable entrepreneurial creativity.

    Anyone who has ever performed a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of an organization knows that virtually every perceived threat represents an opportunity, and a sizeable proportion of leadership lies in finding the creative potential of threats. I read these three reports and attempted to “learn, mark and inwardly digest” them (as the Book of Common Prayer encourages). In doing so, I was struck repeatedly by the reason why Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Covenant for the Future campaign is receiving such a positive response throughout the church. The campaign has confronted the threat of student indebtedness as an opportunity to liberate graduates from debt. It has confronted the increasing polarization of our society along religious, political, sociological and racial-ethnic fault lines with curricular and extracurricular programs that teach our graduates to become bridge-builders in their communities.

    I believe that we are surrounded by many other threats just waiting to be turned into opportunities.

    Thus, I am mindful, in the midst of this “messy moment,” this “between the times,” this “for the time being,” as trying as it is, that W.H. Auden did not allow the existential angst of the moment to have the last word in his poem, significantly written for Christmas when we celebrate God’s ultimate risky venture of incarnation. The chorus closes “For the Time Being” with the following beautiful and hopeful lines (please excuse Auden’s lack of gender sensitivity):

    He is the Way.
    Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
    You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

    He is the Truth.
    Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
    You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

    He is the Life.
    Love Him in the Word of the Flesh;
    And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.ii

    1The proposal, incidentally, was approved by the Board of the Lilly Endowment Inc.; ATS will receive about $6 million to conduct an in-depth four year study of educational models and practices of theological education.

    iW.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (London: Faber and Faber, 1941-42), 123.
    iiIbid., 124.


  • The Way of the Abbot

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 26, 2015

    Lately I have been thinking about my vocation as a seminary president. After attending the recent annual meeting of Presidents and Board Chairs of Presbyterian Seminaries, I wanted to share with you my thoughts about a vocation which I share with some remarkable men and women. I'm not sure these reflections, incidentally, will be of any interest or value to anyone else, but I hope some aspects of these thoughts might apply to other vocations, for example, to congregational ministers as well as to those who lead social agencies and organizations that seek to promote healing and justice in our world. These may just be private musings, in other words, but I offer them nonetheless for what they are worth.

    way of the abbotBeing a seminary president is neither fish nor fowl. Though I am an ordained minister and have served as a pastor, and though there are clearly pastoral dimensions to my current vocation, I am not a pastor. While I served as a professor and academic dean for many years, I do not now spend much time at all in a classroom as a teacher. A seminary president is, of course, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the school. And more and more, a president must accept the mantle of being the chief development officer of the seminary, though both the CEO and the lead fundraising roles deserve considerable theological reflection and should be used of a seminary presidency with care.

    I have come to believe, in fact, that all four of these roles or aspects of the president's office (pastoral, teaching, chief executive and fund development) stand in need of theological reflection, especially at a time when suspicion of institutions is rife and the legitimacy of authority is broadly questioned in our culture. I have only begun the task of theologically reflecting on the seminary presidency during my first five years in this vocation. Already some insights have emerged as I have entered into conversation with a rather surprising source, at least for a twenty-first century Protestant seminary president, "The Pastoral Prayer" of Aelred of Rievaulx, who served as Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, England, during the twelfth century. Teacher, pastor and "chief executive," as well as what we might call "chief stewardship officer," are humbly and nobly woven together in Aelred's practice. (You may recall my mention of Aelred some time ago.)

    In so limited a scope as a blog entry (even so long a blog entry as this one), there's no way to do more than hint at the richness of Aelred's understanding of the Abbot's vocation, but I shall try to do that, at least by pointing to the principle that gives life to every role played by the abbot or abbess. I believe these roles have a lot in common, not only with a seminary and college presidencies, but with other vocations too.

    The guiding principle at the heart of Aelred's thought is love. Easy to say, hard to do. Especially when one reflects on certain duties the abbot must perform. Aelred's prayer, what he calls oratio pastoralis or "the prayer of shepherds" speaks to each aspect of the vocations mentioned above. It is suffused with a spirit of humility, a hope for the office to which he has been called, and a love for those to whom he has been given charge.

    The Teacher
    Though he was born in 1110 in the Northumbrian town of Hexham, Aelred spent many years as a courtier in the household of King David I of Scotland. In his mid-twenties, he left the royal court to enter Rievaulx, a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire. Prior to becoming the abbot of this monastery, he had served as novice master, the principal teacher of new monks, responsible for their spiritual and vocational formation.

    "To form a monk," writes Charles Dumont, "is something completely different from putting him into a mold or making him into a slavish copy of a model, even a saintly model." Ultimately, it is up to the novice to submit to what Aelred understood as a "voluntary self-stripping which consists of taking up the Cross of Christ. Ordo noster crux Christi, Aelred wrote ... “Our way of life is the cross of Christ." Aelred, the abbot, puts priority on those practices of faith through which the Spirit of God works in the lives of his monks. Aelred teaches not only with words, but through his example.

    For instance, Aelred is known for his sense of humor, which comes through in his prayer with his vivid overstatement of his own unworthiness to be a teacher, reflecting a self-effacing lightness of touch that surely served him well with those he led. He prays:

    And because you [God] have given them this blind leader, this untaught teacher, this ignorant guide, teach the one you have put in a teacher's position, lead the one you have commanded to lead others, guide the one you have appointed as a guide - if not for me, then for them!

    Reading this passage, I couldn't help but picture the joyful face of Pope Francis and think of the power of humor and humility in leadership.

    The Pastor
    Virtually every line of this prayer exudes a pastor's heart, from its first to its final words. But section eight of the prayer particularly rises to a level of prayer that can only be described as priestly, praying on behalf of the members of his community in their life together.

    Sweet Lord, by the action of your Spirit may they be peaceful, modest, and kind in their relationships with themselves, with each other, and with me. May they be obedient to one another, of service to one another, and encouraging of one another. May they be fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, in poverty, in fasting, in toils, and keeping vigil, in silence and quiet, and in all things patient. Drive from them, O Lord, the spirit of pride and vainglory, envy and sadness, sloth and slander, despair and indifference, lust and uncleanness, presumption and discord. Be in the midst of them according to your faithful promise.

    The abbot is speaking of the monks in his charge, but every president would recognize in this intercessory prayer a plea for students, faculty, administrators, staff, trustees, alumni and the extended seminary community.

    Aelred's time was an era of vast and often violent change. War broke out between the English and the Scots while Aelred served at Rievaulx. The war was led on the English side by the baron of the castle nearest to Rievaulx Abbey in opposition to the king in whose court Aelred had once served. (Aelred also wrote the history of that conflict.) The Cistercian order itself was in considerable turmoil. The Cistercians led an exceptionally successful reform movement, but as monks from other orders rushed to become members of the "reform monasteries," many of these new Cistercians resented the strict lifestyle and order of the reformers. Complaints reached all the way to Bernard of Clairvaux, who was "Father Immediate of Rievaulx," though he likely never crossed the channel from France. When Aelred prays that God will hold his people "in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace," he is praying for real, and he is praying for something beyond his control.

    The Chief Executive Officer
    The abbot, we are told by Aelred, seeks not to preside over but to profit his people. Aelred feels the weight of the impossibility of the responsibilities he bears. He prays:

    For some good reason, you have placed me - or rather let me be placed - in this office, unworthy sinner that I am. For as long as you suffer me to be over your people, you bid me to be concerned for them and to pray so conscientiously for them. … Because divine law has laid down that it is the priest's duty to offer sacrifice for himself first and then for the people, I will first offer your majesty this sacrifice of prayer, such as it is, for my sins.

    The first duty of the one who serves as chief executive officer of an organization, Aelred tells us, is to attend to his or her own spiritual health. Aelred reflects the wisdom of the airline safety announcement to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help others with theirs. But his wisdom goes well beyond this.

    The spiritual health of the leader is not an end in itself. The institutional leader's health is for the "end" of the health, wholeness and healing of others. Aelred’s prayer continues:

    Our God of mercy, hear me for their sake! I pray to you for their sake, compelled by the duty of my office, urged on by my attachment to them, yet quickened with joy when I contemplate your kindness.

    The Chief Stewardship Officer

    As a person charged with the temporal and fiscal responsibility of the community, no less than its spiritual well-being, the abbot prays for his monks:

    My God, inspire in them as well a willingness to endure in patience when you give nothing and to use in moderation when you do give. I am your servant and, because of you, also theirs; grant them the grace to trust me always and to feel that what I am doing is to their advantage. Let them love and respect me as much as you think is beneficial for them.

    I beg this one thing of your most tender love, my Lord, no matter whether it is a little or a lot, make me, your servant, the dependable dispenser, the discerning distributor, the prudent provider of all that you have given.

    Aelred anticipates some insights of modern organizational psychology, such as the benefit of creating a "culture of appreciation," an idea articulated eloquently last fall in our annual faculty retreat by Professor Loren Townsend. Aelred also reminds all of us of the central spiritual duty of the abbot, which every president would do well to imitate. He prayed regularly for the people entrusted to him. That may be the most important aspect of the abbot's role, and it might just renew the life of seminary presidents too.

    Thus, I'll leave you with the closing paragraph of Aelred's prayer. It needs no commentary:

    I, however, entrust them into your holy hands and to your loving providence, in the hope that not even one of them will be snatched out of your hand or out of the hand of your servant to whom you have entrusted them, but they may persevere joyously in their holy intentions. By persevering may they obtain eternal life. Grant this, our sweetest Lord, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

    [Notes on the sources: The edition of Aelred's prayer used is a bi-lingual version which helpfully provides good critical, annotated texts in both English and Latin. For Your Own People: Aelred of Rievaulx's Pastoral Prayer, critical edition, introduction and annotations by Marsha L. Dutton, translation by Mark DelCogliano (Cistercian Publications, 2008). Comments by Charles Dumont are from Aelred of Rievaulx: Mirror of Charity, introduction and critical notes by Charles Dumont, OSCO, translated by Elizabeth Connor, OSCO (Cistercian Publications, 1990).]

  • When Patience Becomes a Vice

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 19, 2015

    Martin Luther King JrThis past weekend, prior to the national observance of the life and ministry of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we were in Memphis, Tennessee. On Sunday, we worshiped at the historic Idlewild Presbyterian Church whose senior pastor, the Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery, is a colleague and friend.

    History hung heavy in the air across the country on the eve of this year's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Surely history weighs particularly heavily this year as the celebrated film Selma, which is about Dr. King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, is being viewed by thousands. The movie reminds us of Dr. King's personal courage, prophetic vision, and commitment to the transforming power of love and non-violence. And, surely, history presses heavily upon us as our country turns again to confront our painful history of injustice and the tragic hour through which we are living.

    The Reverend Anne H.K. Apple, associate pastor of Idlewild, preached a moving sermon, in part reflecting on a viewing of Selma she had attended at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. In the course of her powerful reflections, her sermon alluded to Dr. King's message about the danger of being patient.

    We usually think of patience as a good thing, a virtue. I often pray for more of it because I am usually not as patient as I should be. As Anne observed, and Dr. King eloquently proclaimed, sometimes patience is not a virtue, especially when it cloaks an unwillingness to confront and deal with injustice. Patience can become a vice when it insists that others who are oppressed, disenfranchised or subjected to societal injustice should be more patient and should wait for a more opportune time to press their appeals for civil rights.

    The first part of the Corporate Confession of Sin at Idlewild this Sunday spoke directly to those occasions when patience becomes a vice. We confessed: "Lord God, perhaps our sin is the encouragement toward slow waiting; for when we encourage, 'Wait. Be patient,’ we fail by silencing voices that need to be heard." Together we prayed, "Lord have mercy."

    Last weekend I also received via email "An Open Letter to Presidents and Deans of Theological Schools in the United States," posted on the Huffington Post by Alton B. Pollard, III, and signed by eminent African American presidents and deans of seminaries and divinity schools across the country. I am grateful to my colleagues for this prophetic word and for their vision, and I invite you today to read their letter in full and to hear and respond to its call. Especially, I ask that we take seriously their call, and I would like to quote several paragraphs from their letter at length:

    We call upon the leaders of our nation to reaffirm the founding principles of this nation: liberty and justice for all.

    We call on all freedom loving Americans to reaffirm a commitment to “the beloved community,” where the freedom and rights of all are respected and protected.

    We call on the United States Congress to set a civil and moral tone in the way they respect our twice-elected president.

    We call on leaders on the national and local levels to join citizens of good will to reject practices, legal and adjure, which mar the American dream of liberty and justice for all.

    We call on our churches and every house of faith to challenge their members to live out an inclusive commitment to love God, self, the neighbor-enemy, and creation across any and all boundaries that would dehumanize, alienate, and separate.

    We call on all Americans of good conscience who gather across the country to speak out for liberty and justice for all ... always. As our modern day prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

    The men and women who signed this letter represent a cross-section of the theological spectrum. Their call is not conservative, liberal or Evangelical. They speak as people of God, as Christians, as educators, as Americans. They issue an invitation that I hope we will all accept in the name of Christ.

    Sometimes a biblical text that you've read hundreds of times can suddenly open up in new ways. You see something that you have noticed before, but suddenly it speaks to you with new force. This happened for me with the sermon text on Sunday. The biblical text for Anne Apple's sermon at Idlewild was 1 Samuel 3:1-10, which reminds us, hauntingly, "The Word of the Lord was rare in that day. Visions were not widespread."

    What an extraordinary observation! What a painful judgment! "The Word of the Lord was rare in that day. Visions were not widespread."

    My prayer today, as again we walk shoulder to shoulder with history weighing heavily upon us, is that these words will not be applied to our time, and to us.

    1Alton B. Pollard, III, Ph.D., “An Open Letter to Presidents and Deans of Theological Schools in the United States,” Huffington Post (January 17, 2015): Accessed January 19, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alton-b-pollard-iii-phd/an-open-letter-to-preside_19_b_6492328.html.

  • Can God Take a Joke?

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 12, 2015


    Louisville Seminary Trustee
    Senior Pastor, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
    New York, N.Y.

    Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is guest-written by Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston, a Louisville Seminary trustee and the senior pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. This is the response that Dr. Johnston shared with his congregation via his blog at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian following the recent shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper in Paris, France. Dr. Johnston was asked to share his thoughts in this week’s “Thinking Out Loud” because his message to his congregation represented such a great response to the tragedies that unfolded in Paris last week.

    Life of BrianDear Friends in Christ,

    In 1979, the British comedy troupe Monty Python released its most controversial and irreverent movie, Life of Brian. The basic premise of the film was that "Brian" was born on the very same day as, and in the next stable over from, Jesus.

    This coincidence leads to sustained confusion and hilarity. Throughout his life, Brian is repeatedly mistaken for the Messiah. As the film unfolds, the Monty Python guys send up a number of New Testament stories: the Sermon on the Mount, the stoning of a sinner, the trial before Pontius Pilate.

    When it was initially released, Life of Brian was met with protests and accusations of blasphemy in Great Britain and the United States. Some countries gave the movie an "X" rating to prevent it from being seen by a wide audience. Still others, including Ireland and Norway, banned the movie outright.

    As is so often the case, the movie's notoriety contributed to its box office success. A clever marketing campaign in Sweden billed the film as, "So funny, it was banned in Norway!"

    I was in high school when Life of Brian came out. Our local Presbyterian pastor cautioned parents, warning that the movie could prove "corrosive to your children's faith." So, at my mother's request, I did not see it ...

    Until seminary! Soon after arriving at divinity school, I discovered that not only had all of my contemporaries seen the film, but many of my respected professors, too. Some of them had memorized lengthy bits of dialogue.

    So I watched it. I laughed. I cringed. I cackled some more.

    True to its billing, the movie was caustic, but not to my faith. The real target of the film's humor was not religious belief, but religious hypocrisy.

    There have been times, of course, when allegedly humorous send-ups of Christianity have missed my funny bone. Sometimes attempts at religious comedy come across as mean-spirited and crude. I suppose a healthy debate could be had trying to define the fine line between prophetic humor that unmasks religious hypocrisy and malicious comedy that drags another person's sacred beliefs through the mud.

    This week, though, I am pulled in another direction. In the aftermath of the massacre at the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, I have been considering the question: "Can God take a joke?" In particular, "Can God handle a bad joke, a rude joke, a joke that we find offensive?"

    There are a lot people in this world (of various religious persuasions) who seem to think that God's honor needs defending. Is this the case? Is God offended by our crude attempts at humor? Is God angered by a cartoon depicting a famous religious figure in unflattering circumstances, or by songs and satire that poke fun at some aspect of religion?

    Does God take offense and expect followers to avenge the divine honor?

    The classic Christian answer to this question is "no." God isn't petty. God doesn't slouch around heaven with a wounded ego. God doesn't need armed defenders. The Apostle Paul put it this way: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves. For it is written, Vengeance is mine, says the Lord." (Romans 12:19)

    Amen, brother Paul.

    The tragic news out of Paris last week should set every religious tradition on alert. When people of faith lose their sense of humor, they embrace one of the oldest sins in the book -- idolatry. The assailants in Paris fashioned a deity out of their own, broken image.

    Any God who would require his followers to exact vengeance on unarmed cartoonists is a petty, insecure deity undeserving of human devotion and love. This is not the powerful, trustworthy God, I would wager, whom most of the faithful -- Christian, Jew and Muslim alike -- worship and adore.

    My friends, it takes courage to listen to the critics of our faith, and it takes spiritual maturity to love them. But love them we must, for their role in keeping the faithful honest and humble is crucial -- regardless of whether we find them funny.

  • When Love is Just the First Step

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 05, 2015

    When Love is Just the First StepHow do we love well the people we love best?

    This is not a problem of logic, but of the heart.

    How do we go about extending to those closest to us the freedom (which is essential to love) that we extend to strangers? This is an especially urgent question when the persons who are closest to us either resist our love or insist, for whatever reasons, to chart a course in life utterly different from that which we have charted. Their very being may seem to call into question our identity and values. Their way of life may require us to reorient our lives, or adjust to them, or learn to live with ideas that we had never previously considered.

    I tend to approach this question, at least partially and at least initially, through my head, by thinking about it. For example, I’ve been mulling over a line from Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death ever since I first read that book in 1996. Derrida used the phrase as the title of the last chapter: “Tout autre est tout autre,” which can be translated, “Every other (one) is every (bit) other.” The phrase has haunted me since I first read it.

    We can surely feel the truth of these words as we walk along the busy sidewalk of any urban street. Faces turned down avoiding eye contact, glancing up only occasionally at others who remain tenaciously (every bit) the other. It is, in some sense, easy to extend the freedom of difference to the people we casually meet. But what about those closest to us? What about our children?

    For the last two years, I have been carrying around a book that deals specifically with this question. I have read it slowly. A chapter here and there. Then I will lay the book aside, only to pick it up again to read more. I have recommended the book to some friends, and I keep meaning to write an essay about it. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, beautiful and moving, disturbing and ultimately providing a rich potential for hope though not without a lot of tears. The phrase, “Every other (one) is every (bit) other,” might well serve as its epigraph.

    The book is Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (New York: Scribner, 2012). In clinical language, you might say that this is a book about horizontal identities (as opposed to vertical, identities), the way in which some people find meaning, community and a sense of belonging (identity) primarily in relation to people other than their parents and blood relations. It is a book about what this means to the children themselves and also what it means to their parents and siblings. The book’s chapters explore the experiences of parents and children with deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, rape and crime.

    Andrew Solomon, whose highly respected previous book was The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Scribner, 2001) is a lecturer in psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical College and is founder of the Solomon Research Fellowships in LGBT Studies at Yale University. Solomon explores the world of horizontal identity with sensitivity and grace. He refuses to stand above or outside the subject matter he explores, allowing his own experience as a gay man to illuminate his consciousness of the experience of others, including his own parents.

    The reason it has taken me two years to bring my reflections to the virtual page is because Far from the Tree is utterly impossible to summarize and encapsulate. It defies categorization. The book itself remains “every (bit) other” even while it invites its readers to do more than just read; but also to pause, to listen, and to learn.

    Every reader will have his or her own experiences with this book. Every reader will enter the book’s pages from a different angle and will find in its pages experiences and perspectives that will touch him or her differently. I read it as a child and as a brother. But, perhaps, it touched me most deeply as a parent. I recommend the book wholeheartedly, though the book is not for the fainthearted.

    Chapter four, “Down Syndrome,” in particular has stayed with me. The chapter opens by telling the modern fable, “Welcome To Holland,” written by Emily Perl Kingsley in 1987. You may well have heard the story before. It has been reprinted and anthologized countless times and made its way into song. Rather than try to summarize the “fable,” I shall simply share it in full.
    Welcome To Holland
    Emily Perl Kingsley

    ©1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

    I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......

    When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy.  You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

    After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The flight attendant comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

    "Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

    But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

    The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

    So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

    It’s just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

    But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

    And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

    But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.

    To some degree, every love in life lands us in Holland, no matter where we thought we were going when we boarded the plane. It is just that some Hollands are a bigger surprise than others. The trick, if there is a trick, is to learn to appreciate the reality on the ground rather than to pine for another destination.

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