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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Complexity of Shame

    by User Not Found | Jul 19, 2011
    This blog post was guest-written by Debra J. Mumford

    In September of this year, Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School, will be the guest lecturer for the annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lectureship, sponsored by the Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary. Though her writings and lectures cover a range of social justice issues, Dr. West has written and lectured with depth and frequency on violence against women. In her book, Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics, West adeptly steers her readers through the complex intersections of race, religion, and culture that converge upon the lives of black women who are victims of intimate violence. West defines intimate violence as male-perpetrated rape, childhood sexual abuse, and wife/partner battering. Though West treats the subject thoroughly, using black women’s stories as points of departure for analysis of sociological theories and practices, she addresses one area better than many who have trod this ground before her and since – the area of shame.

    Shame for many blacks is very complex and very real. Shame is a feeling of internal despair or disgrace brought about by one’s own actions or someone else’s. Women who are victims of intimate violence experience shame on many different levels. Some feel shame because they think they must have done something to incite the violent behavior. Some feel shame manifested as feelings of perpetual uncleanliness. They try hard to scrub away any reminder of the perpetrator and the violation that took place, usually to no avail. Some feel shame because they were violated by a black man with whom they were supposed to be in solidarity. If they were to admit to having been violated and actually press charges against the perpetrator, they would simultaneously be confirming stereotypes of black males, which have been socially constructed by the larger white society. 

    Victims of intimate violence who are Christian may experience additional levels of shame. Some may blame themselves for not measuring up to the will of God as it relates to sexual chastity even though they were raped and had no control over their fates in that regard. Some may take their Christian teachings about forgiveness and turning the other cheek to mean they must immediately forgive the perpetrators without demand for justice or accountability. Some may feel shame about not living up to the stereotype of the strong black woman. After all, strong black women do not need help dealing with their problems. Strong black women are the ones who help others rather than those who receive help themselves. Some feel shame in considering divorcing an abusive spouse. Divorce may propel them into single motherhood which would only affirm yet another stereotype of black women in larger white society.

    In order to minister effectively in African American contexts, one must understand the complexities of black cultures – of which shame is an important component. Traci West helps us better understand intimate violence in relation to black women in general and shame in particular. We will be fortunate to have her as our guest lecturer in the fall.

    Debra J. Mumford is the Frank H. Caldwell Associate Professor of Homiletics; Associate Dean for Student and Academic Affairs at Louisville Seminary.

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  • The Stone Mason

    by User Not Found | Jul 12, 2011

    This blog post was guest-written by Conrad Sharps.

    The Cathedral of Siena, Italy.

    Once I led a group of pilgrims on a tour of Italy. In Siena we stood in amazement for several minutes, trying to absorb the sheer majesty of the Cathedral of Siena (Italian: Duomo di Siena). It takes that long to allow your eyes to go up and down the seemingly acres of beautiful white and black marble laid in a breathtaking pattern.

    Given time to explore, I walked the length and width of the cathedral, enjoying the art, the majesty, and the opportunity for personal meditation. Wanting to conclude our visit by stopping by the Cathedral bookstore, I started racing back diagonally across the nave. But I never made it. Something caught my eye near the western end of the Cathedral.

    Several feet above the floor stood a very bright lamp, and underneath it was a man on his knees. I made my way toward him to resolve my curiosity. He was a stone mason working on the marble floor.

    I thought it interesting, in this most significant and majestic house of worship built more than 800 years ago, that a stone mason still knelt with simple chisel and hammer to refurbish the marble floor. Centuries have come and gone, and yet his labors resembled those who first built the church.

    I stood and watched him for several minutes, mesmerized by his patience and commitment to detail. But what really struck me was his posture. He went from kneeling on two knees, to kneeling on his knees and elbows several times: matching color, measuring, cutting and cementing small pieces of stone into place. Not only did his posture resemble that of prayer, his resolution and commitment seemed to me to be a prayer enacted.

    This is how the house of God is built. It is built and sustained on our knees in prayer: piece-by-piece, soul-by-soul, chiseled and integrated with discernment and love into what no human hand can accomplish without the help of God. As disciples, we are to invest our lives, our efforts, our resources, and our leadership in the creation of a church that reveals God’s kingdom.

    Our work in its truest spiritual form should be that of prayer enacted.  As the Psalmist writes: “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker…” (Psalm 95:6)

    Like the faithful before us, let us humble ourselves before God, seeking first his face, and then withholding nothing from our labors. Centuries may have come and gone, but this is still how the Church of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom it represents is built.     

    The Rev. Dr. Conrad Sharps is Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama; a member of our Board of Trustees; and an alum (MDiv ’85) of Louisville Seminary.
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  • When is risk immoral?

    by User Not Found | Jul 05, 2011
    This blog post was guest-written by Marian McClure Taylor.

    “Risk is its own reward,” proclaimed a billboard seeking casino customers from among travelers entering Louisville, Kentucky.

    The billboard’s message about risk reminded me of an article by the Calvin College Professor of Economics John Tiemstra, entitled "Financial Crisis and the Culture of Risk" (Perspectives, May 2009; ReformedWorld, January 2009). Tiemstra traces how risk went from “being a morally fraught but unavoidable problem of human existence to being a commodity traded on markets like wheat or copper.”  One of the most important landmarks on that journey, he says, was the spread of casino gambling.

    Many mainline denominations give scarce attention to gambling, and I have never heard a sermon on it. Here are a few of the key moments in my awakening on this issue.

    In 1981, I interviewed a famous Haitian in Port-au-Prince who met me at a casino. After playing some slot machines, it turned out that lucre really is filthy, so I went to wash up. I can still feel my shame as I tipped a poor bathroom attendant for the towel I needed to wash money grime from my hands. Humans have a need to play, but it was shocking to juxtapose my ability to play with money with this woman’s dire need for money. This up-close moment is writ very large in the growing disparities of our economy today.

    Then there was an administrative assistant who worked for me some years later. I lost her after she had problems with the “work release” program she was serving due to her having written bad checks to feed her gambling habit. In the release program, she was allowed to work at my office, then go say goodnight to her six children and return to jail for the night. Her exploration of risk’s potential rewards harmed her children. In fact, no one takes risk without drawing someone else into that risk. And as Tiemstra wrote, “The Christian would not try to lay risk off onto others for whom we are supposed to show love.”

    Now I serve the Kentucky Council of Churches. The Council struggles against the expansion of casino gambling out of concern for gamblers’ families and for people whose addictions make them hear that siren call, “Risk is its own reward.” The Council policy also states concerns about the casino gambling industry fostering greed, harming local economies, and increasing crime.

    These localized effects of the casino sector are bad enough. But the latest global economic meltdown showed that our national slide into being a casino culture hurts us all. Financial sector efforts to manage risk failed and will fail again barring adequate regulation, because the sector has lost its prudential moorings. Letting the financial sector behave like a large casino has devastating consequences for God’s beloved children.

    Professor Tiemstra asks that preachers address why gambling is against God’s will. Some might call us moralistic fuddy-duddies. But that is a risk worth taking!

    Marian McClure Taylor, Louisville Seminary alumna (MDiv ’95), is Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches and also served as director of World Missions for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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  • Does it matter that Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was not a Christian?

    by User Not Found | Jun 28, 2011
    This blog post was guest-written by F. Morgan Roberts.

    As most of us look forward to summer travels, relief from regular work, and time for reflection and study, many of the Hispanic migrant children whom I tutor weekly will move from Florida, following the crops to another state, and not returning until weeks after school has started in the fall. They will live in substandard housing; their summer will not be like that of my own grandchildren. As I thought of my migrant kids, heading off to their “different summer,” a doctor who teaches in a nearby medical school told me about a man in his country who devoted his entire life to the education of nomadic children whose families follow their herds.

    The hero of my friend’s story was a man who, even though his noble birth afforded him a formal education in law and fluency in English, German, and French, never forgot that he himself was born in a tent, the son of a tribal chieftain. And so he went and pitched a “white school tent” among a nomadic people. From that simple beginning, as others joined him, there began a movement that grew so rapidly during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that, by the end of his life, having established 550 nomad schools, a half million nomads could read, with the most promising students going on to a nomad college that graduated 9,000 trained teachers (many of them women), with other graduates moving on to careers as physicians, lawyers, and engineers.

    Of course, this man’s movement encountered strong opposition; particularly because the education of so many women threatened the status quo of those for whom an uneducated populace, raised by illiterate mothers, was a source of profit and power. So threatening was the success of his work that, finally, his enemies paid him the supreme compliment: they accused him of being a CIA operative! When he died in May of 2010, the gratitude of his graduates was so overflowing that, at his funeral, 24,000 mourners were in attendance.

    Such stories somehow don’t make our front pages—maybe because all of this took place in Iran, and his name was Mohammad Bahmanbeigi, and he was a

    Muslim. Rather surprisingly, however, this man devoted his life to something strangely and beautifully Christ-like. Like the Word in John’s gospel, who became flesh and “pitched his tent among us,” this man stepped down from a higher, nobler place and “pitched his tent” among a people deeply in need of the light of literacy.

    How is it that, every so often, people who make no claim at being Christian end up doing something fully as Christ-like as that which is being done by Christians? Here’s a question for summer reflection: Does it matter that Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was not a Christian?

    One of the regular listeners to my Sunday night radio program from Shadyside Church in Pittsburgh was a Jewish rabbi. I first became aware of this when he sent me a sermon he had delivered on Rosh Hashanah. I liked one of his stories, and so I phoned to ask permission to use it in one of my sermons. “No problem,” he replied. “I use lots of your material.” “How can you possibly do that?” I asked, “So much of my material seems specifically Christian.” “It’s easy,” he said, “I just take it and make it Jewish.”

    Isn’t there a basic truth in what he was saying? A true word is a true word no matter who utters it. A just action is a just action regardless of who performs it. Does God look down from heaven to see if people are wearing the right label?

    While my migrant children are gone for the summer, I will spend some time reflecting upon those words that seem to deny the notion that God’s spirit is somehow a prisoner of the church: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

    The Rev. Dr. F. Morgan Roberts is an Honorary Life Trustee of Louisville Seminary, well-known Presbyterian preacher, and Pastor Emeritus of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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  • Encountering right-brain transformation

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 21, 2011

    by Arch B. Taylor Jr.

    Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor has recounted her personal journey through a serious stroke and eight-year process of recovery.

    A massive hemorrhage affected the left hemisphere of her brain, disabling her language centers and her ability to analyze and order information. She could not think of herself as an individual ego, a “solid” distinct from other people and the environment.

    In her unaffected right hemisphere she thought of herself as a “fluid” flowing in the life force energy of the universe. She rejoiced in pleasure of the present moment, spontaneous, carefree, and imaginative. “I perceived myself as perfect, whole, and beautiful, just the way I was.” Freed from left hemisphere dominance, her right hemisphere was “completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world.”[1]

    This account reminds me of many near-death experiences (NDE) documented by modern authors. Individuals may have an out-of-body experience, pass through a tunnel, or meet departed loved ones in a heavenly realm. Many speak of an instantaneous life-review and a sense of total acceptance and well-being. Details differ, depending on personality and culture, but one is constant: they all encounter a light, and they emerge with an abiding sense of confidence, optimism, altruistic concern for others, and interest in spiritual and ethical matters.

    Researchers have shown that all the elements of NDE reside in the brain’s right temporal lobe, which Melvin Morse calls “the circuit board of mysticism."[2] Experts can artificially induce the phenomena of NDE—except the light, which many people call “a divine being” or a “being of light.”[3] Some people have undergone transformation by encountering the light without an NDE.

    As I contemplate the Apostle Paul’s Damascus Road experience and assemble several autobiographical references in his letters, I believe he underwent something like a near-death experience. Certainly, Paul saw the light: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6).

    The light transformed Saul, the zealous Pharisee who persecuted the church, into Paul the propagator of the gospel and apostle to the Gentiles. Himself forgiven and accepted, Paul now knew that God, who shows no partiality, accepted the Gentiles along with the Jews. Paul declared: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32).

    Dr. Jill Taylor, with her left hemisphere fully restored, learned to keep it from running away with the instantaneous emotions of anger or fear. She gave rein to joy, peace, and compassion of her right hemisphere, her “circuit board of mysticism.” As for us, Paul says, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16b).

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  • “For the pleasure of writing the page well”

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 14, 2011

    The title this week is a line from one of my favorite poets, John Ciardi. If you are a fan of Dante, you may have read Ciardi’s translation of The Divine Comedy. Or you may know Ciardi’s original work. If you don’t yet know Ciardi, I hope you’ll get acquainted.

    This poem begins,

    “One Easter not on the calendar I woke

    and found I had survived ambition.

    There was nothing I wanted more of. Time, yes,

    if it was given. An unfinished thought

    to add a page to, not for the thought’s sake,

    but for the pleasure of writing the page well,

    if I could write it well. Or if not, for the trying."[1]

    This summer I shall be writing again though not on this page. I’ll be working on a book on the future of the Reformed faith.

    While I immerse myself in this project, I have asked some friends if they would be willing to think out loud for us. They have very generously agreed to do this. So I would like to introduce you to our guest bloggers for the summer. As a group, they represent a wide spectrum of our Christian community. I know you will enjoy hearing from them.

    I want to take this opportunity to welcome them to this blog, and to thank them for their willingness to share their thoughts with us all.

    Our guest bloggers this summer are:

    Susan Garrett (Professor of New Testament), Dianne Reistroffer (Director of Field Education and Methodist Studies and Professor of Ministry), Marty Soards (Professor of New Testament Studies), and Debra Mumford (Frank H. Caldwell Associate Professor of Homiletics and Associate Dean for Student Academic Affairs): all members of our own Louisville Seminary Faculty.

    Conrad Sharps, Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama; member of our Board of Trustees; and alum (MDiv ’85) of Louisville Seminary.

    Morgan Roberts, Honorary Life Trustee of Louisville Seminary, well-known Presbyterian preacher, and Pastor Emeritus of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    Angela Cowser, Louisville Seminary alumna (MDiv ’06); Associate Pastor of Multi-Cultural Ministries, Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee; and Ph.D. Candidate in ethics, homiletics, and practical theology, Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

    Arch Taylor, an alum (BD ’45; ThM ’54), long-time missionary to Japan, activist, and friend of the Seminary.

    Jonathan Yarboro, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wetumpka, Alabama, since graduating from Louisville Seminary in 2006.

    Marion McClure Taylor, Louisville Seminary alumna (MDiv ’95), is Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches and also served as director of World Missions for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

    As I pack up my laptop computer, I want to thank you for your hospitality this year in welcoming “Thinking Out Loud” into your lives and ministries. I especially want to thank you for your responses each week to the various blogs and email blasts. See you in August!


    [1] John Ciardi, “One Easter Not on the Calendar I Woke,” from Echoes: Poems Left Behind (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989), 1.

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  • “Diseases desperate grown”

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 07, 2011

    The passage is Shakespeare’s, from Hamlet:

    “Diseases desperate grown

    By desperate appliance are relieved,

    Or not at all.”[1]

    It also appears at the beginning of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s superb book, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, one of the most penetrating and thoroughly fascinating historical investigations of a medical or scientific field I have ever read. Mukherjee’s book follows on the heels of last year’s runaway bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a book of such profound humanity and erudition that it now appears on the required reading list for some residents in oncology. Following the publication of these two books is James L. Kugel’s In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief, which on one level is an inquiry into the “foundations of religious belief,” but on another is the story of a person’s struggle with mortality and meaning in the face of a very bad diagnosis.

    Each of these books relate in one way or another to cancer. Each has its own story to tell. And each should be required reading for any pastor, any elder or deacon or member of a congregational care team, or anyone whose life or family has been touched by this desperate disease. Well now, that’s just about all of us.

    So why should we read these books?

    If ever there was a person born to tell a particular story it was Rebecca Skloot. With humanity and compassion she tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, who died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951. Cancer cells taken from her without her knowledge or consent – as they were routinely taken from countless patients in that era – showed a remarkable capacity to continue to live and to grow and to divide in laboratories, becoming the first “immortal cells.” Named the HeLa cells, they have been used in research the world over and have contributed to medical advances and saved lives beyond number. Yet, Henrietta’s family, still living in poverty, has no medical insurance to take care of the simplest procedures. This is one of the most enthralling “reads” you’ll ever come across, but it is also one of the most deeply disturbing and moving. There are cautionary, and celebratory, aspects of her and her family’s experience that we should never forget.

    The Emperor of all Maladies is an enthralling “must read” for completely different reasons. Siddhartha Mukherjee does for cancer what Oliver Sacks does for neurology. He takes us deep inside the humanity of cancer. He transports us from the earliest appearance of the disease (in ancient Egypt) to the latest developments in genetics, but he never loses the human focus, the human dimension, the human costs of the disease. “Scientists,” he writes, “often study the past as obsessively as historians because few other professions depend so acutely on it. Every experiment is a conversation with a prior experiment, every new theory a refutation of the old.” At 472 pages (not counting end notes) this is not a quick and easy read. But, seriously, any pastor or care-giver who wants to understand more deeply what those with cancer are facing, what those who treat cancer are struggling to understand, and just what we are up against with the cunning disease, should read this book. Mukherjee’s compassion and humanity are only matched by his humility, as he observes near the end of the book, quoting Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute: “There are far more good historians than there are good prophets.”

    The story of how Harvard professor of religion James Kugel came to terms with a highly aggressive malignancy is important because the way we face death and the threat of death has so much to do with the way we live our lives. This book will hook you from the beginning. Kugel had me on page two when he quoted William Saroyan who is reported to have said on his deathbed: “I know everyone has to die, but somehow I always thought an exception would be made in my case.” From Kugel’s superb translations and careful readings of Hebrew texts to his personal reflections on his own life and death and the significance of religious faith, this book offers, page after page, an unsympathetic, richly textured examination of ultimate reality. To say that the searing honesty of his faith is “refreshing” is vapid and silly. His searing honesty is a form of faith, and it is necessary, as when he reflects on the passage in Proverbs 12:21, “No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked are full of misfortune.” “No harm befalls the righteous” [Kugel writes] “- in what world did the author of those words live?”

    Today, I am recommending three books on cancer, if you will. You may decide that you can’t read them all at once. But I do encourage you to read them all.

    James L. Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (New York: Free Press, 2011).

    Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (New York: Scribner, 2010).

    Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010).


    [1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act IV, Scene III).

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  • "From Dan to Beersheba"

    by Michael Jinkins | May 31, 2011

    The education of a (still relatively) new president, Field Report 3

    As the 2010-2011 academic year draws to a close, so does my year-long listening tour. And, as today's blog title suggests, it has taken me from one end of the country to the other, from Orlando, Florida, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, from Boston, Massachusetts, to Palo Alto, California (from which I am writing this dispatch), and many, many points in between.

    Wherever I have gone this year, my first priority in meeting trustees and many of the friends of Louisville Seminary has been to listen. My goal: to garner the wisdom of people who care about the future of the church, the integrity of theological education, and the mission of Louisville Seminary.

    This past week, visiting with friends of the Seminary in Northern California, I was struck by three things:

    1. A comment by a long-time friend and alum of the Seminary, David Parks (MDiv ’63). We had dinner with David and his wife, Barbara, in a wonderful Croatian Restaurant. David reflected on the value of understanding the Seminary’s history in order to move forward into the future. David, an engineer and mathematician, said, "You only want to make new mistakes." That's a keeper!

    David also spoke with deep appreciation of the community he experienced at Louisville Seminary and encouraged us to continue to provide a place where people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives can come together to live and learn.

    2. This theme was reiterated in conversations with Laurie and Gay Hoagland. Laurie is a member of our Board of Trustees. He serves as chief investment officer for The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Gay, who serves as director of leadership initiatives in the Stanford University School of Education, reflected on what it means to "recreate the village that we've lost."

    Laurie and Gay exemplify the sense of adventure and joy that are at the heart of the Christian message. On a tour of the Hewlett Foundation with Laurie, I spied a photo of Bill Hewlett, under which was one of his maxims: "Never stifle a generous impulse."

    3. This theme was given concrete expression on Sunday in worship at the Valley Presbyterian Church, a vibrant congregation led by Louisville Seminary Distinguished Alums Mark (MDiv ’76; DMin ’85) and Cheryl (MDiv '77) Goodman-Morris. At the close of worship, in a sanctuary cradled among the forest and rushing streams of Portola Valley, the entire congregation gathered to lay hands on a family, the Ticha family from Cameroon, who will soon depart for another city because the father has been transferred. The Ticha family expressed their love for this congregation in a statement, after which Cheryl blessed them, the entire congregation crowding close round them. The relationship between this congregation and this family has led the church to partner with churches in Cameroon and to reach out to immigrants from Cameroon, living in Northern California.

    In light of all of these conversations, I remembered visiting with Mark and Barbara (MDiv ’87) Barnes in Oxford, Ohio. Their congregation now partners with two congregations, one in Colombia, another in Russia. I thought of the experience I had at New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, one of the most diverse congregations I have ever attended, where the celebration of Pentecost made the original event utterly contemporary.

    Recently, I said that the church is healthier today than at any point in my life. Its challenges are real. No doubt about that. But the Spirit of God is active among God's people. We are being drawn and invited, and even provoked, to hear the gospel with new ears and to respond with renewed energy. This is why this relatively new president is pleased to be at Louisville Seminary at this moment in history, serving with this faculty, administration, staff, and these students, supported by so many wonderful friends across the country.

    As I've said many times before, if you want a theological education for the practice of ministry in an increasingly diverse world, Louisville Seminary is the place to be. We're the place to be, not only because of what our students learn in classrooms, but because of what they experience together in this community. We have the opportunity in this learning community to learn and to model a way of being faithful and open, generous in our beliefs, and generous in our hospitality.

    Mark and Cheryl asked me to close worship this past Sunday with a blessing and a benediction. I suppose my words were more of a charge: "They will know we are Christians, not by our contempt for those who are different, nor for our self-righteousness, but by our love."

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  • Prophetic Compassion

    by Michael Jinkins | May 24, 2011

    A few weeks ago, as Debbie and I drove that breathtaking mountain road between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Ashville, North Carolina, we passed the turnoff to Lake Junaluska, a place of great significance to that old renegade preacher and theologian, Carlyle Marney, who died there on July 5, 1978. Predictably, the road sign that signaled the exit set me off on a remembrance of one of the voices that shaped my vocation. In Marney’s case, “voice” is more than metaphorical. We always said that Marney had a voice like God’s – only deeper.

    Stories are told of Marney’s intellectual brilliance, how he once met a young man in the back country of Amazonia. Desperately wanting to communicate in a common language, the two found that they were both fluent in classical Latin. Marney read absolutely everything, and his books, including The Structures of Prejudice: An Approach to Understanding and Dealing with Prejudice in Culture (1961), The Recovery of the Person: A Christian Humanism (1963), The Coming Faith (1970) and Priests to Each Other (1974) still merit study. He was to have given the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale the year he died – thus John Claypool was tapped to deliver the series in his stead.

    Stories are told of Marney’s prophetic insight and deep commitments. My friend, the great pastor, Dr. Marvin Griffin, once told me of Marney’s prophetic courage and leadership on behalf of the cause of desegregation and how that leadership took the concrete and subversive form of unequivocal, publically expressed friendship between the senior pastor of the largest white Baptist church in the region (Marney) and the young pastor of a large Black Baptist Church (Griffin). Marney taught many of us that sometimes the most prophetic thing you can do is be a friend. His prophetic commitments help explain the dedication of Mary Kraft’s volume about Marney published by Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte: “For those who loved him and some who didn’t.” His commitments may also explain why he influenced two or three generations of young Presbyterian pastors arguably even more than the young pastors of his own denominational tradition.

    Among the stories about Marney that shaped me most were those about what I would call his prophetic compassion in the face of human brokenness, and how this compassion inspired the founding of The Interpreter’s House, a place where ministers’ lives, shattered in all sorts of socially unacceptable ways, were put back together. Those with a literary bent will recognize the allusion to “the house of the interpreter” from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan’s book – and in Marney’s world – The Interpreter’s House was a place where discernment happened, where lives came into focus in light of God’s grace and judgment, and healing occurred.

    Maybe nothing Marney did was quite as prophetic as establishing a place that made forgiveness a positive therapeutic strategy. I have struggled for years with one story about what this meant in Marney’s own life.

    It seems that one morning, as a group of area pastors gathered around a coffee pot in advance of some clergy meeting, Marney noticed a pastor sitting alone, looking troubled. Marney sat down across the table from him and nursed his coffee in silence. At last, the silence was broken when the pastor looked into Marney’s face and asked, “Marney, do you really believe, do you really believe, that almighty God can forgive anything.” Marney (as the pastor himself reports) leaned across the table and said, “I forgive you.”[1]

    Marney believed that forgiveness doesn’t mean much if we hold it as an abstraction, as a general principle. Forgiveness needs to be made real by flesh and blood, in ordinary “priestly” acts by ordinary people, or so he says in his remarkable book, Priests to Each Other:

    “[T]he church is a womb where God’s kind of persons happen, are made, are called forth…. When church is church, life is koinonia, both as church-gathered and as church-dispersed. Life is life in common wherever you are. Koinonia means to know as you are known: to be known utterly by one who calls you forth…, before whom it is safe to come as you are.”[2]

    He knew that regret, even when combined with a sincere desire for forgiveness, (what we have classically called “contrition”) is not enough. Repentance is the key. But Marney also knew that repentance isn’t even possible unless forgiveness is sure and certain. Forgiveness makes repentance possible (not the other way round!) – something we may all want to recall on Sunday mornings when we confess our sins in worship.

    In his perceptive sermons, like those in the collection, Beggars in Velvet (1960), he comes alongside his listeners and readers with a Word of God that speaks to them, because it speaks to him, a word of grace that is never cheap (because it does offer and demand renewal, repentance, reconciliation, and redemption), but that does not pretend to exempt the preacher from the sins against which he or she preaches. This is one of the great differences in Marney’s prophetic ministry from the thin, shrill, prophetic pronounces of so many others. When he confronted hypocrisy, he did so with a wry smile, recognizing the hypocrites desire to be better. When he confronted social evils, he did so with genuine grief, recognizing the part he played in perpetuating them. And even when he quarreled with the church – and he did sometimes – it was a lover’s quarrel. He understood, as a preacher and as a pastor, that the Word of God was not his possession, was not synonymous with his words.

    Marney practiced a kind of faithful agnosticism, which was really just another kind of humility, as when he said of Karl Barth’s multivolume “doctrine of God” in the Church Dogmatics, that nobody knows 1,500 pages about God, not even in German! This humility could turn with scorn, to face the arrogance of certain atheists too, however, as when he said that while it is “a perfectly valid admission” for a person to say God is not alive to him or her, “to knock [God] off for the rest of the world seems to me presumptuous.”[3]

    I’m saying all of this today because Marney also said, “The first word of the Church is … against bad religion.”[4] This is especially true when the “bad religion” comes from our own ranks.

    I am more and more struck (and more and more saddened) by how many contemporary Christians seem to think that we are not known as followers of Jesus Christ by our love (as the spiritual song sings), but by our self-righteous contempt for people who aren’t like us, either in their values or beliefs or lifestyles. Maybe the most prophetic act we can perform, in this context, is to extend forgiveness to those our society doesn’t like to forgive, or to befriend those our culture would prefer to ignore, or to love those our co-religionists call “unlovely” and “unloveable.”

    It hardly matters whether a Christian identifies him or herself as a “Red state” or a “Blue state” sort. Neither has a monopoly on the Christian gospel. And, sadly, neither has a monopoly on self-righteousness and judgment. Grace is neither a conservative nor a liberal value. So the prophet of Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, taught us long before we had phrases like “Red state” or “Blue.” As far as Marney was concerned, grace is a human value; it was confirmed as such by Jesus of Nazareth, a person with whom we share a common humanity – though, to be frank, we don’t share the same religion. Maybe that’s worth thinking more about.


    [1] Mary Kraft, Marney (Charlotte: Myers Park Baptist Church, 1979), 76.

    [2] Carlyle Marney, Priests to Each Other (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1974), 20.

    [3] Mary Kraft, Marney, 92.

    [4] John J. Carey, Carlyle Marney: A Pilgrim’s Progress (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1980), 84.

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  • A Pilgrim People, the Bible, and the Challenge of Following a Living God

    by Michael Jinkins | May 17, 2011

    The greatest crisis of faithfulness the church has ever faced occurred during its infancy. We have a fairly full account of the controversy in the Book of Acts, chapters 10 and 11. It was a conflict over the issue of inclusivity.

    Simon Peter, we are told, had a dream in which he was offered “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” In the dream, a voice from heaven entreated him to kill and eat. Being a deeply devoted and faithful man, Peter might easily have taken this dream as a temptation. Peter obeyed the Bible, and the Bible clearly stated that he was forbidden to eat unclean animals. The Levitical laws were explicit on this subject. To eat an unclean animal would mean either laying aside or radically re-thinking core biblical teachings. But even in the midst of Peter’s deep offence at the thought of eating unclean animals, his response acknowledges that the vision was from God. Peter did not say, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” to the heavenly voice; he said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

    It is difficult for us as twenty-first-century Gentile Christians to comprehend the faithful revulsion prompted by Peter’s dream. To eat something unclean was a direct contradiction of God’s explicit commandments. As Peter was puzzling over the meaning of the troubling vision, a delegation came to him from a man named Cornelius, an Italian, indeed, a Roman centurion, a godly Gentile whom God had led to seek out Peter.

    The writer of Acts says: “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” So Peter went with these men to the home of Cornelius. Cornelius gathered his relatives and friends, who were eager to hear the gospel. Peter said to them, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit “fell upon all who heard the word.” Peter then inferred that he could not withhold baptism from people who had received the Holy Spirit. God was at work in ways Peter’s faith could not comprehend.

    The meeting of the apostles and other believers in Jerusalem, which followed soon after Peter’s experience with Cornelius, only confirmed both the deep conflict and the inevitable conclusion (at least it appears inevitable some twenty centuries later): God was at work, God was moving in ways that required Christ’s followers to fundamentally re-think their relationship to Torah, God’s law.

    This story ends with words that reflect as much puzzlement as praise. Peter says: “If then God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” The author of Acts comments: “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

    Paul’s missionary journeys and the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world were only possible because these staunchly Jewish, deeply faithful apostles sensed that God was up to something that called into question the continuing relevance for Christians of certain core convictions about what it means to live as faithful people. Apparently, God had determined that a person could follow Jesus of Nazareth without first becoming a Jew, and, hence, without obeying certain unambiguous regulations of Torah regarding circumcision and the keeping of certain laws, including dietary laws. The implications of this insight would be an ongoing controversy for decades, and are reflected, for example, also in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the book of Revelation.

    Christianity lives, as St. Irenaeus said, guided by God’s two hands, the Word and the Spirit. Through the centuries, the Word and the Spirit have guided faithful Christians as they have sought to discern God’s direction for the Church in the midst of shifting historical, social, and cultural realities. This process of discernment has not been easy, and the debate has often been contentious. Sometimes, it has been hard for the Church to hold together while it works through the implications of the gospel in new and varied contexts.

    Great controversies have sometimes erupted over how to interpret biblical texts in light of what the Spirit was saying to the Churches. Slavery was at long last denounced, after centuries, because Christians determined that Christ’s love demanded its abolition, even if the institution had been enshrined in many biblical texts. The great gift of ministry brought to our Church by the leadership of women alongside men only became a reality because the Church came to realize that the Spirit of God never stops leading the Body of Christ into new and deeper forms of faithfulness. And Gentiles are only included in the Church today because Peter was willing to allow Christ to lead him (and ultimately the Church) beyond the literal pages of the ancient laws preserved in the Bible.

    Our friend and colleague Gene March, former Dean of Louisville Seminary and A.B. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, refers to this movement of God among us as the “widening circle of divine love.” We are a pilgrim people following a living God. Perhaps the best responses to God’s leadership in such moments as the one through which we are living are awe, wonder, and praise. Certainly, the awareness of the challenges presented in our following a living God should make us all a little more humble and generous to the struggles of others as they seek to do the same.

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  • The Sacrament of Study

    by Michael Jinkins | May 10, 2011

    As another academic year winds toward its inexorable close, my thoughts have returned to a column Samuel Freedman wrote a couple of years ago (I’m a terrible packrat when it comes to newspaper clippings, and, yes, I do review them periodically). The column was actually about a rare holiday in Judaism that occurs only once every twenty-eight years, Birchat HaChammah, the blessing of the sun. Freedman explained that the holiday observes that day when, according to rabbinical tradition, “the sun moves into the same place in the sky at the same time and on the same day of the week as it did when God made it.”

    What grabbed my attention, however, was not the holiday itself (last observed in 2009); it was something Rabbi J. David Bleich said in reflection on his research into the origins and history of this unusual holiday. “You’ve got to understand that the closest thing the Jews have to a sacrament is study.”[1]

    Rabbi Bleich’s statement leapt out for me because it coincides with something professors on our faculty have said. The way they put it, a seminary classroom is “sacred space,” where we are drawn deeper into the life of God through the exercise of our minds.

    Of course, it’s not just the classroom that’s sacred space for the student. At the end of my son’s first year at Princeton Theological Seminary, he took me to the spot on that seminary campus that had become for him the most sacred space, a particular nook in the library where he went to study, to read and reflect, conscious that as he did this he was connecting to the cloud of witnesses of our faith, from St. Augustine to Serene Jones.

    Some of the most extraordinary events I remember from my years as a pastor were related to life-changing moments when church members came to a new and utterly unexpected understanding of God that re-oriented their whole lives. Whether or not the study of the Bible and the study of our faith are a sacrament for Christians is, of course, debatable. We Protestants have been pretty careful about granting something the status of “sacramental.” But study is a means of grace – not unlike prayer – expressing the reality that the love of God, which must involve our hearts, souls, and bodies, is never really complete until it engages our minds. And, as St. Paul has observed, God’s transformation of us does often taken root through a renewing of our minds.

    Perhaps it should not surprise us as Christians that study is so crucial to discipleship, not if we remember that the pioneer and finisher of our faith was, himself, a rabbi and teacher, and not if we recall that the core meaning of “disciple” is “willing learner.”

    [1] Samuel G. Freedman, “A Jewish Holiday, Once Every 28 Years,” The New York Times, April 4, 2009, A14.

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  • Leadership and Humility

    by Michael Jinkins | May 03, 2011

    I couldn’t sleep, or else I would have missed the interview. It was a re-run in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago. Someone was interviewing David Brooks about his new book. [1] He told a story about how important humility is for leadership. The story was about Peter Drucker, the famed expert on organizational behavior.

    Drucker had an exercise, maybe even an experiment, that he conducted over several years on his own behavior. Every time he made a major decision, he wrote down the decision and his rationale for making it. He put this in an envelope. Sealed it. And didn’t open it again for at least nine months. He said that as he surveyed his decisions over the course of years, about one third turned out to be good, one third bad, another third didn’t matter much one way or the other. And the reason he came to the decisions hardly ever mattered.

    Considering how much energy and thought most of us devote to making good decisions, that’s humbling.

    In the school I served before coming to Louisville, as Dean, I led the faculty through a several-year process of curriculum review and revision. One aspect of our review process was to conduct extensive research, surveys, and focus groups across the country to gain a better understanding of the needs of the church. The most startling thing we learned did not appear until we disaggregated the data and analyzed responses from active lay members of congregations. They said – and they said this overwhelmingly – the two things they most needed from pastors: leadership and humility.

    When I shared these findings with a group of academic deans later that year, one of them said to me: “I don’t see how in the world we can educate people for humility!” To which I responded: “I think we ought to try. We’ve shown you can educate for arrogance!”

    Humility, the willingness to listen and learn from others, is essential to good leadership. It includes not taking yourself too seriously. But it also includes a positive force, something like an energy, to place the interests and needs of the whole body before one’s own interests and needs.

    Some people have mistaken humility for weakness. In my experience, it’s not the humble that are weak, it’s the bullies. And we certainly don’t need more bullies in leadership. We need more people who can season their certainty with openness and their sense of self with a dash of humor.



    [1] David Brook’s newest book is The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (Random House, 2011).

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  • What Sustains Us?

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 26, 2011

    A colleague asked me recently, “What sustains you in your vocation?” That’s a great question. It deserves reflection from all of us.

    John Calvin believed that it is the vocation itself, the fact of having been called by God which sustains us. That’s a great response, and I’m sure it is true. But, in the day-to-day slog and grind of living our vocations, beyond the assurance that we are where God called us (which is no small thing!), are there other things that sustain us? Prayer and regular Bible study, for example, worship, and the practice of Sabbath.

    Over dinner a few nights ago, a physician whom I admire greatly told me that today he is finding the deepest satisfaction and a new burst of energy for his vocation because of a major breakthrough in the treatment of a disease he has spent most of his life fighting. That is certainly sustaining, knowing that what you do matters, that it makes a real difference in the lives of others.

    Research in which I was involved several years ago (and which was published subsequently by the Alban Institute) found that professional burnout is often related to the feeling of futility, and is not simply a symptom of hard work or long hours. Burnout might, according to this research, be more closely related to depression than merely to weariness.

    James Kugel, Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University (and 2001 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion), gets this feeling exactly right in his translation of those well-known opening verses of Ecclesiastes, from “the Teacher, a son of David,” the Hebrew title of whom is Koheleth. Usually we have translated the passage to read, “Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Kugel translates the passage as follows:

    “‘So futile,’ says Koheleth, ‘everything is so futile!’ What does a person ever gain from all the effort he expends on this earth? One generation goes off and another comes in, but the earth stays the same forever.”[1]

    Amid the relentless pace of life, of families and work, running and rushing as we do; in the midst of a culture addicted to the ephemeral and resistant to the enduring, it is crucial to believe that our efforts ultimately are not futile, that the God who (as the Psalmist tells us) collects even our tears in a bottle, the God who (as Jesus tells us) numbers even the hairs on our heads, cherishes and remembers the lives we live and the work we do.

    Back to the conversation with a colleague, with which I began, about what sustains me. We talked about these matters a bit, before I finally said, “Probably what sustains me most is friendship.”

    My perspective on friendship has been influenced by Diana Fritz Cates’ marvelous study, Choosing to Feel: Virtue, Friendship, and Compassion for Friends, in which she explores the meaning of friendship in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, both of whom believed that “my friend is ‘another myself.’” Diana writes: “The best friendships in Aristotle’s view are those that arise and persist primarily on the basis of the friends’ excellence of character. These friendships are stable and lasting.” Such friendships, built not on pleasure or the “expectation of advantage,” sustain us over the long-haul.[2]

    When I use the word friend, my use of that word owes even more to Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, who, like all the Stoics, took friendship very seriously.

    Marcus, for example, wrote one of the most moving tributes to friendship, which I borrowed when I dedicated one of my books, Christianity, Tolerance and Pluralism, to the faculty with whom I served in Austin a few years ago:

    “Whenever you would bring delight to your heart, think of the gifts and talents of your colleagues – the energy of one, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and so forth. Nothing lifts one’s spirit quite so wonderfully as to see the virtues reflected in the lives of one’s friends, and to see them together as a strong company. Keep these images always before you.”[3]

    I think the best passage ever written on the subject of friendship, however, is by Seneca. He observes, like Aristotle and others, that anyone who becomes a “friend,” seeking anything other than friendship itself, will cease to be a friend when the going gets tough or the relationship ceases to pay dividends. Real friendship, friendship that sustains us, runs much deeper. It is a matter of life and death.

    “For what purpose, then, do I make another my friend?” Seneca asks. “In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge too.”[4]

    Friendship, for Jesus, was also a matter of life and death. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus also makes it clear that friendship is predicated on something deeper than pleasure and mutual advantage:

    “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15: 13-15).

    I place all of this in the balance against a trend that has devalued the idea of friendship to such a point that a person can say with evident pride (and without the least shred of irony), “I have over five hundred friends on Facebook!” Now, admittedly, my standards for friendship may be high, but no, they don’t have five hundred friends, not even virtual friends.

    By contrast, as I reflect on the kind of friendship that sustains us, I recall that legendary group of friends we remember as the Inklings, a small group that included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and a few others. Their friendship sustained them through wars, lost loves, deaths, and several career moves and writing projects, including the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia. When Williams died suddenly on May 15, 1945, Warnie Lewis (C. S. Lewis’ brother) spoke of the stunned shock of his death, how much the Inklings would miss their friend, how they would miss their arguments, and clearing their throats “of varnish with good honest beer.” They would miss him, Warnie said, but mostly they would miss who they had been when he was present.[5]

    The reason friendship sustains us, like nothing else, is because friends together are always more than the sum of their parts. Their strengths combine, and they more than compensate for one another’s weaknesses, making one another stronger through the gift of mutual correction and forbearance.

    David Wood, a pastor and former associate director of the Louisville Institute here at Louisville Seminary, has done some extraordinary work on the subject of friendship. I encourage you to read David’s essays, including “Towards the Recovery of Friendship as a Form of Christian Love,” and “The Promise of Friendship and the Practice of Ministry.”

    David acknowledges four specific capacities of friendship, each of which contributes to sustaining ministry. He says that friendship helps us to cultivate knowledge of God (in contrast to the tendency to elevate solitude at the expense of community in matters of spirituality). Friendship cultivates our knowledge of ourselves. “Truth and love,” David writes, “are closely bound together in the Christian imagination.” Friendship gives us an appropriate sense of intimacy, making us more capable of ministering to congregants not out of our own neediness, but out of our fullness. And, finally, and perhaps most significantly, friendship cultivates “a capacity to deal with conflict.” He writes, “If we are to be capable of not taking everything personally, there must be someone with whom we can share our lives personally, without fear.”[6]

    The question I would like to leave with you today is the question my colleague asked me, “What sustains you in your vocation?” I would like to know.


    [1] James Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (New York: Free Press, 2011), 14.

    [2] Diana Fritz Cates, Choosing to Feel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 3, 50-51.

    [3] Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts, VI. 48.

    [4] Seneca, “Epistle IX,” from Epistles 1-65, Loeb Classical Library, tr. Richard M. Gummere, 49.

    [5] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979), 200.

    [6] David J. Wood, “The Promise of Friendship and the Practice of Ministry,” A lecture presented at Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry, 5.

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  • Witnesses at the Door

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 19, 2011

    One of the more useful exercises in which we have participated as a church in recent years is attempting to discern the right biblical analogy to help us illuminate our contemporary situation.

    A few years ago as mainline Protestants settled into the new reality of numerical decline, the so-called dis-establishment era for Protestantism in North America, some leaders described us as living in an age of exile. I recall Jack Stotts, then president of Austin Seminary, reflecting eloquently on this theme.

    Recently my colleague and friend, Cynthia Campbell, long-time president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, used Exodus 14:10-15 to shine light on our present situation. She sees our current state through the lens of that moment when Moses and the people stood, their backs against the sea, their faces turned to the Egyptian armies of Pharaoh. The people complained to Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? …. It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” This passage from Exodus, as you will remember, ends with the Lord God saying to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” I think Cynthia is right. This passage has a lot to say to us today.

    For some time, however, another analogy has been rattling round my brain, and I offer it because I think our situation is complex enough that it needs a variety of biblical perspectives to illuminate it well.

    I’ve been reflecting on that moment in the life of the Christian movement when we believed our every hope lay buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. We get glimpses of this moment in Luke 24:1-12 and John 20:1-31.

    The disciples are huddled in a room in Jerusalem, hunkered down, worried about their respective futures, anxious about the future of the fledgling messianic movement to which they have been attached for three years. Their charismatic young teacher was crucified by the Romans. He has been in the cold grave for three days. We can only imagine the topics of conversation in that room, the tension and fear thick. “Is this movement to suffer the fate of John the Baptist’s followers after his death? Will we just scatter?” “Are the Romans planning, even now, to come after us? Will we share the fate of Jesus?”

    So much they had hoped is clearly over. Their aspirations have evaporated. Peter, perhaps, contemplates buying a new fishing boat. Levi wonders if he can return to his tax business. Simon the Zealot eyes his political prospects.

    What a contrast to the room in which they met the night before Jesus’ execution, when they dined with Jesus and prayed with Jesus, and pledged themselves to walk with Jesus. Now he is dead, and so are their hopes.

    The irony is that even while they were huddled anxiously in that room, the resurrection (which was simply too big for their hopes to contain) had already happened. Jesus was already raised from the dead. Even as their hopes strained at the message of his death, their hopes also could not stretch large enough to conceive of resurrection.

    It’s so easy to blame those disciples for not having a hope big enough to encompass resurrection. But that’s really a cheap shot. They merely knew what they knew. Dead is dead. Gone is gone. Impossible is impossible. “Let’s get real,” you can almost hear one of them say, “Whatever dreams we had are buried in Joseph’s tomb.”

    Whenever I hear someone say that the situation we face is graver, more challenging, than any we have faced before, I have to stifle a laugh. Our low point surely was at the beginning of the Christian movement. And as we muttered and worried in that room long ago, we could not imagine that Christ was raised from the dead, risen with healing in his wings, and that his death and resurrection had judged even our highest aspirations as inadequate, and had pronounced our greatest hopes as infinitely too small.

    There was a knock at the door of that room in which the disciples huddled. Women knocked at the door, fresh from the tomb with incredible news.

    Do we hear the knock at the door today?

    There are witnesses fresh from the empty tomb. They have run here. They are out of breath. They have news for us. Christ is raised from the dead. This is news too big for our hopes. This is news that makes our doubts and anxieties obsolete. This is news that requires new plans.

    Rather than returning to their fishing boats and tax offices and swords, the disciples long ago spread out across their world with this good news on their lips, building communities of persons whose worlds were turned upside down by this impossible good news, communities baptized into the death of Christ so that they were raised into a new life, a new identity, that trumped every old difference that divided them in the world.

    Do we hear the knock of witnesses at the door?

    “What’s next for the church?” we ask again and again. Just this, this is what’s next: Resurrection, resurrection which has already happened, which has the power to overcome and overwhelm everything around us, to make all things new.

    Do we hear the knock of witnesses at the door?

    Do we have the courage to open the door?

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  • Lessons from Miles Davis

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 12, 2011
    Nobody did a jazz ballad like Miles Davis. His version of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” is lyrical beyond words, and his “Someday My Prince Will Come” can make cynics weep. Or, Davis’s version of this classic could make cynics weep if the cynic in question hadn’t also seen the funniest Wheel of Fortune “before and after” puzzle, which read:




    Back to Miles Davis. Nobody did jazz ballads better.

    So, if he did ballads so well, why in the world did he dedicate so much of his life as a musician to edgy, avant-garde, experimental forms of jazz?

    I heard an interview with Davis, a few years before his death, in which he was asked, “What is your favorite kind of music to play?” He answered, “Ballads.” If left to his own preferences, he would have played them all the time. But, he said that he owed it to music not to stay in his comfort zone. He owed it to music to push the boundaries of jazz, to discover new sounds, new forms of music, even if his efforts stretched his audiences.


    When I first heard Miles Davis play, as a fledgling music student (trombone and keyboard) in High School, I was – I confess – bewildered. “What in the world is he doing?” I asked. Davis seemed to flaunt every accepted rule. I didn’t understand the whole musical theory he was working. Long-time fans of Miles Davis in the 1980s felt just as bewildered, even angry, when he embraced electronic forms and pop music.

    As much as I love Davis’s music, I appreciate just as much his advice, which (as a young pastor) I took straight into the pulpit. I owed it to the music of the gospel (preaching that would genuinely edify our congregation) not to grow comfortable with even the most well-loved and, apparently, well-received approach to preaching. I began to experiment, pushing myself to find new ways for the Bible to connect with the lives of the people I served. I preached letters and stories, and explored classical styles and new forms. I’ve been in debt to Miles Davis for more than twenty years for encouraging me to play more than “ballads.”

    Sometimes the experiments worked.

    Sometimes they didn’t.

    While I was a minister in Itasca, Texas, I preached occasionally about an imaginary friend, “Jesse,” whom I based on a rather sketchy character I had known as a teenager working on the road repair crew of the City of Lufkin, Texas. I got the strongest reactions from congregants who lit up with delight when they discovered I was preaching a “Jesse” sermon on Sunday morning. I also received the strongest reactions against “Jesse,” including from one of my very closest friends, the organist in the Itasca Church, who dreaded opening the Sunday order of worship to find “Jesse” on the menu.

    Anyone who has ever played improvisational jazz knows that it is a remarkable combination of set forms and “in the moment” creativity. Great jazz surprises us. It can resist us, even while it invites us “in.”

    At a time when so much attention is spent (as perhaps it should be) on analyzing how we can make our communities of faith more accessible and our worship services more appealing to outsiders unfamiliar with church, sometimes I think about jazz, great jazz, jazz that stretches and enlarges our hearts and minds, jazz that will never get played in an elevator, jazz that will never quietly slip into the background, jazz that requires too much of us to be ignored, jazz that provokes responses that may be hot or cold, but are never “lukewarm.” I think about this kind of jazz, and I wonder what it might mean for us all to take our responsibility to the “music” of the gospel so seriously, that we refuse to stick with the ballads, even when it’s ballads we love best.

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  • Dr. King’s Questions about the Church

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 05, 2011

    Forty-three years ago yesterday Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis. Yet, on this spring morning, I want our thoughts to turn not to that April day of 1968, but to April 1963.

    On the sixteenth of April 1963, Dr. King sat in the Birmingham, Alabama, city jail. He was there for leading a civil rights demonstration. As he sat in the cell that day, he wrote a letter that stands beside the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as one of a handful of American documents that define and call into question our national character. The document also stands as a remarkable example of Christian theological reflection.

    As a teacher of theology, I have returned, again and again, to Dr. King’s text in courses on power and leadership and in the research I did on the doctrine of the church in preparation for writing The Church Faces Death (Oxford University Press, 1999).

    Dr. King wrote his letter in response to an open letter, which was published the previous January by eight leading white “liberal” clergymen, who charged King’s civil rights efforts with being “unwise and untimely.” There is an especially haunting passage in Dr. King’s letter that is particularly crucial for us to hear today, a passage that raises what I think are the right questions for us as a church. Dr. King wrote:

    “I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other Southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking, “Who worships here? Who is their God?”[1]

    Like a skilled surgeon, Dr. King probed the body politic of the American church. But he did much more than that. His questions probe the very meaning of “church,” the very meaning of “Christian,” and “human.” He reminds us that the question of God’s character profoundly relates to the question of our character as human beings, that both conceptions (God’s character and our character) are grounded in the reality of our historical contexts, and that each shapes our shaping of all endeavors.

    Dr. King’s questions anchor us in the reality of humanity and history. His questions will not permit us to float off into abstractions that begin with the phrase, “well, ideally the church should ….,” or allow us to slip into the backrooms of ecclesiology where we conveniently parse the church’s “is-ness” from its “ought-ness” so as to excuse our failings. As King’s namesake (the Reformer, Martin Luther) might have reminded us, our sins are real sins (otherwise forgiveness is meaningless), and our sins and God’s forgiveness begin at that point where we cannot be excused.

    But only to see the failure here is also to miss the genius of Dr. King’s observation.

    Traveling today across this great country of ours, passing churches large and small, in the north, south, east, and west, looking at soaring Gothic structures and small rural clapboard buildings, storefront churches and huge non-denominational campuses that look like corporate headquarters, Dr. King’s questions hold: “Who worships here? Who is their God?”

    I reflected on these questions, for example, this past weekend as a Florida pastor was back in the news for burning the holy book of another faith. With violence erupting on the other side of the globe in reaction to this breathtaking act of arrogance and intolerance, I asked myself what it means for us to worship the Christ who revealed God’s character and our character, not by bullying and self-righteous grandstanding, but by emptying himself, by suffering death on a cross for the sake of those who rejected him.

    As I listened to the news coverage from around the world, I felt as though a global parade of automobiles was driving by the churches of our entire country, pointing at the spires on top of our Christian churches, asking, “Who worships here? Who is their God?”

    Our steeples will not answer these questions for us. We will have to do this. With our lives, with our words, we will have to answer these questions. We will have to do this in a manner consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it will not be easy to get a word in edgewise in the cacophony and din of this noisome age. But this I believe: The time is right for serious people of faith to act and speak in contrast to the mobs of clowns and conmen who compete for their fifteen minutes of self-promotion. And the word we have to speak is the word of grace, peace, and hope that was entrusted to us by Jesus of Nazareth. This word may not grab the headlines, but it has the power to transform lives and societies.

    The singular issue of our time is how we can live together in an increasingly pluralistic world. If we do not get this right, our world is toast. For God’s sake, let’s get this right.


    [1] Staughton Lynd, ed., Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1966), 477.

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  • Faith in the City

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 29, 2011

    Although I spent some of my happiest years as a minister in rural and small town settings, much of my life has been lived in cities like Dallas and Austin, Texas; Aberdeen, Scotland; and Louisville, Kentucky. And I have long been struck by the fact that so much of the New Testament is – for lack of a better word – cosmopolitan in outlook. The faith that was born in Jerusalem grew to maturity in places like Corinth and Rome. So I was intrigued by two recent essays in The Economist, both touting distinctively urban virtues.

    The first essay (“The Capital’s Creed”) describes what the magazine calls “Londonism,” a new urban “creed” specific to London, England, which has found adherents among leading British leftists as well as right-leaning political sorts, including London’s former mayor, “Red” Ken Livingston (a well-known and notably left wing Labour politician) and its current mayor, Boris Johnson (an equally famed Conservative party politician). The philosophy behind both mayors is focused on London’s global leadership. It is characterized as “pragmatic about capitalism,” approving of “private development,” committed to state spending for improved infrastructure, and open to immigration. At the core of this urban creed, which anyone familiar with London will recognize in a heartbeat, is this belief: “The more open and multifarious the city becomes, the more it attracts people who want it to stay that way.” “Essentially,” writes The Economist, “it is a commitment to relentless growth and openness.”[1]

    The second essay is an extensive book review of Edward Glaeser’s new study, Triumph of the City (Penguin Press). Glaeser’s book is part love letter to cities, and part critique of which sorts of cities tend to be most resilient to the inevitable ebb and flow of history and economic stress. Glaeser, “a Harvard economist who grew up in Manhattan,” calls cities “our greatest invention.” According to the reviewer, “proximity makes people more inventive, as bright minds feed off one another; more productive, as scale gives rise to finer degrees of specialization; and kinder to the planet, as city-dwellers are more likely to go by foot, bus, or train.” In his critique, Glaeser notes that the cities that function best do so because they attract diverse people and “enable them to collaborate.” Cities, he believes, are always more healthy when their success depends on a diversity of people and enterprises, rather than on a single monolithic industry or the kind of protectionism that excludes immigrant populations because they might compete.[2]

    Strangely enough these two essays brought to mind a worship service I attended several months ago at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City where my friend, Scott Black Johnston, serves as senior pastor. It was Pentecost Sunday. Tongues of fire, in the form of red paper, floated down from the church’s high ceiling as members of the congregation from around the world read the story of Pentecost in their own tongues. The laughter of the congregation’s children frolicking among the falling paper flames blended with the voices of global Christianity at the same moment that the annual “Israel Day” parade made its way down Fifth Avenue. The proximity of the diverse peoples, their intelligence, imagination, love, and energy, their innovation and enterprise, all bundled together by the Spirit of God in this one place at this one moment! I can see why the crowd witnessing the first Day of Pentecost was “amazed and astonished” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2). I was pretty amazed and astonished just watching the reenactment in this diverse and crowded city church in the midst of this diverse and crowded city.

    The experience left me wondering if there isn’t perhaps a Christian cosmopolitanism that we sometimes neglect, an appreciation for the synergy and spiritual vitality that are possible when diverse populations are drawn together. Cities have been characterized as secular, as pits of vice, and as lonely places where everyone fades into anonymity, depending on the commentator. But there is another side to cities. There is a faithful side to cities. Drawn by the Spirit of God from among all the nations, people also hear and believe and respond to the Good News of the Gospel, and out of their diversity, out of the proximity of bright minds and faithful hearts, out of the appreciation of difference as a good in itself, God can create among them enterprises that feed the hungry, that welcome persons from every shore, that heal the sick and provide an education. I wonder if St. Paul would have been inspired to think of the metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ had he not been acquainted with the great cities of his time, their arteries flowing with immigrants and artisans from every nation, their limbs and eyes and ears and feet as diverse as any gathering of the United Nations, or any Sunday morning worship service at a Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue.

    This blog does not intend to slight the remarkable contributions of faith in small towns and villages anywhere in the world. But we have tended to praise these so often – certainly I have. And, perhaps, it is time to notice also what is sometimes lost in the shuffle, and to render a word of appreciation for the vitality of churches, large and small, in cities, varied in their ministries, diverse in the populations they serve, reminding us that difference is not a curse, but a virtue and an enduring blessing – in fact, a virtue that can make us stronger and a blessing that can contribute to endurance.

    [1] “The capital’s creed,” The Economist, February 5, 2011, 65-66.

    [2] “A tale of many cities,” Book review: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, by Edward Glaeser. The Economist, February 12, 2011, 91-92.

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  • The Church’s Best Days

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 22, 2011

    Recently, Warren Buffett, the oracle of Omaha, said that America’s best days are ahead of it. To put his money where his mouth is, he announced his personal investment in American innovation and ingenuity.

    I wonder where Christians are on a similar, though unrelated, proposition. If put to a vote, I wonder if Christians—at least in North America, at least of the mainline Protestant sort—would be willing to say that the Church’s best days are ahead of her.

    Certainly, if investment in the future, in innovation and ingenuity, is the measure, I’d have to say that the evidence is not in favor of the proposition. But it should be!

    Yes, the Church is facing challenges. But the Church always has faced challenges. And the Church’s best days are indeed ahead of her.

    My statement (the Church’s best days are ahead) is a theological statement related to hope, not just a general comment of confidence or optimism. You may remember the distinction I’ve made between hope and optimism.

    We are living into God’s future, a future we articulate every time we proclaim the Eucharistic prayer which affirms—in one way or another—that the Table around which we gather in remembrance is a recognition of the vigil we keep with all the saints in heaven and on earth, and a foretaste of that eschatological banquet we shall share in God’s eternal kingdom.

    The Church lives proleptically. The Church’s future folds back on us even as we lean into it.

    We do not live between realism and idealism, in other words, as though we were a community of Platonic philosophers climbing rungs or staggering out of a dimly lit cave. Rather, we live eschatologically, as disciples of Christ, between the times, with God’s future continually tugging at us, pulling us from the “not yet” into the “already.” The theology of the cross is always post-figured, its shadows cast in bold relief by the light of resurrection.

    It was precisely this eschatological tug that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to reflect on the future of the church as he sat in a Nazi prison. If anyone had reason not to be hopeful, it was Bonhoeffer. The churches to which he had given his energy were in shambles. Some (the national-level church that had morphed into the Reich Church) had actively colluded with Hitler’s ecclesiastical thugs. Some (even among the Confessing Church movement) had retreated in the face of the social and political challenges that faced them. Some others lay in ashes, their followers driven underground, their leaders in prison.

    So when Bonhoeffer turned his attention to writing a new doctrine of the church, he could have been excused had he written a fairly defeatist statement. But he didn’t. Nor was his statement unwilling to face unpleasant realities. In fact, he pulled no punches, particularly with the “Confessing Church” to which he had devoted so much of his energy and life since the rise of National Socialism.

    “Karl Barth [whom Bonhoeffer had very much admired for a long time] and the Confessing Church have encouraged us to entrench ourselves persistently behind ‘the faith of the church,’” Bonhoeffer writes, “and evade the honest question as to what we ourselves really believe. This is why the air is not quite fresh, even in the Confessing Church.”

    The questions for Bonhoeffer were: What do we believe, really believe? For what are we willing to live and die?

    At stake for Bonhoeffer was “a genuine experience of God,” a personal “encounter with Jesus Christ,” which transforms human life. Bonhoeffer’s statement about the church reads like a latter day set of Pensees, such as those written by Pascal. And, like Pascal’s, they have an edge that can cut like a razor. They are especially sharp when they draw the line between who Jesus is and who we are called to be.

    When we realize, for example, that according to Bonhoeffer, “Jesus is there only for others,” we can understand much more clearly who we are meant to be and what we are called to do.

    We can also understand more clearly what the Church’s vocation is, and why the Church does in fact have a future.

    Bonhoeffer writes: “The church is the church only when it exists for others…. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.”

    Toward the end of his notes, Bonhoeffer writes: “All this is very crude and condensed, but there are certain things that I’m anxious to say simply and clearly—things that we so often shirk. Whether I shall succeed is another matter, especially if I cannot discuss it with you. I hope it may be of some help for the church’s future.”

    Reading these words, I feel almost as though you and I have just recovered a letter in a bottle that has bobbed and floated on the high seas since it was placed there some time in 1944. Miraculously it survived. Miraculously it floated with ocean currents and found its way to our hut. We pull it from the waves and read it and rush to find someone else to hear its message.

    If Bonhoeffer could believe against all odds that the church had a future, it is foolish for us not to embrace that future. He wanted to live long enough to help shape that future. He didn’t live long enough to get the chance. But we have.

    Do we think the Church’s best days are ahead of it? I can’t help but believe they are. So, let’s invest in her future. Let’s start by investing our lives.


    Quotes are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 380-383. A new greatly enlarged critical edition of Letters and Papers from Prison is now available in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, Volume 8, published by Fortress Press in 2010.

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  • The Church’s Real “Competition”

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 15, 2011

    A besieged church raises the alarm. Numbers decline! Churches close! Who or what is capturing the hearts of our former adherents?

    Choose one: (A) Galloping secularism. (B) Rampant modernity, or post-modernity, or post-postmodernity. (C) Other faiths. (D) That trendy church on the outskirts of town the campus of which looks like some corporate headquarters and “brands” itself with a non-religious moniker. (E) Atheism. (F) All of the above. (G Whiz) None of the above.

    Accusing fingers point to the usual suspects, but I would like to point to something lurking in the shadows, or, perhaps, hiding even more effectively in plain sight. Our real competitor today is henotheism.

    I’m not going to pretend that henotheism is a word I use a lot, but I think it is the right word. Officially, henotheism is a sort of tribal worship. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the belief in a single deity belonging to an individual, a family, a tribe, or a nation. Henotheism does not assert that there is only one god, just that this particular person or family or tribe or nation worships this particular god, a god cast in its own familial, tribal, or national image.

    My argument is far from original. I borrowed it from H. Richard Niebuhr who, a generation ago, argued: “The chief rival to monotheism … is henotheism or that social faith which makes a finite society, whether cultural or religious, the object of trust as well as of loyalty and which tends to subvert even officially monotheistic institutions, such as the churches.” In other words, the culture itself (that invisible continuum in which we swim like fish in a water tank) becomes our object of adoration, veneration, and worship.

    If Niebuhr is right, the chief competitor of the church in our times does not challenge the church directly. It does not need to challenge the church head on! Rather, it is insinuated into the lives and loyalties of our membership through seemingly benign sources, the many good things which should receive our relative loyalty and that only become bad things when they claim our absolute or ultimate allegiance.

    Henotheism isn’t a common word, but it may just be the most common faith of many Christians today, a faith which converts not its adherents to strange or foreign gods, but that subtly replaces the worship of Jesus Christ (who can challenge us in genuinely uncomfortable and unfamiliar ways) with a lesser deity (who often wins our hearts by not challenging us in uncomfortable or unfamiliar ways), while retaining all the trappings of Christian worship. The lesser deity is such a diabolical threat because it is familiar, even homespun.

    One can find henotheism on the right and on the left. It’s an equal opportunity variety of idolatry. It can take the form of an “America first” mentality that gives narrow national interests the veto power over the radical claims of the gospel and the disturbing call of Christ to be a neighbor to every other. Or it can take the form of a civil religion enshrining certain assumptions of the Enlightenment that seek to ban altogether the vocabulary of faith from the public realm. Household gods of all sorts tug at the coattails of Christians, demanding “you may go just that far with Jesus of Nazareth, but you must go no further.”

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  • Faith in a “Culture of Disbelief”[1]

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 09, 2011

    I was on my treadmill doing an imitation of a hamster in pursuit of lower cholesterol scores and listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Among the items that morning was a letter from a listener who dismissed a story from the previous day about “Fatwa shopping,” a phenomenon that is occurring among some Muslims. If, for example, a Muslim asks a religious authority for a judgment call on some behavior, and the judgment call differs from what he wants to do, he may simply shop for another religious authority with a different perspective. The listener said that such behavior is typical of all religions. The faithful all “drink the Kool Aid,” and if they don’t get the flavor they want at first, they look around for another flavor that suits their taste.

    Obviously, now, there’s some truth in this reading of contemporary religious culture. Christians also know the phenomena of “church shopping” and “church hopping.” And, since Feuerbach and Freud, at least, we have recognized the tendencies among the faithful to externalize their desires, hopes, and fears and to project these on to “God.” But the branch of Protestantism of which I am an adherent, the Reformed tradition, calls it idolatry when we craft gods in our own image. Don Henley (of The Eagles’ fame) co-wrote the song, “Little Tin God,” which in the right context could be a hymn of sorts. Okay, maybe not a hymn, but it is does sing like Calvinism with a strong backbeat. And a purely cynical view of religious faith and the reasons why people adhere to faith (and others do not) does as little justice to the subject as any naïve or superficially pious one does.

    If you will allow me to gallop through some recent reports that deserve much more careful study, I will try to arrive at my point.

    Many of us received the summary report of the American Religious Identification Survey by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (Summary Report, March 2009) and noted that the category of persons with “no religion” (the so-called “nones”) grew from 8.2% in 1990 to 15.0% in 2008, meaning there are as many people now in that group as there are among all Baptists (the largest Protestant group in the United States), and apparently without the benefit of any massive evangelistic efforts. The core message of this report was conveyed by its authors (and I doubt if there’s a minister or priest in our country who would dispute what they have to say): “The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion” (Highlights, p. 1).

    Not long after reading that study, however, I received the report of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life titled, Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. (April 2009). One of the most striking findings in the Pew report led to a fascinating Op-Ed piece by Charles M. Blow, “Defecting to Faith,” in The New York Times (May 2, 2009). Blow observed that a surprising number of children of agnostics and atheists are making their way to church. According to the Pew report, most people who grew up in families without faith affiliated as adults with faith communities because their spiritual needs were not being met (18).

    Where does this leave us?

    The answer may be in a third study, this one a couple of years old now, and of a smaller group in our society, college age adults. W. Robert Connor reported on this study in a fascinating essay, “The Right Time and Place for Big Questions,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 9, 2006), where he observed that many young adults were frustrated that the big questions they confronted in life, the questions of meaning, of purpose, were not being addressed in their college classrooms or by their professors, many of whom were hesitant to speak beyond the limits usually permitted in the public marketplace of ideas.

    Young adults are searching for meaning that is not just of their own making and for purpose that transcends. They are looking for answers to life’s most persistent questions, the Big Questions, and they are finding in themselves longings unmet in a culture obsessed with itself and lacking a reference point for meaning beyond its own preoccupations.

    The fact that the parents of many of these young people do not believe doesn’t mean that the game is over. In fact, it means just the opposite.

    These young people, incidentally, are not asking to be entertained. They are seeking something much deeper. They are seeking faith. And faith is as much (if not more) about reverence, awe, and wonder for the Holy, who utterly transcends us, as it is about a set of beliefs we may or may not share.

    If you’ll bear with me for one more resource, I want to introduce you to Paul Woodruff’s remarkable (and humanistic) study, Reverence: Recovering a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford, 2001). Paul has taught undergraduates for many years and is now dean of undergraduate studies at The University of Texas at Austin. If anyone has his hand on the pulse of young adults, it is Paul. He senses (rightly, I believe) the need for a recovery of reverence, “the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have” (8).

    Maybe this is what young adults are saying that they have not experienced in organized religion. Maybe this is what’s at the heart of their Big Questions about the meaning and purpose of their own lives. Maybe this is why they are coming again through the doors of the church. If so, let’s make sure they are greeted by something more thoughtful and reverent than just a sacralized version of the popular culture of consumerism, entertainment, and self-promotion that is not meeting their needs.


    [1] The title borrows from Stephen Carter’s, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (BasicBooks, 1993). Carter observed: “In contemporary American culture, the religions are more and more treated as just passing beliefs – almost as fads, older, stuffier, less liberal versions of so-called New Age – rather than as the fundaments upon which the devout built their lives” (14). The message that many people receive in this culture is: “pray if you like, worship if you must, but whatever you do, do not on any account take your religion seriously” (15).

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