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Thinking Out Loud
  • We're Still Here

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 01, 2013

    If you are reading this blog, the Mayans were wrong. Or, at least, the Maya interpreters were. The world did not end on December 21.

    Apparently the Russians were on the edge of their seats over the whole end of the world, Mayan calendar thing. According to an article in the New York Times on December 1, reports were coming in from all over Russia about aberrant behavior linked closely to the Mayan calendar: “Inmates in a women’s prison near the Chinese border” were experiencing “collective mass psychosis,” wrote Ellen Barry from her journalistic perch in Moscow. “In a factory town east of Moscow, panicked citizens stripped shelves of matches, kerosene, sugar and candles.” And “a huge Mayan-style archway” was being built on Karl Marx Street in the city of Chelyabinsk. I’m really not sure why you’d need any special supplies if the world were about to end – though it is never a bad time to stock up on duct tape!

    I suspect that the Mayans just figured as far into the future as they could imagine (5,125 years is a long, long cycle of time, after all) and they stopped, assuming that they could always do future calendars at some future date. Maybe they had a date set to carve the next 5,125 year cycle but the meeting fell through when Europeans came ashore and destroyed their whole civilization. Or maybe we’re misreading their calendar and that was the end of the world – their world.

    How many “The End of the World is Near” New Yorker cartoons have we read over a lifetime? How many apocalyptic movies have we seen with aliens, global climate change, asteroids or God bringing an end to the world? How many sermons on the same subject did I hear as a kid featuring first one then another international leader (my personal favorite was Henry Kissinger) as “the Antichrist” and forecasting the exact time, location and combatants for Armageddon?

    Millennial and end-of-time doomsayers have been around for centuries. Rumors and prophecies have never been in short supply.

    And we’re still here.

    James Reston, Jr. wrote a fascinating book a few years ago, The Last Apocalypse, about what happened in Europe when the chronological tachometer clicked over to 1000 A.D. Reston quotes a sermon that was preached (from a manuscript called, "The Blickling Homilies") prior to the turn of that millennium. The preacher concludes the sermon, titled, “The End of the World is Near,” with the words: “This world is altogether transitory. When it was first formed it was full of beauty and was blooming in itself with manifold pleasures…. Now there is lamentation and weeping on all sides; now is mourning everywhere and breach of peace. Now is everywhere evil and slaughter…. We follow it, as it flies from us and love it although it is passing away. Lo! We may perceive that this world is illusory and transitory.” Reston comments on this passage from the thousand year old sermon: “And so we enter the world of 999 A.D. When the Christian calendar is about to turn three digits, the pace seems to quicken; the heart beats faster; and passions seem to grow stronger and more urgent.”

    Clearly, big round numbers really freak us out! But so do calendars that stop abruptly. It seems bizarrely common to crave knowledge about the end of the world. And we do seem to love “worst case scenarios.” At least these are the scenarios that tend to capture the press.

    Yet, Jesus reminds us that “not even the Son of Man knows the hour.” I’ve never been able to figure out why it is credible to some folks that if God doesn’t share such vital apocalyptic information with God’s own Son, God is supposed to have told some fellow with questionable wardrobe sense on TV.

    In Stephen Spielberg’s new film, “Lincoln,” we are treated to the old story about the talking parrot who daily announced that the world was going to end that very day. President Lincoln loved to tell stories. The parrot, according to the President, was finally right. One day the bird’s owner had had enough, and on that day, on that very day – for the parrot at least – it was the end of the world.

    But we’re still here. Let’s make the most of being here, shall we, while we are.

    Happy New Year!

  • "My Soul Magnificies the Lord"

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 25, 2012

    Among the settings often associated with Christmas throughout much of the world is the chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, from which the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols is broadcast each year. The soaring perpendicular architecture of the chapel is matched by the soaring voices of one of the world’s finest choirs in a service of utter simplicity (scripture lessons are read, hymns and anthems are sung) and grandeur (in which much of the heavy lifting is performed by the architecture).

    A few years ago, while I was in Cambridge to present a lecture, I slipped into King’s College chapel toward the end of the day for the Evensong service. It was there that I was confronted with one of the most magnificent displays of gospel incongruity of my life. Amid a setting of opulence, wealth and privilege beyond description, I heard sung the words of a very young, poor and vulnerable woman, unwed, powerless and pregnant, crying out for justice. The words were intoned elegantly by the King’s College choir; but the elegance of their presentation could not for a moment disguise the longing and lament in her words.

    “And Mary said,

    ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,

    And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

    For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

    For the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    And holy is his name.

    His mercy is for those who fear him

    From generation to generation.

    He has shown strength with his arm,

    He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

    He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    And lifted up the lowly.

    He has filled the hungry with good things,

    And sent the rich away empty.

    He has helped his servant Israel,

    In remembrance of his mercy,

    According to the promise he made to our ancestors,

    To Abraham and to his descendents forever.” (Saint Luke 1: 46-55)

    What faith must it have taken to raise courage to such eloquence! What faith must it have taken to bring this young woman to stand and to speak such words!

    The thundering prophets of the Old Testament, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, wrote nothing more powerful or more prophetic. The psalmists uttered nothing more lyrical. While we, Protestants, often mark the continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the prophets through John the Baptist, we seldom note that Jesus’ spiritual lineage to the prophets was established even closer to home. Jesus was his mother’s child. His sermon on the mount, in places, reads like an exposition of his mother’s prayer.

    Hearing these words sung years ago amid the grand architecture in a collegiate institution of wealth and prestige, while some tourists stared blankly at the ceiling and other visitors tried to ignore the words for the sake of the tune, I was struck by more than incongruity. I was struck by the power of these words to break through, to hammer away at our consciousness, to demand a response.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon he preached in London during Advent in 1933, said of Mary’s song (also called the Magnificat): “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is also the most passionate, the wildest, and one might almost say the most revolutionary Advent hymn that has ever been sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary as we often see her portrayed in paintings. The Mary who is speaking here is passionate, carried away, proud, enthusiastic…. This is the sound of the prophetic women of the Old Testament – Deborah, Judith, Miriam – coming to life in the mouth of Mary. Mary, who was seized by the power of the Holy Spirit, who humbly and obediently lets it be done unto her as the Spirit commands her, who lets the Spirit blow where it wills – she speaks, by the power of this Spirit, about God’s coming into the world, about the Advent of Jesus Christ.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Sermon on Luke 1: 46-55” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 13: London, 1933-1935, English edition, Keith Clements, English translation, Israel Best, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 342-343.]

    Bonhoeffer hastens to observe that Mary awaits the coming of the Messiah as no one else in the world does, as his mother, as the one who carries the Christ inside her, as the one who will cradle and protect and nourish him. All of this speaks to the miracle of Christmas, says Bonhoeffer. But, as Mary understood, the greatest miracle of all, the miracle toward which the miracle of the incarnation proclaims in flesh and blood, “the miracle of miracles” is “that God loves the lowly so much that God becomes lowly, bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. According to Mary, the prophet and mother of Jesus, God looks with favor upon the lowliness of God’s servants. As Bonhoeffer says: “God is in the midst of lowliness – that is the revolutionary, passionate word.” That is Mary’s message, the message of Christmas.

    I remember something that happened many years ago when I was a green young associate pastor, in charge of youth ministries, in a suburban church. Our youth group was involved in raising money for victims of famine. They had put together a rather shocking poster that they placed in the Narthex of the sanctuary on Christmas Eve. On this poster, by which the whole congregation passed on their way into the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols, was a photograph of a starving child. As I recall very little else was on that poster. It may have asked for donations. It probably indicated how to give. But one thing stood out on a piece of black poster board: the face of a starving child, his mouth open, wailing, his limbs withered, the skin of his face shrunken against the skull, his belly distended with gas.

    A member of the church stopped me as the choir and the ministers made our way into the building, lining up for the procession. She was furious. This picture in the narthex, in a place of beauty and holiness, had spoiled Christmas for her. “I don’t come to church to see such things on Christmas!”

    I do not recall my response, though I doubt it manifested the best of pastoral sensitivity. But I do remember even then being aware of the incongruity that is essential to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The incongruity of the gospel is a persistent affront. It never stops being a scandal. And that incongruity is seen nowhere more powerfully, more poignantly or more beautifully than in that song, that prayer, which begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord” and then goes on to say why my soul must magnify the Lord.

    Merry Christmas! And may the blessings of God be with you in this season of expectation, joy and hope!

  • Rachel Weeping for her Children

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 18, 2012

    There it is, woven into the glorious story of the first Christmas. As a pastor I have skipped over it when possible. It just didn't seem to fit. But St. Matthew refuses to avert his eyes. At the very heart of chapter three of Matthew's gospel, terror appears like a viper in the garden.

    The evangelist begins the chapter on such a positive note: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.'"

    The passages that follow give us the Feast of Epiphany, the promise of a gospel big enough for all the peoples of the world, and the custom of giving gifts at Christmas. So much promise hangs in the air of this text, but also here lurks an ominous threat, because it introduces us to Herod the Great, a cruel and grasping ruler, paranoid in his lust for power and his fear of rivals.

    Herod's anxieties and jealousies were stoked by the words of the wise men from the East about a newly-born king. Herod will suffer no competitor for his throne. Anxious to cling to power, Herod had already put to death members of his own family. Augustus Caesar commented of Herod, that it would be better to be Herod's sow than Herod's son. Herod would not hesitate to spill innocent blood.

    At first, Herod tries, unsuccessfully, to co-opt the magi to reveal to him the identity and location of the Christ child. When he realized that the magi would not help him find the newborn Jesus, furious, Herod sent assassins to slaughter every male child under two years of age in the region of Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus escaped to Egypt. But, while Jesus survived, there was in the land a slaughter.

    Reflecting on this slaughter of the innocents, and the lamentation of the parents who lost their children, the writer of the gospel of Matthew quotes Jeremiah the Prophet:

    "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children. And she will not be comforted, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:18 [see Jeremiah 31:15).

    As the reports came in last Friday and Saturday of the shooting of children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I am sure many of us had similar reactions. I suspect many of us felt that hollow, breathless ache somewhere near our hearts in sympathy for parents, family members and friends who lost precious children and loved ones in an act of senseless violence. Perhaps your thoughts, like mine, went back to the hundreds of times when I dropped my own children off at school and watched them disappear into crowds of their friends, taking their safety for granted. Perhaps you thought, as I did, "Here we go again!" Or you asked yourself, "Can't we do better than this? Can't we even keep our children safe in a school?" Or maybe you reflected on what it might have been like for some of these parents to return late Friday evening to homes decorated for Christmas, gifts for their children, like Magi offerings never to be opened, tucked under the tree. Maybe the gospel's words came to your mind as they did to mine, "Rachel weeping for her children, and she will not be comforted."

    In the days that have passed since this tragedy, my feelings have traversed such distances, from utter disbelief and shock to profound sadness to a feeling of helplessness to anger and back again to shock and disbelief. And all of these feelings have been charged just a little more by the consciousness of the season of Christmas into which we are entering.

    For much of my life, I have been bewildered at why the writer of the Gospel of Matthew included the slaughter of the innocents in the story of the first Christmas. No other gospel writer includes this story, and historians of the period seem not to know it. Today I am simply grateful the gospel writer told the story as he did. Today I take some comfort in the fact that the story of the most joyous event we can imagine, the story of God's becoming flesh to dwell among us, that this story of the first Christmas is set in the midst of the dangerous world we inhabit and not in some fairy-tale magical kingdom.

    The God who seeks us in the far country by becoming one of us also weeps with Rachel. Indeed God becomes a Rachel among us. And God also refuses to be comforted.

    But, of course, this is not the whole story. Sometimes in the New Testament, a passage from the Old is used to evoke both a primary and a secondary message. Thus many biblical commentators believe that in the story of the passion of Jesus when he utters the words fromPsalm 22, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," the gospel writer also was indirectly evoking the full message of the psalm, which moves us from profound lamentation to the promise of new life, a new life that is forever shadowed by the experience of brokenness.

    Perhaps the writer of the Gospel of Matthew is doing something similar. Perhaps he is primarily evoking the wrenching cry of Jeremiah, this lamentation that screams grief in the darkness, with the intention that we shall hear an echo of promise. This passage Matthew quotes from Jeremiah climaxes in the haunting phrase of promise:

    "'And there is hope for the future,' declares the Lord." (Jeremiah 31:17a).

    I want so much to believe this is true.

    Though today I can only manage to weep with Rachel and trust the God who like Rachel weeps beside us, I want to hope again, even as I know that any future hope will bear the shadow of the terrors and disappointments that we have known.

    There is so much broken in this world that we do not have the competence or the power to repair. But we are not incompetent. Nor are we powerless. The tragedy that unfolded this week reminds us, if we needed reminding, of just how broken our world is. It also reminds us of what courage and compassion we are capable. I pray that we will find in the grace of God a measure of consolation. I also pray that we will find the will to do what we can to protect and to care for the innocents among us.

  • Uncommon Prayer

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 11, 2012

    This year we celebrate the 350th anniversary of The Book of Common Prayer, the principal liturgical resource for the Anglican Communion.

    “Why,” you might well ask, “is that significant for Presbyterians and Christians other than our Anglican and Episcopalian friends?”

    I believe it is significant because The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) remains, after 350 years of continued use and periodic revision, the finest resource for prayer in the English language.

    I shall leave it to others to reflect on the ways in which this book has shaped the English language and enriched Western culture. Oxford professor of Christian history Diarmaid MacCulloch describes the BCP as "one of a handful of texts to have decided the future of a world language,” and I have no reason to doubt Sir Diarmaid. But my interest in The Book of Common Prayer is biblical, theological, liturgical, and devotional.

    The Psalms, arranged by morning and evening, equip the Christian heart with the full range of devotional responses to life’s joys and challenges. John Calvin described the Psalms as “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul,” observing that “there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God” (Calvin, “Author’s Preface” to his Commentary on the Psalms, xxxix). The arrangement of the Psalms provided in the BCP reinforces the use of the Psalms as texts for personal and corporate praise and lament.

    The lectionary laid out in the BCP, which takes us through the entire Christian year, from Advent to All Saints Day, provides a rich variety of biblical texts and prayers (collects) appropriate to these texts and to the living of our days. The lectionary, simply in its publication, has the effect of claiming all our days, the year round, for divine purposes. And the collects (the word may refer to both the way in which the prayer “collects” the people for the public worship of God; or for the manner in which it “collects” the occasion and the biblical texts for the day) rank among the most memorable resources for prayer ever written.

    For example: “Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ” (2nd Sunday in Advent). Phrases from these prayers ring through the ages of Christian liturgy and devotion: “O most loving Father, who willest us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of thee, and to cast all our care on thee, who carest for us….” (For Trustfulness); “Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of Wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light….” (For Guidance); “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom….” (Morning Prayer, for Peace).

    And the worship services themselves that are prescribed in the BCP, including the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer which frame each day with praise, the services for Baptism, Communion, and the Burial of the Dead, demonstrate how all our days are lived in the presence of God. One finds implicit in this book a theology of the immanence of God matched only by a theology of God’s transcendence, reminding us that the closer God comes to us the more holy and wholly other we know God to be.

    Originally assembled as a resource for the fledgling Anglican Church in 1549, largely by Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII, but based on prayers and services dating at least as far back as the tenth century, and, in at least one case, as far back as the fourth century, The Book of Common Prayer provides an ecumenical guide to the piety of the church unlike any other service book in any other Christian denomination. Not being an Anglican myself, I came to realize only slowly just how vital this resource is. When I first began to use The Book of Common Prayer, it was merely one resource among many others that I mined as a busy pastor drawing together prayers to use in corporate worship.

    In time, and especially as a student in Britain, however, I gradually came to appreciate the sanctity and beauty of the service of Evensong, especially as observed in cathedrals such as Durham and in college chapels in Cambridge and Oxford. And in my own college, King’s College at Aberdeen University, though deep in the staunchly Presbyterian territory of Scotland, it was the Eucharistic service of The Book of Common Prayer that guided our worship in our ancient chapel each week.

    But it was not until Debbie was diagnosed with and treated for cancer in the summer of 1989 that The Book of Common Prayer became my constant companion.

    In those days, I often carried a small pocket edition of the BCP, the English edition published by Eyre and Spottiswoode Limited, Her Majesty’s Printers. It is the traditional edition of 1662 with some of its mid-twentieth century amendments.

    For some reason, however, I did not have that edition with me when we were on holiday back in United States when Debbie visited her doctor in Corpus Christi, Texas, for a routine checkup that turned out to be anything but routine. After tests confirmed the doctor’s suspicion, and after the surgeon discovered that the cancer had done far more damage than even the tests had predicted, I sat up through the night by Debbie’s bed reading an American edition of the Book of Common Prayer, allowing it to lead me in prayer.

    There was one particular prayer, in the section titled simply, “Family Prayer,” a prayer “For Those We Love,” which I avoided throughout much of that night. There was, you see, one particular phrase in that prayer that put me off. Try as I might, I could not bring myself to pray this prayer because it asked me to entrust those I love to God’s care “for this life and the life to come” in the knowledge that God is doing for them “better things than we can desire or pray for.”

    I simply could not let go my own grip on Debbie’s life. I simply could not entrust her life to God if that might mean losing her.

    Reading and praying the Psalms that night, from one end to the other, wrestling with God through psalms of lament and psalms of wrath as well as psalms of joy; praying through the prayers set for various days of the year, I kept returning to the section of family prayers unable to pray that prayer that asked the impossible of me. I prayed about Joseph going down into Egypt, where he was imprisoned, and where, during his long imprisonment, as the BCP says, “the iron entered into his soul.” I prayed Psalm 13, “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord, forever?” and Psalm 22, the Psalm often called the Crucifixion or Passion Psalm, which begins in a frank admission of God’s apparent absence and ends in praise. I prayed the collect of the service of Baptism which begins, “Almighty and immortal God, the aid of all who need…,” and I prayed the prayer “for trustfulness” which reminds us “to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of thee, and to cast all our care on thee, who carest for us.”

    Through that long summer night, I read and I prayed, and somehow, beyond all comprehension, something happened that allowed me to trust God to love and care for the person I most love, no matter what happened to us next. I don’t know how to describe it, but at some point, calm and peace and comfort flooded into me, and I found myself longing to pray that prayer I had long avoided: “Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come; knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    Somehow that night, I was taught that we cannot love anyone appropriately unless we love them through (and not in competition with) God. The reason today that I love the BCP is because God used it to change my heart toward God. I found in these pages the beauty of the Lord, the truth of the Lord, the goodness of God reflected.

    A few days ago I was reading a story in the New York Times amassing yet more evidence that people are turning away from traditional church services, finding them old-fashioned and rigid. The story reminded me of a comment by C.S. Lewis in his classic Screwtape Letters. The experienced demon is advising the younger devil to ensure that the person he is trying to tempt critiques the doctrines of the Christian faith on any other grounds than “truth” or “falsehood.” Make sure, says Screwtape, the old tempter, that the person you are trying to tempt is tempted merely to reject an idea because it is too “academic” or too impractical, “outworn” or “conventional.” “Jargon,” says the devil, “not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous – that it is the philosophy of the future” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter One).

    How does one assess the value of a book that has been around for 350 years? I would argue (and drive the devils mad with my logic) that it is on the basis of whether it is true, beautiful, and good, and whether or not this book leads us to God. And this book can.

  • Civility Through Dialogue

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 04, 2012

    A Special Guest Post by Brent and Diane Slay.

    The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, former Commissioner of Major League Baseball and former President of Yale University, said, “Civility is the core of civilization.” Given the cynicism and polarization that appears all too common today, one wonders if we’ve collectively lost our core.

    It seems that the dearth of civility in our society typically occurs in emotionally charged arenas like politics, social issues, or religion. People feel so exceedingly passionate about these issues that they often lose any semblance of objectivity. Instead of being open to other points of view they seek reinforcement of their own ideals and are intolerant of dissent. This resistance to understanding maintains ignorance, heightens intolerance, and greatly contributes to incivility.

    In Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we live, The Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University addresses incivility by facilitating interfaith understanding and acceptance through a variety of initiatives. The highlight of the institute’s programming is the triennial Jewish, Christian, Muslim Interfaith Dialogue. Held every three years, the one-day event features lectures by prominent religious scholars who are then cross-examined by a moderator, each other, and the audience. After attending the conference in 2006, which featured Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi, Vincent Cornell, a Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Emory University, and James Carroll, a former Catholic priest and current columnist for the Boston Globe, we were motivated to address the declining state of civility surrounding interfaith issues in our own community.We began by inviting James Carroll into our home for a day of interfaith discussion and exploration with 50 guests of different faiths and backgrounds. This essay is a testament of our journey to promote civility in an area that easily lends itself to polarity.

    Our day-long interfaith discussion group included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and agnostics from various socio-economic backgrounds. Although we had a civil, lively, and spirited discussion about the general tenants of our different faiths, we only scratched the surface. Our time constraints and unfamiliarity with each other prevented us from delving into more sensitive issues. Therefore, several of us decided to convene a smaller group for future discussions. Our smaller group of twelve, which continues to meet six years later, includes four Jews, four Muslims and four Christians. There are four Democrats, four Republicans, and four independents. One of the Jews is a rabbi, one of the Christians is a retired Presbyterian minister, and one of the Muslims is a leader in a local mosque. Additionally, we number three physicians, a university professor, a social worker, two business people, and two retirees who are community volunteers. Our group meets every other month in one of our homes on an alternating basis.We share food for sustenance and food for thought.

    When we started the group we all knew it could be a challenge to maintain our civility—particularly when we started digging deeper into the issues that divide us such as faith and politics. Although we hold strong convictions about our own faiths, we yearn to learn more about others’. We understand that there are some issues where the differences in opinion are so severe that we must agree to disagree without much discussion. That is, in and of itself, a sort of civility.

    Dr. Francis Wilhoit, the late, great professor of political science at Drake University, used to pace back and forth across the front of the lecture hall in Meredith Hall, stopping at least once every minute to look at the room full of students and proclaim, "Where do you draw the line?” Civility demands that we find a place to “draw the line.” In our group we discuss and dissent, without becoming divisive. We have pre-emptive rules of engagement that allow us to diffuse difficult discussions before they become hostile arguments. Being civil doesn’t mean we have to compromise our faith or our values. But it does mean we must treat each other with respect.

    Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath, Co-Founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, said that “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” But how does one maintain civility when confronted with crude incivility?

    One gentle man in our group, Aly, is a renowned pediatric oncologist who performs bone marrow transplants. Not long after 9/11, he was confronted by a young patient’s parent with the proclamation that “we should rid ourselves of all Muslims in this country.”

    Aly replied, “Would you like me to leave before or after I perform your child’s bone marrow transplant?”

    The good doctor was able to forgive what he could not condone in the mother’s belligerence. He understood that ignorance and fear play major roles in incivility—even on the playground. Jews in our group have recounted numerous instances where their children have been told by classmates that they are going to hell if they don’t convert to Christianity. Such inflammatory rhetoric promotes feelings of distrust and disgust.

    Despite the well-known saying, familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt. The six couples in our group have come to develop a deep sense of trust with each other. This trust has been built over time as we’ve discussed our respective beliefs and rituals. And this trust has resulted in feelings of safety and acceptance.

    Over the years we’ve visited each other’s places of worship. We’ve come to know each other’s families. We respect each other’s dietary restrictions and acknowledge religious holidays. We celebrate each other’s successes and lend support in troubling times.We share in each other’s grief. We have become close friends.

    As our relationships have matured, we are now able to broach subjects that were taboo early on: inerrancy of sacred texts, Middle East politics, domestic politics, and social issues. We listen, but don’t condemn. We question each other in an attempt to gain understanding, but try not to become judgmental of the answers. We don’t proselytize. We’ve learned how hurtful inappropriate language can be because our Jewish and Muslim friends are subjected to such language on a daily basis—language that questions their patriotism and the authenticity of their religion.

    All of us have the capacity to do more to promote civility in our society. As the Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, said, “No man makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he can only do a little.”

    Our small inter-faith group continues to celebrate our differences as well as acknowledge what we share in common. The late Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., former senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York, was fond of saying, “As human beings, we have more in common than we do in conflict.” We collectively believe that.

    Brent Slay is a member of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Board of Trustees. He and his wife's experiences, recounted here, inspired "Dinners to Dialogue," part of the Seminary's Doors to Dialogue program which recently received a $375,000 grant from the Luce Foundation. Pamela Kidd, Chairperson of the Board of Trustees, and her husband also participated in the Grand Rapids, MI interfaith dinner group.

  • The Top 5 Myths about John Calvin

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 27, 2012

    Recently I said in a blog that I am a Calvinist. In fact, not only am I a Calvinist, but I find John Calvin to be the most glorious figure of the Protestant Reformation, and one of the great lights of the Renaissance. So, I thought it might be fun to debunk some of the persistent myths about Calvin. If you’re interested in Calvin, I encourage you to read my colleague, Chris Elwood’s excellent book, Calvin for Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).

    Myth No.1: John Calvin was a real sour puss.

    Martin Luther is usually cast as the fun-loving, beer-swigging, warm-hearted Reformer while Calvin is caricatured as dour, the sort of person who (as one Episcopal bishop once notoriously described him) “sucked sour persimmons for fun.” In fact, Calvin was the Reformation’s chief apologist for fun. For example, he reminds us that God created food and drink “for delight and good cheer,” not simply for nourishment. Quoting the Psalms he tells us that wine is given to us to gladden the heart, and olive oil was made for dipping bread. Here’s a person who knew his way around a Michelin Star restaurant (never forget that Calvin was French!). According to Calvin, God did not create the world merely for utilitarian purposes, but for beauty and pleasure.

    Myth No.2: Calvin was a tyrant.

    A few years ago this myth got some highly visible air time in The New York Times Magazine in an article titled: "Who Would Jesus Smack Down?" The article profiled a preacher who justifies his refusal to listen to the criticism of lay leaders by citing Calvin. When a member of his congregation complained, for example, the pastor suspended the complainer’s membership, explaining, “They were sinning through questioning.” The author of the article commented, “John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself.” In fact, Calvin could and often did say it much better than that. Calvin distrusted the vesting of power in any individual (himself included), and abided with decisions made by the ordered bodies of his church and city even when he did not agree with them. Calvin believed that God makes God’s will known through groups more reliably than through the will of individuals, and there’s no better guarantee against the abuse of a leader’s power than a vigilant group in which authority is shared.

    Myth No.3: Calvin and Calvinism are identical.

    This one’s tricky! There’s an assumption that everything we call "Calvinism" actually came from Calvin. A colleague recently mentioned that he was sitting on a plane reading a book about Calvin. The flight attendant saw what he was reading and said, “I know about Calvin. He’s the TULIP guy.” In fact, the well-known “five points of Calvinism,” memorialized in the acronym TULIP (Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the saints) dates from the century after Calvin (the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619), and represents the high water mark of “Calvinist Scholasticism” in which the warm personal evangelical movement that John Calvin led was distorted by a calcified reactionism. Eminent scholars like James Torrance and T.F. Torrance, R. T. Kendall and Holmes Rolston, III, have helped us differentiate between Calvin and his latter-day disciples. For example, while Calvin believed in predestination, he was very hesitant to say too much on the subject and largely avoided the implications of double-predestination. His followers were not so cautious!

    Myth No. 4: Calvin was a religious fanatic.

    There certainly is a popular perception of Calvin as a sort of religious fanatic or zealot. To be sure, various heresy prosecutions followed in the wake of “Calvinism” especially in Scotland and the United States. In fact, Calvin himself deserves to be remembered both as a “Renaissance Man” and a “Humanist.” Calvin was part of that remarkable Renaissance movement that included Thomas More (the brilliant Catholic “Man for all Seasons” and martyr under Henry VIII of England) and Desiderius Erasmus (the Dutch scholar whose critical studies and satire paved the way for the Reformation). The humanist movement swept away the cobwebs of superstition and obscurantism and placed the Bible freshly translated in the hands of ordinary Christians. Calvin, like other humanists, was also a critical scholar of the Bible who believed that knowledge and wisdom, scholarship and science are not enemies of the faith.

    Myth No. 5: Calvin was sadistic.

    Obviously this myth is supported by the burning of Michael Servetus (a person who had the distinction of being considered a heretic by both the Protestants and the Roman Catholics and of being a physician who discovered how blood circulates in the human body). Calvin actively opposed Servetus’s teachings. Calvin denounced him to the Roman Catholic Inquisition. He believed that Servetus’s heresies were dangerous to the future of the Church, and he wanted him silenced. In fact, however, what is less well known is that Calvin argued that Servetus should not be burned at the stake. The conventional picture of Calvin cruelly twirling his moustache like Snidely Whiplash while Servetus burned is baseless. Calvin urged the courts to spare Servetus from burning, which Calvin considered a barbarous method of execution – and to behead Servetus instead. Okay, this one sounds like cold comfort even to me, even if Calvin thought Servetus “had it coming” (to quote Clint Eastwood). The fact that Calvin believed the church was locked in a life and death struggle with Servetus, and that the magistrates had no other responsible alternative than to execute him does not necessarily mean that Calvin was sadistic, though he does appear to have been a pretty typical product of a cruel age on this score. The burning of Servetus ignited a firestorm of controversy among Protestants as to whether such measures are ever justified. Incidentally, Servetus was opposed to the use of force to promote religion long before he was sentenced to death.

    Well, that’s probably enough Myth Busting for today! If you’re wondering where to start with Calvin’s writings, I recommend his biblical commentaries. Calvin handled the Bible with all the critical tools available in the sixteenth-century, but he also listened through the words for the Word of God.

  • Thankfulness and Spiritual Health

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 20, 2012

    Gratitude may be the best barometer for determining our spiritual and emotional health. When I have wandered off into what John Bunyan once described as “the slough of despond,” even if I have wandered there unconsciously, it is my lack of gratitude that gives me away.

    According to the "Spiritual Exercises" of St.Ignatius of Loyola, gratitude is the fundamental spiritual practice. When we aren’t capable of giving thanks, it indicates something is out of kilter.

    A few weeks ago, this lesson came home to me again. As I was beginning my morning prayer, which is supposed to start with thanksgiving in Ignatius’ practice, I found myself stuck. I knew I should feel grateful, but at that particular moment, I just didn’t feel that way. I was spiritually out-of-joint, dislocated in my soul. I tried and I tried, but I couldn’t muster gratitude. Finally, all I could do was pray for God to make me grateful. In that moment, I found myself praying as the seventeenth-century poet, George Herbert, prayed (though he did it far more eloquently): “Thou hast given so much to me; Give one thing more, - a grateful heart; Not thankful when it pleaseth me, As if Thy blessings had spare days, But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.”

    Herbert, in this prayer, combines what Anne Lamott has described as “the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

    Real gratitude, of course, isn’t something that we can whip up. It is a gift given by God, the product of God’s Spirit at work in us. We need God’s help to feel thankful. But, gratitude begets gratitude, catching us up in a cycle of spiritual health.

    Henry Ward Beecher's insight into gratitude may be especially timely as we think of the relationship between gratitude and our spiritual health. He said that it is our pride that kills gratitude. “An humble mind is the soil out of which thanks naturally grows.” But a proud person is seldom grateful, “for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves.” Such a proud person, “the unthankful heart,” Beecher calls him, “discovers no mercies”; while the “thankful heart” sweeps up moments of thankfulness through her day like “a magnet sweeping up iron filings.”

    It is easy in our sometimes cynical society to act as though a person of simple gratitude is somehow less serious, perhaps even less mature. But I suspect the opposite is true. The mature, wise soul understands, as does G. K. Chesterton, “that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” To resist gratitude is to resist a sane and appropriate response to this life God gives us, but to be thankful in the face of all that God has given us (including life and love) is not only the right thing to do, it is a sign of spiritual sanity.

    I am reminded of a conversation the great preacher Carlyle Marney once reported with a young person who had suffered from terrible physical afflictions and pain every day of his life, and for whom a long and physically robust life was simply not in the cards. Marney, pastoral but profoundly honest, asked this young person if there was ever a time when he felt that it would have been better not to have been born. “Never!” responded the youth, “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything!”

    In response to a blog I wrote on gratitude some months ago, my old friend, John Evans, wrote me an email, to express his gratitude for the blog (John is one of the best “Thankers” I’ve ever known), and to share with me his favorite reflection on gratitude. It is from the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”


  • Not Seward's Folly

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 13, 2012

    I should preface my remarks today by making it clear that this is not a book review, but a reflection on a book review. The book, Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr (Simon and Schuster, 2012) is not the subject of this blog, just as they say in therapeutic terms, “the presenting issue.” My subject is actually the particular angle that one reviewer has taken on the life of William Henry Seward.

    That reviewer stated that Seward (whose story is also a part of the new Lincoln movie by Stephen Spielberg) “was America’s second-greatest secretary of state, giving way only to John Quincy Adams, the force behind the Monroe Doctrine. Seward’s problem is that he is condemned to be in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. It might not have turned out so.” The reviewer goes on to note Seward’s importance to the foreign policy goals of the Union during the American Civil War (one of the most crucial achievements of Lincoln’s administration was keeping the European powers either sidelined, in the cases of France and England, or positively engaged, as in the case of Imperial Russia) and, of course, the acquisition of the Alaskan territory (which is about the only thing most school children are ever taught about this illustrious statesman). Seward himself came close to winning his party’s nomination for president, only to lose out to Lincoln, at the Republican Party convention of 1860.

    Here’s the point with which I take issue with this generally capable review: the argument seems to be that Seward was somehow a relative failure because he lacked the fame of Lincoln.

    I am tempted to argue that the notion that someone as important as William Henry Seward could be viewed as even remotely a failure because of a relative deficit of fame is peculiar to our own superficial age in which celebrities become famous because of the abundance of their fame. I’m still trying to figure out what the Kardashians do. But my argument would be spurious, if energetic.

    I would be forgetting a long history of human vanity. I would be forgetting, for example, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s "Ozymandias,"the timeless poem about a traveler stumbling upon the half-buried remnants of a forgotten king’s forgotten monument to his own fame. Remember the lines in the poem describing the words carved on the pedestal on which was mounted the shattered visage of that ancient king? “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!”After which the poet says, “Nothing beside remains.”

    As a fair amount of biblical wisdom also bears witness, the vanity of fame has long been understood – and has long been a problem. It isn’t only Qoheleth, another ancient king and the speaker of the wisdom contained in the biblical book we often call “Ecclesiastes," who warns us of that“breath,” that “puff of breath” that is vanity (Norbert Lohfink, Qoheleth: A Continental Commentary, Fortress, 2003, pg. 19). Proverbs and the Psalms also warn us of the emptiness of that vanity, that fame and influence (and the fortunes that sometimes attend it) built on its own words, has nothing more to sustain it.

    Maybe it is important in whatever age in which we live to remember that there must be better motivations than fame. People achieve remarkable and important things every day without the slightest renown accruing to their names, and without seeking such fame. And people also do all sorts of things, sometimes very destructive things, just to gain the world’s attention.

    Robert Bolt, in his play “A Man For All Seasons,” provides one of the great cautionary tales of the corrupting power of the lust for fame in the figure of Richard Rich, a young man driven by ambition, in contrast to the saintly statesman, Sir Thomas More. Richard is first introduced to the audience in this play in a conversation with More, in which Richard begs the statesman, then well on his way to becoming Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, to give him a position. Richard lusts for fame and the power and wealth it can bring. Sir Thomas, looking into the heart of the young man, entreats him, “Be a teacher.” Richard knows the teaching life, and he wants fame instead. He asks Sir Thomas who will ever know about him if he becomes a great teacher, to which More replies: You would know. Your students would know. God would know. That’s not a bad public. Each time we encounter Richard Rich in the play, he is robed in better gowns, until that moment when he presents his perjured testimony at the trial which condemns Thomas More to the gallows. On that occasion Richard is decked out in sumptuous robes the chain of office of the Secretary of State for Wales around his neck. Ultimately he sacrificed even his soul for fame.

    Seward provides a rather stunning example of the value of a life lived for substance. Seward had his ego issues, but the fact that he didn’t outshine Lincoln need not be considered a problem.

  • An Election Day Perspective

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 06, 2012

    History is one of the few things in this world that is genuinely forward- looking. It certainly provides perspective on where we are.

    This weekend, for example, a commentator on one of the many news programs made the ridiculous claim that "our country is more divided today than at any other time." Perhaps the commentator forgot that our nation fought a horrific civil war just 150 years ago. Surely we were considerably more divided then. Or, perhaps, the commentator forgot any one of a dozen other major periods of national, regional, racial, social and cultural polarization and conflict over issues varying from segregation, to war and peace, to how a free nation learns to tolerate political ideologies that the majority of its citizens abhor.

    Dialing up the frenzied rhetoric of punditry may help guarantee an audience on television. But it does not help the cause of truth. It certainly doesn't help us understand the moment we live in or the issues we face.

    I have heard it said by a number of people recently that this political season is the dirtiest and nastiest in American history. No. Afraid not. As David McCullough, author of biographies on John Adams, Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt, observed Sunday evening in an interview on 60 Minutes, the nastiest presidential election ever was between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. You can look it up. Political operatives supporting these two candidates resorted to dirty tricks and scandal mongering that would make even the most hardened and cynical party hacks of today blush with shame. The election that brought Andrew Jackson to the White House was a close second to Adams v. Jefferson.

    I would like to think that at some point in American history the appeal to crass self-interest was less blatant than today. I wish it were so. But the American electorate has always been more swayed by "what's in it for me" arguments on the election trail than self-sacrificial motifs, though by Inauguration Day we usually do tend to prefer to hear about "better angels of our nature" and seem ready to "ask what (we) can do for (our) country."

    Historical perspective should, of course, do a great deal more than remind us that we never did live in an ideal golden age. At its best it helps us understand that beneath the partisan jockeying and through the ebbs and flows of fortune, those elected to public office often surprise us over the long haul.

    McCullough, in the interview on 60 Minutes, remembered how dismayed his father was 60 years ago when Truman beat Dewey. His father, a staunch Dewey supporter, thought Harry Truman was a dismal president and that our nation would suffer greatly if he were re-elected. McCullough chuckled when he remembered a conversation years later when his father, late in life, lamented the presidential choices he had in a subsequent election. "What we need now is someone like old Harry," his father said.

    There is one aspect of this year's election that is unprecedented (I think): the obscene amount of money being spent, I am tempted to say wasted. When I consider the relentless flood of expensive television ads, which add no new light to any of the choices people need to make among the various candidates, as a citizen I have to wonder if there isn't a better way to conduct an election. As a person of faith, I'm pretty sure there are much better uses for all of this money than to pour it down this gopher hole.

  • What’s Bubbling in Our Souls

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 31, 2012

    Today is National Embarrass Your Children Day. Who am I kidding? Every day is National Embarrass Your Children Day.

    For some reason, this morning I was remembering a song my son Jeremy came home from Vacation Bible School singing about 25 years ago. He had not yet mastered the lyrics. Sitting in the car, his macaroni and paper plate craft in his lap, a bright smile on his face, he sang:

    “It’s bubbling. It’s bubbling. It’s bubbling in my soul!

    I’m singing and laughing since Jesus made me whole!

    Folks can’t understand me, and I can’t get it right.

    It’s bubbling, bubbling, bubbling, bubbling, bubbling, day and night.”

    I know how he feels. Don’t you?

    Marilynne Robinson, author of such extraordinary novels as Gilead and Home, in a collection of essays entitled, The Death of Adam, reflects on what’s bubbling in our souls. In her essay, “Facing Reality,” in which she explores truth and fiction in life and letters, she writes (and I’m catching her here in mid-flow):

    “Nor do we indulge in the falsehood that we can make ourselves secure, even while desperate effort is clearly assumed to be the appropriate response to our condition. We are busy as rodents. But this is for the most part not real purpose, merely anxiety expending itself….Anxiety-driven people are right to be anxious. They are prone to stress and burnout, to illness and early death. They have trouble creating satisfactory friendships and families. What if they have misappropriated their time just sufficiently to allow their children to become ominous strangers? What if they have made a too single-minded investment of their lives, and then the market for their skills plunges? These things happen – anyone who has ever glanced at a newspaper knows it. They are right to lie awake. The truth to which all this fiction refers, from which it takes its authority, is the very oldest truth, right out of Genesis. We are not at ease in the world, and sooner or later it kills us” (Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Picador, 1998/2005, p. 81).

    Fictional literature, from this perspective, might be seen as one of the last refuges of truth in our culture – a culture in which“reality” has become an adjectival modifier for a particularly bogus genre of television entertainment. But the larger point Robinson is making takes us back to five-year-old Jeremy’s misremembered song. The thing that is bubbling in our souls, the thing that motivates, drives, compels so many of us is a poisonous and corrosive force that can eventually destroy us unless we find the antidote. And the compulsion to find that antidote can itself play into the self-destruction.

    Every once in a while we have a conversation that we just can’t shake. Last summer I had one with my spiritual director that was like that. We had been reflecting on the way God rushes into our lives when we open the door even just a tiny crack. I don’t remember why, but I was fumbling around trying to rationalize my difficulty in opening the door to God, my difficulty in pausing (much less stopping) in the midst of the day to pray even for a few minutes. My spiritual director reflected almost casually (but thoughtfully) that the reason I had a hard time doing this seemed pretty obvious. “You’re a Pelagian.”

    Now, Pelagianism is one of the nastiest charges you can lay at the door of a Calvinist. And I am a Calvinist, though I’ll leave it to another occasion to explore what I mean by that. Pelagianism was the ancient heresy that held, basically, that we are saved by our works, that salvation depends, either ultimately or to large measure, on human effort.

    I told my spiritual director that he must be mistaken. After all, that very weekend I would be preaching in Cincinnati, and my sermon specifically (and explicitly) spoke against Pelagianism. He just smiled.

    It took me awhile to accept the truth that he was right. So, I did what any self-respecting seminary professor would do, I pulled St. Augustine's treatises and letters against Pelagianism down from my shelf and I re-read some of them. From a Pelagian perspective, it was the perfect response. If you are anxious about your spiritual health, you should get busy, that is, if you are a Pelagian! If you are a Pelagian, and you feel your spiritual dis-ease, you will double-down with serious effort, or you will try to distract yourself busily by any means available (including the reading of theology or practicing of religion) so that you don’t have to face reality. And the reality you are avoiding is the rather glorious good news that is wrapped in the enigma of our human vulnerability – which is also, ironically, the source of our anxiety – that we are frail creatures of dust and feeble as frail; and frail creatures that we are, we are created just a tad lower than the angels, in the likeness and image of the Creator of this vast, marvelous and mysterious universe. Such a self-appraisal might properly result in peals of laughter, musings upon the irony of being a creature on the boundary of heaven and earth, and wonder at the marvelous and truly strange ways of God for entrusting so much to such creatures as we are. But Pelagians have a really hard time laughing at their own frailties. They are deadly serious. Anxiety makes them so.

    The antidote to anxiety (including the anxiety that cloaks itself in the garments of Pelagianism and drives Pelagians across the threshold of despair and destruction) is God’s grace. That is the only real antidote. God’s grace is not a general principle of life. God’s grace is the personal love, mercy, forgiveness of God poured out upon any and every human being. And God’s grace invites and prepares us, opens us to its reality, makes us ready and willing to receive it. And opening every possible aperture to our souls, it rolls like an ocean right through whatever tiny cracks are available. What is required of us is what is required of any empty vessel, said one Puritan writer, that we just let God fill us up.

    Marilynne Robinson, toward the end of “Facing Reality” asks:“What if we understood our vulnerabilities to mean we are human, and so are our friends and our enemies, and so are our cities and books and gardens, our inspirations, our errors. We weep human tears, like Hamlet, like Hecuba. If the universe is only all we have so far seen, we are its great marvel…. This being human – people have loved it through plague and famine and siege. And Dante, who knew the world about suffering, had a place in hell for people who were grave when they might have rejoiced” (M.R., The Death of Adam, p. 86).

    The grace of God makes it possible for us to laugh at ourselves and rejoice in the face of reality, a lot like the little boy who sat beside me more than a score of years ago, smiling and laughing as he sang about that strange bubbling in his soul.

  • What Books Are On Your Bedside Table?

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 24, 2012

    Recently I asked our faculty members to share what books are on their bedside table. I wanted to get a sense of what they are reading just for fun. As you can imagine, they are devoted readers and their reading interests are eclectic, to say the least. I think you will find some great recommendations here.

    Our Academic Dean, Susan R. Garrett, is reading four books right now, two of which are audio books: Leila Ahmed, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America (Yale University Press, 2011); Ross Douthat and Lloyd James, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Tantor Media, 2012: audiobook). You will notice that two other faculty mention this book! Laura A. Liswood, The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity While Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work (Wiley, 2010); and Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (Hatchette Audio).

    Professor David Hester is currently reading one book, but it’s a big one: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s prize-winning book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Professor Carol Cook is reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Against Wind and Tide: Letters and Journals, 1947-1986 (Pantheon, 2012) and Reeve Lindbergh’s No More Words: A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

    Professor Dianne Reistroffer is reading W. Paul Jones, A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011). Dianne explains that this is the story of Clayton Anthony Fountain, a man “who committed five murders and was condemned in 1974 to live out the rest of his days in solitary confinement at the highest security prison in the US. Without ever again emerging from his cell, Fountain underwent a profound spiritual transformation.” The author of the book is a former United Methodist minister who, himself, later became a Trappist monk and Catholic priest.

    Professor Debra Mumford is reading All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim. She is also reading four Debbie Macomber novels (Debra says that Macomber “tells a really good story.”) And Debra is reading the Bible (the Book of Job currently) since the summer. Professor Frances Adeney is also reading books in a variety of categories: novels, Twilightand T he Host by Stephenie Meyer; a biography of Elton John; a book on creativity, Unintentional Music: Releasing Your Deepest Creativity by Lane Arye; and a book of poetry, Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality, Marilyn Sewell, editor.

    Our newest faculty colleague, Professor Tyler Mayfield, is reading Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Professor Johanna van Wijk-Bos, Tyler’s senior colleague in Old Testament, has two of Hilary Mantel’s novels on her nightstand, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She also mentions Tana Fench's, Into the Woods; Penelope Lively’s Consequences; a biography of the Dutch poet Vasalis (in Dutch); and When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winham (which she says she enjoyed very much). Professor Lewis Brogdon is reading Ross Douthat, Bad Religion (mentioned also by Sue Garrett) and Jerry L. Walls' Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation(Oxford: 2012). While Professor Cliff Kirkpatrick says he has no books on his nightstand, he is active in a book club which has been reading Ray Bradbury, “The Playground”; Laura Hildebrand, Unbroken; and David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. He is also reading Monica Duffy Toft’s God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics and Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion (!!!).

    Professor Shannon Craigo-Snell is reading the latest Laurie R. King mystery, Garment of Shadows. The author named her detective Mary Russell after two feminist theologians, Letty Russell and Rosemary Radford Reuther. “Letty,” Shannon says, “was my teacher and mentor, so this pleases me to no end.” Professor Kathryn Johnson, recently returned from her time of service as Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Affairs at the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, has books on three tables next to reading places. Some of these books, she explains, are “going very slowly now that school has started.” God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital & A Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet: Kathryn describes this book as “a doctor’s stories of how her practice among the poor sent her to study medieval medicine, especially Hildegard of Bingen.” Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World by Sadakat Kadri, about which Kathryn comments, “I don’t know how I feel about this yet.” And, By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt, “a Canadian mystery, set in a cold city of northern Ontario.” She also notes that while on vacation she finished Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts.

    Professor Loren Townsend notes that he is not entirely sure he wants the President of the Seminary to know what his bedtime reading list is, but he generously shares it anyway. He is reading Deion Meyers, a South African mystery writer translated from Afrikaans into English. He is re-reading some of Freud’s most interesting work, Civilization and Its Discontentsand Future of an Illusion. And he is reading a gift from his daughter, Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run,“a semi-ethnography of the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico. Their culture is centered around running, and they regularly run 200-400 miles at a time for pleasure (usually barefoot or with sandals made of tire treads), to visit others or as a game.”

    Professor Marty Soards says: “I know this will sound ‘geeky’ and perhaps unbelievable, but I am reading (and enjoying immensely)” Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2003). I can’t imagine why that would sound geeky, Marty! Professor Chris Elwood has quite a list that he’s working on: Alwyn W. Turner, Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s; Michael Thelwell, The Harder They Come; Dave Thompson, London’s Burning: True Adventures on the Front Lines of Punk, 1976-1977; Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery; Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century; and Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table.

    Professor Brad Wiggersays there are three books competing for his attention right now. Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon: 2008) by the linguistic anthropologist, Daniel Everett; Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Under the Mesquite (Lee and Low: 2011), of which Brad says: “This thing is beautiful – written in free-verse poetry – telling the story of Lupita and her family, Mexican-Americans living on the Texas side of the border.”Finally, he is also reading Michael Chabon’s newest novel, Telegraph Road (Harper: 2012).

    For my part, I just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s memoir,Giving Up the Ghost (Fourth Estate: 2003) and Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel, Neverwhere(Harper: 1997). Mantel is the author of the two superb novels that Johanna is reading right now, and Gaiman is among the most imaginative writers of our time. His American Gods is brilliant stuff! Scott Black Johnston, pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, NY, recommended this particular one. I’m making my way through a book Louisville Seminary Trustee Brent Slay recommended to me, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (Penguin: 2010). And next in the stack is The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (Simon & Schuster: 2012), which deftly combines history and biography.

    It would take quite a piece of furniture to accommodate all of these books!

  • Good News for Everyone Who Tries

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 17, 2012

    Renee Hudgell, the President of our student body, recently provided a morning devotional for the annual meeting of the President’s Round Table, a group of friends of Louisville Seminary who meet with me each year. Renee reflected on her work as a student and her ministry as a pastor in the United Methodist Church (really, she serves as the pastor of a church and is on site at her church Sundays and Wednesday evenings in addition to being a full-time student).

    At the heart of her devotional was a prayer attributed toArchbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred Salvadoran church leader and liberation theologian.

    “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

    It is even beyond our vision.

    We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction

    Of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

    Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying

    That the kingdom always lies beyond us.

    No statement says all that could be said.

    No prayer fully expresses our faith.

    No confession brings perfection.

    No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

    No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

    No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

    This is what we are about.

    We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

    We water seeds already planted,

    Knowing that they hold future promise.

    We lay foundations that will need further development.

    We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

    We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

    This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

    It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

    An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

    We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

    We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

    We are prophets of a future not our own.


    I think I am speaking for several of the folks who heard Renee’s devotional when I say that we heard her message – specifically this prayer from Archbishop Romero – as a word of good news for those who try. This is a word of good news that runs counter to the life-depleting tendency that drives so many of us to believe that everything (absolutely everything!!!) depends on our own efforts. Our heads know better, of course, and yet we often live as though the rising of the sun each day depends on us. It is a special kind of arrogance, is it not, to believe that we are indispensable? It is a special kind of arrogance that does as much injury to us as to others, and fails to recognize that the good news is not that God needs us to do God’s bidding, but that God loves us enough to share God’s work with us.

    Renee’s devotional reminded me of something Reinhold Niebuhronce wrote:

    “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in my immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

    The reason we can muster enough strength to try is because it doesn’t all depend on us. The reason we can find the courage to try is because we have more confidence in God’s mercy than in our ability. So, what’s say we get up in the morning and try again? God will wake up the sun and meet us there.

  • The "Nones" May Have It Right

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2012

    In an episode of one of my favorite British comedies, “Blackadder,” a notoriously rude yet clever sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder and Tony Robinson as his assistant (or “dogsbody”) Baldrick, Baldrick explains to his boss Blackadder that his father was once a nun.


    “No he wasn’t,” Blackadder responds.


    “Yes, he was,” said Baldrick, “I know because every time he was called before the judge and asked to state his occupation, he told him, ‘none.’”


    There are a lot more “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, today than ever before, at least according to recent research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Their number has risen to almost 20% of the U.S. population, an increase of 15% in the last five years. During the same period, the percentage of Protestant Christians has dropped from 60% of the U.S. population in the 1990s to 48% today. For the first time, Protestants now make up a minority of the U.S. population.


    According to an article on the Pew study by Peter Smith, a staff writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal , the decline of Protestants is among both evangelicals and old-line mainline Protestants, and is especially true among White, non-Hispanic Protestants. You will likely be hearing a lot of alarm bells going off in Protestant churches around the country as Protestants digest this information, and as they continue to nurse the wounds of the last half century’s disestablishment of our brand of Christianity.


    However, buried in this report, I found something really encouraging and important for us to hear, if we have ears to hear. The “nones” (who are often younger, incidentally) are not turned off to God. In fact – and I know this isn’t news to anyone – the “nones” describe themselves as spiritual, though not religious. They believe in God. They often pray. They engage in a variety of spiritual practices, such as yoga. Their gripe with the church concerns what they identify as its more institutional aspects. They believe the church is preoccupied with its own rules, procedures, and privileges, its political clout, money, prestige and power. But they really like the church’s efforts to feed the hungry, to care for the vulnerable in the world, and to strengthen society.


    You may be able to guess where I’m going.


    The concerns the “nones” have about Protestantism are concerns many Protestant Christians share. After all, we are followers of Jesus of Nazareth, first and foremost, and representatives of some denominational identity or religious interests, second (at most!).


    It may be that God is using the “nones” among us to remind us of our purpose as people of faith. In fact, I think the “nones” are right about a lot.


    Their disenchantment with us sounds a lot like the words Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison over fifty years ago as he surveyed the future of the church. Bonhoeffer wrote: “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.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: 1971, 382-383)


    Maybe the “nones” are just asking Protestants to “show up” again with the message and life of our founder, Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe they are asking us to remember who we are. Maybe they are just asking us to be less preoccupied with our institutional survival, the loss of our dominance in the culture, and the erosion of our influence among those in power. It wouldn’t be the first time God has chosen that which is “not” to lay low things that are (I Corinthians 1: 18-31).


    Finally it seems we Protestants are getting schooled by “nones.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.)

  • Seven Words

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 02, 2012

    The Christian Century recently ran a cover story titled, "The Gospel in Seven Words," in which twenty-three well-known authors were invited to boil down the message of Christian faith to just a few words. Their inspiration for doing this is a story from Will D. Campbell’s autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, originally published in 1977.

    The story goes that Will’s friend P.D. East kept bugging Will to give him a ten-word definition of Christianity. “In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?” East asked. Will responded famously: “We were going someplace, or coming back from someplace when he said, ‘Let’s have it. Ten words.’ I said, ‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.’ He swung the car off on the shoulder and stopped, asking me to say it again. I repeated:‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.’ He didn’t comment on what he thought about the summary except to say, after he had counted the number of words on his fingers, ‘I gave you a ten word limit. If you want to try again you have two words left.’ I didn’t try again but he often reminded me of what I had said that day.”[i]

    The journey of confession and self-discovery on which this eight-word definition of Christianity led Will is remarkable in its own right, and if you’ve never read this wonderful book, I highly recommend it. It is one of only about ten books I keep on my desk all the time to remind me of what we are called to be about. But today, I want to concentrate on the message itself.

    Of all the Christian Century responses, the one most similar to Campbell’s is that of Martin Marty. Like most of their respondents, it is less “blunt” and profane than Campbell’s, but it makes pretty much the same point. Marty says: “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.” And he beats Will by one word.

    Other significant Christian thinkers have made a similar point, that it is quite impossible to express the fullness of the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ without putting the statement in a minor key. Somehow we have to express the fact that God’s love is not because of who we are and what we have done, but despite. There’s bad news wrapped inextricably with the good news which makes the good news gospel.

    Karl Barth expressed this point in a course he taught on theology in the summer of 1946 at the University of Bonn, Germany, literally among the ruins in the midst of a shell-shocked city in a country from which he had only a few years previously been exiled by the Nazis. Barth expresses the Christian message powerfully, though not as concisely as Campbell and Marty, when he said: “What does not pass over this sharp ridge of forgiveness of sins, or grace, is not Christian.”[ii]What Barth says in elaborating on this sentence is just as powerful: “By this we shall be judged, about this the Judge will one day put the question, 'Did you live by grace, or did you set up gods for yourself and perhaps want to become one yourself?'”[iii]

    Few people have understood the radical nature of our proclamation of God’s grace as well as Annie Dillard did. “On the whole,” she wrote in Teaching a Stone to Talk, “I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.”[iv]Hers is another of the ten or so books I keep on my desk to remind me of what we are about as Christians. She said that Christians would wear crash helmets to worship if they were appropriately sensible of what God is up to.

    This summer, my pastor, Steve Jester, senior minister ofSecond Presbyterian Church of Louisville, preached a sermon that expressed this essential message of the Christian faith. One of the great things about my work is that I get to hear a lot of great preaching across the country, but it is a special joy when I can be home on a weekend to worship in our home congregation and hear Steve preach. In this sermon, "In Search of Redemption," from the biblical text: Luke 18: 9-14 (you can hear the June 10th sermon via this audio link), Steve quoted an Episcopal priest who lamented years ago: “Today the last place where one can be candid about one’s faults is the church.” And, yet, Steve reminded us, the Christian message is a message to sinners, not to those who have judged themselves righteous. The gospel is expressed richly and fully in the prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

    Hey, that’s seven words!

    [i]Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), 220.

    [ii]Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper & Row, ET 1959), 152.

    [iii]Ibid., 152.

    [iv]Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole,” Teaching a Stone to Talk, 40-41.

  • Humus for the Soul

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2012

    When I was a kid growing up on a farm in East Texas, I learned something from my grandfather that we forget at our own peril: creativity depends on humility. The lesson was right there in the soil.

    My grandfather planted fields in rotation, allowing the ground to rest, to receive the nourishment it needs to be fertile. He cultivated the earth, spreading and plowing manure into the soil, so that when the earth was called upon to produce, it was able to produce in abundance. If we under-cultivated and over-farmed a field, we paid the price for our efforts in spindly, stunted plants. Good harvests depended on respecting the land and the land’s need to be nourished and replenished.

    The word humility, as St. Thomas Aquinas long ago observed, comes from the Latin for the earth, humus, the word from which we also derive the word human (and from which we get the term, hummus, for a delightful food made of ground chickpeas and sesame seeds; but we’ll save that recipe for a future blog). As a virtue, if I understand Aquinas correctly, humility understands our human limitations. Aquinas speaks of the human need to keep oneself within one’s own proper bounds. A humble person does not try to be God. Rather, a humble person accepts his or her humanity, his or her createdness or creatureliness.[1]

    The fact that we are (as the old hymn says) “frail creatures of dust, and feeble as frail,” is not something we should deny. The fact that, as Soren Kierkegaard said, there is an “infinite qualitative difference” between us and God, is not something from which we should run.

    To embrace our human relatedness to the humus from which we are created (“from dust you came and to dust shall you return”) is to open ourselves to the source of creativity, because it opens us to the source of creation. Humility recognizes our need to be grounded, the need for that nourishment that flows to us from God. Humility knows we are not all-sufficient in ourselves.

    A field we relentlessly plant and harvest will eventually end up producing poor crops. A life from which we demand relentless productivity eventually will dry up and blow away. This organic picture of humility provides, by extension, a very different picture of the vice of pride, doesn’t it? If pride is the opposite of humility, then pride is basically a sin of denying our utter dependence upon God, the Ground of all Being.

    During the summer, while travelling in western Scotland, Debbie and I observed a phenomenon we had not seen before. As you may know, the soil in many parts of western Scotland is very thin. One author has described it as a skin pulled tight over a skull of stone. Nevertheless, over the years, in many places vast forests have grown in this thin soil. I had never realized just how vulnerable these forests are – at least, not until this summer. After a rather wet year, spring storms swept across vast expanses of these forests, causing enormous, tall, mature trees to uproot and fall over. There were entire hillsides where these once proud trees fell in great swathes.

    One day, Debbie and I were walking in a forest when we came upon one of the uprooted trees. This particular tree was oak. It might have been a couple of hundred years old. It would have taken three or four people with outstretched arms to reach around its trunk. Its canopy would have been breathtaking in life. Lying on its side we could examine its roots and the stones the size of small boulders tangled in these roots. For all its size and apparent strength, its roots hardly penetrated the earth. They ran along the surface. It was easy to see why it had fallen.

    A few days later, as I reflected on this and the other uprooted trees we had seen, a parallel occurred to me between the apparent stability and prosperity of these trees and of us, and I was reminded of something I read several years ago.

    Bernie McGinn in his brilliant study of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, traces the origins of an idea that seems so obvious, so inevitable, it is hard to imagine there was a time when theologians didn’t have this idea in their toolbox: God is the Ground of Being. It is a way of thinking about God that has influenced many theologians down through the centuries, including Paul Tillich. Ground (or Grunt, in the Middle High German from which it emerged) is described by Professor McGinn as “an explosive metaphor” which “breaks through previous categories of mystical speech to create new ways of presenting a direct encounter with God.”[2] Wrapped up in this way of thinking about God is the notion that God is origin, cause, beginning, reason, and essence. As trees and plants spring from the earth, the physical ground, they also live rooted in the earth, deriving their nourishment as they derive their existence from the ground. So also we “live and move and have our being” as our souls, our living selves, penetrate into the ground from which we are created, the Ground of Being, who gives us life and upon whom we depend for the totality of life. Meister Eckhart speaks of the original power of God as Ground, the “active nature” of God’s creativity which manifests itself both in the “inner boiling” within God and the “boiling over” of God’s creative power in creation. When he speaks of God as Ground, he is pointing to “the pure potentiality of the hidden divine mystery.”[3]

    Humility understands that our growth, our maturity, our creativity as human beings depends not on our selves but upon the life and creative power the Ground of Being shares with us as God nourishes us. How well we weather the inevitable storms of life, as well as the persistent eroding forces of this world, also depends on our connectedness to this Ground. It’s not how tall we grow in the forest that ultimately matters most, in other words, but how deep our roots go.


    [1] Thomas Aquinas, Summ Contra Gentiles, Book Four, Chapter 55: “Answer to the Arguments Previously Set Down Against the Suitability of the Incarnation,” tr. Charles J. O’Neal (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 233-235.

    [2] Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man From Whom God Hid Nothing (New York: Her der and Herder/Crossroad, 2001), 38-39.

    [3] Ibid., pp. 42-44.

  • We Have a Solution!

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 18, 2012

    Within the past week or so, editorials in the Wall Street Journal and on the Huffington Post have sounded the alarm about rising indebtedness among seminary graduates. Both articles cited a major study undertaken by The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.

    David Briggs, who writes a regular column for the Association of Religion Data Archives, writes: “what began as a critical problem for a small percentage of prospective clergy is reaching alarming levels…. It is not enough that growing numbers of clergy with burdensome loans report having to put off for years the ability to get married and start a family or buy a house. Or, in an increasing number of cases, face bankruptcy. Now, graduates wanting to explore a religious vocation may be ‘too poor to take the vow of poverty.”

    At the same time that educational costs for all post-secondary education have risen, wages for clergy have remained static and in many cases have dropped dramatically as congregations have been squeezed by the economy. Incidentally, we all agree that during the same period we have expected much more from the clergy we call. We expect them to be enthusiastically entrepreneurial. We expect them to become leaders in and boosters for the communities in which they live. We expect that clergy will provide the first line of care-giving for everything from social services to marriage and family therapy. We want them to be motivational speakers, spiritual directors, imaginative providers of new and exciting programs to build the moral and spiritual lives of our youth and children, and to be capable managers of well-run religious institutions. We want all this and more because our congregations remain among the most essential components of every vibrant community in the country and these are the gifts and skills required to keep congregations strong. And, we expect all of this from clergy while their median pay, according to the U.S. Labor Department for these amazing professionals is about $44,000 a year. In many places, it is much, much less. Indeed, many clergy today can only afford to serve congregations because they have other jobs.

    It is not uncommon for us to justify the high expectations at low pay by saying that those who serve in this profession do so out of “a sense of call.” And this is true. But the fact remains that “a sense of call”does not pay the grocer, or the medical bills, or a mortgage, or put money in the bank for kids to go to college. And, to return to the subject at hand, a huge proportion of these dedicated people called to serve our churches in a rapidly changing, high expectation profession have to enter this calling with crushing educational debt.

    We at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary have a solution to the problem we are hearing so much about, a solution that will work.

    Last year, our Board of Trustees, acting on the recommendation of a visionary Strategic Planning Committee drawn from our Seminary community, undertook to solve this problem. Over the course of the past year, we have been crunching numbers, developing critical path scenarios, and laying out the steps we must take to achieve The Covenant for the Future Scholarship Program.

    By 2015 we will no longer charge tuition to any student we accept into any of our Masters Degree programs. By 2021 we will ensure that all students in our Masters Degree programs will also be housed at no cost to them. Our goal is simple: to place in ministry a generation of well-educated, well-prepared women and men free of seminary debt so they can serve wherever God calls them.

    When I went to seminary in 1976, right out of college, just married, the seminary I attended gave me this gift. I paid no tuition. Our modest (some might say, Spartan) apartment cost us $100 per month including utilities. When I graduated from seminary, like nearly all the other seminary graduates we knew, we were poor. But we were well educated and well prepared to serve the church, and we were free to go wherever God might call us, because we weren’t toting a load of debt.

    It was possible for my seminary to do this, in large measure, because of the support they received from the denomination. Today our denomination’s contribution has fallen to less than 1% of our seminary’s annual budget. Now, more than ever before, our seminary relies on dedicated congregations and devoted individuals to help us educate the next generation of pastors, ministers, counselors, and Christian educators.

    We have the solution to the most widely discussed problem in theological education today. We have a solution that is do-able. And we need your help to make it happen.

    As I stand on the threshold of my third year as President ofLouisville Seminary, I am more encouraged than ever about the future of our church. The God who calls us is doing marvelous things across the globe. The people being called into ministry today, including the people who arrive on our campus each fall, are among the most highly motivated people I have ever encountered. They are confident about the ministries to which God is calling them. I am encouraged because of these factors, and because of one other: I am encouraged because of the support and enthusiasm with which the The Covenant for the Future has been received. With your prayers, with your encouragement and with your financial support, we will not only solve the problems before us, we will leave our church and its ministries better and stronger for future generations.

    Won't you covenant with us to support the future leaders of our church - wherever God calls them?

  • Visual Echoes

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 11, 2012

    The scene depicted in Andrew Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is from the Old Testament, portraying a pivotal moment in the story of Abraham. The passage from Genesis reads: “Now the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please
    let a little water be brought and wash your feet,          Andrew Rublev, Trinity, 1425
    and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will
    bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.’ And they said, ‘So do, as you have said.’” (Genesis 18:1-5, New American Standard Version)

    Sarah baked cakes, and Abraham served his guests veal. This was the visit when Sarah laughed after receiving the news that she would give birth at an extremely advanced age. And the visitor asked the question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” So much of Abraham’s story, not least the command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, lay in the future on that day when he offered hospitality to the three mysterious strangers whom he recognized as “the Lord,” thus transforming simple hospitality into worship.

    On one level, the icon conveys this story from Genesis: in the foreground are the strangers seated around a table, which holds a vessel cradling Abraham’s offering; in the background are Abraham’s dwelling place and an oak tree. But, on another level, this masterful icon, painted in 1425 in memory of the Russian saint, Sergius, also conveys the presence of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reminding us that the mystery of the incarnation is a mystery grounded in human experience— or, to put it more exactly, a mystery of God’s encounter with humanity. Through its visual echoes, the table of Abraham’s hospitality becomes the Table of Holy Communion. The dangerous command to sacrifice unborn Isaac is prefigured, the sacrifice of this beloved son presages that of another, and a Prodigal’s feast, fatted calf and all, is offered to a wandering God. We, and all of creation, are symbolically placed at this table in and through the central figure, Christ, who clearly blesses the sacrifice. Henri J. M. Nouwen, in his remarkable exegesis of this icon, describes its meanings within meanings, observing: “Through the contemplation of this icon we come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle.”[i]

    Recently, at the close of a day’s visit at the Abbey of Gethsemane, the Cistercian cloister where Thomas Merton once lived, about an hour south of Louisville, I went by the abbey bookshop where I bought a copy of this icon. It was not until I went home, however, that I discerned a new echo – not within this icon or between it and the biblical story of Abraham – but between it and a contemporary art exhibit. This echo may be entirely serendipitous. Not an echo at all, but only a coincidence. But it is so striking that, intentional or not, I felt compelled to share it. And, to share it properly, I need to relate a story.

    Some years ago, Debbie and I were touring the newly constructed Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, when I came upon Bill Viola’s video/sound installation, The Greeting (1995). The installation is described by the museum as a “color projection on large vertical screen mounted on wall in darkened space, amplified stereo sound, 111 X 95 inches (image).”

     When I approached this installation, my    
     first thought was, “What the heck?” or 
     something to that effect. There was a sound
     like rushing wind, three women meet; words
     (the sound) are exchanged. One woman is
     young. Another is older. A third woman
     participates. My thoughts immediately went
     to the visitation of Mary, mother of Jesus, to
     Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke
     1: 39-55). The "visitation" has been
     represented in scores of paintings
     throughout history (the Jacopo Pontormo, is
     particularly resonant in relation to Viola’s
    and, according to the artist, was
     the inspiration for the video).                                                        
    But, of course, the video might just as easily only picture an utterly non-theological greeting, a possibility made even more likely by the presence of the third woman, as Viola himself has said. He was attempting to capture a “social” moment, not so much a “religious” one, though the genesis of inspiration occurred in relation to a religious painting. This installation worked on me the way really good contemporary art always does: it grabbed my attention, held it, and required that I engage it at an intellectual and emotional level. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my head. When I recently came across a photograph of one of the key moments in the video, the three women in the midst of the greeting, I purchased the photo, took it home, and placed it on my dresser. It was a few weeks ago when I brought Rublev’s icon home from Gethsemane and placed it on the dresser next to the Viola that I saw the visual echo—the perhaps (probably?) unintended connection between these two pieces of art.

    The figure in the middle of both pieces of art is the most crucial. This figure, the Christ and the woman in the center, both clothed in blue, hold the compositions together, and through them produce a dynamic of community, and drama. The eyes of all three figures, in each work, connect the figures, their hands extending the communion, and the tension. Events are prefigured, shrouded in mystery. And we are, I think, included in both pieces, in the Christ (theologically) or through the mysterious hole cut in the table (symbolically) in the Rublev, and perhaps in the figures other than the women, just out of the picture down the dark street in the Viola.

    Do we have here in Viola’s installation an echo of the Rublev, anymore than we have a representation of Mary and Elizabeth’s greeting? Or do we have here only a beautiful coincidence? The three figures in the Rublev both are and are not the Father, Son, and Spirit. Rublev intended this multiplicity of meaning. The women portrayed in Viola both are and are not Mary and Elizabeth. But can they be more?

    The human brain has a remarkable propensity to discern patterns. Human beings are meaning-creating creatures. We make connections, even where there are no deliberate connections.

    So, maybe, there are no intended echoes between the Rublev and the Viola. But do connections, echoes, resonances, theological and otherwise, require authorial intentionality to be real? There is a poetic function to art that leads me to believe that sometimes the answer to this question is a resounding and promiscuous “no.” But, it is a qualified “no,” however, resounding and permissive. The visual arts offer texts for reading. These readings may be multivalent; but the texts are not infinitely malleable. And we cannot arbitrarily place our own meanings upon them without doing real damage to their interpretation. An exception to this rule of thumb, of course, lies in the nature of the visual texts themselves. There are times when the artists intend to draw from the viewer his or her own interpretive involvement. For now, I am placing these two pieces side-by-side on a shelf in my study, in part because I feel an echo here, but, in part, to caution myself against making too much of what I perceive.


    [i] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1987), 21.

    [ii] Interview with Bill Viola, www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/13


    Bill Viola, The Greeting, 1995, Video/sound installation, 430 x 660 x 780 cm. Color video projection on large vertical screen mounted on wall in darkened space; amplified stero sound. Performers: Angela Black, Suzanne Peters, Bonnie Snyder. Production Still, Photo: Kira Perov. Used with permission.

  • They're Called Students

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 04, 2012

    Some years ago while I was serving as dean of another theological school a controversy arose that has helped clarify some core educational issues for me. A member of that Board of Trustees with a distinguished record in the upper echelons of the military and in corporate management pressed our school's administration and faculty to change the way we referred to those people who attend our seminary. He insisted - and for some time with some success - that we stop thinking of them and treating them as students and start calling them customers.

    This trustee reflected a cultural shift. We have seen it in hospitals and airlines, for example. Overnight, in some places, patients and passengers became customers. I believe it represents, basically, an attempt to instill a genuinely positive value. A customer purchases a product. A customer should be able to expect that the goods they are being sold are what they are paying for. I think this trustee was attempting to instill a level of accountability which he felt was lacking into higher education. But, of course, despite the positive motives, there are all sorts of values that came riding in piggy-back on the customer metaphor, values expressed in phrases like: "The customer is always right." And: "You've got to keep the customer satisfied." These values have a way of putting a strange spin on the educational process.

    I can't speak for law schools or medical schools, but I can say with some authority that the very process of theological education is not primarily about the transmission of information for which a customer pays. It is a matter of the transformation of people. And transformation is an often uncomfortable process.

    When I entered theological education almost twenty years ago it was as a director of Supervised Practice of Ministry. I was responsible for developing and overseeing programs in congregations and clinical settings in which students would practice the varieties of ministry for which they were being trained under close educational supervision by experienced pastors, chaplains, therapists and social workers.

    The placement of students in the right settings required that we do careful assessments of each of them to discover the areas where they needed to grow if they were going to become competent ministers and leaders. Practically speaking, this process often meant that I placed students in educational settings that they would never have chosen for themselves, indeed, would have avoided if they could.

    One crisp fall morning, I was standing at the blackboard before students arrived in the classroom. It was the first day of class in the new term. Students were returning from their summer supervised ministry experiences. I didn't notice that one student had already made her way quietly into the room and was waiting until I finished writing on the board before speaking. When I put down the chalk and turned around, she said:

    "Do you know that I have been angry at you all summer?"

    "No," I replied.

    "Well, I have been. The CPE program you assigned me to was a nightmare."

    I knew it would be. This particular Clinical Pastoral Education program was in a tough county hospital in Dallas, Texas, about a million miles from the tony neighborhood this student had grown up in, serving a population this student had never before met. The program had a brilliant supervisory staff and a great reputation for clinical supervision. I knew it was perfect for her when I reviewed her pre-placement assessment and interviewed her.

    "Do you even care that I am angry at you?"

    "No." I said, "I care more about your education as a minister than your personal feelings about me."

    That was not the response she expected, but I meant those words from the bottom of my heart as a teacher.

    It took some time for this student to unpack her experience in CPE. In fact, it took a semester of her senior year. She talked often to me, to other students, to her other professors and her pastor. And she learned and grew into a superb minister and congregational leader.

    If I had treated her as a customer, I might have backed off on sending her to that particular CPE program when she objected. If I had considered her a customer, I would certainly have been duty-bound to try to make her happy, rather than to place her in a situation that was guaranteed to make her uncomfortable. But she was not a customer; she was a student - and not just because of the amount of scholarship dollars she was receiving from the seminary.

    She was a student and she deserved to be treated with the dignity of a student, which means she deserved to be granted the expectation that she would be not only informed, but transformed by her educational experience.

    During the last few years we have all read the stories of institutions of higher education under tremendous financial stress. And in times of financial stress institutions are compelled to do all sorts of things. Some of those things we are forced to do actually can make us better schools, more efficient, more effective, more flexible and responsive to the changing needs of the society around us. But some changes pressed upon some schools have nothing to do with their core mission of educating people as well as they possibly can. Among these changes, one that stands out is a simple change of name which signals a profound change of role, from student to customer.

    The people attending our schools deserve not to be called customers. They deserve to be called students. For the sake of their education, and for the sake of the vocations to which they are called, we owe it to them to resist the fads and call them by the right name.

  • Gratitude

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 28, 2012

    Early one morning this summer I was sitting in our den, looking out the window, enjoying the activities in the backyard. I had just put out new birdfeeders and the seeds had attracted an amazing variety of birds -- as well as a few squirrels. As I sat there, the morning light slowly brightening the yard, in the company of some of God’s most beautiful,
    delightful and funny creatures (squirrels are nature’s clowns), I began to pray.

    My morning prayers follow a simple pattern, borrowed generally from St. Ignatius of Loyola. One of the basic principles of St. Ignatius’s approach to prayer (and, indeed, to his understanding of all of life) is gratitude. As Ignatius said, “All the things in this world are gifts from God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily. As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us to develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.”[1]

    The first step in prayer, following his pattern, is to be still and engage in thanksgiving to God.

    That morning, a sense of gratitude came as easily as breath to my body. This is not the case every day, I am ashamed to say. There are days when, going through the exercises prescribed by Ignatius, my spirit feels stiff and achy, and a sense of gratitude comes grudgingly. My prayers of thanks on such mornings can be pretty wooden. But that morning, gratitude flooded my consciousness, and left me feeling … well … overwhelmingly grateful, grateful that God’s grace and love can break through and remind us that God has given us all things and that all things God has given us are good.

    We all know prayers of St. Francis, and these, especially “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” are among the most beloved prayers in the Christian treasury of devotion. I am just now discovering the prayers of Ignatius of Loyola, and I am finding them particularly powerful and challenging these days. This summer I have come to appreciate the following prayer:

    “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

    My memory, my understanding

    And my entire will,

    All I have and call my own.

    You have given all to me.

    To you, Lord, I return it.

    Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

    Give me only your love and your grace.

    That is enough for me.”

    Gratitude really is nothing less than a proper and proportional response to life. It is the starting point for a life well lived, as St. Ignatius understood.

    This is true not only of gratitude to God, but to other people.

    Someone has said that the most powerful position anyone can assume in any group is the position to say, “Thank you.” This may be true, but if it is, it has the potential to redefine power in our culture, to flip conventional notions of power on its head.

    It occurs to me that the capacity to say, “Thank you,” is most like the power to bless. In a society where cursing has become almost a national pastime, I cannot imagine a more appropriately countercultural action for followers of Jesus of Nazareth than this, to live our lives in a posture of thanksgiving, expressing gratitude to God and to others, taking every opportunity we can to bless others.

    Today, I am thankful for my colleagues at Louisville Seminary who edited and published our weekly “Thinking Out Loud” blog this summer. I want to thank Carolyn Cardwell, Bridget Couch, Susan DiLuca and Sue Garrett, in particular, for all they did. I especially want to thank my friends and colleagues who contributed a series of fascinating and stimulating blogs over the past several weeks: Gene March, Pam Kidd, Bridgett Green, Shannon Craigo-Snell, Heather Thiessen, Lewis Brogdon, Terry Muck, Cheri Harper, Cheryl Goodman-Morris and Kathryn Johnson. Thank you all for providing us with your insights.

    If you missed any of these blogs, I encourage you to check out our archives and retrieve them.

    Finally, I want to thank you, the readers of “Thinking Out Loud.” Thank you for tuning-in each week. Thank you particularly for the fascinating reflections and replies you have sent me during the first two years of our project. I promise you that we will do the best we can to make sure that “Thinking Out Loud” is worth your time.

    [1] This paraphrase of “The first principle and foundation” of St. Ignatius is attributed to David L. Fleming, S.J.

  • When Memories Become Prayers

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 21, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Kathryn Johnson. 

    One of teaching’s joys is an assignment that turns out better than hoped. Papers from my Augustine course this spring were such a delight.

    Augustine (born 354, died 430) was a prolific North African theologian with great influence on both the Middle Ages and Reformation. Our class read carefully through his Confessions, an unprecedented work of extended prayer from which we know, with intimate directness, his life, his failures, and his faith. Students then wrote about an experience which they could “confess” in a similar way: addressing God but mindful of a community of other “hearers,” in dialogue with the scriptures, and with some reflective distance from the events.

    The results were, as one student said, “magnificent.” Some were lighthearted explorations of personal foibles that made everyone chuckle with recognition; others were poignant examinations of long-held regrets or enigmas that united us in tears; a few were both at once. We parceled out the reading among several class sessions to delay coming to the end.

    Why were they so powerful? I’ve reflected on this question as delays in summer travel brought me two “quick reads” from airport bookstores: a new memoir, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and a prizewinning novel, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

    Many of us expect from Joan Didion an unwavering narrative vision and unmistakable crisp but mournful tone. We can awaken worried about the destinies of her characters in, for example, A Book of Common Prayer. As she put it in another title, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But in Blue Nights she blinks. She sets out to write about the death and life of her only daughter Quintana Roo, as she had written unforgettably about her grief at her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking. This is a more desperate story, however: she is frailer now and already bereaved; her own death looms closer; she did not expect to outlive her child. In the end, the sharply-remembered details do not convey the distinctive reality of her daughter’s personhood but obscure it, as Didion drops names of clothing brands, famous friends, and more famous hotels. At the end we are uncertain not only about what caused Quintana’s death but also about what passions defined her life.

    Questions raised by The Sense of an Ending are of course different – the narrator Anthony is fictional. It is, however, the same sort of terrain: the back cover promises a “brilliant, understated examination of memory and how it works, how it compartmentalizes and fixes impressions to tidily store away.” The late-middle-aged, understated Anthony tells us how he has received new information which casts doubt on the love story of his youth as he has always told it, to others and to himself. There is, he says in the final words, “accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” But that is precisely where the novel ends: Anthony has devoted most of his time with us to relating his story as he has always told it, even though he alerted us from the first that this telling is inadequate. We do not close the book confident that he will now go on to explore the implications of what he has discovered – despite his “great unrest.”

    Now, in light of these elegant, thoughtful, and ultimately unsatisfying books, the question returns: what made the confessions from the Augustine class so magnificent? Most simply, I think their strength lies in their character as prayers. They were stories self-consciously told not only in God’s presence but also to God first, with others given the privilege of listening in. The context of grace was already given; the One who invited the confidences knew already how the story had turned out – and beckoned to a future of forgiveness and closer relation. Thus self-searching could be less guarded, could perhaps laugh at itself, and surely could take more risks.

    “You have made us for yourself,” prays Augustine as he begins Confessions, “and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Antony’s “great unrest” can still mark our experiences, but it is not God’s final word for our relationship.


    Kathyrn L. Johnson is Professor of Historical Theology and Paul Tudor Jones Professor of Church History at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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