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Thinking Out Loud
  • Flannery's Gift

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 10, 2013

    "Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work.... Please help me dear God to be agood writer and to get something else accepted.... I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace. Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing." [Flannery O'Connor, A Prayer Journal (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2013).

    Mary Flannery O'Connor got what she prayed for. That was the tragedy and the blessing of her life and her art.

    While working on her Master's degree at the University of Iowa, the young native of Savannah, Georgia (whose spoken tongue was all but indecipherable to her teacher, Paul Engle, when she asked him if she could be admitted to the Writer's Workshop) wrote an eloquent and moving journal of spiritual growth, now published as "A Prayer Journal." Page by page, traversing the calendar from January 1946 to September 1947, we are drawn into the inner life of a writer Thomas Merton refused to compare with the likes of Hemingway and Sartre, but with "someone like Sophocles." [Robert Giroux, "Introduction" to Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), vii, xv. ]

    "I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God," she writes, "Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You." (39) At one moment she revels in the sense of serving as God's instrument to express an early published story, at another she laments her mediocrity, a mediocrity not only she feels in her art and craftsmanship, but in her humanity and love of God. "Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself; yet I see myself so equal to it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself." (22) "I don't want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ," she prays, "I want to feel. I want to love. Take me dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go." (35)

    Surely O'Connor is not the only young writer who has prayed, "Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel." (18) But the field of pious aspiring novelists narrows considerably to very few who might kneel with her to pray also: "I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from." (7) "I would like to be intelligently holy." (18) "Please help me to push myself aside." (3) And:"give me a strong Will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father." (5)

    She yearns for purgation, for the cleansing refining fire of God's love, to burn away the dross and to leave her pure and true. "What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that -- make mystics of cheeses." (38)

    O'Connor discerns a connection between suffering and sublimity that runs through Christian devotion. She prays for God to forge in her the beauty of virtue and art for which she believes she was created, and she prays for God to give her the courage to submit to the pain required for such beauty to be forged. She knows that only God's grace can make her open herself to God's creative work, and that only God's grace can sustain her through the course God sets for her. "We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You.... Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You." (8-9)

    What O'Connor did not know during the year in which she wrote these passages, during a year in which she also struggled with seminars and short stories and the start of her novel, Wise Blood, was that just before the Christmas of 1950, some three years after the close of this journal, on a mid-winter train journey home from Connecticut to Georgia, she would suffer her first attack of lupus, the disease at the hands of which she would suffer for the remaining thirteen years of her life, restricted to the family farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. This woman who prayed for an ascetic revolution, but also insisted that she didn't want to be a nun, nevertheless did undergo a kind of rural anchorite hermitage where "revelations of divine love" were crafted and recrafted to the incessant squawks of peacocks. W. A. Sessions, closes his introduction to O'Connor's prayer journal by observing: "Paradoxically, those years of suffering became the most fertile for her writing, and she produced some of the greatest fiction in American literature. Ironically, the prayers of her journal had been answered." (xii)

    I suspect that O'Connor might have quibbled with his adverbs. Her prayers, however, were answered. 

  • Leadership and Attentiveness

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 03, 2013

    Over a decade ago, psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote some exceptionally helpful resources on "emotional intelligence." Leaders and students of leadership have learned a great deal especially from the essays on this subject which he contributed to the Harvard Business Review, such as "What Makes a Leader" and "Leadership That Gets Results." When I taught leadership, management and finance in Texas, I found Goleman's approach to flex between different leadership styles helpful for demonstrating to students how effective leaders draw on a variety of models of organizational leadership, shifting from one model to another depending on what is most needed in a particular moment with a particular organization. Goleman understood that the leader's "emotional intelligence" guides him or her to know what sort of personal touch or perspective or response is required at which moment.  

    In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Goleman contributed new insights building on his earlier work in an essay titled, "The Focused Leader." Those responsible for leading organizations will want to read the article for themselves so I will not provide a comprehensive summary of his ideas. But I would like to zero-in on one key idea. You might consider this a follow-up on a theme introduced recently in the blog, "Would Jesus Multitask?" in which I explored attentiveness and mindfulness, subjects Goleman also discusses in his essay.  

    The "focused leader," according to Goleman, possesses sufficient self-understanding to be able to focus on the needs of others (within the organization and those served by the organization). People who are self-aware, those who have self-knowledge, are the most capable of relating well to others. As Goleman explains, those who are cognitively and emotionally empathic, those who demonstrate empathetic concern for others, are able to find an appropriate level of distance from the feelings of others (while also understanding those feelings cognitively and emotionally) so that they can respond wisely and well as leaders, and are able to resist merely reacting, i.e. being drawn into emotionally high situations such as conflicts.   

    Goleman describes this balance between feeling with others (empathy) and finding the appropriate emotional distance from them as the "intuition-deliberation mix." Those who get this "mix" just right are able to keep an organization moving forward while staying in relationship with the organization's internal and external constituencies. Those who get it wrong either lose touch with constituents or become so distracted by the anxiety or hostility of constituents that they can't lead. He provides a helpfully nuanced way to re-conceptualize some key insights many of us learned from Family Systems Theory. However, it is at the point of his analysis of strategic thinking that his insights really come home for me. 

    "Any business school course on strategy will give you the two main elements: exploitation of your current advantage and exploration of new ones," Goleman writes. He uses the terms "exploitation" and "exploration" in a technical sense familiar to those who have done strategic planning. He continues: "Exploitation requires concentration on the job at hand, whereas exploration demands open awareness to recognize new possibilities." 

    Both exploitation and exploration are essential to imagine innovative approaches and make them a reality on the ground. But exploitation, focusing as it does on making the most of the immediate situation, "is accompanied by activity in the brain's circuitry for anticipation and reward." As such, exploitation is reinforced by staying in the familiar course. If we did it "this way" last time and the time before that, and it worked well enough and we felt good, then we feel an internal motivation to keep doing it that way over and over in the future. However, in a rapidly changing environment (such as the one in which every organization exists today), exploitation of current advantages may not be what is needed "next," at least not if we want an organization to thrive into the future. 

    Exploration is required for successful innovation, but exploration requires a very different mindset from exploitation of current advantages. "When we switch to exploration," Goleman writes, "we have to make a deliberate cognitive effort to disengage from [the routine of exploitation] in order to roam widely and pursue fresh paths." Exploration not only does not feed the anticipation/reward circuitry of the brain that exploitation does, coasting along "in a familiar routine," it even creates some anxiety because it pushes us out into the unknown. And it is precisely here that a really problematic collision occurs that can prevent an organization from moving forward. 

    In order for exploration to be stimulated, leaders must be mentally, emotionally and (I would add) spiritually able to reflect creatively. What keeps this from happening? Goleman asks. "Sleep deprivation, drinking, stress, and mental overload all interfere with the executive circuitry used to make the cognitive switch [from exploitation to exploration]. To sustain the outward focus that leads to innovation, we need some uninterrupted time in which to reflect and refresh our focus." However, if the anxiety of an organization's internal or external constituency is sufficiently high and constituents are highly reactive, they may seek to keep the organization in the (relatively-speaking) more comfortable mode of exploitation. They may try to find ways to sabotage their leaders' capacity to explore and innovate by undermining the mental and emotional resilience of leaders. The long-term health and vitality of the organization can be held hostage by those with a strong interest in exploiting the present, unless leaders find ways to claim the time and space to rest and play, and sustain the good health necessary for generative and recreative thought.  

    Strategic thinking is a lot closer to surfing - sensing how and when and where to position yourself on the surfboard to ride a promising wave while staying aware of what is going on in the larger environment - than it is to producing a massively footnoted volume on the nature and destiny of your organization. Goleman helps us figure out at least a few of the most important things to pay attention to while we're paddling out to catch the next big one. The most important factor for good strategic thinking, however, according to Goleman, may simply be keeping our balance!  

    The essay to which I refer in this blog is, Daniel Goleman, "The Focused Leader," HBR (Dec. 2013), 50-60. Goleman's new book is Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (HarperCollins, 2013).


  • Thanksgiving for God’s Providence

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 25, 2013

    Several years ago there was a contest in Britain to determine the country's citizens’ favorite word. It turns out, the British best love the word “serendipity.” According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, serendipity means “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” As such, serendipity is the secular sibling of providence. 

    Providence, a tradition-encrusted old word with Latin roots, is theological tooth and claw. It is also more robust than serendipity.

    Providence speaks of God’s government of nature, history and humanity. While serendipity evokes playful, happy coincidence, providence bespeaks responsibility: the buck stops with God.

    Providence, as a doctrine, almost inevitably leads to knotty theological conundrums. But providence, as a personal promise from God, leads to a sense of confidence that no power on earth can shake. Providence speaks of God’s provisions for us in life and in death.

    Recently something happened that caused me to reflect anew on God’s providence.

    My wife Debbie was asked by the large and active Presbyterian Women’s group at my son, Jeremy’s, church in Virginia Beach, to speak at their monthly gathering. At the close of the evening the benediction was given by Chaplain Autumn Butler-Saeger, an active duty lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. Chaplain Butler-Saeger has seen more active service than most of us can imagine, her most recent deployment having been on a ship patrolling the coast of Somalia. She was on exactly the kind of ship that figures into the story of Captain Philips, whose crew was taken by Somali pirates. An earlier deployment took her to Al Anbar Province in Iraq, which, for a time, was just about the most dangerous place on earth. Her job there was to serve as the chaplain to a group of U.S. Marines.

    The benediction Lieutenant Butler-Saeger gave the group of Presbyterian Women at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Princess Anne was the blessing she gave every night to the Marines who went out on patrol in a very dangerous place. It went like this:

    “Go forth from this place to love and serve. Return no one evil for evil. Help one another. Honor one another. Hold each other accountable. Now may God go before you to guide. May God be around you to protect. May God dwell within you to keep you safe.  Amen.”

    There are likely many things that resonate with us in this blessing. But the utter absence of abstraction surely must be high on the list. God’s providence is not a distant pie-in-the-sky dogma meant to produce head-scratching puzzles. God’s providence is at its heart the promise that God will walk with us into every dangerous night, that God will remain closer to us than we are to ourselves, that God holds us more precious than we can possibly know and is hard at work to do for us better things than we can ask or imagine for this life and the life to come.

    This is something to be thankful for today, and every day, and in the midst of every dark night.

    Let us give thanks for God’s providence.

  • Would Jesus Multitask?

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 19, 2013

    Over the past year or more, I have taken on a new discipline. I have begun to learn the practice of mindfulness meditation. Dr. Mark W. Muesse, professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College, has been one of my guides in the process, through a wonderful video course, “Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation.”  Dr. Muesse observes that mindfulness meditation does not belong to any particular religious tradition, and variants of mindfulness can be found in almost every faith, though “historical evidence suggests that mindfulness was first widely taught 2,500 years ago by the individual known today as the Buddha.”

    My own interest in the practice increased last January when the Presbyterian Seminary Presidents and Board Chairs read together Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy’s book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (2012).  A chapter in that book, “The Resilient Mind,” convinced me that I should explore the mindfulness discipline more deeply.

    The practice of mindfulness meditation helps people reorient themselves toward their own emotions, understanding that feelings are not just things that happen to us. Even more critically, however, mindfulness meditation allows us to attend more fully to that which is before us. It helps ensure that we not miss life while distracted by anxieties, worries, speculations, and the unrolling of all those tapes we seem to keep scrolling through in our brains. The practice can even help us learn to focus our attention and to cultivate a capacity to step back from highly-charged emotional situations so that we can make better decisions. Those who value being self-differentiated and non-anxious as leaders will especially appreciate the value of this discipline. It is possible to learn how to be (not just appear) well-differentiated and non-anxious.

    I have found it helpful to turn to a variety of different resources and various media in beginning to learn this practice. One of the best books I have found is Zen Keys: A Guide to Zen Practice (New York, 1974) by Thich Nhat Hanh, whom many of you will remember from his association with Father Thomas Merton. My wife, Debbie, recently asked me to summarize what I thought the practice of mindfulness meditation was about. I turned to him for a summary, paraphrasing an ancient sage who said something like this: Those who practice mindfulness breathe, walk, eat and drink. This doesn’t sound any different from what anyone else does. But when they breathe; they attend to breathing. When they walk; they are attentive to walking. When they eat; they attend to eating. When they drink; they attend to drinking. Whatever they do, they are attentive to that act. When their minds wander, they gently call them to return to that to which they need to attend. Through this practice, we train our minds to attend to that which we wish our minds to attend, rather than to live distracted lives. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, the aim “is a clear vision of reality, seeing things as they are.”

    After patiently listening to me, Debbie, very perceptively, asked: “So, can you practice mindfulness and multi-task?”

    That is when it hit me. No. You can’t. And probably we shouldn’t anyway.

    Multi-tasking is the cultivation of distraction. Mindfulness is the cultivation of attentiveness to that which is at hand.

    That’s when something else hit me, something intimately related to the Christian faith. There’s a wonderful resonance between the practice of mindfulness and one particular story of Jesus, the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42).  Henri Nouwen draws on this story in his book, Making All Things New (New York, 1981), when he says that the Christian answer to living our tumultuous, busy lives is not to remove ourselves from life, but to cultivate attentiveness to that which truly matters. Nouwen says that Jesus “asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the ‘many things’ to the ‘one necessary thing.’”

    What mindfulness meditation does is provide the mental, emotional, even spiritual exercises or tools so we are better equipped to focus our hearts and minds appropriately. Which brings us to the issue of multi-tasking, or the cultivation of distraction.

    Would Jesus multi-task? It is not an idle speculation. Jesus seemed to possess a rare capacity to attend to that which was at hand. He exercised a life that moved from prayer in solitude to being in community and back to solitude again and again. He calls us to lives that banish anxiety. He calls us to lives that rest in trustfulness. Again, as Nouwen says: “One way to express the spiritual crisis of our time is to say that most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions…. ‘All these other things’ keep demanding our attention. They lead us so far from home that we eventually forget our true address, that is, the place where we can be addressed.”

    Recently my pastor, Steve Jester, and I were talking about the Christian spiritual life and the potential intersection with mindfulness meditation. Steve noted the language of our prayers for illumination in worship: “silence in us any voice except your own,” we often pray. There are doubtless many ways to silence those voices so we can attend to the Word of God.

    More important than the method, however, is the end: that we may attend to each moment God places before us, and that we may attend with appropriate respect, even reverence. What a shame if one day we look up from our multitude of distracting devices and desires to realize that life has passed us by!

  • Early Days, Early Struggles: Danville Theological Seminary During the Civil War

    by User Not Found | Nov 18, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Laura Garrett, daughter of Dean Sue Garrett and recent graduate of Centre College.


    Danville Theological Seminary opened in 1853 on the grounds of Centre College in Danville, Ky.; the institution would transition to become the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1901.  

    It thrived in its early years, with more than sufficient endowment and enrollment. Many of its students came directly from Centre College: in the 1850s, more than two-thirds of all Presbyterian ministers in the state of Kentucky were Centre alumni.[1] While the seminary focused on educating its students in theology and ministerial preparation (articles written by the faculty included such titles as "Nature and Revelation in relation to the Origin of our Conception of a God" and "The Nature and Import of a Christian Profession"), it could not escape the pressing political issues of the day-namely, slavery and the Civil War. 

    The seminary's founder, the Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, was an outspoken gradual emancipationist. While he believed that slavery was a sinful practice, he also thought that it would be a greater sin to abolish slavery immediately, and that it was the duty of benevolent owners of enslaved people to train African-Americans to live on their own before entrusting them with their freedom. 

    Breckinridge owned more than 21 enslaved people who worked on his hemp plantation near Danville. Other constituents of the seminary were also owners of enslaved people who believed in gradual emancipation. One such person was the Rev. John C. Young, president of Centre College, close friend of Breckinridge and moderator of the General Assembly in 1853. Young followed the trend of many gradual emancipationists in sending the enslaved people whom he freed to Liberia. 

     When the Civil War began in 1861, the Presbyterian Church split into Northern and Southern factions, and the seminary split along with it; the student body was divided almost evenly among Union and Confederate supporters. While the Danville seminary remained with the North, students in support of the Confederacy left Danville and organized a seminary in Richmond, Ky., as a Southern alternative. 

    Breckinridge's own family was split in half: one of his sons joined the Union army and the other enlisted in the Confederacy. It was likely with his sons in mind that Breckinridge wrote in his theological magazine the Danville Quarterly Review, "Utter madness, raving insanity, has ruled the hour, and men born to be brothers have fallen to cutting each other's throats . . . ."[2] 

    A drought occurred in Kentucky during the summer of 1862, leaving the town of Perryville, 10 miles west of Danville, with the most water in the region. It was this water that drew Confederate troops to the area, with Union troops close on their heels. The two sides fought in the Battle of Perryville in October 1862, leaving 7,500 troops dead or wounded. Wounded soldiers from both sides filled Danville's buildings after the Battle, as homes and public buildings were turned into makeshift hospitals.[3] 

    The seminary occupied one of the largest buildings in town, and as such it became a main hospital site. While most area hospitals only nursed either Union or Confederate patients, the seminary was one of the few to house soldiers from both sides. (The seminary housed the Union and Confederate soldiers at opposite ends of the building, however, to keep the men from fighting with one another.) Many of the wounded were in critical condition, while others endured ailments such as typhoid, pneumonia and dysentery. By the time the seminary was able to end its hospital duties in 1864 its grounds had been wrecked. Fences had been burned for fuel, furniture and books had been torn apart and every wall needed repainting. 

    The seminary suffered a great financial blow as a result of the damages to the school, and it was never able to fully recover. That, coupled with its diminished enrollment (because Southern students were now choosing to go to seminary in Richmond), left the seminary unable to survive on its own.  

    In 1901, Danville Theological Seminary merged with the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary to form the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In 1907 the school applied to the federal government to get $5,000 in restitution for the damages the school incurred in connection with the Battle of Perryville, but never received the money. The buildings of the Danville Theological Seminary deteriorated and were eventually razed.[4]

    1. Richard C. Brown, A History of Danville and Boyle County, Kentucky, 1774-1992 (Danville, Ky.: Bicentennial Books, 1992); Bob Glass, "Danville Theological Seminary," CentreCyclopedia (Danville, Ky.: Centre College, undated), www.centre.edu/web/library/ency/d/dts.html. 

    2. Robert J. Breckinridge, "A Biographical Sketch of the Rev. John C. Young, D. D., Late President of Centre College," Danville Quarterly Review 4:1 (March 1864): 151-166; Richard C. Brown, "Danville Theological Seminary," The Kentucky Encyclopedia, ed. John E. Kleber (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 253; Brown, A History of Danville. 

    3. Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: the Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 110; Stuart W. Sanders, "Danville Theological Seminary contends with the aftermath of Perryville Battle," The Cost of War: Centre College and the Battle of Perryville (Danville, Ky.: Centre College, 2004), www.centre.edu/web/library/sc/special/perryville/seminary.htm. 

    4. Sanders, "Danville Theological Seminary."

  • Local Heroes

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 12, 2013

    Some artists and writers become so closely identified with a particular patch that it is hard to think of them without evoking that spot, or even to imagine the particular locale without seeing it through their eyes.

    New Mexico and Georgia O'Keefe are like that for me. Say the phrase "Sangre de Cristo mountains" and my first thought is of her paintings of that iconic range, though I have stood in wonder gazing at the actual mountains themselves many, many times.

    Conversely, read a few lines from Wendell Berry and I am transported to the magical countryside of Kentucky about which he writes so beautifully. Such artists and writers as O'Keefe and Berry are known far beyond the regions they champion through their art, but there are others whose fame remains local or regional.

    Alfred Wainwright's guidebooks for those who love to walk the paths of England's Lake District are beloved, but the audience is not exactly universal. Stay in any good bed and breakfast in Cumbria and you'll trip over a stack of his books. And it is hard to spend a summer holiday in Britain when there's not at least one BBC program on A. Wainwright. But most Americans will not be acquainted with the gorgeous, detailed pen drawings, maps and prose of this rather eccentric, if not to say profoundly odd, man who spent virtually every weekend of his adult life often alone, walking, mapping and chronicling the footpaths of a region about which he was obsessively passionate.

    This summer I picked up a copy of Hunter Davies' wonderful volume, The Best of A. Wainwright, and was reminded of how it is a regional artist can become such a beloved figure; it is because they first love the region so much. There's a lesson there for all of us. When A. Wainwright, who died in 1991, wrote of "Haystacks" or "Great Gable" he wrote with the attentiveness of a lover who cannot get enough of his beloved. And those who also love the places of which he writes, find their own romance rekindled, and adore him for it.

    As a Texan, one writer above all others has long occupied the place of local literary hero: John Graves. Graves died this summer at the age of 92, and reading of his death in the New York Times, sent me immediately to the bookshelf of our cottage where a ragged copy of his greatest book, Goodbye to a River holds court over lesser regional volumes. Since first reading this book, at the recommendation of my old friend Jimmy Johnson, long-time senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Waco, I have loved Graves' prose.

    Though Graves tried his hand on the national literary scene, even living for awhile in New York City, he returned to Texas to help out with his family. There he discovered his true voice, writing naturally and with clarity, of a journey down the Brazos River from below Possum Kingdom Dam to the site of the next big reservoir coming to the river near the town of Whitney, Texas. It is an utterly unpretentious story of a young man, a small dog and a canoe, a rainy fall and a river on the verge of being forever tamed. The story of the daily trek is interspersed with historical vignettes and philosophical reflections.

    It has been said that John Graves is the best-loved Texas writer for most Texans, and the Texas writer least likely known outside the state's borders. Probably true on both counts. Unless you're of a certain age and you've grown up with a canoe paddle in your hands, a fishing rod, shotgun and tent stowed away, and have known the magic of an intimate southwestern stream, you might not "get" Graves. But that is the point of every great regional artist. Their art is inseparable from the place because the art proceeds from a love for the place and cannot really be understood or appreciated apart from it.  And their art invites those who also love the place to remember, certainly, but also to go outside again and to listen and take a deep breath and attend as lovers do.

  • The Danger of Values

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 05, 2013

    One of the more disturbing features of American culture today has to do with the meaning and status of “values.” During election cycles we often hear about the voting preferences of “value voters,” a phrase that gives the impression that only some voters have values while others do not. In fact, all voters have values, as do all people. The real question is not whether everyone has values, it is how one handles one’s values. There is a real danger about values, and the danger has both theological and political dimensions. 

    When we say we value something, we are saying that the thing or idea we value matters to us, that it is of concern. We orient and order our lives – to some degree, maybe to a considerable degree – relative to this thing or idea we value.

    The political danger of values has to do with a pretty pedestrian fact: every thing or idea we value exists in relationship to other things and ideas we value. Sometimes these values will be in conflict with one another. And often it will not be easy (and sometimes it will not be possible) to determine that one value has priority over the other. Thus irreducible tensions among some values are inevitable. And sometimes the choices we make between values leads to unavoidable losses.

    Any society that wishes to negotiate its way through decision-making and policy-making must recognize these basic facts and develop political structures and processes that allow us to go about the business of living together as a society. The U.S. Constitution recognizes the fact that values compete with one another, that balances must be achieved among the competing values, and that the arrangements of one time and place may not fit another occasion or place. In other words, the Constitution enshrines the fact that values inevitably compete.

    To take one example from the proverbial “front page” of our newspapers, there is a real tension between “the right to privacy” and “national security.” To take another example, there is a genuine tension between “public safety” and “the right to bear arms.” Each of these values is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. And all of these values find themselves in tension with other values from time to time.

    This has always been the case. Nothing new here; including the tendency of some people to try to make absolute a value that is relative. This is where, of course, politics (which always includes the negotiation of various values as well as interests in the public arena) gets very knotty indeed. When a person or a group refuses to recognize the relative nature of a particular thing or idea they value (that is, when they refuse to accept the fact that every value exists in relationship to other values, and claims that a particular value trumps all others all the time), then it may be very difficult – if not impossible – to negotiate life together in society.

    Absolutism of values is not just a political problem, however, but a theological problem, at least for persons of faith. Here I shall speak primarily from a Christian perspective, though the argument applies to all three Abrahamic faiths. 

    When we make a value absolute we run the real danger of substituting a value we hold for the 
    God we worship. In other words, there is a way of holding our values that can lead us into idolatry. In this sense, the higher the value, the greater the danger. Any “good” (even a very great “good”) can become evil if substituted for the place of God.

    As Kathryn Tanner observes, “Replacing the divine with the human or confusing the human with the divine threatens … to make a Christian way of life an idol.” In her book, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Fortress, 1997, 126), Tanner gives new depth and precision to a theological concern that has spanned the ages of classical theology from St. Augustine to Paul Tillich. “Faith,” as Tillich said, “is the state of being ultimately concerned.” And to substitute our conditional and finite concerns for our ultimate concern is to construct an idol (Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Harper, 1957, 1, 3, 14).

    Tanner insists that while our ultimate allegiance as Christians is to God, and that the claim God makes on our lives is unconditional and absolute, we must be very careful making claims in the name of God. As she says, “Even in Christ, the human never approximates the divine but remains distinct and unmixed, no third thing approaching the divine by way of the alteration of its own properties. The Word can be identified with a particular human being, Jesus Christ. But his Christian disciples ever follow him at a distance. And the Incarnate Word is only at best indirectly identifiable with even those human words of the Bible that Christians believe effectively witness to him” (Theories of Culture, 126).

    To claim, in other words, absolute status for my values does not mean that I am being more righteous or faithful. In fact, ironically, if I claim absolute status for my values, my action calls into question my basic faith in God, because I have placed my values (and this includes whatever I construe as “my Christian values”) in a place above God. Not only is it possible to be so “value oriented” that I just can’t live sociably with other people, I can become so “value oriented’ that I can deny God.

    Of course, we don’t really need theologians to tell us this. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount remains the definitive text on religiosity that does not reflect God (see Matthew, chapters 5-7). Jesus calls us to reflect God’s perfection by the quality of our mercy, not the intractability of our values.

  • Wonder

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 29, 2013

    “In the end I would rather wonder than know,” writes poet Mary Ruefle in a collection of lectures she titled, Madness, Rack, and Honey (Seattle/New York: Wave Books, 2012). She continues: “Because I would rather wonder than know, my interests and talents lie in the arts rather than the sciences, although, like the monk who discovered champagne – an accidental event that unexpectedly happened to his wine – I have on occasion come running with open arms toward another with the news, ‘Look! I am drinking the stars!’” (101).

    I get Ruefle’s point, at least for her personally, that it is because she would rather wonder than know that she followed the path of the arts rather than the sciences. But many scientists I have known did not seem to have such a dichotomy between wonder and knowledge. I think, for example, about the theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. The breakthrough in the thinking that led to the discovery for which he won the Nobel Prize for Physics came while he was watching a student in the university cafeteria spinning a plate on a stick. Feynman was swept up in wonder that led him to try to figure out the math behind the phenomenon, and one thing led to another. So, let’s not force wonder away from knowledge, but allow wonder to serve as the muse for knowledge in whatever human endeavors we happen to be involved.

    Perhaps this is what Rumi was getting at when he wrote:

    “With us, the name of everything

    Is its outward appearance;

    With the Creator,

    The name of each thing is its inward reality.

    In the eyes of Moses, the name of his rod was


    In the eye of the Creator, its name was ‘dragon.’

    In brief, that which we are in the end

    Is our real name with God.”

    (Kabir Helminski, editor, The Rumi Collection: An Anthology of Translations of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Boston: Shambhala, 2005, 84-85).

    Wonder knows that God gives everything its true name. Wonder invites us both to stand back and say, “Wow!” and to look beneath the surface to ask “Why?” The question does not violate the reality at which we wonder. In fact, both “Wow” and the “Why” are impulses of wonder.  And these two impulses of wonder are not at war with one another; each requires its own manner of respect, its own reverence.

    As the ancient Tao Te Ching reminds us, our deep calm allows us to perceive the mystery of the eternal, while our deep longings lead us to see the diversity of phenomena in the world that surrounds us. “These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.” (Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, trans. (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1989), 3).

    Wonder may lead to spiritual rapture, silence of the creature in the presence of the Holy. Wonder may also lead to months, even years, of disciplined scientific research to understand more fully a phenomenon that might have beneficial application to humanity. Wonder, whether explicitly recognized as such or not, is a kind of prayer. And the potential for such prayer surrounds us every day.

     Anne Lamott writes: “The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. ‘Wow’ means we are not dulled to wonder…. ‘Wow’ is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes.” (Anne Lamott,  Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, New York: Riverhead, 2012, 71).

    So much of life is like the monk’s discovery of champagne, it seems to me. So often we find ourselves at dawn on the banks of a salt marsh, or in rapt admiration of the beauty of a newborn child, or in the afterglow of a long conversation with an old friend wanting to run to the nearest crowd of people with the news, “Look! I am drinking the stars!”  When we are open to wonder, a lot of life tastes like Dom Perignon. 

  • Creativity and the Wheel of Fortune

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 22, 2013

    John Calvin was famously opposed to Christians attributing good or bad phenomena to luck, chance or fortune. Calvin was entering into a stream of thought that was in full flow by the time he came along; many of the leading lights of the Renaissance had written on the subject of “fortune.” For Dante, Fortune (and the word probably should be capitalized for Dante) was a kind of divinely created power, the “general minister and guide” who, as Ross King writes, “doles out good and bad luck more or less unpredictably and inexplicably.” Other Renaissance writers, from Boccaccio to Machiavelli to Sir Thomas More, wrestled with the meaning of “fortune” and whether humanity’s efforts or virtues had any effect upon it (Ross King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, 152-156; and Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell, New York: Vintage/Random House, 1994, 204-215).

    While the philosophical and theological questions about “fortune” have raged since classical times, and I find them fascinating, I have been even more interested recently in the ways in which fortune interacts with creativity. Or, rather, how fortune favors certain products of creativity and casts others on the rubbish piles of obscurity.

    In his fascinating book, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2012), Tom Bissell asks the question: “Is greatness, in the end, no purer guarantee of survival than awfulness is for swift dispatch?” (23). Quoting Ecclesiastes, Bissell reminds us that “the race is not to the swift… nor the battle to the strong… but time and chance happen to them all” (20). To illustrate, he considers the fate of three writers almost universally acknowledged today as supremely accomplished: Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. While the three “form American literature’s most influential troika,” Bissell writes, “[b]ut for post-mortem developments that had, at best, oblique connections to their work, it is possible that Melville would be familiar only to a small group of antebellum scholars, Whitman remembered only as the author of the Lincoln eulogy ‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’, and Emily Dickinson enduring only in the whispers of Dickinson descendants as the unmarried shut-in who wrote abstruse verse” (25).

    Whitman’s fate should have been sealed by no less than the New York Times which said, in its review of Leaves of Grass, “that Whitman could not be called ‘a great poet unless we deny poetry to be an art’” (28). Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick, was dismissed by the most important reviewers of his day. Thirty-six years after its publication, “it went out of print… with a total of 3,180 copies sold.” Joseph Conrad wrote that the book was a “rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject… [with] not a single sincere line in the 3 volumes of it” (30). Had it not been for a chance discovery by Carl Van Doren of Moby-Dick in a used bookstore, and the subsequent essay he wrote about it, and the “chance” that this essay caught the eye of D. H. Lawrence, who was “then in the midst of writing Studies in Classic American Literature,” Melville’s book would be still likely be collecting dust in the sections of libraries dedicated to “fishing and fisheries.”

    Bissell has other examples. William Faulkner at mid-career, with every one of his greatest novels except Sanctuary out of print, was making his living writing screenplays in Hollywood (and drinking a great deal). His career appeared pretty-much over when Malcolm Cowley wrote an essay on Faulkner that was published in the New York Times Book Review. This essay was followed by a collection of Faulkner’s fiction which Cowley also edited, and which was published by the Viking Portable Library series. As Bissell observes, five years after Cowley’s reappraisal of Faulkner, he won the Nobel Prize, and today is regarded as a member of the Pantheon of twentieth-century American writers (36-37).

    Fortune’s fickle wheel turns for music as well as literature. As Alan Light chronicles in his story of the fate of Leonard Cohen’s anthem, “Hallelujah,” and as Sylvie Simmons also observes in her biography of Cohen, this song which has become in just a few short years a kind of secular hymn, which has been recorded by singers as varied as Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang, and has appeared in settings as different as the television series, The West Wing, and the children’s film, Shrek, languished forgotten for years. The album for which it was originally recorded was rejected by Cohen’s American recording label. When, eventually, the album did appear, hardly anyone noticed “Hallelujah.” As Alan Light says, in the album’s “review in Rolling Stone” the song didn’t even merit a mention. (Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, New York: Atria Books, 2012, 34-35).

    A song that took Leonard Cohen five years to write, and which many consider the greatest pop song of all time, missed utter obscurity by a whisker (Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, New York: HarperCollins, 2012, 338).

    Bissell reflects philosophically on the vagaries of fortune and the fate of “great” works of literature. And we might extend his reflections to music and to other creative arts as well. “One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment [that determine the success of great works and the obscurity of lesser ones]. But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course” (Magic Hours, 38).

    These stories of fortune left me wondering what great works of creativity and imagination may have been lost along the way. Or, to put a positive spin on it, I wonder what great works are lying around just waiting to be discovered. Who knows who will be the next person to step into the cockpit, touch the pilot’s controls and raise from obscurity some neglected act of genius?

  • The Interpreter’s House

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 15, 2013

    “Then he went on till he came to the house of the Interpreter, where he knocked over and over; at last one came to the door, and asked who was there….

    Then said the Interpreter, Come in; I will shew that which will be profitable to thee. So he commanded his man to light the candle, and bid Christian follow him….” John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

    In John Bunyan’s famous allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, “the house of the Interpreter” is where our lives receive the grace of enlightenment, where we see things as they truly are. Perhaps most importantly, it is where we see ourselves in the light of God’s grace.

    Many of us have had the experience – reading a particular poet – when we felt ourselves entering into the “Interpreter’s House.” The experience can be life-changing. Especially vivid literary epiphanies can remain in our minds for years. For example, I doubt if I shall ever forget first reading Louise Glück’s Averno. The lines: “death cannot harm me/ more than you have harmed me,/ my beloved life” and “It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./ It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./ Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use” are burned into my soul. Glück made me see myself and my vocation as an educator in a new light.

    We can also have this experience reading great interpreters of poetry.

    Though it is completely against my practice, I have loaned my own copy of Helen Vendler’s Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery (Princeton, 2005) to friends so their lives could be blessed with the illumination of a great interpreter – and so that they could see how extraordinarily the vocation of the interpreter (to which many of us aspire) can be performed. Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard University, not only illumines our understanding of life in light of certain poets, she also makes me want to re-read these poets to peel back layer upon layer of understanding, to go ever deeper.

    This week, when reading a fine new book by John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (London, 2013), I reflected again on the experience of entering a literal literary “house of the Interpreter.” Like Vendler, Drury interprets familiar poems. But he does so with such care, with such attention to reconstructing the world that surrounds the poem and poet, that we find ourselves in the presence of truths of which we were not previously aware.

    One example will have to suffice. In the first four pages, Drury takes up the interpretation of what many consider to have been Herbert’s greatest poem, “Love (III).” He reminds us that this poem “is saturated in the conditions of life in seventeenth-century England. It is set in the hall of some substantial household, given to hospitality, such as Herbert lived in for most of his life. It draws on the manners and etiquette expected of guests and hosts which were the subject of numerous books. At the same time its truth and beauty speak directly to readers anywhere and at any time at the deepest psychological level: its setting is the inmost heart or soul. How does it do it?” Drury asks.

    How indeed? How does a poetic genius draw on the ordinary furniture of social relations inviting us to see through them divine judgment and divine grace? First and foremost, Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet-priest, makes us slow down if we are to understand. We cannot rush through the house of the Interpreter, he seems to tell us. We cannot attend deeply to life when our attention is divided and diverted among the clamor of a dozen different sights and sounds. We must allow our breath to follow the deep rhythm of nature and the creator God. We must pause. We must listen. We must feel. We must reflect. The meter, the shifts in conversation, the words themselves conspire to slow us to follow the flows and eddies of the poem which, like a stream, run into its deep pools. “It is astonishing to notice,” Drury writes, “that within the short and lucid compass of “Love (III)” Christianity’s whole grand biblical narrative of humanity is contained as its subtext.”

    Like a Beatrice guiding Dante through Heaven, great interpreters of poetry, such as Drury and Vendler, guide us deeper into our own lives; allowing themselves to be amazed, they invite us into their amazement. They allow themselves to be illuminated, and let us follow along benefiting from the candle lit before us.

    I was just reading the newest “Everybody’s-gotta-read-this-hot-off-the-press-book” about Washington politics (This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich) when Drury’s Music at Midnight arrived. Never has virtue so thoroughly tempted me from a guilty pleasure as did the arrival of Drury’s Interpreter’s House. Never has it become so clear to me, the difference between real pleasure and its ephemeral counterfeit. May we all be so seduced by grace.  

  • A Hunter Hot on the Heels of the Divine Fox

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 07, 2013

    The transition from seminary to pastoral ministry can be quite a jolt. The steady ebband flow of the academic calendar, the immediate gratification of studying, being examined, receiving a grade, the easy collegiality among fellow students: these are hallmarks of seminary life. While in the parish, one hardly ever knows what will come next. True, there’s the reality of Sunday coming round every seven days. Ready or not, here it comes! But, in between, you never know. And the variety of activities that will call upon your skills on any given day can be unnerving and overwhelming. A good pastor must be as flexible as a yoga instructor, ready to move from a budget conference to a hospital call to a liturgical planning session. And I’m only scratching the surface. Combine that with the fact that you generally don’t know how you’re doing till you mess up and the aching loneliness that many pastors feel. Well, it is a big transition.

    For me, however, the biggest challenge of the transition was discovering what it means for the mystery of the word to become flesh. I’m not just talking about THE Incarnation, although that figures in. I’m really referring to that discovery a young pastor (especially, but not exclusively a young pastor) makes when he or she finally begins to understand the real meaning of words like grace. It is one thing to know the derivation of the English theological term from its Hebrew and Koine Greek roots and its various usages through theological traditions. It is quite another thing to discover in your own bones what it means to receive mercy when you don’t deserve it or what it means to help someone else receive it.

    In this regard, at least, seminary was my grade school and congregational ministry became graduate school. I learned a rich theological vocabulary in seminary, but that vocabulary remained largely theoretical until it came to life in the midst of serving my people as their pastor.

    This week I remembered with gratitude one of my coaches or mentors or (maybe better) guardians in that stage of my theological education. And I remembered him because I learned from the obituary in The Economist that he had died on September 5th at the age of 87, a priest, a theologian (of the pastoral sort) and a food writer: Robert Farrar Capon.  His death reminded me that some of my most important teachers were people I have only known because of their writing. But, they were still vital to my formation. I suspect that is true for all of us.

    I don’t remember now who it was who gave me a copy of Capon’s bookExit 36 (New York, 1975). It was my introduction to Capon, and I read it in 1979. The novel tells the story of two Episcopal priests, one who has committed suicide, the other who is trying to piece together why. They were in neighboring parishes. They knew one another somewhat, as neighboring pastors sometimes do. As the story unwraps we learn that the priest who committed suicide has had an extramarital affair. In the end we learn that it was not this first infidelity, however, that drove him to suicide, but a second infidelity. And he simply could not allow himself to be forgiven for that. I don’t want to say any more. You may want to read the novel.

    The book is a theological mystery. It culminates not so much in a strange twist of plot or a new development of character, though both figure in. The book turns on a theological insight that became so important to me I asked Debbie to calligraphy it and I framed it and for years it hung in my study. The insight is this: “The difference between the saved and the damned is simply that the saved are willing to step out and explore what God remembers, while the damned insist on hanging around inside what God forgets.” As a young pastor, first in a suburban parish next to Dallas, and later in a rural congregation south of Fort Worth, I found this word fleshed out again and again among the people in our communities.

    I was hooked on Capon. But I managed to only read a handful of the twenty-seven books he wrote. My favorite was Hunting the Divine Fox (New York, 1974) a book that inspired me to try, as a teacher and a preacher, to entice people to fall in love with God. According to Capon, the theologian should not attempt to argue others into the faith, but should stoke up enthusiasm for a God who is always surprising. I love the passage where he set out the purpose of that book: “What I am about to give you … is a guided tour of selected spots in the bizarre set of answers that I believe God has given us. Then, perhaps, we may inch our way back to a point at which we will be able to ask better questions.”

    Theology, Capon said, is fun. Well, I already knew that. But what Capon helped me to learn as a young pastor was that living our theology among a people of faith, listening for God among these people, loving them through life’s difficulties even when we found each other un-lovable, holding one another through life’s joys and tragedies, and allowing ourselves to receive forgiveness even when we have done things to each other that were frankly unforgivable on any human scale: this is the greatest theological adventure of all. I just wish I had written Capon while he was alive to say thanks.

  • The Inclusive Reign of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 01, 2013

    Mrs. Turpin, the protagonist in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” remains one of the most disturbing characters in American fiction. Certain of the divinely sanctioned orders of creation, she stands in her doctor’s office directing long suffering Claud (and by implication everyone else) precisely where he should sit. The short story is told in a manner absolutely determined to shock and offend any sensitive soul who reads it, told as it is in Mrs. Turpin’s voice, her racism, classism being only two of her ugly biases. If there was such an ideological category as “otherism,” Mrs. Turpin would  hold it fondly in her ample bosom. Mrs. Turpin, we are told, believed she “was protected in some special way by Divine Providence.” And nothing could trouble her sense of entitlement (a character trait she possessed long before that word became current).

    Nothing, that is, could trouble her well-ordered worldview until her revelation.  O’Connor describes it: “A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through the field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” In her revelation, all of humanity is marching toward heaven, but the first are last (not just in a Bible story, but really!), and the last are first (whether they deserve it or not, you can almost hear Mrs. Turpin say!), and her whole system of how people should be ordered into classes and races is overturned. To her utter and complete astonishment, she and Claud are mixed in with all the others. Mixed in! And, looking at Claud and her marching along singing, “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” (O’Connor, The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, 508)

    Fred Craddock once preached a sermon about the “dirtiest word in the English language.” He asked the startled congregation again and again, “Do you know what the dirtiest word in the English language is?” Finally, he came out with it: “exclusive.”

    I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Turpin, in O’Connor’s tragic-comic story, would not see herself as in league with dirty words. I even suspect that she would not have seen herself as particularly exclusive. But, of course, it is obvious to the reader that she is. Seldom does any Mrs. Turpin recognize her own exclusivity.

    There are those in our culture – not least in our religious culture – who reject the notion of inclusivity as a fad inspired by political correctness. And it is true that there are also those who wield a battle axe of exclusivity in the name of being inclusive. One of my British colleagues, for example, has told me that the only people that do not fit in a pluralistic society are those who have monistic allegiances. He seems to have missed the irony of his position. And there are those who, for the sake of inclusivity, would demand that everyone conform to their political or theological worldview.

    But there is something deeply theological at stake in the notion of inclusivity. It requires all of us to locate the Mrs. Turpin in us (not in someone else). And it requires the Mrs. Turpin in us to be subject to “revelation.”

    Nobody I know of has written more eloquently of the theology of inclusivity than Catherine Mowry LaCugna. Recently I was re-reading a section of her study, God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), and I would like to share that with you today:

    “The reign of God, not the reign as we might be inclined to design it, is the stuff of Christian life. Like the laborers in the vineyard, or the prodigal son, the reign of God’s making may offend our common sense notions of how much should be given to whom, what is fair labor practice, who should come first. The parables of the kingdom shake us out of our self-deception that the reign of God is our reign. At the same time, when we are the laborer come late, or the wasteful son, these stories are the good news of our salvation.

    “Those who come first in God’s reign do so not because of their own merit, but because of God. To fulfill the providential plan of God foreordained from before all ages, God must overturn and conquer the social, political, economic, racial, sexual stratifications that we ourselves have invented as means of control over others. In Jesus Christ, God heals divisions, reconciles the alienated, gives hope to those who have none, offers forgiveness to the sinner, includes the outcast. In the end God’s love and mercy are altogether inclusive, accepting the repentant master as well as the repentant slave. If anyone were to be ultimately excluded from the reign of God it would be because he or she had set up himself or herself as the final criterion of who should be included in God’s reign. Still, the exclusion of even a single person is contrary to God’s providential plan. In the end only the barriers to eternal and universal communion are excluded from God’s reign: sin, death, and despair.” (God With Us, 388).

    What separates this vision of inclusivity from mere political correctness is as wide a gulf as the distinction between social or political revolution and theological revelation. The object of revolution is almost inevitably the substitution of one ruling class with another, the exclusion of some in favor of others. Revelation blesses all even while it judges all, and it judges us all principally in our failure to bless. Revolution leaves Mrs. Turpin either as an “insider” or an “outsider,” depending on which side wins. Revelation leaves her – well, I’ll let Flannery O’Connor tell us where revelation leaves her:

    “At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.” (509)

  • Atonement, the Character of God, and Some Controversy Around the New Presbyterian Hymnbook

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 23, 2013

    Some twenty-five years ago a friend took me to lunch to celebrate my getting into the PhD program in theology at Aberdeen University. I'll never forget his saying that he hoped I would do something relevant in theology, not spend years studying some obsolete idea like, you know, the doctrine of the atonement.   

    "What DO you plan to concentrate on, by the way?" he asked me.  

    "The atonement," I answered.  

    He stared at me over his chicken salad sandwich with bemused wonder. I'm sure some other friends would have done the same. The atonement is, after all, a theological doctrine not unlike Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."  

    C. S. Lewis once said that what Christians believe about the atonement really amounts to this: What Jesus Christ did somehow set things right with God and gave us a fresh start. Lewis tended to fall back on the first century formula that originated with the church's first great theologian St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200), a formula that was utilized famously by St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), which is often referred to as the “mirifica commutatio” (the “wonderful exchange”). I will render this as Lewis did in his own very non-gender neutral language just to keep it close to his own formulation: "The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” (This is the opening passage in the chapter of Mere Christianity titled, “The Obstinate Toy Soldiers”). I prefer the way the formula has been revised in recent years, much more inclusively, to read: God became fully human in Christ that in Christ we might become fully human too.  

    Perhaps no one has more elegantly or more fully, described this understanding of the atonement favored by our earliest theologians than Catherine Mowry LaCugna. Her language echoes the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Colossians, as well as Irenaeus and Athanasius, when she writes: “The Christ who was always with God emptied himself of divinity and took on our humanity… and gathered together all things in himself” (God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, San Francisco, 1991, 26). 

    For St. Athanasius, the atonement is the incarnation. In other words, the atonement is not simply some “thing” among many other things accomplished by Jesus Christ; rather, the atonement is itself God's uniting of Godself with humanity. T. F. Torrance said it like this: “as Saviour Christ embodies the act and fact of our salvation in his own Person” (The Trinitarian Faith, Edinburgh, 1988, p. 156). Of course, Athanasius was the guiding light behind what we now call "The Nicene Creed"; and for seventeen centuries he has stood as the key figure defining orthodox Christianity. 

    The reason the subject of the atonement had become important enough to me that I decided I would dedicate several years of research to it (despite the consternation of friends!) was because of the intimate relationship between the various ways we conceive of the atonement and our understanding of the character of God. Who we believe God to be is closely related to what we conceive of God as doing. Every age has tried to unwrap the mystery of what God did in Christ. Metaphors, models and theories for understanding the atonement have multiplied over these twenty and more centuries of the church's existence: the Incarnational model; the Ransom theory; the Penal Substitutionary model, and its variant Mercantile and other Forensic theories; the Moral Exemplary Model, the Dramatic or Christus Victor Model, and variations on all of these. Theologians and saints from Irenaeus to Anselm, from Athanasius to Calvin, from Augustine and Abelard to Hastings Rashdall and Gustav Aulen have worked the veins of ore in this mine.  

    As Shannon Craigo-Snell and Shawnthea Monroe write, in their book, Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today, “all of these various views have roots in Scripture and are part of Christian liturgical traditions…. All of them are part of the multifaceted tradition we inhabit, and indeed each is deeply connected to the others. This multiplicity and fluidity is a great strength of the Christian tradition” (Living Christianity, 2009, 36).  

    My concern, however, as a theologian was to investigate which models might correspond best to the character of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and which models were most problematic. From time to time, the ways in which we have conceived of the atonement have done enormous damage to our understanding of who God is.

    A good example of this unfortunate dynamic relates to "the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement." In this model, we are told that God's dignity has been offended by human sin. The divine dignity can only be satisfied, according to this theory of the atonement, by the punishment of those who offended God in the first place, i.e., humanity. But because God's dignity is infinite, only an infinite being can satisfy God's anger. “There must be blood,” so to speak. Capital punishment is needed in order to quench God's fury. But for this death to be effective in stemming God's anger, the one dying would have to be divine. Therefore Jesus, innocent of sin and fully divine, came to earth, became human, and offered himself to be killed to satisfy the punishment necessary to repair God's offended dignity. God is enabled by Christ's death to act mercifully toward those human sinners for whom Christ died as a substitute.  

    This model of the atonement draws on biblical themes of sacrifice, of course, but it recasts these biblical themes in the feudal language of medieval kings and overlays them with an understanding of justice derived largely from legal codes as old and as pagan as Ancient Rome. The character of the God who emerges in this model of the atonement is profoundly disturbing - the combination of an abusive parent and an absolute tyrant. And the damage done to a biblical understanding of the God revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth is simply incalculable. Sadly, many Christians are unaware that this model of atonement is only one of many ways to conceive of what God has done in Christ, and that it functions as a lens which, though it bring certain aspects of God’s actions into focus (a perspective of sacrifice is exemplified here) also limits their ability to see the fullness, richness, depth and breadth of what the atonement is and who the God is that acts for us in atonement.  

    There are those today who imply (or outright say) that if you do not hold to a "Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement," then your theology is "squishy liberalism," and your theological sensibilities are shaped by your culture. This contention re-emerged recently in a flap over a hymn omitted from the new Presbyterian hymnbook. (Read Timothy George's July, 2013 essay "No Squishy Love." Then read a response to that article from The Economist, August, 2013, "A Presbyterian Problem: Spoiling the Wrath".) In fact, there's not a single model of the atonement that is not shaped to some degree by culture as well as by the Bible. If you are human, your hearing of and response to God's Word is inevitably shaped to some degree by your culture. But this also includes the culture-shaped "Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement" which contorted certain biblical images to fit its preconceived notions of God, even as it also drew upon and emphasized some important biblical perspectives.  

    One of the most crucial figures for our understanding of the relationship between the atonement and the character of God was John McLeod Campbell. In what some consider to be the greatest study of the atonement since Anselm, Campbell’s magisterial The Nature of the Atonement (1856; a critical edition of which was published by Eerdmans in 1996), he reminds us that Jesus did not become human to make God gracious or merciful toward humanity, but to reveal God's love toward us. God's wrath is never soft-peddled in Campbell's theology; but God’s wrath is seen to be none other than the white, hot love of God turned against anything that would keep us from enjoying God and from becoming all God intended us to become.  

    Campbell was a gentle, thoughtful theologian who suffered enormously for his teachings. Tried for heresy and removed from his pulpit by a church that told him it was unlawful for him even to preach that "God is love" (The Church of Scotland at that time officially taught that God loves only the elect and hates all others), he served the poorest of the poor without official title or salary for the remainder of his days. His understanding of the atonement, resonant with the deep understandings of Irenaeus and Athanasius, and convinced of God filial love for humanity, speaks across the centuries, however, reminding us that sometimes what seems like solid orthodoxy is just mean-spiritedness and self-righteousness dressed up for church; and that sound teachings, even evangelical teachings, need not reflect bloody-mindedness to be true. 

    We will never fully understand the mystery of what God accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. But of this we can be sure: God is love. God's love is shared with all humanity in Christ. And the goal of this love is for our reconciliation and peace. God became fully human in Christ that in Christ we might become fully human too. 

    For further study: As mentioned in the blog, a great place to start would be Shannon and Shawnthea’s Living Christianity. I also devote a full chapter to the various models of the atonement in my Invitation to Theology: A Guide to Study, Conversation & Practice (InterVarsity Press, 2001).   

  • Why Tenure Matters

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 17, 2013

    The dramatic countryside of Northeastern Scotland along the craggy banks of the Don River, a wild stream that tumbles from the Highlands to the North Sea, may account to some degree for the flinty character of this region's famous son, William Robertson Smith. The warmth of the family hearth in the village of Keig, Aberdeenshire, may account for his sweetness of spirit, even amid the trials he eventually endured. But nothing accounts for his genius.

    A linguistic prodigy, Smith learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as a child. After studying at New College, Edinburgh, Smith traveled to Germany, learning from legendary scholars such as the great Albrecht Ritschl. It was in Germany that Smith became acquainted with the newly emerging approaches to biblical criticism. This was the mid-nineteenth century, and biblical scholarship, especially in Germany, was exploding. Scholars were eagerly tracing out the implications of applying scientific, historical, and literary methods to the study of biblical texts.  

    By the age of twenty-four, Smith was named Professor of Oriental Languages and Old Testament Exegesis at the Free Church Theological College (subsequently known as Christ College) in Aberdeen. Smith's inaugural lecture was on "what history teaches us to seek for in the Bible."  

    Smith's reputation as a scholar and his writing ability attracted the attention of the editors of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. They asked him to write several articles, including one on the Bible, in which he introduced to a British audience the fruits of historical criticism of the biblical text. The Free Church of Scotland, in which Smith was ordained, took considerable exception to Smith's scholarship. The article on the Bible was published in 1875. In 1877, Smith was suspended from teaching. In 1880, he was formally tried for heresy. And in 1881, he was removed from his professorship by the church.  

    Were you or I to read his article on the Bible today we would hardly find its conclusions surprising. What Smith and others were discovering then has become commonplace now. But "The Bible" and other articles such as his respected essay on "Sacrifice" (which represents one of the first ever forays into the field we have come to call "comparative religion," an approach to the study of religions now taught in many seminaries) were revolutionary in Smith's time, and the ideas he explored were considered dangerous to the faith and tranquility of the church.  

    After being dismissed from his teaching post in Aberdeen, Smith was hired by the University of Cambridge where he taught and served as librarian. He also went on to serve as the Editor of The Encyclopedia Britannica. Though his trial for heresy and dismissal from his professorship were traumatic to him and his family, I would argue that these actions were even more costly to the church, which retreated even deeper into pious timidity on one hand and on the other hand a posture of threat against its next generation of scholars (including Marcus Dods and A.B. Bruce).  

    Scholarship sometimes moves us along with little friction, one discovery following upon another to the applause of all concerned. But sometimes scholarship shocks us, turns our assumptions upside down, makes us question cherished beliefs and reorganize our ways of viewing the world - and God. Both scholarly paths can lead to truth. Both can lead to errors. Many the time when people have applauded hoary scholarship that foundered on its own pious clichés. Many the time too when rebels without a clue published their radical ideas which, when the dust finally settled, turned out to be worthless. But scholarship that is fettered has little chance to move anyone forward. And scholarship that is told it must not question its subject because its subject is sacred, ultimately is unlikely to edify.  

    The reason theological schools came in time to value academic tenure was to ensure that the research of our William Robertson Smiths would flourish. Tenure exists to protect academic freedom and to encourage vigorous and adventurous scholarship. It is intended to promote a spirit of exploration and discovery. It is meant to guarantee that scholars and teachers cannot be dismissed just because their research uncovers uncomfortable ideas.  

    By extension, however, there is an assumption in the granting of tenure that it will be used for the advancement of knowledge. Tenure is not a blanket guarantee of life-long employment, but it is a guarantee of due process. This guarantee is intended to protect academic freedom so that scholars can produce their scholarship without being cowed by threats to job security should their scholarship go in a direction that challenges norms. Of course, a scholar need not produce shocking scholarship to deserve tenure. But tenure does assume that the scholar will be productive. 

    Several years ago I dropped by the office of a friend who served on the faculty of a theological school then in the throes of ecclesiastical controversy. Some professors at the school had already paid the ultimate professional price for their scholarship's transgressing the boundaries of a rigidly enforced "orthodoxy."  I had just bought a copy of my friend's newest book. Handing it to him to sign, I asked, "So, tell me about your new book!" He took the book from my hands, signed it, and shrugged as he returned it to me. "It's safe."  

    Tenure exists so you and I will never have to read a "safe" book. We should have this guarantee that any work of original scholarship - whether we believe it gets it wrong or right, whether it leads to a real breakthrough or a dead end - gives you an author's best judgment, unsafe as that may be.  

    That's why tenure matters.


  • The Christian Agnostic: Reading Christian Wiman's "My Bright Abyss"

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 09, 2013

    I want to take this opportunity to thank our guest bloggers for their excellent essays this summer. Amos, Tasha, Angela, Morgan, Abbi, John, Tyler, Sue, Anne, Abbie and Jenny gave us a lot to think about as they did their "thinking out loud." I know you enjoyed their insights as much as I did. Thank you all for giving me a break from the weekly blog - and for giving our readers a break from me!!! –Michael

    In his anthem to a renegade "pilgrim," 
    Kris Kristofferson described a Job-like figure who lives his whole life, "from the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse," "never knowing if believing is a blessing or a curse, or if the going up is worth the coming down." Author Christian Wiman believes that believing is something of both, and that the going up is worth the coming down, however many ups and downs there may be. In what may be the best book on faith I've read in the last decade, he provides a moving, honest, and deeply personal portrait of why faith matters in today's world.

    Though some reviewers have heralded him as a new C.S. Lewis, he is more like Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O'Connor, or even Thomas Merton than Lewis. The editor of Poetry magazine and a fine poet himself, Wiman's prose is by turns lyrical, cascading in passages as long and deep and turbulent as a mountain stream, and also crisp and biting and starkly clear.

    Wiman, whose own faith journeyed from a childhood in the West Texas buckle of the Bible Belt to a sophisticated literary agnosticism, unexpectedly turned toward what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called "a second naïveté" and a renaissance of personal belief a few years ago in the shadow of a devastating cancer diagnosis. Far from providing easy answers or marshmallow comforts, Wiman describes a mature faith in a God bigger and truer than a bumper sticker slogan. "I can see now how deeply God's absence affected my unconscious life, how under me always there was this long fall that pride and fear and self-love at once protected me from and subjected me to.... For if grace woke me to God's presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe." For Wiman, the life of the spirit is intimately connected to the reality and specificity of Jesus Christ, "a shard of glass in the gut," God incarnate "crying I am here, and here in not only what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you could call not-God."

    Wiman plumbs the wretched waters of self-centeredness and self-righteousness and self-absorption, of ambition's seductive shape-shifting and the malignant anxieties that wreck our lives. And he plumbs the depths also of trust and innocence, hope and health. In a time when books of facile spirituality abound and easy dismissals of gods-that-never-were load the shelves of our virtual bookstores to groaning, Wiman has written a book that manages to be faithful in the way St. Augustine of Hippo was faithful but with a contemporary edge. For example, after reminding us of Augustine's comment, "If you think you have understood God, it is not God," Wiman adds, "but contemporary interpretations of that one sentence should be balanced by another famous quotation, this one from Wittgenstein: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.'" This book drove me, again and again into the wilderness of silence where God awaits and healing begins.

    One of the most moving aspects of this book is the way Wiman draws on poetry and literary prose to cut through the onion layers of life and faith. George Herbert, Philip Larkin, Anna Kamienska, Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Craig Arnold are here, as are W.B. Yeats and D. H. Lawrence, as well as poems by Wiman himself, including the haunting "fragment" which opens and closes the book: "My God, my bright abyss/ into which all my longings will not go/ once more I come to the edge of all I know/ and believing nothing believe this."

    A couple of generations ago, the English preacher Leslie Weatherhead wrote a book titled, The Christian Agnostic. Wiman makes a compelling case for a faithful Christian agnosticism, a faith rich in personal devotion to Jesus Christ which also confesses humbly its lack of certainty. Taking the lead from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wiman finds con-fraternity and community with the religionless as well as with members of his own congregation (a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago). Speaking in a voice any contemporary pastor will recognize, Wiman observes that "for some people, and probably for all people some of the time, religion, church, the whole essential but secondary edifice that has grown out of primary spiritual experience - all this is the last place in the world where they are going to find God, who is calling for them in the everyday voices of other people, other sufferings and celebrations, or simply in the cellular soul of what is." Yet, Wiman has found in and among a congregation, and in relationship to a pastor, a source of spiritual renewal, and he has discovered in the "definite beliefs" of Christian faith "steady spots" on which to stand "from which the truth may be glimpsed."

    This book takes its place on a very small bookshelf in my library among books I will return to often for living wisdom. Wiman now stands for me beside Thomas Merton, Julian of NorwichAnnie Dillard, Rumi, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Seldom, if ever, have I written what I am about to say:  I encourage you to buy three copies of this book. Buy one for yourself, because, as the flight attendant says, "Put your own oxygen mask on first." Buy one for your best friend. The reason I know about this book is simply because my best friend sent me a copy of it for summer reading. And buy one for your pastor. She or he will thank you.

  • Guide for Identifying the Crazies

    by User Not Found | Sep 03, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Amos Disasa, a member of the Louisville Seminary Board of Trustees. Amos and his family live in Columbia, S.C. and are currently busy pastoring Downtown Church, a new Presbyterian (U.S.A.) church that they organized in Columbia's city center.

    When interviewing pastoral candidates to lead a new initiative in church planting, it’s likely that the search committee will ask all the right questions regarding the core skills and gifts a pastor will need to effectively shepherd an established church. However, it has been my experience after serving an established church for five years before embarking on the hazardous but rewarding adventure of church planting two years ago, that the gifts that serve a pastor well in an established congregation, like leading public worship, pastoral care, teaching, and program development, will be virtually useless without a subset of entrepreneurial sensibilities that are easy to spot after the fact but hard to name before. 

    In fact, it is highly likely that without these unique sensibilities present in the church planter, the new church will fail to distinguish itself as worthy of the time, money, and trouble it takes to start a new church from scratch. Absent these tendencies, the more likely outcome is a reincarnation of the same kind of church we excel at sustaining now. 

    If that is the case, why bother? 

    To that end, presented here is a series of questions a search committee interviewing candidates for their church plant might consider in addition to those questions they already know to ask.

    Is your candidate a student of culture? Ask:

    1. What books, magazines, and blogs are you currently reading?
    2. Have you ever tried to learn another language?
    3. Where have you traveled?
    4. Who do you follow on Twitter?

    Why does this matter?

    The delight of discovery is preferred over the comfort of already knowing. Relevancy assumes an ability to interpret culture. Only then can church begin to reinterpret culture.

     Is your candidate vocationally ambidextrous? Ask:

    1. If you weren't a pastor could you make a living doing something else?

    Why does this matter?

    The church staff will be lean at the pre-launch stage. Specificity in job descriptions will come later. Resources must be preserved for work that demands outside professional vendors (i.e. branding or musicians). A pastor that cooks or can serve as the IT department adds necessary value.

     Is your candidate adaptive to change? Ask:

    1. When did life surprise you? How did you respond?
    2. Has your job description ever changed abruptly? What kind of challenges did this present?

    Why does this matter?

    When your church is small, change is frequent and even slight change will be destabilizing. Unforeseen opportunities will appear that don’t coincide with expectations (mission-plan, vision, etc.). Programs, ideas, and relationships will fail spectacularly. Hardheadedness, often confused with long-suffering, makes it difficult to stop doing what isn't working.

     Can your candidate relate to multiple generations? Ask:

    1. Who are your mentors? What have you learned from them? What have they learned from you?
    2. Do their self-references span multiple generations?

    Why does this matter?

    The age of the church’s earliest adopters will be similar to that of the organizing pastor. However, older and younger generations that might not worship at the church can offer valuable resources (money, credibility, childcare workers, musicians, etc.).

     Does your candidate value aesthetics? Ask:

    1. What makes a worship space sacred?
    2. Describe your favorite place to worship.
    3. Also, examine written communications (including emails) for grammar and formatting. Did the candidate value the aesthetics of their work in this regard?

    Why does this matter?

    Everything created by the church, including the configuration of the worship space, will have an aesthetic quality. The cheapest and most subtle way to signal your identity is by making beautiful things that fit the local context. No detail is too small to ignore.

    Is your candidate impatient enough? Ask:

    1. What do you do with your good ideas?
    2. How do you know if they are worth pursuing?

    Why does this matter?

    Inertia is a powerful force and the antidote is movement. Every task/ effort/ idea marked “done” enhances credibility.

     Is your candidate prepared to die? Listen:

    1. How often did you hear them talk about life/ work balance or self-care in your conversations and interviews?
    2. To what degree are they insistent on negotiating the details of their compensation?

    Why does this matter?

    Starting a church will kick your ass and demand sacrifice from your family. There is no work/ life balance in the pre-launch stage. Get over it. You can’t gather enough people to attain critical mass without leveraging every relationship, affiliation, hobby, interest, and conversation you have - even those that belong to your “private” life.

     Are his or her friends in the church already? Ask:

    1.  What do you do when you’re not working?
    2. What have you learned from your friends/ neighbors outside of church that will help you develop a vision for this one?

    Why does this matter?

    Spending too much time with other church people has an adverse effect on one’s ability to relate to normal people. Non-churchy people that don’t know you as their pastor haven’t learned that brown-nosing the pastor is expected. This is good, and builds humility. Simple math: if it takes more than one degree of separation to arrive at a sphere of influence that isn't dominated by churchy people, you lose the cheapest and most effective tool for gathering: word of mouth.

  • Stacking Stones

    by User Not Found | Aug 27, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Tasha Blackburn, co-pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, Arkansas. Tasha and her husband, Phil, are members of the President's Roundtable.

    Last year I took a call to pastor in the Bible Belt. This meant I was leaving good friends and congregants behind, heading for a culture I did not know, and embarking on an experiment in co-pastoring with my husband. As I drove the car away from our old home and began the full day's drive to our new one, I was petrified. In my hand I held a stone a friend had given me. It had the word "trust" engraved on it. Every mile I drove, with drugged cats in the front seat and antsy children in the back, I pressed my hands around that stone. I squeezed it in my palm, rubbed my fingers across the lettering, and I prayed. For months after the moving day I kept that stone near, in a pocket or my purse, so that my hands could easily grasp it.

    I now live in a region where clusters of bright white crosses reach to the heavens, fifty and sixty feet into the air. I live in a city where traveling preachers regularly lead weekends of prophecy and police officers greet you on the street with, "God bless you ma'am." All of this happens in the public sphere. But, though I am a pastor, charged to share the gospel, I am also, at heart, a Midwestern girl who feels most at home clutching her prayer stone in private. 

    Public faith came to the forefront in a recent Sunday school class. We were discussing the Great Ends of the Church which begin with Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind. Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, in her guide on this first Great End, documents the shift in public sharing. With the rise of modernism, facts became the acceptable topics within the public sphere. Feelings, values, and faith, if they could not be verified, were shuffled to the private sphere and considered an opinion. She writes, "[t]he result is the privatizing of religion, which raises the question of how public one can make one's private opinions. Are we invading the 'private space' of another person when we ask about their faith or tell them about ours?"[1]

    Broad streams of Christianity have ignored this modernist shift. They have continued to view faith as a public matter, demanding public policies and public leadership which will speak to that faith. Other denominations, including my own Presbyterian family, recognize that faith is often a private matter but, in doing so, may concede one of the church's greatest callings: proclamation. Instead we offer the public what we feel is proper: "facts" such as the design of our facilities or the numbers in our youth groups, and we keep quiet about the truth of the gospel.

    If we feel the gospel of Jesus Christ that has been revealed to us is already being proclaimed in the public realm, there is no problem for there is no need for our voices. But if we feel we have a unique and important message to share about the Christian life and salvation then we must dare to go public. Also, the ground has already shifted under our feet. While we concern ourselves with facts, the culture has become more concerned with meaning. When we proclaim our facts rather than our faith we labor under an outdated method and miss a world of people hungry to find meaning. 

    If we feel at all convicted to live out our faith in public, to live out our calling of proclamation, we have to begin somewhere. Perhaps we, the more private, Midwestern-styled Christians, could begin with this: let's get our stones out of our pockets and start stacking them. I refer to the practice of ebenezers in ancient Israel. Described in 1 Samuel 7:12, ebenezers or "stones of help" were stacked high in places where people of faith were certain God had shown up. For the person stacking, the stones showed honor to God. For the people who passed by them, they proclaimed that God had been at work in that place.  

    Can we begin stacking a few stones? Can we publicly point to the places in our lives and in our churches where God has shown up and can we proclaim what that has meant to us? Even the shyest and most Midwestern of us can. And we need to because, if we leave that stone in our pocket rather than stacking it high, those who come along will not know of God's faithfulness and presence in our lives. Without "raising our ebenezers,"[2] the hungry public will not know that God showed up here. 

    [1] Volume one, page nine, of six-volume series on the Great Ends of the Church, Witherspoon Press, 2003 

    [2] From the second verse of the hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," written by Robert Robinson, 1757


  • Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About it.

    by User Not Found | Aug 20, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Angela Morris, head of public services at Louisville Seminary.

    "Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About it." [1] These were the opening words at a recent worship service I attended at the annual American Theological Library Association conference in Charlotte, N.C. Leighton Ford used this excerpt from a Mary Oliver poem to  preach a thought-provoking sermon entitled “God Is Paying Attention – Are We?” 

    What about it, how often do we really pay attention, to anything? When was the last time you were truly astonished? If we are honest, in today’s hyper-connected world of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we tell about everything. These instant messaging tools encourage us to tell all, with no requirement for "paying attention and/or astonishment."

    Relax, this isn't a Luddite diatribe against technology. After all, I've written a blog entry on a laptop and these words are now posted on the Internet. Rather it is an invitation to consider how often we truly pay attention, why we might want to, and what is gained by the practice. 

    There are many impediments to paying attention in our world that glorifies the art of multi-tasking and offers so many tools for doing it. Our smart phones allow us to not only make and receive calls, but to also check e-mail, search the Internet, listen to music, and be instantly updated – all options that require our attention. They encourage us to view the world through their screen instead of directly. What do we miss by viewing that four inch surface when we walk from one place to another; when we sit amid a group of people and choose to engage with the virtual and not the breathing, thinking, feeling, living child of God sitting next to us?  

    Two years ago Sean Hayden, a fellow in Vanderbilt’s Theology and Practice Program, taught a seminar at Louisville Seminary on Wendell Berry – a rather famous Luddite.  The course required that students take two technology sabbaticals, one of three days, the second a full week. During this sabbatical, we were asked to “briefly give up our addiction to technology. No Internet or computers (other than for school use, and then only  if absolutely necessary), no TV, and no cell phones or similar devices. The primary goal of the exercise was for us to learn a simple lesson about attention—and how it gets ruined.” [2]

    Technology for many of the twelve students in the seminar was a way of life. I've likened their use of technology to being as essential to them as breathing is. Their feedback after surviving those days unplugged was very interesting. The biggest surprise? The realization of how much  time  they spend online. The realization that, “yes, technology does save one time with many tasks, but it often robs one of time by luring one to check out another web page, see what our friends are up to on Facebook, answer the latest e-mail that just came through, or check the latest gossip about our favorite celebrity.”

    What about it? Is technology a tool that you control, or is it perhaps controlling you? I think too many forget that there is an off button. What if, instead of having everything on all the time, you only powered up when you needed to check on something or perform a task? I often remind  my completely wired twenty-three-year-old daughter that she has the power, she only has to exercise it. 

    Think about it – what if you unplug and really pay attention to the person in front of you, the task at hand, or the ever changing vista of the natural world. I predict that you will be astonished and that you won’t be able to keep from telling about it. It’s what happened at a worship service I attended in North Carolina in June.   

                    [1] Excerpt from Mary Oliver poem “Sometimes” section 3 in Red Bird: Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 37.

                    [2] From syllabus for “Southern Religious Humanism: Wendell Berry’s Philosophy of Life,” class taught at Louisville Seminary, Spring, 2012, 1, accessed  July 29, 2013,   http://www.lpts.edu/docs/syllabi/th368-3_sp12.pdf?sfvrsn=0.

  • Impossible People

    by User Not Found | Aug 13, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Dr. F. Morgan Roberts, trustee of Louisville Seminary. 

    George MacDonald’s best known sermons were never delivered. Forced to leave his pulpit because of his controversial message of God’s universal grace, he preached thereafter with his pen, producing 619 pages of Unspoken Sermons. Here’s an undelivered, unspoken sermon of mine that has been aging in my “possible sermon” file.

    It starts with a story about violinist Joshua Bell who was concertizing in Washington, D.C. in 2007. While there, the Washington Post employed Bell for an interesting experiment. Dressed as a musician who was “down on his luck” and begging, Bell leaned against a subway wall and played for forty-five minutes. His underground concert consisted of six glorious but difficult pieces, which he played on his $3.5 million Stradivarius. A hidden camera recorded the audience’s response to this master musician whose concerts can cost $100 per ticket. Of the 1,097 people who walked by, twenty-seven dropped their pocket change into Bell’s box, but walked on without stopping to enjoy the music. How many stopped long enough to listen? Seven!

    Would we recognize the “real item,” the real Jesus if we passed by him when he wasn’t wearing his customary clothing of classical, or even Sunday School art?

    You think you know where I’m going with this one, expecting me to ask if we would recognize Jesus in the rags of the destitute and disadvantaged. But that’s not at all where I’m headed with my Joshua Bell story. In fact, we preachers have sermonized so frequently upon Matthew 25 and Jesus’ promise of his presence among “the least of these” that we expect to find him in the impossible plight of the poor. No, that’s not where I’m going.

    Neither am I referring to those other impossible people, those so deeply dysfunctional that they are shut away in our prisons or psychiatric hospitals for their protection and ours. I have to believe that the God of grace must be working mysteriously within them for their full healing on some other, future shore.

    It’s “my impossible people” who are my problem. I just cannot spot any evidence of the presence of Jesus in the lives of people who seem incapable of thinking of anyone other than themselves. They remind me of the busload of insubstantial, ghostly souls in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce who have been brought up from hell to the borders of heaven to be offered a second chance. Pitifully imprisoned within their self-will, they simply cannot let go of their misery to grasp the joy of self-surrender.

    These impossible people are ever with us, occupying the best places. Some may attain high public office, even stand in our pulpits or teach in our seminaries. Indeed, some of us, in a fit of youthful passion, may even have married one of them! If one of these comes to mind as you read these words, you understand what I mean when I say that there are people in whose lives I simply cannot detect the presence of Jesus. I cannot imagine how they will ever be saved from themselves, especially on Sunday morning when the creed asks me to say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.” Whether my mentor is N.T. Wright or Rudolf Bultmann, those become really impossible words when I recite them with my impossible people in mind… until it occurs to me that I myself may seem to be impossible in someone else’s mind. And it is here that some words of George MacDonald come to my rescue: “I well remember… feeling as a child that I did not care for God to love me if he did not love everybody: the kind of love I needed was the love that all men needed, the love that belonged to their nature as the children of the Father, a love he could not give me except he gave it to all men.”

    So I’m left with the “mission impossible” of living reverently in the wild hope that no person is ever impossible with the God of radical grace who will, somehow, bring all of us home. With Quaker George Fox, I must somehow learn to “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”

  • Being Green

    by User Not Found | Aug 06, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Louisville Seminary student Abbi Long (MDiv '15).

    “It’s not that easy being green. Having to spend each day the color of the leaves, when I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow, or gold or something much more colorful like that. It’s not that easy being green.” –Kermit the Frog

    I think Kermit was onto something when he sang this song on PBS’s Sesame Street. What is it about being green that is so difficult? Why is the word “green” so polarizing in a conversation with friends and coworkers? Just the mention of it within certain circles and people quickly jump onto one bandwagon or another. Truly, being green is no less controversial than many other contemporary issues. I might even dare to say that being green is more controversial because it is based on science, something that Christians have often struggled to embrace.

    Being green used to be too much for me to swallow as well. I recently finished a course in Environmental Ethics with Dr. Scott Williamson. I enrolled in the course to fulfill requirements toward my MDiv. I enrolled because it met at a convenient time, on a convenient day. I had just enough room in my faith to consider how the environment might not only be an issue for science, it might be an issue for the Church.

    As a United Methodist Licensed Local Pastor, I chose the course not only because it was convenient, I selected the course because my denomination strives to focus on issues of social justice. Because the course was in ethics, I knew that I would come face-to-face with why the environment was an issue of social justice that the Church could no longer ignore.

    I have to admit—I am still unable to make the environment the biggest soap box to stand on. What I am able to do now that I have taken this course is make it ONE of the platforms I have in my theology.

    I want to invite you to consider Earth, God’s creation, in the same manner.

    I want to invite you to go on a drive, maybe even a tour of your city.

    Our class went on such a tour. The Passionist Earth and Spirit Center in Louisville, Kentucky gave us a crystal clear perspective on the history of the west side of our city. Unfortunately, many of the people who live on that side of town are unable to pack up and move to a better environment. The speaker really caught my attention when he talked about how in a fair world, we should all feel comfortable trading places with our neighbor. After our tour, I knew that my city was not fair. I knew that I could not trade places with the people living mere feet away from a power plant or busy freeway and still experience the same quality of life.

    Consider with me the reasons why the care of our environment is an issue of social justice. Who is affected most by pollution? What groups of people are impacted by newly constructed freeways? Do the people living near coal power plants have the financial resources to move when they become ill from the effects of pollution?

    Consider with me then how to overcome the challenge of discussing this topic. How can we engage with one another across the chasm of politics to consider the role of the Church in this issue of social justice? How can we invite people of all faiths to participate in discovering solutions to humankind’s misuse of the earth?

    Kermit’s song goes on. He sings, “It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things. And people tend to pass you over, ‘cause you’re not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky. But green’s the color of the spring. And green can be cool and friendly like. And green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain or tall like a tree. When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why, but, why wonder? Why wonder? I’m green. And it’ll do fine. It’s beautiful. And I think it’s what I want to be.”

    And I do want to be green. I want to be green because though it has not yet captivated the Church like a flashy sparkle in the water, being green is big and tall and important to humans everywhere.

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