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Thinking Out Loud
  • “I believe”: The Poetry of Wislawa Szymborska

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 12, 2013

    There is something almost fragile, something disarmingly vulnerable and at times unwieldy about the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska; fragile, vulnerable, and unwieldy in a similar way to one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words.” Her sense of irony undercuts any pretension (a vice that she seems completely to lack in herself), and becomes a weapon, deftly  
    of cutting and destabilizing any attempt                    
    by others to mask the truth.

    She is, I believe, the perfect poet of a country long occupied by the old Soviet Union, and, by extension, any country occupied by any ideological force. A Pole who survived the terrors of the Second World War, Szymborska early embraced Communism and tried to stick it out with that ideology, even while it became progressively obvious to many others that Soviet-style Communism was morally bankrupt, corrupt, and corrupting. By the mid-nineteen-sixties she had left the party that she had tried to “fix from the inside.” Her youthful acceptance of Communism, she later characterized as the result of “foolishness, naivety and perhaps intellectual laziness.” Her decision to stay in the Communist party so long, hoping to change it for the better, she came to characterize as delusional.

    But this does not mean that she is a poet without hope. Quite the contrary. She is one of the most hopeful poets I have ever read. I am applying “hopeful” to Szymborska here with the same reserve an old friend used of the term “joy” when he once said that “joy is a word we can only understand on Good Friday.” Hopeful is a word that only makes sense against the backdrop of loss, disillusionment, and disenchantment.

    Note, for example, what changes are afoot as the poem “Discovery” moves along from its first stanzas to its climax:

    “I believe in the great discovery.

    I believe in the man who will make the great discovery.

    I believe in the fear of the man who will make the discovery.

    I believe in his face going white,

    his queasiness, his upper lip drenched in cold sweat.

    I believe in the burning of his notes,

    burning them into ashes,

    burning them to the last scrap ….

    I believe in the refusal to take part.

    I believe in the ruined career.

    I believe in the wasted years of work.

    I believe in the secret taken to the grave.

    These words soar for me beyond all rules

    without seeking support from actual examples.

    My faith is strong, blind, and without foundation.”

    Reading these lines it is easy to see why she was selected in 1996 for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and why a year or so ago she was eulogized around the world when she died at the age of 88.

    Children at school in her homeland learn by heart her poems, such as “Cat in an empty apartment.” It is as accessible as lines we learned in school by Robert Frost. But there are lines also by Szymborska that I shall plumb for years and never exhaust, such as the closing lines of “Psalm.”

    “Only what is human can truly be foreign.

    The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.”

    Or the lines from “The Letters of the Dead” which bring to mind Voltaire and Epicurus and Thomas Mann:

    “Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different.

    Or a little bit different – which is to say, completely different.”

    The wry sense of humor, withering and devastating, are as much a part of her poetry as her courage and hope, as we see in “Advertisement.”

    “I’m a tranquilizer.

    I’m effective at home.

    I work in the office.

    I can take exams

    or the witness stand.

    I mend broken cups with care.

    All you have to do is take me,

    let me melt beneath your tongue,

    just gulp me

    with a glass of water.

    I know how to handle misfortune,

    how to take bad news.

    I can minimize injustice,

    lighten up God’s absence ….

    Sell me your soul.

    There are no other takers.

    There is no other devil anymore.”

    From her almost mythical short narrative poem, “Parable” (1962), to her new poems (1993-1997), there is such a wealth of insight and unflinching courage in her work. Her voice is unlike any other poet’s, to the extent that it simply magnifies the irony of one of her last poems, “Among the Multitudes,” which begins with the words, “I am who I am,” but then says:

    “I could have been someone

    much less separate.

    Someone from an anthill, shoal, or buzzing swarm ….”

    Perhaps she is right. Perhaps she could have been, but what a loss for her readers if that had been true.

    *For those wishing to read Szymborska, I recommend her Poems: New and Collected (1957-1997), translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (New York: Harcourt, Inc. 1998). This edition includes her Nobel Prize address, “The Poet and the World,” which is, by turns, witty and profoundly moving. See review here. The biographical information in this blog post is largely drawn from The Economist obituary published February 11, 2012.

    Read Szymborska's full bio here

  • Renaissance Woman

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 05, 2013

    Sara (or Sarah) Losh would stand out in any age. In the age in which she lived (1785-1853) she was virtually unique. The grandchild and child of landed gentry in the Cumbrian region (northwestern England), Sara was reared in a home that valued education, curiosity, and independence. Her father, John (who inherited the land that was the cornerstone of their family fortune), and uncles, James (a barrister) and William (an industrialist and inventor) were leaders in their society. They encouraged Sara and her sister Katharine to cultivate an interest in mathematics, geology, engineering, archaeology, poetry, the arts, languages (modern and ancient), and politics.

    Though both Sara and Katharine were heralded as great beauties when they entered society in Carlisle (and portraits of Sara are consistent with this view), neither married. Both were involved throughout their lives in a wide range of activities. Their Uncle James, who was a close friend of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and extraordinary political thinkers of the time, introduced them also to many of the leading lights of literature and radical politics. But Sara emerged in this male-dominated society as a figure of singular originality and brilliance.

    Henry Lonsdale, the nineteenth-century author, compared her intellect to that of novelist and translator George Eliot. More recently Simon Jenkins, the well-known English columnist for the Sunday Times (London) and author of one of my favorite books, ("England's Thousand Best Churches") describes Sara Losh as "a genius, a Charlotte Bronte of wood and stone." What Sara did that was so exceptional was to translate her own wide-ranging interests and transmute her own profound personal grief into building projects that stand to this day as among the most wondrous small masterpieces in the world.

    Recently Sara's story has been told by Jenny Uglow, a fine historian who brings her skills as a "group biographer" to bear on Sara's life, illuminating a family and circle even more than an individual, in her book, "The Pinecone" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). The title of the biography relates directly to Sara's crowning achievement, the construction of the small gem for which she is remembered chiefly today, St. Mary's Church in the village of Wreay, the Cumbrian village where Sara and her family lived, about five miles south of Carlisle, England.

    St. Mary's Church, which was built between 1840 and 1842 was entirely Sara's project. This astonishingly independent woman volunteered to provide the land and funds to replace the crumbling village church provided, "I should be left unrestricted as to the mode of building it." The village elders (The Twelve Men or Wreay) gave their permission. Sara's relationship to this body was ironic in that as the region's major landowner her father had chaired the Twelve Men, and his heir would naturally have succeeded him; but Sara (his heir) could not even become a member of the body let alone its leader because of her gender, though after her father's death she remained throughout her life the largest landholder in the region and its primary benefactor.

    Sara's interest in architecture had been awakened while she and her sister Katharine were on a grand tour of Europe in 1815, especially during their visit to Italy. And smaller building projects offered opportunities for Sara to express her ideas in her village. But when she turned to the design of St. Mary's everything came together, her love of simple, clean architectural lines led her to design a Roman basilica with a rectangular nave and a semicircular apse, a design she felt reflected the beauty and simplicity of early Christian liturgical architecture. Her design ran directly counter to the fashion of the age for English Gothic Revival and anticipated by some fifty years the Arts and Crafts movement.

    Sara's grief and her interests intertwined in the ornamentation of the structure. Sara's world had been shaken in 1833 by the death of her beloved Uncle James, but even more so by the death of her sister Katharine in 1835, a loss from which she seemed never fully to recover. St. Mary's Church is richly adorned with symbols of eternity, resurrection and regeneration, creation and fertility, overwhelmingly drawn from nature: pinecones (lots and lots of pinecones) and pomegranates, a chrysalis and butterfly, lotus and other flowers, acorns and bees. The church has been described as a reflection "in stone and wood" of "the love of God for all creation." But it is not only a celebration of the contemporary natural world—it is one of past worlds, too. Ammonites and other fossil finds can be seen next to birds Sara would have seen in the surrounding woods and fields. While the baptismal font has a mirrored lid that gives the impression that living water lilies are floating in its waters and the lectern is upheld by a stork with neck and wings outstretched, the pulpit is carved from a bog oak to resemble a huge fossilized tree trunk. Past and present fuse in a symphony of symbols.

    Some have seen paganism at work in Sara's design. It is far more likely that we find a deep faith, suspicious of doctrinaire dogmatism, lit by natural and historical curiosity in a region abounding in Roman and Celtic antiquities, and in a time when people made revolutionary scientific discoveries at quarries and in laboratories every day.

    Among the most poignant symbols in St. Mary's are the arrows, which are said to memorialize the death of Sara's friend, Major William Thain, who was killed in the Afghan War in 1842. But among the most poignant facts emerging from Sara's life is the loss of her writings.

    Sara herself destroyed most of her letters and papers, but she kept a journal chronicling the European trip she and Katharine took together in 1815, a trip that fired her imagination and led to her architectural endeavors. This journal, in seven manuscript volumes, went missing after a family member loaned it to a friend in the 1870s. But perhaps even this is fitting. The lasting testaments to this Renaissance woman who not only designed but personally supervised her buildings, and who took turns carving the stone of her monuments, are the structures themselves. There we can read her character and see her imagination and brilliance fully at play.

  • Dwelling Places

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 26, 2013

    Let not your heart be troubled,” says Jesus, in the Gospel of John. “Believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.

    As Erskine Clarke makes clear in his remarkable history of Antebellum Georgia, especially as seen through the eyes of the men and women and children, white and African American, who lived on a cluster of coastal plantations, Jesus’ words have been perceived as much as a threat as they have as a promise. The purpose of Clarke’s book, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic, is to bring to life this group of people. He elaborates on the intention of his book by quoting another scholar, Rhys Isaac, who wrote: “The final presentation of one’s research should not be primarily a record of the researcher’s labors, but a persuasive reconstruction of the experiences of past actors.”

    Clarke, by carefully reconstructing the experiences of these past actors, invites us into their lived experience. He first focuses on the extended Jones family, a white, slave-owning family. He especially wants us to understand the life of the central “actor” in this family during this period, Charles Colcock Jones. Jones, a Presbyterian minister who became known as “the Apostle to the Slaves,” was a man whose spiritual and cultural pilgrimage took him to Princeton Seminary and into the company of dedicated Abolitionists and Emancipationists. Jones became a close friend of Catherine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But, despite a promising start, his journey eventually culminated in a tragically conventional southern reinforcement of slavery.

    In the course of this aspect of Clarke’s study we glimpse the power of context and connections to distort even the most idealistic and well-intended of persons. The author warns us, early in the book, to expect that however high Jones’ vision had been cast while among progressive leaders during his university and seminary years, he would not sustain that vision. Though he left seminary dedicated to discover and pursue ways in which the “best interests” of enslaved Africans “could be promoted,” his attempts at finding what Clarke describes as a “middle path” ended in his compromising with and promoting the institution of slavery. While among his abolitionist and emancipationist friends in New England he wondered if perhaps the religious community of those who opposed slavery might provide for him “another kind of home—an alternative vision, a broader, less tribal way of understanding home in this world and the next.” In the end, the strong familial and communal bonds of his coastal Georgia “dwelling place” proved far stronger than the community he acquired as a student.

    These familial bonds were further reinforced by the economic self-interest of the southern planter class, of which Jones was a member. Jones, for all his personal piety and courtesy to individuals, seemed utterly unaware of the grotesque self-contradiction in trying to make a fundamentally inhuman and inhumane system of enslavement either kind or pious.

    What is perhaps most remarkable about Clarke’s study, however, are the voices, faces, and lives he illuminates of the families and neighborhoods of African-American slaves. Powerfully he names these men, women, and children who often remain unnamed and unknown. He takes us into their lives. He invites us into their homes. He reveals their often effective networks of resistance to the institution of slavery and the messages of subversion passed on in sophisticated codes from one generation to another. He also demonstrates the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to liberate enslaved persons, the power of the Gospel to usher generations of enslaved persons into a secure dwelling place.

    One of the most striking insights of the book relates directly to the proclamation of the Christian Gospel among enslaved blacks. Ironically it is the story that shows Charles Colcock Jones at his best.

    After returning home to coastal Georgia from seminary, Jones set about to persuade plantation owners of their Christian duty to see that their slaves received a Christian education. Jones had committed himself to organizing and leading this educational mission. Among some plantation owners, especially those who were themselves most ill at ease with the abominable institution from which they were profiting, Jones found a hearing. But even among these plantation owners there was a deep concern that the Bible, particularly the Gospel, would, if learned and believed by enslaved people, undermine the institution of slavery. Despite efforts by many white, southern clergymen to use the Bible to defend slavery, clearly many did not believe their own propaganda. And among some planters, Jones, to his utter surprise, found outright hostility to the Gospel, to Christianity, to Jesus Christ, because these planters saw in Christian faith a threat to their economic interests.

    One apologist for slavery, Whitemarsh Seabrook, a South Carolinian, attacked Jones and other southern clergy head-on, as Clarke writes: “’The intermixture of plantations and the employment of any one whose profession it was to teach the word of God’ Seabrook deemed filled with ‘insuperable objections.’ Clergy, he admitted, had an important function in society so long as they were kept ‘rigidly within the limits of their station.’… A ‘few of our reverend friends,’ he [Seabrook] wrote, ‘in their behavior and teachings, apply the same rules to the black as the white man,’ and they were thereby laying ‘the foundation for opinions inimical to the peace of the State.’”

    Clarke, a professor emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, presents a portrait in his book of breathtaking honesty and trenchant insight. Not only do we gain a deeper perspective on the lives of persons living in the United States in the years leading to the Civil War, we also gain a deeper understanding of the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I could not help but reflect, reading this book, on the claims of the Gospel as articulated in “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” that Jesus Christ is Lord over all our lives. The power of the Gospel to liberate will not be fettered.

  • Thurgood Marshall, America’s Promise, and the “Devil in the Grove”

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 25, 2013

    After a night of serious drinking at an American Legion hall dance in Lake County, Florida, one mid-summer evening in 1949, a 17-year-old girl named Norma Lee (Tyson) Padgett and her estranged husband, Willie Padgett, reported that they had been the victims of a violent attack by a group of young Black men. The young woman claimed she had been raped, though physical evidence did not support her claim.

    The truth was both much simpler and, because of the time and place in which these young people all lived, much more complicated. In fact, the young white couple, whose car had stalled on a rural road, had been the beneficiaries of the kindness of two young army veterans, both African American, who happened to be driving on the same road as the couple, saw their stalled car, and stopped to help. But after these two young Black men were unable to get the car restarted – and after suffering verbal abuse and racial epithets as recompense for their labors – one of the Black men retaliated, leaving Willie on the ground.

    Gilbert King, a journalist who has written on legal history for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and who tells this story in his gripping book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, describes the scene: “The two friends stood for a moment, their eyes set on a motionless Willie Padgett lying sprawled in the grass beside a pasture fence. They hadn’t hurt him too badly, and he’d had it coming, but this was Lake County, and they could see the picture. Cross a white man wrong in these parts and you’re like to find your own black self lying dead in a ditch. Norma Lee Padgett, still clutching the near-empty bottle of whiskey, steadied herself on the sand and clay. Bathed in the bright moonlight and the glow from the Mercury’s headlights, she knew. She knew nothing good would come of this. They all knew.”

    The wrath of a notoriously violent sheriff, Willis V. McCall, was unleashed as soon as the couple made their claims, as was the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan. Homes were burned. Innocent men were murdered, and families were driven from the area. And, upon this stage, strewn with shattered lives, stepped a weary man from New York City, a lawyer for the NAACP, already deeply invested in other cases around the country, including the landmark case which he would argue before the Supreme Court of the United States, “Brown v. Board of Education.” Ignoring threats and in the face of harrowing violence – which had already claimed the life of one of the NAACP’s dedicated associates in Florida – future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Mr. Civil Rights,” took up this case personally and saw it to its end in a way that helped to change race relations throughout the country.

    Reading how this story unfolded is worth your time. And I commend Gilbert King’s book to you. But I would like to reflect on the story just a moment to understand a larger historical point.

    In his most recent book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, Stephen Prothero assembles a sort of canon of American civil religion, a collection of nationally-sacred texts, arranged thematically as the Christian Bible is arranged from Genesis to Epistles, including Laws, Chronicles, Psalms, Prophets, and Gospels. Genesis includes “The Declaration of Independence.” In the “Law” section, we find the U.S. Constitution and “Brown v. Board of Education.” Among the prophets we find Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream.” And in the epistles we have Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

    When we place in the same frame these astonishing texts and the story Gilbert King tells, the faith African Americans have placed in the deepest, foundational legal ideals of this country even when the practices of those charged with shaping, adjudicating, and enforcing specific laws have so often betrayed the ideals themselves, comes clearly into focus.

    Thus, Dr. King, in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, says, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Standing in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King said: “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”

    When a decade later, another great African-American leader, educator and legislator Barbara Jordan, said, one mid-summer evening in 1974, “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” she was articulating the same hope in the fundamental claims of our republic that drove Thurgood Marshall to get off a plane in Florida to do battle with those who had perverted justice during that other mid-summer evening in 1949. It was the same hope that compelled Dr. King to have more confidence in America’s promises than many thought realistic.

    If there is anything the civil rights movement should have taught us it is that we should not give up on our country to live up to its ideals. One certainly can grow weary in the struggle toward fulfillment of those ideals, because the struggle is long; but there is no room for cynicism in a nation of people who have, against all odds, been roused again and again by Lincoln’s “better angels,” and Jefferson’s love for freedom, and King’s faith in a hate-conquering Love to find in our founding not an excuse for self-indulgence and license, but a call to the common good.

  • The Time is Ripe

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 19, 2013

    Recently, Imam Plemon El-Amin, the distinguished Muslim leader and scholar, provided the devotional at our annual gathering of Presbyterian Seminary presidents and board chairs in Atlanta. Imam El-Amin read a passage from the Qu’ran: "The worst food is that which is taken from the poor."

    I am sure that all of us in the room that day felt the resonance between the sacred text of Islam and our own Bible, from the thundering call of the Old Testament prophets to our Lord Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to the book of James. I was also reminded, however, of another witness to justice that day, and how this passage from the Qu’ran shares his gift for coining a memorable phrase. I am thinking, of course, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Almost immediately upon returning from the meeting in Atlanta, I turned to James Washington's collection of Dr. King's writings, and sought out in that collection a sermon Dr. King preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 1968.

    What Dr. King sees in this sermon is the intimate relationship between the plight of the poor and the bounty of everyone else, a relationship that may leave a bad taste in our mouths. His text at the National Cathedral was the story of Lazarus and Dives.

    You, no doubt, remember this story well. Dives was a rich man and Lazarus was poor and sick. Every day, Lazarus would struggle to the gates of Dives' palatial home, and there he would beg, hoping that Dives would see him and take pity on him and share with him the crumbs that fell from Dives' banquet table. Dives, however, never took notice of Lazarus in life, and never shared his bounty with Lazarus. In time, so the parable goes, both Dives and Lazarus died. Lazarus was gathered into the bosom of Abraham in heaven while Dives went in the other direction. Between the two men, the Bible says, was a "fixed gulf."

    Dr. King takes up this story with all the skill and power of a brilliant preacher and biblical scholar. He comments on the parable: "There is nothing in that parable that said Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against wealth... Dives didn't go to hell because he was rich. Dives didn't realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother, Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible."

    Dr. King takes justice personally, but he sees the causes of injustice as something beyond the personal, as something systemic and social. And herein lies his genius. He understands that the comfort of every contemporary Dives depends on the desperate circumstances of many, many struggling Lazaruses. He describes poverty as "a monstrous octopus" spreading "its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over the world." He connects the hunger and poverty suffered by millions with the banquet before which so many of us sit. And he reminds us, in his distinctive cadences, that injustice depends not only on "the vitriolic words and violent actions" of the evil, but also on "the appalling silence and indifference" of the good.

    "Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God," says Dr. King. "The time is always ripe to do right."

    Perhaps if Dives had seen this he would also have seen Lazarus in life, and he would have built a bridge across the gulf that separated them—a bridge that would have spanned eternity. Certainly he would have discovered that while the worst food is that which is taken from the poor, the most delicious meals are the ones that we share.

  • Rosa Parks: Courage

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 05, 2013

    The names roll down the ages like a roll call of the saints – the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, Mr. Fred Daniels, Mrs. Rosa Parks and Dr. Moses W. Jones – African- American citizens in Montgomery, Alabama, who in 1955 and 1956 courageously led the Black community in a boycott of the Montgomery City Line buses. One name stands out, without whom the boycott would never have happened at all: Rosa Parks.

    On a perfectly ordinary Thursday afternoon (December 1, 1955) in Montgomery, a perfectly ordinary Southern city, Mrs. Parks moved the civil rights movement dramatically forward simply by refusing to give up her seat in the unreserved section of the bus where Blacks were permitted to sit so that a white man could have it. She wouldn't "move back." And she was promptly arrested and jailed; her trial set for the following Monday.

    Over the weekend, in an astonishing expression of both formal and informal means of communication, the African-American population of the city spread the word and agreed not to use the buses on Monday. Ministers, such as the Reverend Abernathy and Dr. King (then serving as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery) endorsed the protest during their Sunday services. Then, after Mrs. Parks was found guilty on Monday and was fined $14 (a judgment she appealed), the ministers called for a meeting to be held that evening. Thousands came to the church. So many came that loudspeakers had to be set up outside.

    Following a speech by Dr. King, the Reverend Abernathy read a declaration which was immediately and unanimously adopted. Black citizens covenanted not to ride the buses until their modest conditions were met, including the guarantee of courteous treatment by bus operators and an agreement that passengers would be seated simply on a first come, first served basis.

    Mrs. Parks’ action was in response to what one reporter, L. D. Reddick, at the time described as "a long history of abuse by the bus operators." In his coverage of the bus boycott, titled, "They Have Already Won" (published in "Dissent," Winter 1956), Reddick wrote: "Almost everybody could tell of some unfortunate personal experience that he himself had had or seen... The outrage of the Emmett Till murder was alive in everyone's mind. The silence and inaction of the Federal Government, in the face of the daily abuse, beatings and killings of Negro citizens, was maddening." [Reddick's story appears on pp. 252-265 in "Reporting Civil Rights: Part One American Journalism, 1941-1963 (New York: Library Classics of the United States), 2003].

    So a woman with extraordinary courage did the most ordinary thing one could imagine. She remained seated. And a whole people rose up in response. Against almost every prediction by press and police, this whole people rose up in peace, actively disavowing violence and revenge. And this month the United States Postal Service put the face of the woman who evoked the movement on a stamp.

    I have a sheet of these stamps before me as I write this blog. Courage is printed down the left-hand margin, and that is fitting. On the stamp itself, Mrs. Parks looks right past me, as though she is looking at history, as though she is taking in the long, vast trajectory of our history, a history changed forever by one brave woman's actions.

  • Getting the Facts Straight about "Nones"

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 29, 2013

    Recently I read an essay in the New York Times referring to the much discussed sociological category of "nones." That particular essay completely misread recent studies implying that "nones" are non-believers, even agnostics or atheists. I was just about to produce a blog on the subject when my colleague and friend Matthew Myer Boulton, President of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, posted his excellent blog, which he has given me permission to share with you (below). After reading Matt's blog, I felt it would be largely redundant to write my own. I want to thank Matt for his insightful comments and his willingness to appear as a guest blogger this week on "Thinking Out Loud."

    Those who would like, may refer back to the blog I wrote when the Pew Study about the "nones" was originally announced or read the related news stories that followed publication of that blog.

    The following post was written by Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton, President of
    Christian Theological Seminary, and appeared on his blog "Salt & Light." Previously, Dr. Boulton taught at Harvard Divinity School. His most recent books include Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Eerdmans 2011), and God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship (Eerdmans, 2008).


    Much Ado about "Nones"

    By Matthew Myer Boulton

    If you’re a reader of the New York Times, or a listener to National Public Radio, or a follower of the Religion News Service, you’d have good reason over the past week or so to come to the conclusion that the United States — and indeed the world — is becoming less and less religious.

    The Times recently ran an article on atheism in which, almost in passing, the author cites a Pew Forum study to support the claim that “roughly 20 percent” of Americans are “secularly inclined” as opposed to religious. National Public Radio ran a series this week entitled “Losing Our Religion.” Religion News Service ran a story that The Christian Century published under the headline, “Unbelief is world’s third-largest ‘religion’”.

    And yet all of this is misleading, subtly but decisively. Each of these stories, in various ways, combines and collapses three categories: “Atheist,” “Agnostic” (these two combined currently constitute only about 5% of the U.S. population), and “Unaffiliated,” that is, those who do not claim a particular religious affiliation (the so-called “Nones,” who constitute about 15%). But if you read the Pew Forum’s report on the rise of the Unaffiliateds, you’ll find that 70% of them believe in God; 60% call themselves either “religious” or “spiritual,” and 40% of them pray. Lumping together this group with atheists and agnostics, or calling their increase a rise in “unbelief” or a case of “losing our religion,” is sloppy analysis at best.

    Worse, this kind of categorization lends support to the false impression that U.S. society, and world society with it, is turning away from religious convictions and toward atheism or agnosticism — a conclusion the data simply do not support. Affiliation patterns are changing, it’s true (this is also true of political affiliations: “Independents” are on the rise in the U.S.). But we also live in a breathtakingly religious age: in percentage terms, religious belief and practice are basically holding steady in the U.S. overall, and globally, no less than 84% of the world’s 7 billion people claim a particular religious affiliation — and a great many of the other 16%, while they may not identify as members of a particular brand of religion, nevertheless call themselves “religious” or “spiritual.”

    Religion deeply, widely matters, and will continue to do so, both at home and abroad. Thinking otherwise will lead our thoughts astray, whether we are within or without religious communities. And the stories we tell about religious trends matter, too.

    The more we mislabel data and suggest that “roughly 20 percent” of the U.S. population are atheist or agnostic (to take the New York Times example), the more we run the risk of concluding that religion is on the way out — the “secularization thesis” that has come and gone, and now has come again, on the American scene. What’s more, this misunderstanding runs the risk of actually contributing to the trend it falsely announces, since it conjures visions of a stampede for religion’s exit door (“20 percent!”) — and as every antelope knows, stampedes attract followers. On the other hand, the secularization myth may be especially tempting for historically mainline churches today, since it provides a handy excuse for any failure to attract or retain younger generations (“well, it must be them, not us”). In other words, for churches, too, mis-telling the story leads us to misinterpret our situation.

    The point here is not that Christian communities should be complacent about the rise of the Unaffiliateds, or simply rest assured that religion is alive and well. Rather, the point is that we should read the data rigorously and wisely, resisting the “secularization” interpretation as long as the data do not support it, and instead working to be nimble enough to engage Unaffiliateds according to their own cherished values: independence and flexibility, to be sure, but also, in many cases, a genuine, vital interest in religion and spirituality.

  • Dr. King's Legacy

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 22, 2013

    “I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world…. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, ‘God is love.’ He who loves is a participant in the being of God.” [Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Most Durable Power,” sermon preached in Montgomery, Alabama, 6 November 1956, in James M. Washington (ed.), A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 10-11.]

    There are so many aspects to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that it is very difficult to single out one. But among the greatest surely was his confidence in the power of love to conquer injustice and violence in our world.

    I was reminded of this fact again last week in a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Louisville Institute. The second day of our Board meeting fell on the birthday of Dr. King. In honor of the day, The Reverend Michael Mather, Senior Pastor of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, led the Board in a prayer service which alternated between scripture readings and passages from Dr. King’s sermons and speeches, culminating in a litany drawn from Dr. King’s writings. Michael has given me permission to share from this service of remembrance with you today.

    I was particularly struck by the juxtaposition in the service of the first reading from Dr. King, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love,” and the Epistle reading, 2 Corinthians 6: 2b-10, which begins: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

    If there is any spirit at large in our nation and in our world today, it is the cynical spirit of defeat, the belief that the ordinary person of conviction cannot make a difference in this world, that the powers and principalities of the age, the vested interests armed with wealth and influence, are unbeatable, and that, therefore, we may as well give up and give in. “Behold!”, St. Paul tells us, “Look!” “See! now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!”

    Do not let this moment slip by us! we are told.

    Edmund Burke once said that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. St. Paul, in this passage, speaks of servants of God who are willing to act, who are willing to exhibit endurance against great odds, to suffer afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, even dishonor and the disdain of others for the sake of the good.

    And it is at this point exactly that Dr. King’s greatest legacy shines through. The love which he preached had the power to express profound disappointment in the way things are, and to effect change in such a way that, not only does change become a reality, but the hearts of those who resist can also be won for the good.

    Dr. King believed that non-violence was essential because his eye was on the prize, and the prize was not simply the winning of a political point or even the achieving of a single goal, but the changing of the hearts and minds of others, even those who bitterly opposed the good he hoped to accomplish. He believed this was essential because we are all bound together in what he called “an inescapable network of mutuality.” As Dr. King said: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality…. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality.”

    Yesterday we, as a people, observed the day set aside to remember Dr. King in a variety of ways. There were worship services and speeches and television and radio events. Something more is needed. We need to find ways not just to remember what he did, but to incarnate his legacy. And we can start by believing again in the power of love, that belief which, Dr. King said, is “at the center of the Christian faith.”

    Today I leave with you, then, the litany Rev. Michael Mather shared with us last week on Dr. King’s birthday, “An Affirmation of Faith Based on the Writings of Dr. King” (which he drew from an earlier Presbyterian litany):

    “I refuse to believe that we are unable to influence the events which surround us.
    “I refuse to believe that we are so bound by racism and war, that peace, brotherhood and sisterhood are not possible.
    “I believe there is an urgent need for people to overcome oppression and violence, without resorting to violence and oppression.
    “I believe that we need to discover a way to live together in peace, a way which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of this way is love.
    “I believe that unarmed and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. I believe that right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.
    “I believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.
    “I believe that what self-centered people have torn down, other-centered people can build up.
    “By the goodness of God at work within people, I believe that brokenness can be healed. ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.’”


  • Creativity, Education and the Gift of "Stress"

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 15, 2013

    Psychologists have long recognized that for most of us there is a creative “sweet spot,” or (perhaps more accurately) a “sweet zone,” somewhere on the continuum between a complete lack of stress and disabling distress. Most of us need the variety of inputs life brings, including experiences of dissonance and difficulty and tension, in order to achieve some level of creative output. This “sweet zone,” because it is broader than a single point on the continuum, varies from one person to another, obviously; but, for any particular person, it may also vary from one situation and activity to another.

    For every Toulouse-Lautrec creatively thriving on the cacophony of the Paris nightlife, there’s an Emily Dickinson whose creative life is unimaginable without solitude. And, for any one of us, there are some moments when we need the stimulation of a group to think creatively, and other moments when we really need to shut the door and turn off the music in order to collect our thoughts.

    Recently, in an essay, "The Uses of Difficulty" in the cultural supplement, Intelligent Life (published by The Economist), journalist Ian Leslie explored the role the distressing pole of the stress continuum plays in creativity and learning. Leslie tells a story which may be familiar to fans of the The Beatles, how in 1966, after completing their “Rubber Soul” album, Paul McCartney explored the possibility of arranging for the group to record their next album in the United States where the recording studios were more technologically advanced than in Britain. The contract between The Beatles and EMI, however, made such a move impractical. So, John, Paul, George and Ringo, together with George Martin and his ingenious engineers, were forced to push, pull and manipulate their primitive recording equipment and all the instruments at their disposal to go beyond their previous efforts. Tripping over one another in the old Abbey Road studios, the group discovered that the obstacles they faced actually boosted their creativity, and consequently they created sounds that nobody had ever heard before, resulting in 1967, of course, to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

    Leslie goes on to comment on the obverse effect, the negative consequence of removing certain difficulties and making things easier. Drawing on an interview with the poet Ted Hughes in the Paris Review, Leslie relates Hughes’ experience of judging a poetry competition for young writers. For some 20 years, beginning in the 1960s, Hughes had served as a judge. And during this time he noticed a change in the length and quality of the poems he judged. While many of the poems were “verbally inventive,” they had also grown “strangely boring,” especially at a length of some 80 pages.

    What had changed during these two decades? The advent of the home computer.

    “You might have thought,” Leslie writes, “any tool which enables a writer to get words on to the page would be an advantage. But there may be a cost to such a facility.”

    John Gardner, the novelist and teacher of creative writing, in his classic study, The Art of Fiction, reflects on the obstacles presented to the writer of fiction who wishes to make creative use of historical material or well-known legends. A writer, he observes, “is to some extent stuck with these facts. If he changes things too noticeably, the reader may feel that the writer has made things too easy for himself – playing tennis without the net as Robert Frost said of poetry without rhyme.” (J. Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, New York: Random House, 1985, p. 170). But, for whatever reason, our brains find such challenges, the imposition of limits and obstacles, stimulating and satisfying. This is why we find puzzles of various sorts and certain kinds of game shows so engaging. It is also why some of the most extraordinary works of art have emerged under the most adverse circumstances.

    There is an even more important lesson in all of this, however, at least for those of us who are educators. For years, educational researchers have been telling us that difficulties and obstacles in the learning process can actually encourage greater depth of learning and retention of knowledge. One of the researchers mentioned in Leslie’s Intelligent Life essay is the cognitive psychologist, Robert Bjork. Bjork’s Learning & Forgetting Lab at UCLA has sponsored some fascinating research on the theme, “desirable difficulties,” a concept introduced by Bjork in 1994.

    In an online article published by Wired, titled, "Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning is Wrong," Garth Sundem relates an interview he conducted with Bjork. According to Bjork, the best strategy for learning new material and retaining what you learn begins first by rejecting the common method that many people adopt of trying to learn in discrete blocks, “mastering one thing before moving on to the next.” Instead Bjork suggests the strategy of what he calls “interleaving,” that is forcing yourself to move back and forth between subjects and ideas you are attempting to learn.

    Imagine, for example, a learning situation where you were forced to leap from translating Hebrew to reading Jonathan Edwards and back to biblical Hebrew again, or of studying for an exam in church history over the first four centuries of the church’s development interleaved with doing research into potential threads of Trinitarian thought in the Gospel of John.

    This process of “interleaving,” Bjork says, “creates a sense of difficulty” which actually increases your capacity to learn and to retain knowledge. “Successful interleaving,” according to Bjork, allows the learner “to ‘seat’ each skill among the others.” He explains, “If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful. There’s one caveat: Make sure the mini skills you interleave are related in some higher-order way.”

    Bjork also observes that while it is true that “if you study and then you wait, tests show that the longer you wait, the more you will have forgotten,” he also states that “if you study, wait, and then study again, the longer the wait, the more you’ll learn after the second study session.” Why? Because, Bjork explains, “When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future.”

    These insights are not only counterintuitive; they are countercultural.

    We live amid educational, social and even ecclesial cultures that tell us at every turn that we are only successful if lots of people are participating in the activities we offer and that the best way to attract lots of people is to make our educational, social and church programs as simple, easy and fun as possible so these people will remain “happy.” I remember being taught the instructional acronym KISMIF (Keep It Simple Make It Fun) years ago. This may be good advice for the entertainment industry. But it may not be the best advice for schools and churches. If what people are learning in our schools and churches really matters to the quality of their lives, indeed to the quality of our common life, and if we hope to increase their capacity for learning as well as to engage them in a deep and meaningful quest for knowledge and wisdom, we may just want to make the process of learning meaningfully and appropriately difficult. We may even find that this can be fun, too.

  • What Has Changed

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 08, 2013

    My friend, Scott Black Johnston, recently told me a story that illustrates one of the great challenges of the church and theological education in our time.

    A few years ago, Scott's church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, engaged in a couple of searches for associate pastors. In the course of each of these searches, they received over 200 applications, many of them stellar. More recently, the church conducted a search for a director of music. Again they received in excess of 200 applications. More recently still, Fifth Avenue launched its search for a new church development pastor to start-up a congregation in New York under the auspices of Fifth Avenue. This time, however, the application pool was dramatically different. Less than thirty-five people applied, of which fewer than one third were Presbyterians.

    Scott told me this story a couple of days after I had read Erskine Clarke's historical study, Dwelling Place (Yale University Press, 2005), a book I will speak about at length on another occasion. Today, the insight I want to lift from Clarke's book about life in America in the era leading up to the Civil War is that beneath his narrative, breaking through from time to time, is the story of a church profoundly driven by a sense of possibility. Many of the best seminary graduates were chomping at their bits to move into areas of the country where new congregations were needed. They were convinced that the good news of Jesus Christ changes lives, and they wanted to take this good news to people who needed to hear its message.

    This is not, by the way, the story of a radical shift in seminary curricula. If anything the curriculum of the mid-nineteenth century was far less "relevant" to the needs of young ministers starting new congregations than it is today. Most seminary students studied Greek and Hebrew so they would be able to responsibly read, study and preach the Bible. Most learned a theology that looked more like fortress Calvinism than the warm, broad faith students receive today. Their theological education rested on the traditional liberal arts education of that time, courses ranging from classics (in Latin and Greek), philosophy, and history to natural sciences. The new seminary graduates virtually invented their approaches to evangelism and church planting on the job, and figured out how to provide leadership based on the rudiments of Presbyterian polity and their own experiences of church and community life growing up.

    The big shift from then to now is attitudinal, not curricular. Throughout the church there was a sense of expectancy, of possibility, of confidence in the good news of Jesus Christ to change lives for the better, to make human beings more gracious and good, to redeem a humanity that cannot redeem itself, to liberate us from sin and disorder, and to make society more just.

    For the civic-minded, like Catherine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister), Christianity's mission was to transform society. She wrote: "The success of democratic institutions, as is conceded by all, depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the mass of people. If they are intelligent and virtuous democracy is a blessing; but if they are ignorant and wicked, it is only a curse" (Clarke, 83). For the evangelical-minded (and the two were not mutually exclusive), the great concern was to connect men and women to the message that while our own righteousness is as filthy rags in the presence of God, God stands ready to give eternal life to any who accept the grace offered in Jesus Christ.

    Whatever the motivation, the conviction ran deep in the church, in its members and ministers, and in its new candidates for ministry, that the world of humanity needs, desperately and urgently, to hear, believe and act upon the good news of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the perception was far and wide that the real "action" of the church was in forming new congregations where the gospel would be preached and taught, where lives would be transformed and formed. The most exciting departments of our denomination then were "Home Missions" and "Foreign Missions." Surely there is much with which to find fault among these men and women for the ways in which imperialism, "manifest destiny" and other societal sins and ills hitched a ride on their zeal, but at its heart there was something in their sense of mission that we lack to our detriment.

    These were the generations that built our theological schools. Between 1794 and 1902, they established ten Presbyterian seminaries, in large measure, to provide pastors for congregations that did not yet exist. When they started building these seminaries, in 1794, there were only four million people living in this country. When they established the last of these seminaries, in 1902, the population of this country stood at just under eighty million. Today, the population of our country is well over 300 million. What I'm getting at is that we didn't establish these ten seminaries to supply pastors for the Eisenhower church of the 1950s. We began these seminaries to provide leadership for churches that did not yet exist in communities that hadn't yet appeared on a map.

    Someplace, along the way, we began to think of our mission as primarily, if not solely, the enrichment of the lives of Christians in existing churches, rather than reaching non-Christians with the message and the faith that formed us. Correspondingly, we began to think of seminaries primarily as institutions that educate people to serve existing congregations rather than to start new ones.

    This is a great shame. There are millions more people today in our country and in our world than at any other time in history. And the good news of Jesus Christ still has the power to change their lives for the better. Unleashed in our lives, the gospel of Jesus Christ can transform us. Unleashed in our society, the good news of the gospel has the power to liberate people far beyond our feeble efforts.

    I am not arguing that we need to find some way to restore our denominations (whatever the particular denomination may be) to their positions of cultural dominance and influence. That is both an unworthy goal, and one far too small.

    What I am arguing is that we recapture that excitement for what God has done and can do in our lives and in our world that will mean that Scott's church will have to wade through 200 applications for just one opening to start a new church. For that to happen, something else has to change, and it has to change in the expectations, hopes and confidence of our congregations that nurture and inspire those who will attend our seminaries.

  • We're Still Here

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 01, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

    And we’re still here.

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

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

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

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

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

    Happy New Year!

  • "My Soul Magnificies the Lord"

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 25, 2012

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

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

    “And Mary said,

    ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,

    And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

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

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

    For the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    And holy is his name.

    His mercy is for those who fear him

    From generation to generation.

    He has shown strength with his arm,

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

    He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    And lifted up the lowly.

    He has filled the hungry with good things,

    And sent the rich away empty.

    He has helped his servant Israel,

    In remembrance of his mercy,

    According to the promise he made to our ancestors,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Rachel Weeping for her Children

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I want so much to believe this is true.

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

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

  • Uncommon Prayer

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 11, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Civility Through Dialogue

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 04, 2012

    A Special Guest Post by Brent and Diane Slay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Top 5 Myths about John Calvin

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 27, 2012

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

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

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

    Myth No.2: Calvin was a tyrant.

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

    Myth No.3: Calvin and Calvinism are identical.

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

    Myth No. 4: Calvin was a religious fanatic.

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

    Myth No. 5: Calvin was sadistic.

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

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

  • Thankfulness and Spiritual Health

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 20, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Not Seward's Folly

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 13, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • An Election Day Perspective

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 06, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What’s Bubbling in Our Souls

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 31, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I know how he feels. Don’t you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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