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Thinking Out Loud
  • 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.

  • What Books Are On Your Bedside Table?

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Good News for Everyone Who Tries

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 17, 2012

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

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

    “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

    It is even beyond our vision.

    We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction

    Of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

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

    That the kingdom always lies beyond us.

    No statement says all that could be said.

    No prayer fully expresses our faith.

    No confession brings perfection.

    No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

    No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

    No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

    This is what we are about.

    We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

    We water seeds already planted,

    Knowing that they hold future promise.

    We lay foundations that will need further development.

    We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We are prophets of a future not our own.


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

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

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

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

  • The "Nones" May Have It Right

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2012

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


    “No he wasn’t,” Blackadder responds.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    Their disenchantment with us sounds a lot like the words Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison over fifty years ago as he surveyed the future of the church. Bonhoeffer wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others…. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: 1971, 382-383)


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


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

  • Seven Words

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 02, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hey, that’s seven words!

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

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

    [iii]Ibid., 152.

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

  • Humus for the Soul

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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