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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Imitation of Christ

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 16, 2018

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Imitation of ChristOne prays more than reads Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ.

    This is partly because it is written in the form of a conversation between God and a person at prayer. But it is also because the entire book is suffused with a spirit of sanctity.

    My Penguin paperback edition of The Imitation of Christ is some thirty years old. Judging by the various colors of underlining and the layers of highlighting, I must have read it three or four times by now. One year in particular, when I was a pastor, it sat on my desk all year long. I would read, reflect on and pray one or two short chapters at a time each morning.

    Thomas has never stopped surprising me. Even shocking me. As when he says to God:

    "Lord, it is good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your justice, and banish all conceit and presumption from my heart. It is good for me that I have suffered humiliation, that I may seek comfort in you rather than in others."

    At times, Thomas sounds more like the Greek Stoics Seneca and Epictetus, or like the ancient Buddhist teacher Shantideva than a Christian monk, as when he writes:

    "Whatever one is unable to change ... he should bear patiently until God ordains otherwise. ... Whenever such obstacles confront you, pray to God that God will grant you help and give you grace to endure them in good heart. ... Strive to be patient; bear with the faults and frailties of others, for you, too, have many faults which others must bear. ... Times of trouble best discover a person's true worth; they don't weaken you, but reveal your true nature."

    At other times, Thomas reframes in his own simple eloquence the very heart of the gospel of Christ, as when he speaks to his fellow monks, referencing two of their most sacred vows, "to stability" and “to conversion of manners":

    "If you wish to achieve stability and grow in grace, remember always that you are an exile and pilgrim on this earth. Be content to be accounted a fool for Christ's sake."

    I still recall reading for the first time his warning that nobody can live in the public eye without risking his or her soul. This caution was so timely to me as a pastor, living in one of those glass houses we call manses or rectories or parsonages. But this caution came home even more somewhat later in life when for fifteen years I took on the roles of an academic dean and seminary president. The opinions of others, if we let them, can disquiet the soul as surely as the drumbeat of the news cycle, steadily pounding away, reducing our peace of mind to rubble.

    How remarkable that this man who never led an institution or a community could sense the peculiar spiritual dangers of leadership! How amazing that one who lived in the 13th-14th centuries could speak so well of the dis-spiriting power of "the news of the world"!

    He understands something it took me most of my life to realize - and only then with the gracious persistence of my spiritual director: God's will for us is love. God is not impressed by our outward accomplishments.

    As Thomas himself says so well:

    "Without love, the outward work is of no value; but whatever is performed in love, be it ever so small, is wholly fruitful. For God regards the greatness of the love that prompts a person, rather than the greatness of his achievement. Whoever loves much, does much. ... And he does well, who serves the community before his own interests. Often an apparently loving action really springs from worldly motives; for natural inclination, self-will, hope of reward, and our own self-interest will seldom be entirely absent."

    The struggle with ourselves is won not by sheer reason, not merely by dint of human effort, but by humble submission to Jesus Christ. When we discover this, we transcend even reason "on the wings of a burning love for God."

    This love vanquishes envy and judgment of others. It gives us a perspective that realizes that every earthly thing is full of vanity. Only love endures.

    Sounding at times more like Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) than a fourteenth century monk, finding peace in the fleeting short breath, the sigh, that is life, Thomas says, "Of what use is a long life, if we amend it so little?" "Few people," Thomas observes, "seem to get more spiritually healthy by enduring sickness, and most of the people who travel hither and yon on pilgrimages don't acquire any additional holiness by doing so."

    In the midst of these reflections, Thomas pens a passage I wish might be nailed to every lintel: "Would to God that we might spend a single day really well."

    I confess that I have sat down again and again (and again and again!) in vain to write a blog about Thomas' Imitation of Christ for this year's series on spirituality. He is a giant in a Lilliputian land. A miracle of loaves and fishes that has endured for centuries and fed multitudes without number. And try as I might, I couldn't find the right way briefly to commend him or place him in a proper context or summarize his devotional thought. At one point, I had decided just to reproduce ten or twelve of the beautiful prayers contained in this book, but that was just a failure of nerve. However inadequate this little essay is, let me say that if it were an eloquent book of five hundred pages, it still would not do justice to the writings of this simple monk.

    As the children at play were overheard by Augustine to say: "take and read."

  • Ash Wednesday

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 14, 2018

    Ash WednesdayThe old trainer of championship sheep dogs, border collies all, when asked if he had any regrets, said, "It's all regrets."

    The dogs are always smarter than we are, and better "people" too. You lose your temper with a young dog and scold him only to realize later that the dog was right all along. You regret it. You wish you could undo it. Fortunately, the dogs are blessed with the character of God, and they forgive you. They just keep forgiving you, however undeserving you may be.

    "Mistakes were made." It is a classic formula of misdirection, better only by degrees from a false denial. "I made mistakes" - that's the only true statement we can make. And it would be a full-time job to say it true.

    Sunday afternoon before another Ash Wednesday, my sixty-fourth, I sit in front of my fireplace on a cold misty Kentucky day, a glass of red wine at my elbow, and I rehearse regrets.

    I say, "I'm sorry" to George, my best friend in high school, the most gifted percussionist I have ever known. After college and the Air Force, he took his talents on the road and played in some of the top professional music groups, jazz, rock and even country, throughout his career. He could wear the everlasting fame, "He played on Carson," just like we all wanted to.

    George and I only saw each other a few times as adults, once for a miserable blind date I set him up on in Fort Worth, Texas. What a mismatch! I asked his forgiveness for that for sure.

    I left America for Britain. He moved to Nashville. I saw him once on a music video, and I meant to call him. I really did. And then, one morning in Austin, I got a call telling me that George was dead. The most pacific man I've ever known, went out and bought a gun, and the next day shot himself. I imagine George has gotten over his suicide, but I never have.

    They aren't all regrets, our relationships. But many end there. Stories that lack a proper climax. Unclear. Muddy. Ashy gray things.

    Ash Wednesday has a way of bringing to mind ashy thoughts for me. They remind me of another friend's story. He was a pastor. Fresh out of Notre Dame, he introduced the ritual of the imposition of ashes to his Protestant congregation. He took it for granted that everyone would know what to do with the ashes. But the first person who came forward didn't wait for the pastor to impose ashes on his forehead. This congregant, accustomed to receiving a piece of bread when he came forward at Communion, dipped his finger in the ashes and put his finger in his mouth.

    Regrets. They taste just like ashes.

    Moments of love and friendship and hope burned in the furnace of experience. The fireplace grate collects the ashes grown cold when the embers finally die. This is the cremation of our pasts.

    I do not believe I could remain a Christian if the wisdom of our faith didn't include Ash Wednesday. I am so much more at home here than on any Easter morning.

    Among all the hurts we have inflicted that we cannot heal, and all the sadness we have caused that we cannot relieve, and among all our disappointments small and large to ourselves and others, together with the palm fronds from last year's Palm Sunday, they are all consigned to the fires of God's relentless, ruthless love.

    How right that our mistaken parade in honor of our concept of a Messiah should be incinerated along with all our regrets.

    Our hopes are not big enough to imagine God's future for us. And so, today, upon our brows we wear the sign of regret, if not of repentance. But we must remember, however much we have cost God, that God does not number us among God's regrets.

    That, my friends, is grace. Pure grace, undeserved. That alone can wash away the ashes.

  • Slow Conversation

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 13, 2018

    Slow ConversationMost of us are familiar with the Slow Food movement, an international effort to recover and celebrate the joys of real food grown by real people on real farms, prepared with care by people who know how, and consumed by people who appreciate the richness and variety of flavors, textures, colors and nutrition you can only get by eating good food.

    Eric Schlosser, in his preface to Corby Kummer's popular book, The Pleasure of Slow Food (2002) writes:

    "The Slow Food movement stands in direct opposition to everything that a fast-food meal represents: blandness, uniformity, conformity, the blind worship of science and technology. ... If fast foods are the culinary equivalent of a sound bite, then Slow Food is an honest, thorough declaration of intent. Many tastes are better than one, this new movement says."

    Recently, on a visit that my associate Sally Pendleton and I had with native Louisvillian Owsley Brown III at his office in San Francisco, we noticed with interest the title of a journal sitting on his coffee table: "Slow Money." The Slow Money movement, it turns out, was started by Woody Tasch in 2008. It is dedicated to organizing investors and philanthropists to provide capital to organic farms, smaller food producers, and local food systems.

    The Slow Money movement takes its name from the Slow Food movement and invests in cultivating the kinds of relationships that ensure that people have access to good food, real food. The movement is having a terrific impact on philanthropy by encouraging a deeper engagement by givers in the organizations that receive their gifts. The movement invites philanthropists to make a long-term difference by investing in the health of others, and not just to relieve a momentarily urgent need by writing a single check. The Slow Money Institute to date has invested in excess of $50 million in five hundred organic and local food enterprises.

    Shortly after returning to Louisville from this visit, Sally said to me that she had discovered a corresponding "Slow" movement in the field of communications, too. So, I started looking into it.

    Turns out that Anthony K. Tjan (CEO of the venture capital firm, Cue Ball) introduced the idea of "Slow Conversation" in an essay in the Harvard Business Review in January of 2013. Tjan's concept of "Slow Conversation" has a particular feature in common with "Slow Food" and "Slow Money." It seeks to restore a sense of reality to communications, a sense of authenticity, of truthfulness and of relationality to listening and speech.

    At a time when both the speed and media of communications tend to truncate and depersonalize messages thus rendering them incendiary or useless, and when seeds of distrust are sown routinely for the sake of short-term interests and political gain, it is especially timely to hear from Tjan.

    He writes:

    "I can't help feeling that the proliferation of new communication channels and 'smart' devices has only further fragmented and strained the flow of real conversations. It has obscured content that is worth consuming. ... it has frequently gotten in the way of what we are trying to optimize, which is connectivity. In fact, it is clear that in many instances it has diluted the quality and relevance of our conversations. ... Speedy, frequent, high-volume communication does not necessarily equate with thoughtful and effective communication."

    Building on his observations, Tjan made three "New Year's Resolutions for 2013" which he encouraged the readers of his essay also to adopt. If anything, they are even more timely in 2018.

    1. Focus on being present in the moment, not recording it.
    2. Focus on creating new moments worth commenting on, not commenting on someone else's.
    3. Face real issues and real priorities with real conversations.

    Tjan admits that his resolutions may sound retrograde, even reactive, to the flow of a society which believes that fast is always better than slow, and more is always better than less. And he makes clear that he is a "fully connected" citizen of the hi-tech world. But neither of these disclaimers undercut his basic message. And, although I am a citizen of the same hi-tech world, though not a native to it, based on my observations of current culture, I think Tjan is onto something important.

    We are malnourished, not only because of poor dietary nutrition, but because of poor relational nutrition. We hunger and thirst for wisdom and reliable knowledge in a deluge of facts and lies. We are struggling, often unsuccessfully, not only to bring real food unadulterated by chemicals and toxins to our dinner tables, but to face one another across those tables in civil and constructive conversation.

    There are many potential applications to Tjan's resolutions: business, education, politics, philanthropy and faith communities. But I would like to demonstrate the relevance of his ideas with examples we are seeing increasingly in theological schools.

    People coming to theological schools today are often less capable of having deep, sustained, constructive and critical conversations face-to-face than many of us have ever seen. Many students and staff prefer to text and tweet, and some of the older ones to email, rather than simply to walk next door to have a conversation. The messages they send are economic in words, and sometimes provide just what is needed in the situation. The apparent efficiency of these virtual communications, however, is sometimes undercut by their very economy and by their disembodied character.

    If we aren't speaking and listening with care, and particularly face-to-face, it is far easier to misread important interpersonal signals. Sometimes the smallest signals lead to large unintended and unforeseen conflicts, and sometimes these conflicts are only exacerbated by trying to respond to one another via the medium that helped cause the problem in the first place.

    A modicum of respect and trust is necessary for people to work together. But this is doubly true for churches, other faith communities, and the seminaries that prepare their leadership. Reading people's faces and bodies is a skill as essential for good ministry and counseling as reading any biblical text. And it is especially ironic that a faith built upon the incarnation should not understand this. John's Gospel, after all, says: "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son," not, "For God so loved the world that he sent a tweet."

    Another, and possibly even more important idea is contained in Tjan's resolutions: Our communications are at their best when they are grounded in real personal experiences and real personal relationships. And these take time to cultivate. There is a sense of personal responsibility woven into all of Tjan's resolutions. He asks us to resolve to be present in the moment with others, to act creatively instead of just critically, and to converse about things that really matter and that can lead to positive action.

    Real conversations happen between real people in real time. Real conversations often advance because of the thoughtful pauses that occur, the slight signs we give to one another, a nod of agreement that says "I'm tracking with you," a verbal, "ah, I see," when comprehending the roots of the other person's meaning. Empathy requires presence to be communicated, received and reciprocated. And the communication of empathy often leads to greater cooperation. Recent studies, in fact, have indicated that conversational signals (only really possible face-to-face) actually may be essential aspects of human and human-social evolution. They seem to have been a key part of that wondrous progress of our species that made it possible for us to cooperate together and coordinate our actions for the common good.*

    So often we don't come up with our own ideas (Do we?). This essay, for good or ill, is a product of a slow conversation that started a few weeks ago on the West Coast, that moved forward yesterday in Louisville because of new insights shared by one partner in the conversation, and culminated this morning in this essay by the other.

    We are all conversation partners in enterprises of discovering new ideas together. "Thinking out loud," we might call it, as words and pauses and grimaces and smiles, a raised eyebrow here, a sigh there, give birth to thoughts we would never have had on our own.

    If we take the time to allow conversation to be cultivated, to grow, to be nurtured and to come to maturity, we may find that conversations stretch not over minutes, or even hours, but lifetimes, nourishing us and our communities. When we sustain them, we are sustained by them.

    So how do we practice "Slow Conversation"?

    When in a retreat, I often practice the discipline of walking meditation. The purpose of this approach to meditation is to slow us down physically so we can actually notice our walking, so we are more conscious of how our bodies move, so that we attend better to present situations, so that we are more aware of ourselves and others and our whole environment. It is a practice intended to teach mindfulness.

    A similar conversational discipline might encourage us to slow down, and think, and maybe NOT to press “send” on our electronic device after writing a hasty and angry response. It might encourage us to slide our chairs back, cross our legs, take a few deep, slow breaths and pause awhile before reacting to something disagreeable or threatening that someone says to us or about us. It might encourage us to repeat a person's argument back to them with such care that they will recognize it as their own, before we begin to formulate any response to them. It might even encourage us to let some apparently ill-intended comments fly right past us without any reaction at all. In other words, it will encourage us to disconnect ourselves from those seemingly automatic impulses that make us react, to slow ourselves down enough that conversations and relationships have a chance to grow.

    Slow Conversation is a great idea for a movement; let's just not move too fast.

    * See the fascinating essay, "The Importance of Pauses in Conversation," in the December 16, 2017 issue of The Economist, p. 78.

  • A Charge Worthy of Us All

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 06, 2018

    Convocation 2
    Last Thursday, we had the privilege of installing Marcus A. Hong as Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Trustee Elizabeth Clay and I, on behalf of the Board of Trustees, installed Marcus, presenting to Marcus the vows which every professor here takes. Marcus asked Student Body President Brittany Hesson to deliver a charge on behalf of the students. It was one of the most powerful charges any of us have heard, and it was suggested that we find a way of sharing it with the larger seminary community.

    The charge is indeed worthy of hearing again, not only as a charge to Marcus, but to all of us. With Brittany's permission, it is printed in full. Thank you, Brittany, for your willingness to speak from your heart and from the heart of your experience as a student at Louisville Seminary.

    Louisville Seminary Spring 2018 Convocation
    Student Charge to Marcus Hong
    Brittany Hesson, Student Body President

    Brittany Hesson with captionThe search for the Director of Field Education occurred during my second semester here at Louisville Seminary, and I remember that it was during his chapel service that I knew that, out of all the candidates, Marcus Hong would be the one to join us here on campus. I was at the point of my seminary experience where I spent too much energy on being critical and not enough energy on being vulnerable, wondering if I was cut out for seminary at all. It’s a scary place to be, but during that chapel service, I found myself in honest personal reflection, and I once again felt comfortable just being moved by the word of God. After that, I left this chapel saying, “We need him here.” And we really do. I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from Marcus over the past year-and-a-half, and I have not been disappointed. This charge today comes from that experience. Marcus, nothing here is new, as you have been doing all of this all along, but is simply a request to keep doing what you have been doing. With that, Marcus Hong …

    I charge you to … Teach us.
    Teach us that theological education, with all its new terminology and eye-opening experiences, doesn’t have to be scary. Teach us to think critically and openly. Teach us that the Psalms can be used for more than just a Presbyterian call to worship. Teach us that spiritual disciplines enhance not only our communal work in ministry, but our personal relationship with God.  Teach us how to be good stewards of our years of theological education. Teach us how to share what we have analyzed, processed, dissected, and discussed with people of all ages and identities in our current and future contexts. Teach us that we can still love the Bible and the ministries in which we serve, even on the days when that seems too difficult.

    Because words aren’t the only way to learn, I charge you to … Show us.
    Show us your passion for ministry and the text; in the classroom, in committee meetings, in field education, and in worship. Show us an example of quality leadership (and not just the do-all-the-things-and-do-them-well type of leadership either). Show us how to find joy in our work, whatever and wherever that may be. Show us that all of the -ologies we learn about in the classroom are more than just words on paper. Show us how they are manifested in our real, everyday life. Show us where to find God in our case study scenarios. Show us that it’s okay to not have all of the answers. Show us that we don’t have to lose who we are to do what we have been called to do.

    And finally, I charge you to … Remind us.
    Remind us that, even on our busiest days, we can take a break. Remind us that honest vulnerability is also an asset. Remind us of the importance of the simple act of showing up. Remind us (especially when the inevitable emails roll in asking about when our papers will be graded) that you, too, are human. Now, because we all know that ministry is not limited to the person who holds a title, these final words extend to the whole Hong family. Remind us that there is life outside of these walls and there are priorities beyond assignments, meetings, and deadlines. Remind us that laughter and dancing are good for the soul. Remind us that we are beloved children of God. Remind us that we are never in this life alone.

    Thank you. I look forward to what the coming years will bring for you and Louisville Seminary.

  • The Strangest Faith We Can't Imagine

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 02, 2018

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Strangest FaithImagine, if you will, a bizarre religious ritual, a secret initiation ceremony, conducted by a strange sect. The neophytes have only ever been exposed to a portion of the regular ceremonies of the faithful. The most important, the most sacred, portions of the worship services of this sect remain closed and shrouded to the public, open only to the initiated. These parts of their worship are called the Mysteries.

    You have heard rumors of what they do and how their beliefs run counter to the whole culture, but you are only able to glean the most vague and general ideas of their core beliefs. It's all a little disconcerting, especially given the contempt in which this sect is held by many of the most trustworthy voices in respectable society.

    You have heard from a friend who took the plunge into this sect, that after several weeks of teaching (you've wondered if it shouldn't be called “indoctrination”), those who endure are taken into the community in the initiation ceremony that is held only once a year. The ceremony coincides with the feast day of one of the most ancient of goddesses, a divine being who promises to bring fertility and rebirth year after year to the dead earth. Your friend says that it is only coincidental that the pagan holiday happens at the same time. Who knows?

    In this ceremony, according to your friend, they enter the most exclusive section of the sect's temple. The faces of neophytes are veiled, maybe they are blindfolded. You're not sure about that. They are told that they await their god's cleansing and purging. They strip. Yes, they take off their clothes. Words are said over them, and rites are performed involving oil and water. After which they are clothed in white. It is as though they are planted in the ground and emerge to new life, he says. Then, for the first time, they are admitted to the central Mysteries of the sect's life together in which they share some sort of love feast that involves blood and flesh by which they are said to unite with their deity, though how this all works was not made clear.

    This is a strange faith. No doubt about it.

    As you surmised, somewhere along the way, I am describing the rite of baptism in the early Christian Church as it is described primarily by the early father of the church, St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his appropriately (and cryptically) named "Procatechesis" and "Five Mystagogical Catecheses."*

    Long before covered dish suppers, Mothers' Day, and Sunday school, long before those vast Gothic cathedrals rose above European capitals, before mendicant friars and monks trudged onto the scene, even before the great councils of the Church hammered our Christological and Trinitarian controversies into orthodox confessions, this is what we looked like. Shrouded in darkness, moving among the shades and shadows that remind us that we are dealing with holy and not common things, our spiritual forebears performed these rituals as a part of their spiritual and mystical participation in the realty of God among us.

    They renounced the devil and all his works, his pomp and his minions, just as we do. But when they called the devil a roaring lion walking about, seeking whom he might devour (I Peter 5:8), they glimpsed the pacing beast in the gathering darkness from the corner of their eye; they smelled the scent of the beast on the breeze; they still trembled when the devil slipped among them, unlike us, who when we think of the devil at all think only of Halloween costumes.

    When they stripped off their regular clothes, they did so to emulate the naked Jesus hanging shamed upon the cross. Naked, the oil of exorcism was poured upon their heads. And thus they entered the waters of baptism, so that when they rose from baptism, and put on those robes of white, they might also know in their hearts some semblance of being "clothed in Christ."

    I have read and re-read the accounts of baptism in Cyril of Jerusalem, even as I have read again and again the Shepherd of Hermas, the martyrdom of Polycarp (that early father who personally knew St. John the Beloved Apostle), and other early texts of our faith. And, again and again, I am confronted by the profound strangeness, the stubborn otherness, and the obdurate foreignness of our faith.

    Reading these earliest accounts of becoming and being Christian, I have come to a conclusion: feeling familiar in and comfortable with one's faith is vastly overrated. In fact, the domestication of Christian faith and practices may explain to some degree why it has become increasingly an option many people can do without.

    Several years ago some popular books and articles told pastors and lay leaders of congregations that if they wanted to appeal to modern worshippers, they needed to make their places of worship more convivial, more accessible, and less removed from everyday life. People want the familiar, we were told. Church architecture, therefore, started imitating banks and shopping malls and fitness centers. Sanctuaries looked increasingly more like high-tech theaters, and chancels became stages for performance. In a way, the church and its message (converting grace into unconditional acceptance and evil into bad habits, and the gospel into self-realization) became so relevant that gradually it became just one more path to a happy life that, frankly, we could take or leave. In other words, the Christian faith in its quest for relevance became irrelevant.

    But what if redemption is really quite different from self-realization?

    What if the self isn't something to be actualized, but lost?

    What if reconciliation is more than just "connecting" in a weekend encounter group or virtually? What if our relationships, so often characterized by sorrow and regret, can only be healed at a cost we cannot pay?

    What if the genius of our faith lies in its very strangeness, not on its familiarity?

    I ask these questions not as a retrograde theologian seeking to return the church to some imagined past when theology was pure. I ask these questions as a seeker myself and as one mystified by the difficulty of relating to the people closest to me. We skate along on the surface of a frozen pond, only dimly aware of the shadowy creatures lurking in the icy mud under the crisp thin surface. And if those who are closest to me are so shrouded in mystery, what of the Being of Being, the Groundless Ground, That Which Resists Being Named?

    C.S. Lewis, in his wonderful novel, Till We Have Faces, reminds us that the sacred is not thin and clear like water, but thick and dark like blood. I have long believed that the best sanctuaries have dark corners, and the passages of scripture most to be prized are those that resist comprehension. Nothing possible can save us, said poet W.H. Auden. I believe because it is impossible, said Tertullian of Carthage. Give it to us strange not straight, I would say, if we want to brush up against the divine.

    Union with God isn't a normal aspiration we chat about at Starbucks. And what if dying on a cross isn't just a metaphor to which we resort in the spring in that odd week we call “holy” between Palm Sunday and Easter? And what if resurrection isn't the cozy promise of an everlasting family reunion but a new creation in a new heaven and earth, in which we discern at last that the selves we clung to so tenaciously in life and the identities we fought so fiercely to defend were the very things that kept us alienated from one another.

    I recall an odd conversation with a student in one of the first theology courses I ever taught, something like twenty-five years ago. After lecturing on the power of God's love to burn away all the dross in us, to purge us of sin, to render us worthy of the presence of God, a student said to me, "This all sounds depressingly Catholic to me. Are you saying that we have to go to Purgatory in order to go to Heaven?" My response was, "I don't know anything about Purgatory or Heaven. But, aren't there things in yourself you long for God to burn away? And what if after passing through the fire of God's love, there's nothing left but the love of God?

    What if Christian faith is up to something so important, in other words, that we can't domesticate it?

    "Thou wert called a Catechumen," writes Cyril at the dawn of the church, "which means, hearing with the ears, hearing hope, and not perceiving; hearing mysteries, yet not understanding: hearing scriptures, yet not knowing their depth. Thou no longer hearest with the ears, but thou hearest within; for the indwelling Spirit henceforth fashions thy mind into the house of God. When thou shalt hear what is written concerning mysteries, then thou shalt understand, what hitherto thou knowest not. And think not it is a trifle thou receivest."*

    This faith is strange, bizarre, unclear, even incomprehensible, if we get it right. Thank God.

    When we are dealing with the mysteries of holy reality, don't expect to feel at home. Expect to feel the ground dropping out from under our feet. Approaching burning bushes, we remove our shoes. It doesn't matter that we don't understand why.

    "Think not it is a trifle you receive."
    * The most accessible translation of which is provided in a wonderful edition On the Christian Sacraments from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (1986), which, helpfully, provides the Greek text as well as a serviceable English translation. Citation, pp. 43-44.

  • The Greatest Generation and the Rest of Us

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 30, 2018

    The Greatest GenerationThere is no way to adequately calculate the debt of gratitude we owe to what we call "The Greatest Generation." But today I would like to explore one way we could thank them.

    Modest men and women, people like our dear friend Bill Swope in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, risked their lives to keep Fascism from ruling the world with its hateful ideology. Bill served under General George Patton in an American army that made doing the impossible look routine. Then, after liberating Europe from Nazism, Bill and thousands like him came home and quietly returned to nurturing their families, building their businesses, making their communities better, and giving thanks for God's blessings.

    One of the greatest things about the Greatest Generation was that they understood the threat to our world contained in Fascism and Nazism. They saw through the jubilant flag-waving, song-singing veneer of the political movements then on the rise in Europe, and they detected the idolatry lurking there. They understood that these movements stole the precious symbols of a people so they could use them for their own purposes. They had witnessed the ways these movements played on a people's insecurities and vanities to turn discontent into hatred. They saw what can happen when even good things like national pride get perverted into Nationalism. And they experienced the results of racism pursued to its terrible ends in genocide. Over four hundred thousand American service personnel died to save the world from Fascism and Nazism.

    Sadly, this generation is fast passing from us. So, how can we say thank you to them?

    We can say thank you by choosing to remember what they defeated and by being vigilant not to allow these same ideologies to grow unchallenged in our own country.

    There is not a thin line between Patriotism and Nationalism. Patriotism and Nationalism are polar opposites. But while Patriotism will lay down its life to defend the freedom of those with whom we disagree and from whom we differ, Nationalism, under a cloak of stolen and misappropriated symbols (flag, constitution, founding fathers), seeks to advance only its own way at the expense of the liberty of others. Fascism has a special gift for disguise. It goes to great lengths to look homespun. It plays on the emotions, and it cultivates petty grievances until they assume monstrous proportions. Fascism thrives on lies, believing that if you repeat a lie often enough a people will eventually believe you. It thrives on theatrical performances and false bravado and exaggeration. Promising to raise up those who feel that life has been unfair to them, Fascism merely makes its followers into cogs in an all-consuming machine of hatred and violence.

    Recently the New York Times published a profile by reporter Richard Fausset that lit up the online world when it was published. I'll provide just one brief passage:

    "In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak 'n Shakes, Mr [Tony] Hovater's presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show 'Twin Peaks.' He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big 'Seinfeld' fan." (Richard Fausset, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” New York Times, November 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/25/us/ohio-hovater-white-nationalist.html.)

    There seems to be an unspoken assumption running underneath this report that real evil must wear horns, that real evil must dwell somewhere far away, that real evil must appear obnoxious in every respect. What it misses is the way real evil is more frequently "banal" (to use Hannah Arendt's word). It misses the way that real evil plays upon the human soul, working its way into the blood stream of ordinary people, turning their aspirations and loyalties (to family, nation, tribe, God) into dangerous and destructive ideologies. The report falls under the spell of the naïveté that still asks how a people that produced Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, that was so widely churched by followers of Martin Luther, that was scientifically miles ahead of everyone else could possibly succumb to Nazism.

    The anxiety revealed in this question (asking "could this happen to us?") is masked by a pernicious prejudice itself (this couldn't happen to us; this reveals a distinctively Teutonic character flaw). But we should not dismiss the anxiety out of hand, and certainly not with this lie.

    Fascism and Nazism do not thrive on a German weakness, but a human one. St. Augustine understood it better than most when he observed that the higher the good, the greater the potential for evil. And, of course, the Greatest Generation invested their lives, and many paid the ultimate price because they saw the danger, not as something that was a threat to Europe or Asia, but as a threat to humanity everywhere.

    Today is not Memorial Day or Veterans Day, and you may not personally know a survivor of the Greatest Generation in American History, but we can all express our gratitude to them by making sure we remember what they fought for, and by dedicating ourselves to be vigilant against the evils that seduce even the kid next door.

  • Othering

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 23, 2018

    OtheringToni Morrison is, in my view, the preeminent literary figure of our time. Her novels, such as The Bluest Eye, Paradise, and especially Beloved, represent the rarest attainment in art: works of the most astounding critical accomplishment, philosophical subtlety, and cultural sophistication of importance to the whole human community, while also being a joy to read a joy to read.

    But Toni Morrison is much more than a literary figure. She has become one of the most significant moral voices of our age. And she has done this in precisely the same manner in which she has accomplished her literary work, by digging deeper and looking into the human soul more relentlessly than most of her contemporaries.

    The purpose of this blog today is simply to recommend that you read her newest book, The Origin of Others. The book, published in 2017, is based on a series of talks she presented in the spring of 2016 (The Norton Lectures) at Harvard University. The foreword to the book is written by the amazing Ta-Nehisi Coates. The book is very small and very short. And, like everything Toni Morrison has written, it is richly illuminated by narrative. But, I must warn you: this is anything but a light read. Morrison intends in these pages to respond to the question of why we human beings practice "othering" on one another.

    Othering is the act of using the other to define ourselves. Specifically, it is the negative portrayal of other persons so as to reinforce a positive (and false) self-interpretation. This is my definition, not hers. Morrison observes the manner in which we "invent others" by portraying certain individuals and groups of persons in ways that demean or degrade them so as to reinforce our own power, privileges and positions.

    Sexism and racism are two of the most notable forms of othering, but there are more, including foreignness. Morrison, drawing upon her astonishing knowledge of history, culture, theology and literature, explores why we do this to one another.

    What are we so afraid of? What makes us invent the other? What drives us to categorize persons in such demeaning ways? How is this behavior learned? Babies aren't born with a compulsion to inflict such damage. How has science, medicine and political power been brought to bear to reinforce, codify and grant "legitimacy" to othering?

    In one brief talk after another, Morrison peels back the layers of this cultural onion, revealing the damage we have done and continue to do not only to others but to ourselves. Examining slavery, political oppression, sexual relations and immigration, with breathtaking humanity and grace, she cauterizes the social wounds that will not heal until we recognize them for what they are.

    There have been several "small" books written in the past two years that deserve attention. Brooke Gladstone's The Trouble with Reality and Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny are two particularly deserving smaller books. But Toni Morrison's "The Origin of Others" stands head and shoulders above these and some weightier analyses of the issues facing us today, issues that have national and international repercussions but that originate in the brokenness of our own souls.

  • Practicing the Presence of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 19, 2018

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Practicing the Presence of GodThe Spirit blows where it wills, and no one knows from whence it comes or where it goes. But, is it possible to sharpen our attentiveness to the Spirit so that we can become more aware of God's presence?

    I believe it is. But there was a time, early in my ministry, when I resisted this idea.

    Looking back on what I thought then (and recently I came across some things I had written in December 1983), I suppose that I was just trying to be more Barthian than Karl Barth, an ailment that afflicted many young Reformed theologues back in the day, but which has largely been eradicated by the judicious use of antibiotics and common sense. I took seriously Barth's idea that there's nothing we can do to reach God (neither a via positiva nor a via negativa). But I had allowed this essentially orthodox and very Barthian insight loose with a vengeance, and it went careening through the China shop of Christian piety until every cup, saucer, dinner plate and serving piece lay shattered on the floor.

    Surely I was rightfully anxious about our tendency to treat God as our own private spiritual valet service, but I failed to take seriously enough another teaching of our faith: God, the Holy, the Wholly Other wants to be known by us and encourages us to open and empty ourselves, earthen vessels that we are, so we may be filled with God's love and life. This openness and this emptying, with God's help, can be practiced. And through this practice we can be conscious of God's presence when God comes near.

    This doesn't violate God's sovereignty in any way. It just means that we can learn better to pay attention.

    I remember scoffing at the title of a book I now regard with reverence and wonder, the series of conversations commonly known as The Practice of the Presence of God. It was written by a humble, uneducated man named Nicholas Herman, who came to be known as Brother Lawrence, a lay brother of the Carmelite order. Brother Lawrence lived in the mid-seventeenth century, was converted at the age of eighteen and survived that turbulent time for over eighty years. It is his conversion that I find most compelling as a snapshot of what it might mean for us to practice the presence of God.

    It happened in the winter while Nicholas (the future Brother Lawrence) was employed as a footman of a wealthy man that he came upon a tree that the winter cold and wind had stripped bare of its leaves. Standing before that tree, he became conscious of the simple reality that the leaves would in a very short time put forth again, that flowers and fruit would again festoon the tree with life, though now it appeared to all the world as dead. In this moment, he sensed within all things including himself the surging power and grace and life and providence of God. It was a breathtaking epiphany that awakened his awareness of God's presence all around him. He never "got over" this awakening, but for the rest of his life wandered from place to place barefooted, trusting himself physically and spiritually to God, and encouraging others to be attentive to God's presence. Rather than drawn out of the world by his spirituality, Brother Lawrence was drawn by his epiphany ever more deeply into the presence of God within all things, into a sense of an immanence that was all the more transcendent by virtue of being so close at hand.*

    When I reflect now on the life of Brother Lawrence, it is impossible for me not to think of stories of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, the friend of Thomas Merton. Thich Nhat Hahn would stand in joy and reverence in his garden lost in contemplating the wonder of a single plum blossom upon the tree, as one coworker reports, while impatiently she stood tapping her foot anxious to get on with the "work" of the day, publishing the community's newsletter. Or I recall the story Thay himself tells of his coming upon a fallen leaf on a path in autumn. The leaf had already begun to rot. Looking down at the leaf, he joked with the lead that it was just pretending to be dead, playing possum, when in reality it was alive to its purpose, even then working its way back into the soil, making its way back toward the roots of the tree in preparation for another spring.

    The practice of the presence of God may be like the practice of reading poetry. In large part, it demands that we slow ourselves down. That we go slow. So slow. Sometimes moving only at a crawl. Sometimes stopping entirely. Sometimes retracing our steps. So that we can notice again what children seem to notice routinely. So that we find ourselves in and can see and sense this world for the miracle it is.

    The point I want to make is this: Often we speak of reverence and awe as being at the very heart of Christian spirituality. Our hymnody soars upon, our liturgy is grounded in, and our faith assumes the reality of the experience of becoming conscious of the presence of God. Our Christian tradition, in fact, has mounted a sustained argument in favor of this reality, and it has developed social conventions (like worship in its various Christian forms) to reinforce habitually the conviction that God can meet us here and now. But, I am compelled to ask, what would it mean to engage the practices of our faith in such a way that they become for us living disciplines preparing us recognize the truth and reality toward which our tradition in all its richness points?**

    To put it more directly, and still more plainly: How might we in our daily lives attune ourselves to the God who is already present in and through all things?

    A person in the habit of rushing from place to place, her thoughts incessantly upon the recordings playing in her head, distracted by anger or regret, rehearsing what she wished she had said, is unlikely to notice the trees lining the sidewalk let alone the God whose life makes their sap to run. A person multitasking himself to death is unlikely to be alive to the presence of God in his life, or, more significantly, that it is God in whom we live and move and have a being.

    We live in the age of miracles. We always have. But we've become so inured to the presence of God that it would take a violation of nature to make us gasp in surprise when, when it is nature suffused with the being of God that should take our breath away.

    In this context, I cannot help but think also of the priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, a person whose practices gave birth to some of the finest poetry ever written, but whose words require a lingering eye and ear and will not yield themselves to quickness.

    "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," Hopkins writes in perhaps his best-loved poem. "It flames out, like shining from shook foil." Hopkins knew how to attend, to notice, while people all around him blindly "have trod, have trod, have trod."

    "And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastwards, springs - Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."***

    To be ready to recognize the grandeur when God is pleased to disclose it, what practices are required of us? I suspect we know already the answer.

         "Be silent."
              "Be still."

    The bush is burning, if only we would stop and see.
    * I am reminded here of one of my favorite winners of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, Ralph Harper's magnificent little book, On Presence (Johns Hopkins, 1991), particularly the chapter entitled, "Living Presence."
    ** Craig Dykstra, "Reconceiving Practice," in Barbara Wheeler and Edward Farley, editors, Shifting Boundaries: Contextual Approaches to the Structure of Theological Education (Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), p. 58.
    *** Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur," in Selected Poems and Prose (Folio, 2012), p. 27.

  • We Build Bridges

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 16, 2018

    Louisville Seminary at this Moment in History

    Bridge 2I have never been more proud to be President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary than I have this year.

    In a time when hatred defines public discourse, when there are people actively working to divide our society, provoking opposition and hostility among people on the basis of how we differ, I am proud to represent this seminary in our community, in our country and world.

    A Vision for Our Time
    The most recent issue of In Trust magazine asked if your mission statement is clear and memorable enough for everyone in the seminary community to repeat it. It's a great question, especially in light of the conventional wisdom (articulated so well by Scott Adams' The Dilbert Principle) that a mission statement is "a long awkward sentence that demonstrates management's inability to think clearly."

    A year ago, as the Board of Trustees was routinely reflecting on Louisville Seminary's mission statement (something we do periodically), several trustees noted, "Our current mission statement is so generic it would fit virtually any other school in the country," and, "Most of what we are doing that is distinctive and really important isn't in the current mission statement." So, under the leadership of the board’s Governance Committee, we engaged in a yearlong process to review and revise our mission statement. First, the board and the faculty had a joint meeting in which they worked in small groups discussing the seminary's mission and work. Each group brainstormed words and phrases that best articulate who we are and what we do. The Governance Committee then solicited advice from every conceivable constituency of the seminary community: staff, students, alums, pastors, friends and donors. They also solicited advice about best practices on the development of a mission statement and received excellent feedback.

    Among the feedback we received was from Seminary Trustee Dan Ellinor, a former banker who now teaches in the graduate business program at the University of Texas. Among many helpful pieces of advice Dan provided, he recommended that we might have both a brief vision statement and a mission statement. The vision statement should be intriguing, memorable, and might even raise questions, while the mission statement would provide more information in clean, jargon-free language. This became the guiding principle for the Governance Committee and the Board of Trustees as they drafted potential statements and went through a succession of discussions and votes. The process itself was as important as the product in helping us think about our seminary's role in church and society.

    During the next weeks, the seminary will be rolling out the new vision and mission statements of the seminary in a variety of publications. But today, in this blog, I want to say a few words about our vision statement in particular. Our new vision statement is: "WE BUILD BRIDGES."

    The Public Role of Louisville Seminary
    In a gathering of leadership from seminaries in the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS), Dan Aleshire, my friend and the former executive director of ATS, asked the provocative question, "Do Seminaries have a public role?" Almost immediately I responded by saying, "Louisville Seminary does. We have a mission that cannot be taken for granted in this polarized society."

    We build bridges. That doesn't mean that we've got it all figured out here. We build bridges to bring us together in the name of the God who reconciled the world to himself in Jesus Christ. And that doesn't mean that we insist that others agree with us in order to be in relationship with us.

    We build bridges because we know we need one another in order to be whole. We build bridges between people of different religious, political, social and cultural perspectives because we know that truth is out there and among us, but we need each other to find it.

    We build bridges between different faiths because we know God is bigger than we are, bigger than our ideas about God, bigger than our theologies, bigger even than our biggest hopes and dreams.

    We build bridges between persons of different ethnicities, races, tribes, nations and continents because we know that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. We cannot know or love God properly if we cut ourselves off from each other.

    We build bridges between people of different sexual orientations and lifestyles. We know that the best way to overcome prejudice is through deep and enduring personal relationships. So we bring people together whatever their differences may be so they can know and learn to respect one another as children of God.

    A Vision that Matters Now
    We build bridges here at Louisville Seminary. And the tears of lament that have been shed on this campus and around our country this year remind us all of just how much this vision matters today.

    We lament and are anxious because we do not want our country to become less generous, less open, less compassionate, less gracious. We do not want our country to participate in disrespect and hatred, cruelty and violence, nor to justify oppression and torture in the name of freedom.

    We want our country to reflect the grace and love of God revealed in and through our Lord Jesus Christ because we know there is no power greater than God's love, and that every claim to power that struts upon this earth threatening to hurt others is full of vain bluff and bluster.

    We have reason, I believe, to fear for the plight of people who are different in our society, to fear for the safety and liberty of gays and lesbians, transgender persons and bisexuals. We have reason to fear for Black and Hispanic and Asian persons, for Muslims and Buddhists, Sikhs and Jews, indeed for anyone who looks differently, thinks differently or prays differently from the majority. We have cause to fear for the plight of children at the margins, the aged, the poor, the under-insured, the under-educated, the under-employed or unemployed. But I cannot believe that they or we will be well-served by giving in to fear. Instead we are called to do the most courageous thing in the world in this time of division: to love without limits.

    "Perfect love casts out fear," we are told by the author of First John, the same author who tells us that "God is love," and that it is impossible to love God without also loving others. "Perfect love casts out fear," believed a persecuted Christian community which wrote this letter sometime between the reigns of the Roman Emperors Domitian and Hadrian. How in the world could these Christians have said and believed this in such a time? Simply because their faith was not placed in the hands of the one who held the imperial scepter, but the One who holds all history.

    We share this confidence, this faith, and this vision.

    We build bridges. The bridges we build bring people and societies and faiths together in the Spirit of Christ Jesus.

    Just how important that vision remains is magnified every day.

  • The Temple

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 09, 2018

    The TempleI had been waiting for an installer to arrive to put down new flooring in the laundry room.

    It was the last little renovation our real estate agent had recommended before staging the home we were selling in Austin prior to moving to Louisville. Working with a professional home stager was a royal pain, but it turned out a good move. The house sold within days of going on the market. Still, I'm not sure we might not have achieved similar results by taking another path.

    Some friends of ours put up their house for sale a couple of years earlier. Their real estate agent was classic Austin. She required that a shaman perform an exorcism prior to doing their open house. The shaman discovered a frightening number of ghosts of deceased insects in the house including several in my friend's underwear drawer. We never did get a satisfactory explanation for that.

    The floor installation guy was supposed to come at eight in the morning. Noon had come and gone, and the sun was fast approaching the yardarm when the front doorbell rang. Irrationally exuberant and naive I may have been, but when I went to the door I fully expected to meet the installer. Alas. It was not to be. But my irritation quickly turned to joy. It was "my rabbi," Neil.

    I always tried to keep a bottle of kosher wine handy for pastoral visits from Rabbi Neil. God bless him, he brought two gorgeous cigars that afternoon. I put a sign on the front door for the missing installer, and we retired to the shade of the backyard beside the pool where we did what we always did. We talked, laughed and enjoyed God's generosity.

    As Neil settled himself into his chair he said, "What shall we talk about today?" To which I responded, "The Temple."

    Neil smiled broadly and said, "We could talk for a thousand years!"

    This wonderful conversation with my friend came to mind recently as I sat in church listening to a reading from the New Testament that touched upon the presence of the Temple in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Temple at Jerusalem, that monument to the presence of the Lord among his people, adorned in beauty, ravaged by wars and occupations, silently and invisibly stands still beneath and behind the gathering of every church and synagogue. We bring our bloodless offerings before our congregations, repeat the holy words, and perform our ritual pantomimes against the unimaginable backdrop of that ancient sanctuary.

    The Smell of Sanctity
    I recall a Maundy Thursday service I led thirty-five or more years ago. Brash young minister that I was, I had this bright idea of asking a member of the church to build us a life-size cross, something rough-hewn, real and functional. He brought it to the church and with help laid it on the steps of the chancel.

    Well, suffice it to say neither of us anticipated the consternation that our project would cause. The day before the service, I got a phone call from the chair of the deacons telling me he was getting his posterior chewed off for allowing the sanctuary to be desecrated by this dirty cross made from a couple of rail ties. "Preacher, we've gotta think of a solution fast or we're going to have World War III!" In the end, we reached a compromise to allow the cross to remain in the sanctuary for the service, but a large plastic drop cloth was put under it so it wouldn't mess up the carpet. And on Maundy Thursday, the whole congregation shuffled forward at the close of the service, slowly singing "We've a Story to Tell to the Nations," each one of us pounding a tenpenny nail into the cross as a symbol of our sin which Jesus bore on the cross and left nailed there.

    Relatively speaking, our contemporary places of worship are a little on the sterile side, perhaps. And perhaps for good reasons. At most we're likely to smell a beeswax candle or a whiff of incense. And I really don't want my church to smell like a crowded bus on a hot day. The pews, chairs or stadium seats in our churches reflect a sense of order and comfort, and the flooring does require some care lest wood gets scuffed, stone chipped or carpet stained. But, as I sat in a lovely and well-appointed church recently reflecting on the text I had just heard about the Temple, I began to wonder about that Temple long ago.

    Amid the crowded courts of humanity roasting in the hot Middle Eastern sunshine, the chatter in the outer courts, the selling of animals for sacrifice, the fire burning in the place of offering, the flesh, the smoke, the blood: What did it feel like to seek the holy in the cacophony? What did it look like to search for God in the hubbub? What did it smell like this aroma of holiness? I raise these questions today not out of misplaced nostalgia but because I am intrigued by the way Jesus transformed the meaning of "the Temple" in his teachings and in his being, his incarnating God.

    Here's what I am getting at. Earlier this year in the series of blogs I've been writing on spirituality, I reflected on "worldliness." Frequently it is a concept we toss around pretty loosely to describe activities we don't approve of. But the use of the term can undermine the beautiful, profound and troubling teaching that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.

    This is just about the most unsanitary idea ever put forward by any religious faith. Incarnation is a dirty word, a smelly word, a messy word. However it is also, one might argue, the most important word in Christian theology. Jesus sanctified the Temple of humanity, the Temple that is our common human flesh. He sanctified it by being human; he allowed it to be torn down; God confirmed the rightness of his life by raising this Temple of humanity again and placing it at his right hand. And by the power of the Spirit, Jesus shares this same Temple with us.

    Someone describing those of us who fancy ourselves more holy than God said that it is as if we go through life holding our noses forgetting that God loves this world, every single smelly, smudgy bit of it. When we narrow our love of the world to those parts that do not make us uncomfortable, those parts that are familiar to us, those aspects that have been cleaned up and air-brushed and made tidy, then we may not be missing out just on the world, but also the Temple in which God chooses to dwell. Contempt for the world so easily becomes contempt for ourselves and God.

    As the shadows lengthened on that summer afternoon and the busy world hushed enough that Rabbi Neil and I could hear the cicadas singing in the backyard, he said, "You know, Michael, when you talk about Jesus, he sounds wonderful. Please don't take this wrong, but he sounds so human."

    I smiled and said, "Well, we Christians do believe he was fully human, you know … and fully divine."

    "Ooh," said Neil with that great smile of his, tugging at the collar of his shirt, "It's getting a little hot in here." And we laughed again.

    That floor installer never came, incidentally. But Rabbi Neil and I talked and talked as darkness fell, and I forgot who I was waiting for.

  • Too Busy to Pray

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 05, 2018

    Too Busy to PrayLast summer in a course I was taking at the Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Georgia, Brother Michael, the monk teaching our course, talked about the discipline of daily prayer. He tackled head-on one of the most common myths about prayer: "I'm too busy to pray."

    I suppose this is something we've all said. And, honestly, many of the times we've said it, it didn't feel like an excuse, just an observation.

    Brother Michael began his comments on this topic by quoting St. Francis de Sales, who is reputed to have said: “If I am going to be busy during the day, I only pray for thirty minutes. If I am going to be VERY busy, I pray for an hour.” John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was known to have made a similar observation. Probably many saints of the church have come to a similar resolution.

    Brother Michael went around the room asking people to describe the things that get in the way of daily prayer. One person said that for years the challenge of getting the kids off to school and herself ready for work made it impractical to begin the day with prayer; and after a full day of work and more ferrying of kids from activity to activity, by the time she came to the end of the day, she could hardly stay awake long enough to get through the Lord's Prayer.

    That certainly didn't sound like an "excuse" to me, but a sound rationale.

    Others, however, mentioned the way television, that master thief of time, crept into every crevasse of the day stealing moments in the morning for their daily dose of gloom and hours in the evening with mindless entertainment. Still others admitted that they almost deliberately filled up their days with activities so they wouldn't have to sit still, in silence, alone in prayer. It was just too scary.

    The class brainstormed about strategies to open up times to pray. Brother Michael cleverly noted that a good place to find silence and solitude is when everyone else is asleep. He suggested that almost any of us could get up thirty minutes earlier. He has "street creds" on this subject, of course, since he rises at 2:30 every morning to pray Vigils. Someone else also cleverly noted that he and the other monks also go to bed promptly after the service of Compline each night, which is usually finished by eight o'clock. Amazingly, it was the person who sounded busiest to me who said she could get up earlier to pray.

    Other strategies included turning off the car radio during the daily commute. These days my "commute" involves walking two hundred yards across the campus, so that wasn't a solution for me, but there were a number of people in the room who nodded at the suggestion. And, I confess, during the many years when I did commute (for up to an hour one way) I was an avid NPR listener who frankly could have sacrificed some information (most of which I've forgotten) for prayer time.

    There were other suggestions. But I noticed an insight about prayer itself that was hidden within the conversation.

    When most of us think of prayer, we think of it as intercession: prayers asking God to do something. This form of prayer was not discounted in the conversation, but it was seen as limited to a rather smaller sphere in a larger vision of prayer.

    The kinds of prayer in which the group focused mostly were silent contemplation on God's grace and love and mercy that opened the one praying to the transforming work of the Spirit and the call of God. It would be a violation of the sharing of members of this group to get into any more details, but what almost everyone agreed on was this: prayer provides the means for us to be ourselves and to know ourselves in the presence of God, and to submit ourselves to the love of God. It is the consciousness of God's love that gives us the courage to be honest about our sins, frailties and failings, to remove the masks we wear that keep us and others from knowing who we really are, and that allows us to explore what it means to receive God's forgiveness and let go of our regrets and guilt so we can love ourselves as children of God.

    This is the hard work of prayer that takes time and requires discipline. It takes silence and solitude. It demands a willingness to BE in a culture obsessed with DOING. But it is the hard work of prayer that can deliver us from the compulsion, falsehood, envy, anger, resentment, anxiety and fear that undercuts all our best efforts.

    Knowing the benefits of prayer, it is no wonder that some of the most productive people (as opposed to the merely very busy) spend more time in prayer than the rest of us.

  • Redefining Faith

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 02, 2018

    Redefining FaithMany people these days seem to think that faith means believing the unlikely in the face of evidence, especially scientific evidence.

    But what if faith actually means placing our lives at God's disposal whatever may come? Or, what if faith means understanding reality as well as we can and shaping our consciousness to correspond to that which is real?

    Faith as Courageous Living Whatever May Come
    For years I have mulled over a statement Clarence Jordan made in one of his greatest sermons: "Faith is not belief in spite of evidence, it is life in scorn of consequences."*

    Jordan's life was an act of faith, lived with utter scorn for the consequences. A distinguished scholar of biblical languages, educated at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, smack in the middle of the twentieth century when that school's faculty roster read like a Who's Who of eminent theologians, Jordan turned his back on the academic life. Instead of teaching, in 1942 he founded the Koinonia Farm, an intentional community in Sumter County, Georgia, widely known for being integrated in the Jim Crow era.

    Will Campbell, the legendary preacher and civil rights leader, once told the story of spending the night with Jordan and his family on the farm. Sometime during the night, the KKK arrived with guns blazing. Windows were blown out, and walls were strafed by bullets. Jordan rushed to his guest's room to make sure Will was alright only to find him on the floor amid shards of glass. Will jumped up and said to Jordan that they needed to call in the federal agents immediately.

    Jordan told Will to go back to sleep, this sort of thing happens all the time in his neighborhood. I'm not sure Will ever did go back to sleep, but he got a first-hand example of what it means to be faithful, at least according to Jordan's definition.

    Jordan's definition of being faithful has a whole lot to do with living like Jesus of Nazareth even if the world still puts that kind of life on a cross. It's not the content of your creed that makes you a disciple, according to Jordan, but the choices you make, no matter how much it costs to see them through.

    I don't want to let go of Jordan's definition of faith. It is true to some of the deepest strains of the gospel. However, I would like to add another dimension to it. In a time when it seems like some peoples' faith is judged by others according to how willing they are to believe the most ludicrous things, even rejecting sound scientific research and common sense empirical observation, I think we may need yet another counterbalance.

    Faith as Learning Reality
    I recall a conversation with my late colleague, Professor Alan Lewis. Alan was one of the most distinguished international theologians of his time, and sadly his time passed all too quickly. A native of Belfast who had taught for many years alongside T.F. Torrance in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alan fought cancer for several courageous years, succumbing to the disease finally in 1994.

    We were sitting in his office, as I recall, talking theology as we often did. Alan had been in the States since the late 1980s. I had only recently arrived back from Aberdeen, Scotland, with a newly minted Ph.D. in theology. That day we were talking about the Virgin Birth. I told him that as far as I was concerned, while the theological argument for the Virgin Birth of Jesus is unnecessary, I could easily believe in it. Frankly, if you can believe that God created all things out of nothing, everything else is easy. Alan, to my utter surprise, said something to the effect that belief in the Virgin Birth shows a failure of faith. As beliefs go, he said, it is a late legendary addition to the Christian gospel, not only irrelevant but counterproductive to the Christian faith.

    The longer I thought about this, the more I came to think that Alan was right. His theological mind inevitably sliced into an issue unpredictably, making it impossible to pin him down as a liberal, or a conservative, or an evangelical. He was creative and courageous, and disliked nothing in theology quite as much as "genitive theology," the habit of scholars to endlessly restate other scholars rather than learning from others so they can speak in their own theological voice. Alan's voice, the voice of a generous and critical Christian orthodoxy, is so needed these days.

    Well ...
    Faith is not about believing the unlikely. Faith is not a matter of scorning scientific knowledge in favor of obscurantism. And faith certainly isn't a pious glorification of ignorance. Certainly, as Jordan said, and Alan would have agreed, it is about living, casting our lives into God's hands, trusting that whatever the power of resurrection means (and not even St. Paul was sure about what it meant), it empowers us to live in defiance of all the threats brought against goodness and love and life in this world.

    Recently, I came across a bit of information that encourages me to say something more about the meaning of faithfulness.

    In a fascinating online interview with Zen Master Shohaku Okumura, under the title "Zazen is Good for Nothing," I came across the definition of the closest word in Japanese to the English word "religion." Shohaku Roshi explained that the word handed down in Japanese Buddhism is shūkyō. The word shū means “reality” in Japanese, while kyō means “teaching.” For a Japanese Buddhist, then, faith is to learn reality.

    Now, in case we are thinking to ourselves that this is a reductionistic view of the life of faith, let us remember that there are few things more strange, mystifying and mysterious than reality. All I have to do is read two paragraphs of physicists Stephen Hawking or Richard Feynman on the nature of reality, and I'm in awe and wonder. What we see is far from all there is. And the mystery only deepens the more deeply we inquire.

    Seeking reality, therefore, is the essential work of faithfulness. Coming to terms with reality is, I think, the ultimate act of faith.

    "You shall know the truth," said Jesus, "and the truth will set you free."

    Yes. But what happens when our religions shield us from facing the truth?

    What happens when we let faith become an excuse for not dealing with reality?

    What happens when we reduce religion merely to believing a laundry list of improbable ideas?

    Someone recently told me that one of the most painful things they have encountered in recent years were the young servicemen and servicewomen returning from war zones around the world with their Christian faith in tatters because the only religion they had to take with them was what they called "happy clappy." These young warriors had been regular church attenders, but their churches had given them only a steady diet of celebration and theological pablum.

    Hearing the story, I couldn't help but remember novelist Flannery O'Connor's brilliant caricature of American Protestantism as the Church of Christ without Christ. These dedicated young men and women deserved a faith that faces reality and equips us to deal with it, all of it. It isn't morbid to search for the love of God in the dead body hanging on the cross, it is an engagement with reality. This is where obedience to God leads in this world. Really.

    I want to keep Jordan's active faith, but let's add to it also a faith that is willing to grapple honestly with reality. Such faith represents, at the very least, an alternative to a religion that just wishes reality away.**

    * Clarence Jordan. The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons, edited by Dallas Lee, p. 42. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005.
    ** Perhaps no theologian has ever wrestled more profoundly with this subject than did Alan Lewis himself, as in his remarkable book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

  • Martin Luther's Christmas Day Sermon

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 26, 2017

    Martin Luther's Christmas Day SermonThis year we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Thus it seems especially fitting to draw our Christmas meditation from Martin Luther, specifically from a sermon he preached on a Christmas Day some five centuries ago. Reading this sermon I was immediately struck by two of the enduring characteristics of the best of Protestant preaching: its compelling clarity, and its unembarrassed intelligence.

    With phrases that linger on the tongue and images that bring the most complex ideas to life, Luther speaks like a wise conversation partner. There are moments, reading his sermons that one forgets they were "delivered" from a pulpit. One almost feels that Luther is an old and rather brilliant friend sitting across the table from you, a beer stein in his hand, a hunk of good brown bread and a plate of fruit and cheese sitting between you, speaking at length about something you both care about, but about which he knows so very much more.

    The heavens were shaken on the first Christmas, Luther observes, but so was the earth. Angels sang. Nations were agitated. He speaks of taxes levied in the ancient world by the Roman Empire. He notes the preciseness with which the Gospel places the birth of Jesus in the time of the Emperor Caesar Augustus and Quirinius the Governor of Syria. He draws parallels between biblical regions and contemporary relations between "the Germanland" and "Austria" to make a point. And he gives encouragement to his dinner partner, who may be overwhelmed at his erudition, by saying that what matters most in the Gospel can be understood with little explanation. Just reflect on what is written there, he says, take it in "with a calm, quiet heart" banishing "everything else from your mind" and you too can understand it fully.

    And, yet, for all his encouragement, you know that this man named Luther sitting across from you understands the gospel text at a level you can't yet imagine. He moves with ease from the original Greek of the Gospel text to Latin translations. He is, after all, the very man who translated the Bible into German. Sitting there, watching this great mountain of a man drink down a huge gulp of good beer, you know for all his humility that he is a scholar for the ages. And his scholarship is not of the vain abstract sort, but is bent toward explaining the good news of the Gospel to anyone who will listen.

    All of this one feels reading these words on the page. How must it have felt standing in his congregation listening to him preach! I don't get very romantic about such historical matters very often, but I would dearly have loved to have heard Luther preach this sermon on Christmas Day five centuries ago.

    As we celebrate the Christmas season 2017, I encourage you to reflect with me on a very small selection of passages from Luther's Christmas Sermon on Luke 2:1-14 in which Mary and Joseph journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.

    *"First, behold how very ordinary and common things are to us that transpire on earth, and yet how high they are regarded in heaven. On earth it occurs in this wise: Here is a poor young woman, Mary of Nazareth, not highly esteemed, but of the humblest of citizens of the village. No one is conscious of the great wonder she bears; she is silent, keeps her own counsel, and regards herself as the lowliest in the town. She starts out with her husband Joseph. ... They were obliged to leave their home unoccupied, or commend it to the care of others.

    "Now they evidently owned an ass, upon which Mary rode, although the Gospel does not mention it, and it is possible that she went on foot with Joseph. Imagine how she was despised at the inns and stopping places on the way, although worthy to ride in state in a chariot of gold.

    "There were, no doubt, many wives and daughters of prominent men at that time, who lived in fine apartments and great splendor, while the mother of God takes a journey in mid-winter under most trying circumstances. What distinctions there are in the world! ... The Evangelist shows how, when they arrived at Bethlehem, they were the most insignificant and despised, so that they had to make way for others until they were obliged to take refuge in a stable, to share with the cattle, lodging, table, bedchamber, and bed, while many a wicked man sat at the head in hotels and was honored as lord. No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable. ... O what a dark night this was for Bethlehem, that was not conscious of that glorious light! See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has, or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has, and does.

    "See, this is the first picture with which Christ puts the world to shame and exposes all it does and knows. It shows that the world's greatest wisdom is foolishness, her best actions are wrong, and her greatest treasures are misfortunes."

    I recall a statement by Martin Luther concerning how we can get reliable information regarding what God is like. It happened in the midst of a dispute over who deserves to be called a "theologian." Luther told his disputants that no one who tried to know God by means of abstruse metaphysical speculation deserved the title of "theologian." This route belongs to a theology of glory. And it is a dead end. A real theologian, Luther said, runs straight to the tiny barn in Bethlehem, kneels beside a feed trough and looks into the face of a helpless infant lying there. That, he said, is where we meet God.
    With these thoughts in mind, I wish you Merry Christmas!

    *(Martin Luther, “The Story of Jesus’ Birth” in Volume I: Sermons on Gospel Texts for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, edited by John Nicholas Lenker, 134-135. (Minneapolis, 1905; reprinted Grand Rapids, 1983).

  • Reverend Jane Hays: In Memoriam

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 22, 2017

    Jane HaysJane Hays died a few weeks ago. She was not an alum, though her ties to Louisville Seminary ran deep: deep enough for her to feature the seminary in the biography she wrote about her first husband, James Huff.

    She had the fortune or misfortune - hard to say which - of outliving virtually all of her contemporaries. So there weren't a lot of people around who could remember her rich life of love, loss and service to the church. That is why, today, I'm designating myself to say a few words, although the tiny fragment of her long and rich life that I knew was so small in comparison to its whole.

    In the eight years I've known Jane, she became one of my favorite people. I liked her so much that I wanted other members of our seminary community to get to know her personally, too. So I asked Dean Sue Garrett and Vice President Sally Pendleton and Sandra Moon, our Director of Church and Alum Relations, all to visit her when they happened to be in her neighborhood.

    For much of her life, Denver, Colorado, was her neighborhood. Jane would tell you, however, that she was a strong Southern woman, born and raised in Florida, educated in Georgia, and well-acquainted with Louisville, Kentucky. She came to Louisville with James when he came to seminary. After his untimely death, she continued to live for a time in Kentucky, but after her second marriage she moved west. Eventually she studied theology herself and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church.

    Why did Jane become so special to me? Maybe it was because sometimes she was seen as a bit of an odd duck. I felt a special kinship to her from the beginning. Maybe odd ducks of a feather flock together.

    I had been warned that halfway through dinner in a restaurant with one president (and being a person of significant means she knew several presidents from several different schools), she excused herself from the table and never returned. The president thought she'd just gone to the restroom only to discover after a long, awkward pause that she had gone home.

    But Jane and I clicked from the start. I really don't know why. She didn't suffer fools gladly and I like to flatter myself that I'm not a fool. And I don't really suffer fools gladly or otherwise. But who knows. Perhaps we just liked and disliked the same things and quickly realized that.

    She told me the story of a college president (certainly not one of my predecessors) who had visited her and whose presence was, to use her word, just "creepy." When she asked me what I thought of what he said and did, I agreed that he did sound "creepy," maybe even "sleazy."

    She laughed. "Yes! That's the word!" She loved finding the right word.

    Jane had a remarkable laugh, eyes that sparkled with intelligence and a mind that well past ninety years of age could move from theological questions to finance to church politics with the greatest ease. And humility. She detested pretension.

    I told her I had read her book about the life she shared with James, a businessman from Tennessee. She was a good deal younger than him when they married. He had inherited his family's business, but he had always wanted to be a minister. Therefore, well into middle age, he came to see the great Dr. Frank Caldwell, then president of Louisville Seminary, and Dr. Caldwell arranged for him to be admitted in a special category although he lacked a college degree. Upon graduation, James went on to serve the wonderful Presbyterian congregation in Princeton, Kentucky. These were his happiest days. Tragically this chapter of their lives did not last long because the diabetes that has dogged her husband from childhood took his life leaving her on her own with two young adopted children to provide for.

    I told Jane that I had found her book about James far more compelling than Catherine Marshall's much more famous book about Peter Marshall. There was something about Jane's story that resonated deeply with me, though Marshall's A Man Called Peter became a best seller and went on to become a Hollywood movie while Jane's Whom the Lord Loveth never made the best-seller list when it was published in the 1960s, even though it was published by a major publication house.

    Jane thanked me for my praise, but then said: "But didn't you find my book ... well ... simplistic?"

    I thought for a long moment and said: "No. Not simplistic. Naive."

    Again, she said, with a broad smile, "That is the word. I was naive."

    We talked about philosopher Paul Ricoeur's concept of "a second naïveté." And I promised I would send her an essay by Ricoeur on the subject. She described a book she had been working on with a writing coach. We talked Church. Economics. Politics. And Church politics. And the time flew.

    The next time I saw her, Jane went to dinner with Debbie and me. Snow was thick on the ground, and I was worried about her getting out. But she insisted. She stayed up a lot later than was her habit. Sitting by a window in the restaurant, again, we talked about everything. She loved talking with other intelligent and imaginative women. So she especially loved talking about education and literature with Debbie. It seemed such a shame to break up the party. So we didn't.

    We were just scheduling another visit with Jane for January, only a couple of weeks ago, when we discovered that she had died. She was well into her nineties, but I suppose I just wanted this road to go on forever.

    When I went online to get more information about her death, I discovered almost nothing written about Jane. That seemed a terrible shame. So, I decided to write this note of tribute in gratitude for someone who was a great friend of Louisville Seminary and a great friend of mine.

    Thank you, Jane. We love you. And we will miss you.

  • The Iron Entered Into His Soul

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 19, 2017

    Iron SoulSomeone - I think it was C.S. Lewis - once observed that the average seminary graduate knows more Hebrew than the translator of the Coverdale Bible. This is not a small matter. The Coverdale translation is immortalized by the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer. For a lot of English-speaking folks, the Coverdale is naturally the default reading of the Psalms. Lewis, however, hastened to add to his remark about the technical skills of the Coverdale translator that it isn't the bare accuracy of the translation that carries the day; it is the truthfulness and beauty of the poetry.

    The passage from Psalm 23 which most of us know by heart, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil," doesn't actually say precisely those words in the Hebrew text. The passage is more difficult to translate. I recall stumbling over the Hebrew, beautiful in its own way, in graduate school and later still when asked to write a couple of books on the Psalms.

    Here's the point: forever and anon for many English readers, Psalm 23:4 shall read as the Prayerbook reads, and as the wise translators of the Authorized Version (King James Version) followed suit, because we feel in the marrow of our bones that the poetry of the passage speaks the truth. Truth wins over accuracy.

    So it is that I come to my favorite passage in all of the Psalms: "the iron entered into his soul."

    I think of these words so often, sometimes at the unlikeliest moments. Recently, for example, a few days after Hurricane Irma surged onto the island where our home stands, I was looking at a wind-twisted and tested old tree on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The words rolled through my mind then as I thought about all this tree has been through in its long history: "the iron entered into its soul."

    Again the wonderful phrase belongs to the enigmatic Coverdale. Sure, the translator had a limited knowledge of Semitic languages. A good middler seminarian could indeed knock Coverdale silly on a translation drill. But, by God, that man could render the human experience in verse better than just about anyone else, maybe ever (well, except for John Donne and George Herbert).

    I'm going to wrestle my illuminated folio edition of The Book of Common Prayer onto my lap so I can read the passage to you in context. ... Wait a moment while I get the behemoth open. …

    There. ... And turn to ...

    There it is.

    Psalm CV.17-19: "but he had sent a man before them: even Joseph, who was sold to be a bond-servant; Whose feet they hurt in the stocks: the iron entered into his soul; until the time came that his cause was known: the word of the Lord tried him."

    "The law and the prophets" may not hang on these words from the Psalms, but everything I've ever learned from my beloved Stoics, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, does. The wisdom of which Evagrius Ponticus speaks, that resounds through Koheleth, the equanimity in the face of peril and changing fortunes, the courage to stand in the breach when everyone else runs for the hills: it is all here. That which was intended to break Joseph, the suffering he endured, made him strong and resilient. The phrase itself isn't there in the Hebrew text of this Psalm, not like it appears in the Coverdale translation. But it is there in Joseph's story. And it is true to our lives.

    Perhaps right here we are confronting one of the limits of the value of the literal.

    Not long ago I had the most wonderful phone conversation with a retired United Methodist minister who is teaching the Disciple Bible Series at both a large church and in a nursing home. The reason he called me is because I happened to have written the book (Invitation to Psalms) used in the study. He observed that the folks in the nursing home seem to have more patience with the Psalms than do the members of the large, busy congregation.

    This is an interesting factoid when one considers that folks in the nursing home have one eye on the tapioca and the other on the hourglass. Arguably, they have a better sense of the preciousness of time, its limited supply. And, yet, as thin as time is on the ground for these folks, they understand the value of biblical texts that slow us down, the meaning of which doesn't yield to a quick read.

    Poetry, if it does nothing else, S L O W S us down. Good poetry demands that we read, re-read, reflect, re-read, think, wonder, scan the line before and after, and read again. And the Psalms are the most poetic part of the Bible. No wonder that some busy younger and middle-aged American Christians often don't have time for the Psalms. But, then, why do those folks who are older make time for these texts?

    The Psalms evoke every feeling and experience of the soul, John Calvin said. They excavate the life of the heart. They explore the recesses of the soul. They allow us to render up our regrets and guilt, our shattered and inadequate hopes, our anger and our passions, our small victories and grand defeats, and to offer up all of the residue of our lives as prayer to a long-suffering God. And they don't do this vital, essential work of soul-excavation by being literal. They do it by being truer than literal language can ever be.

    Thus, I'm encouraging everyone. Grab a version of the Bible replete in archaic references and odd ways of putting things. Dig in. And dig down. And let the words work the hard and the soft soil of your soul as slowly as they will. Wonder at the strangeness of a text that makes us move slowly.

    You may walk through valleys of the shadow of death that don't appear in the Hebrew text, but appear in your path. You may hear how a man placed in chains was strengthened in his inner being by the iron that held him, even though the passage really just says that an "iron collar was placed around his neck." But when you hear how the chains that were meant to keep him enthralled made him stronger, even if you recognize the lack of the accuracy in the translation, you may hold the mis-reading more precious ever after. Because it is true of Joseph, and us, and even a gnarled coastal tree.

    And that, after all, is the only litmus test that matters for a sacred text.

  • What the Dickens is Going on Here?

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 12, 2017

    ScroogeWhy are Christmas stories such as Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, so popular while American culture seems so often to contradict their messages?

    We are horrified by the prospect of a vulgar, self-serving and brutal Pottersville and are repelled by the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge saying that the struggling poor and sick should die and decrease the surplus population. Yet, a sizable proportion of the American population support the policies that advance the very agendas they seem to loathe when they see them dramatized.

    Are the Christmas stories merely sentimental, idealistic and naive? This seems to be the cynical take on things. The cynic will tell us that a single human life can't prevent a town from going bad; a person can't really be changed, converted or transformed from selfish to selfless.

    Or do these Christmas stories exemplify goodness?

    A Presbyterian pastor I knew and respected greatly, the late David Pittenger, once called into question the criticism someone had of "do-gooders." David asked, "Would you as a Christian prefer 'do-badders?'"

    David was as sophisticated an ethical thinker as you'll meet. He understood how ideology and high idealism can get in the way of making wise decisions. He was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, and a proponent of the ethics of "Christian Realism." But he was also aware that if our practical decisions do not reflect the substance of our faith, we aren't really acting as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Bible has a name for us when our actions don't match our values: hypocrites.

    Christmas is upon us. It will be hard to miss A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life on a television near you. As you watch them this year, I invite you to reflect on the question that is haunting my holidays: Why don't we live up to the stories we tell?

  • Lady Julian's Revelations

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 08, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Lady Julian"The theologians do not thrill when the prophet cries, 'Thus saith the Lord!' They first examine his credentials." So writes Clifton Wolters in the introduction of his edition of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love. [Wolters, Revelations (London: Penguin, 1966) p. 12.]

    Wolters, himself a theologian, has a sly sense of humor that several times slips through the net like a razor clam in his edition of Lady Julian's Revelations, as when he notes the exasperation that must have been in St. Paul's voice when he admonished that quarrelsome but revelation-prone bunch in Corinth, and when he quotes the venerable Bishop Butler telling John Wesley: "Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing." (Wolters, Revelations, p. 11.)

    The church historically has been hesitant to accept new revelations at face value. Whether delivered breathlessly by an enthusiast or hesitantly by a shyer sort of believer, the church curbs its enthusiasm and tests with great care the spirits that purport to bring a word from God.

    Even among the streams of the Christian tradition that explicitly have blessed mysticism, there is hesitation to endorse new mystics. The glorious curmudgeon of British Catholicism, G.K. Chesterton, who, himself, wrote a book about one of the greatest mystics in history (St. Francis of Assisi) expressed himself on this subject bluntly saying that most mysticism "begins in mist and ends in schism."

    The fact that Lady Julian of Norwich was regarded far and wide in her own time as a mystic who received revelations from God is all the more noteworthy given the church's reluctance to endorse such visions and visionaries. This remarkable young woman of just thirty years, who humbly took the name of the church where she became a recluse (St Julian's Church in Norwich, England), in the year of our Lord 1373, prayed for three gifts: a "vivid perception" of the Passion of Christ, bodily sickness and wounds so that she might share in Christ's sufferings.

    These gifts Julian did receive, but they were not all she received from God. She also received revelations or "shewings" of the meaning of Christ's life and death, including insights into the Trinity, the incarnation, and the unity between God and the soul of mankind. And through all of these revelations, which Julian would spend the remainder of her long life pondering and praying to comprehend, she came to understand that, as A.C. Spearing writes in another edition of Julian's Revelations: "God's meaning in the whole series of experiences ... was no more nor less than love." [Spearing and Spearing, Revelations (London: Penguin, 1988), p. viii.]

    Before going any further, however, with the wonders of Lady Julian, I must make something of a qualified disclaimer. Julian can be an acquired taste. And, it must be admitted, some folks just don't acquire a liking for her.

    Two of my most significant mentors had vastly different views of Julian. My doctor-father, Professor James Torrance, introduced me to Julian in graduate school. He saw her as both one of the greatest souls in the history of the church and one of its greatest theologians too. Julian's theological acuity and creativity call into question her description of herself as "a simple, uneducated creature." She was, after all, the first woman to write a book in English. James admired Julian for her theological insight, but he loved her for her captivating portrait of God's love as the supreme meaning of all life.

    On the other hand, my longtime mentor and dear friend Ellis Nelson could barely stomach Julian. "She is so morbid!" Ellis said one day in the extra-curricular study group I led for years on classic spiritual texts. Ellis was a faithful member of the study group, which met weekly over sandwiches. He faithfully read and faithfully came week after week to discuss Julian's Revelations. But when we, at last, finished Julian and started studying Blaise Pascal's Pensees, Ellis was like a schoolboy released from a cruel tutor.

    I fell in love with Julian at first sight. I have read her Revelations (the short text and the long) repeatedly, have read commentaries on her thought, chased down rare editions of Revelations in Oxford's Bodleian Library and in antiquarian bookshops, and endured some truly bad books and articles on her in a quest to understand her more fully. Debbie and I have hopped the pilgrim train from Cambridge to Norwich and braved the crowds of July to visit her site at St. Julian's Church. (What remains of her cell frankly isn't much after the damage done by the Luftwaffe.) And no matter how well I think I know her words, I am surprised every time (every time!) I read her again.

    Last summer, for example, reading her Parable of the Lord and the Servant (related and expounded in the long text of Revelations), I realized that her understanding of the relationship of Christ and Adam anticipates Karl Barth's monumental interpretation whereby Adam, although chronologically first in the story of our faith, is subsumed into Christ.* Thus, our name as human beings can no longer be "Adam" (or "Eve"), for we are all one in Christ. No longer are we named by our failures and faults as children of Adam, but by our redemption and reconciliation as children of God. For Julian this reversal of the conventional ordering of Adam and Christ (in which Adam is seen as the persistent prior problem and the enduring name of our species while Christ is the long-awaited but long-delayed solution) is possible and even necessary when we get a glimpse of the way God sees all reality, not as a linear sequence of separate events, one following another in a chain, but as a single created organism.

    Reading Julian's Parable this time, I heard echoes of St. Athanasius' fourth-century treatise On the Incarnation (his analogy of the king who enters a city overwhelmed by brigands, thus reclaiming a city that was his in fact) and hints of Jonathan Edwards' grand history of redemption and doctrine of original sin (in which all humanity might be construed as a single tree). And, most significantly, I heard theological ideas that I have heard nowhere else but in Julian's Revelations, as when the fall and incarnation collapse into a single theological event and the Christ unites himself with the whole of fallen humanity in a fully realized at-one-ment of God and humanity.

    As Julian herself writes:

    "When Adam fell, God's Son fell; because of the true union made in heaven, God's Son could not leave Adam, for by Adam I understand all men. Adam fell from life to death into the valley of this wretched world, and after that into Hell. God's Son fell with Adam into the valley of the Virgin's womb (and she was the fairest daughter of Adam), in order to free Adam from guilt in heaven and in earth; and with his great power he fetched him out of hell." (Spearing and Spearing, Revelations, p. 121)

    Julian's voice is at once that of a woman confiding in a familiar friend and that of a Doctor of the Church breathing a fresh breath of life into the ancient doctrine of "the wonderful exchange" (mirifica commutatio) of redemption. She speaks with an authority born of authentic humility. Elizabeth Spearing's translation of her is the best by far in allowing us to hear Julian's tone, warmth, sanity and wisdom.

    Julian says so much - and so much more. She teaches us that when we have seen Jesus on the cross we have looked into the very inner heart of the Trinity. She teaches us to understand God as our Mother as well as our Father. Indeed, Jesus Christ, for Julian, is our Mother, not only to whom we can run whenever in need, but who nourishes us by the milk of life offered his children from the cross. Julian says that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. She is puzzled by sin's persistence; but, undaunted by the mystery of evil, she is confident that God's love triumphs over all. And, reading Julian, who can possibly imagine that the powers of evil could finally resist such inexpressible divine love.

    Whenever I read Julian's best known words, "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well," I find myself coming to rest. But she is not just telling us to relax, be happy, everything will work out. She is telling us that the future and the past are all the same to the God who dwells eternally in the present; and this God holds everything including all time and space in his heart, and his heart is pure love.

    As Julian herself says at the close of her Revelations:

    "You would know the Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else - ever!" (Wolters, Revelations, p. 212).

    If I could recommend one classic of Christian spirituality from among the hundreds available, it would be Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love. If you haven't already read her, take and read now. If you have read her before, linger over her again. There's always new "revelations" to take in.

    The two editions of Julian used in this blog are: Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, translated and with an introduction by Clifton Wolters (London, 1966); and Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, translated by Elizabeth Spearing, with an introduction and notes by A.C. Spearing (London, 1998). You may be wondering why it is that Julian was the first woman to write a book in English and yet her book requires translators. It is because her English was Middle English, a delightful language just close enough to Modern English for us to almost be able to read with no assistance, but just different enough to trip us up unless we have a Middle English dictionary close by. Middle English marks the transition between Anglo Saxon, which is actually a Germanic tongue, and Modern English, which bears the imprint of other European languages, especially French, and the integration of older languages such as Greek and Latin.

    *Students of Karl Barth will recognize in Julian striking parallels between her Revelations and some of Barth's most interesting contributions to constructive theology, not only in his Christ and Adam, but also in his The Humanity of God.

  • Learning Leadership One Life at a Time

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 05, 2017

    Learning LeadershipGood leaders often extol the value of reading biographies. Why do they value biographies so much?

    To explain, allow me to do something that may not immediately seem relevant. I will draw a distinction between an "illustration" and a "story."

    An illustration ordinarily makes a point. It illuminates an idea. That's its value, really, that it provides a clearer focus on a point a speaker or writer is trying to make. That's why illustrations have always been a favorite tool of orators and preachers.

    A story, by contrast, is open-ended. It immerses you, often very quickly, into a life. A good story can raise more questions than it answers. It can take the listener to places that, frankly, even the storyteller may not have imagined. Some great stories can leave us disconcerted, disoriented, or confused, which (as any educational philosopher will tell you) is exactly where learning is nurtured.

    An illustration might help us understand better the point a speaker is trying to make; but a story allows us to walk around inside of it, breathe its air, try on other people's shoes, and allow their experiences to expand our horizons. And there's just no end to what we may learn doing that.

    The experience of reading really good biographies is like listening to really good stories. It's not, in other words, like hearing an illustration.

    The inestimable value of investing serious time in the study of good biographies specifically about leaders is that they will introduce us to the variety of experiences to which that leader responded. And, this experience provides opportunities for us to examine the effectiveness of the leader's responses. But, of course, it does far more than that. A good biography also allows us to discern the character of the leader, the ways she adjusted to changes, conflicts, problems, and the ways she shaped the world around her and was shaped by it.

    For example:

    Reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (Simon & Schuster, 2006), in which she brilliantly places Abraham Lincoln in the context of his cabinet, one is led into a profoundly conflicted historical moment with so many moving parts, so many opposing political camps and machinations, so much emotion, and such a variety of gifted, and sometimes utterly selfless, and often dismayingly self-seeking leaders, that there is simply no way one can emerge with just a lesson or two.

    If you had asked me the day after I finished reading that biography, "What did you learn from it?" I probably would have said something like this: "I have a much deeper respect than ever for Abraham Lincoln, especially for his calmness under fire, his generosity of spirit, his apparent lack of bitterness and his political skill." But, beyond that, I probably would have said, "However, I will have to live with this book in my head for a while to discover what else I learned." Several years after reading that biography, I, am STILL learning from it.

    Reading Ron Chernow's brilliant biography of Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton, Penguin, 2005) about ten years ago, I knew immediately only one thing: Hamilton was far more important to the founding of our republic than almost any other single person except George Washington. More important than John Adams, more important than Jefferson, or Monroe, or Madison. But, again, it took years for me to live with that biography, returning to reflect first on this aspect of Hamilton's life and then another, for me to unwrap the many other learnings the book contained for me.

    One of the most valuable experiences I've ever had reading a biography occurred while reading S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010). Quanah Parker's name is known to any Texas schoolchild. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was kidnapped from her home during a Comanche raid in 1836 when she was nine years old. She grew up as a Comanche, loved and married a Comanche warrior, and bore her son, Quanah. As an adult, she refused to return to the Euro-American world until tragically she was "rescued" by Texas Rangers in 1860. Her son, Quanah, became chief of his tribe. The biography traces his story, the story of a guerrilla warrior who was never defeated in battle.

    Whether reading about Margaret Thatcher, or Lyndon Johnson, or Mohandas Gandhi, or Winston Churchill, or Albert Einstein, or Steve Jobs (provided the biography in question is well-researched, balanced, aware of its biases, and well-written), the investment in hours of reading and sometimes years of contemplation are more than worth it. This is as true of a deeply flawed leader as it is for a leader who appears almost ideal.**

    I have loved the stories about Gandhi since I was a child. My grandparents introduced me to his legacy. They talked about how he inspired them. I've read the autobiography of his early life (his life experiment with truth, as he called it), and biographies about him too. A more beautiful human being is hard to imagine. His accomplishments and his influence live on, as do his failures. I have also enjoyed and benefited from reading biographies about L.B.J.  It is hard to imagine a more different leader than Gandhi. But, I dare say, while I hope that when my life is done I might be more like Gandhi in my soul (if not my wardrobe), I've learned more from that flawed political giant from Texas who wanted desperately to be the greatest domestic president of all time but will forever be remembered for a foreign war.

    Religious leaders can provide especially interesting subjects for biographies, provided the books reject sanctimonious hagiography in favor of the unvarnished truth. We learn nothing of any real value from a biography of Thomas Cranmer, or John Calvin, or Martin Luther that doesn't make us cringe or feel a bit queasy. And, as Frederick Buechner famously demonstrated in his Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale several years ago, sometimes flaws in a great religious leader, such as Henry Ward Beecher, make his story enduringly valuable.

    In recent years, my favorite biographies have all been of women, especially women who found ways (often against the most awful odds) to make a difference in the world.

    Jane Welsh Carlyle is sadly almost only known today as the wife of Thomas Carlyle, but Virginia Wolfe celebrated her letters as among the wittiest and most intelligent of the nineteenth century. She was remembered by friends for her wicked sense of humor (they said that one always knew where she was at a dinner or reception because that's where the laughter was loudest). Her friendships inspired others to greatness, to heroic deeds and fine works of literature. And we have waited a very, very long time to have the biography she deserved.***

    Sarah Losh's curiosity knew no bounds. Her abilities as an artist, artisan and architect reflected the emerging natural sciences of the nineteenth century, an appreciation for the piety of the early church, and a naturalistic and pantheistic exuberance that is simply irresistible. She was able to translate all of these sources of inspiration into stone in her design and construction of a single remarkable church: St. Mary's Church in the tiny English village of Wreay. One can only imagine the architectural commissions she might have undertaken, much to the betterment of that dreary ecclesial age's romantic and destructive obsession with a fake "gothic revival."****

    Mary Jane Warfield's history is now almost lost to the ages, except for the brief mention she sometimes gets as the first (divorced) wife of Cassius Marcellus Clay, the nineteenth-century Kentucky politician and ambassador to Russia under Abraham Lincoln. But this remarkable woman imported such astonishing domestic architectural features as indoor plumbing to the United States (much to the astonishment of her neighbors); and, in a time when divorce was a scandal, she demanded her liberty from her strange, irascible, though fascinating, spouse. It appears that Mary Jane Warfield's daughter, Laura, one of the greatest women's suffrage movement leaders in our history, learned a great deal from her lesser-known mother. And, yet, Mary Jane Warfield's life has yet to be taken up by a first-rate biographer.

    If any of these women had been men, all of society would have celebrated and would still revel in their accomplishments. They would have been heralded as renaissance figures. What kind of spirit does it take to BE so great, to keep on thinking and creating, to keep on persisting and trying, when all your culture conspires against you? But, none of these women's stories can be boiled down just to their tenacity. Their life stories are richer, and more marvelously confounding, than any single lesson can encapsulate.

    If we are serious about being and becoming better leaders (as well as better people), biographies provide a richer school than any number of the latest books by our culture's overly puffed pop-gurus. Enjoy. And learn.

    * If you're looking for a great new biography for yourself or a friend, Ron Chernow's new bio of Ulysses S. Grant (Grant, Penguin, 2017) is superb. I'm reading it now and I'm gaining new insights on virtually every page.

    ** However, a deeply flawed biography is another matter altogether. For example, my son, Jeremy, and I have often discussed why we found Nancy Isenberg's Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (Penguin, 2007), so disappointing. Our conclusion is that while her research is impeccable (she is an extraordinary scholar), the quality of her writing and her ability to get emotional distance from her subject undermine what might otherwise have been a fine book about one of the most fascinating figures in our country's history.

    *** Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian World by Kathy Chamberlain (Duckworth Overlook, 2017).

    **** The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine --Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary by Jenny Uglow (Macmillan, 2012).

  • Are You Having Any Fun?

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 28, 2017

    Are You Having Any Fun?It happened at a particularly low point a few years ago. I don't recall exactly when. And I can't remember exactly where I was when it happened. I can't even recall precisely what was going on in my life. But I do remember what happened as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.

    I was standing in line waiting (I think) to be served at Starbucks. And while standing there, I heard Tony Bennett singing from the speakers on the walls: "Are you havin' any fun? Whatcha gettin' outa livin'?"

    As Tony and his orchestra swung their happy way through this standard of the Great American Songbook, I realized that tears were welling up in my eyes. And I remember saying to myself, "No. I'm not."

    I don't recall if I waited in line long enough to be served. I just remember leaving the store with this question echoing in my head.

    Now, I recognize the fact that fun is not really a category of Christian theology. Certainly it is not a category of Calvinist theology. One Presbyterian preacher I once knew said that Christians shouldn't even use the word joy unless it was understood in light of the cross. Theologically speaking, I am relatively sure he was right.

    But, frankly, I have never found Jesus to be a sour-faced old misery. Indeed, if anyone fit the profile of killjoys, it wasn't Jesus; it was his religious opponents.

    Jesus was, according at least to some folks, a winebibber and a friend of sinners. He was, in short, the kind of person one enjoys being with. He was, in shorter, the kind of person I enjoy spending time with.

    Apparently, as disconcerting as this has always been for many of his followers, Jesus knew how to have fun. (Of all the illustrations in the history of Playboy magazine, the one that was found most offensive was the infamous picture of Jesus throwing his head back in laughter; or so I've heard. Of course, I have no first-hand experience regarding this publication!)

    I often imagine Jesus propped up on some pillows during a late-night visit with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, enjoying a nice bottle of fermented grape and some of Martha's killer deep-fried olives, wishing that somebody would get around to inventing the martini.

    Contrary to the preferences of his very "grown-up disciplines," and his even more "grown-up" despisers among the religious officers, I often imagine Jesus not only surrounded by children, but making rude noises by blowing on their tummies until everybody collapsed into a puddle of laughter. Although fun may not be a serious theological subject, I believe (as someone has said) that God is most pleased when his children are at play.

    So, back to me, sitting in my car outside of Starbucks with Tony still singing in my head: I wondered what I might do to remedy my fun deficit problem and, perhaps, better please God.

    As it happened, at that time, I was seeing a therapist. Her mantra to me had become: "Find some balance in your life."

    I knew she was right. My life was pretty out-of-balance.

    But HOW?

    If you live to work rather than work to live, something's seriously out of whack in your life. But, the problem was that I knew something that nobody else in the whole universe seemed to know: I KNEW THAT I AM INDISPENSABLE TO THE OPERATION OF THE ENTIRE COSMOS.

    Truly. I knew that if I stopped attending to things, the whole galaxy would fall apart.

    Without me: The sun would quit shining; the solar system would stop spinning; and life as we know it would come to a cold, dark, tragic end.

    I knew this. I knew this in the core of my being. Everything. Depended. On. Me.

    And, as crazy as this sounds, I'll tell you something even crazier. I didn't see the arrogance or unfettered selfish ambition in my thinking. Not at all. I thought of myself as humble. Truly.

    One of my favorite teachers from years past was Dr. Frank Richardson. Frank was a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. I once had a course with Frank on the psychology of stress and distress. Great course!

    Years later, when I taught at Austin Seminary, and Frank and I were colleagues having lunch one day, he reminded me of something he had taught me years before: When things are out of whack in your life, relaxation techniques alone aren't going to fix you. You need a better philosophy of life, a philosophy of life to which you don't just give intellectual assent, but that you know at the very core of your being, "in your heart," as we often say.

    Predictably, it wasn't until I internalized Frank's wisdom that my therapy a few years ago began to make any real difference.

    I couldn't possibly give myself permission to find balance in life until I realized not only how arrogant, but how utterly delusional it was to think that I am indispensable. I couldn't possibly slow down until I came to believe that I don't hold it all together. And I don't have to. God does.

    AND, I don't have to earn my standing or worth as a human being. That's a gift from God, too.

    The truth was, that I couldn't have fun until I let myself have fun. And I couldn't let myself have fun until I let go of responsibility for all the "outcomes."

    Yeah. I know. That's heretical to say.

    But here's the terrible, counter-cultural truth. While we do have some control over doing the best we can do (and that includes planning carefully and executing responsibly), we don't really have the control we think we do over outcomes.

    No matter how well we strategize and plan with others, no matter how good the plans look on paper, no matter how well we execute the plans, circumstances beyond our control can and often will defeat our best efforts. That's life. And if our worth as human beings, our joy and happiness, hang by the thread of outcomes we can't control, we're hanging by a thread, and the thread is on fire.

    If we cannot separate ourselves from the many things that may or may not happen to us, then we are likely to be very disappointed much of the time. And I guarantee this: we're not going to have much fun.

    Our worth as human beings is a gift of God. And joy and happiness are products of a healthy mind. Grace is from God, but the Means of Grace require regular practice on our part. And there are no shortcuts to joy. Or fun.

    Tony is not only the greatest living singer of the Great American Songbook, it turns out he's a heck of a philosopher.

    So … "Are you having any fun?"

  • The Weight of Silence

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 24, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Weight of SilenceWhat is the purpose of silence in the life of the Spirit?

    This question has been asked for centuries by sages, mystics and other puzzled folks. And there are a variety of answers.

    A close friend once told me that, as he was preparing for his first silent retreat, he was terrified. He could see it looming out there on his calendar: two solid weeks in which the only utterances he would make would be prayers in chapel and conversations with a spiritual director.

    Why was he frightened?

    There might have been several reasons. The purpose of talking is much more than merely the communication of facts or ideas, though, of course, it can do that. Talking also serves to draw us closer to others, and to draw them closer to us. It can be used to test boundaries and to express intimacy. It also can serve to buttress our self-concepts, reinforcing what we wish others to see when they see us. To leave speech behind can leave us feeling like we are appearing naked in public. Stripped of our self-presentations, our subtle ways of self-credentialing and self-ranking, we walk about in the presence of others denuded of many (though, by all means, not all) of the things we use to define ourselves to others. That can be scary. And coming to terms with the false selves we present to ourselves and others is a large part of the spiritual work we do in silence and solitude. But I don't think that was what was frightening my friend.

    I think he felt apprehension at the sheer weight of silence.

    He is a busy professional, responsible for a massive organization. He is surrounded by meaningful conversations, complex activities, and the hum of the bee hive all day every day. And as he looked at his calendar, usually full of meetings, conferences, work, and he saw that vast open section that just read, "SILENT RETREAT" stretching for two weeks, he could feel the weight of the silence awaiting him. He sensed it yawning like an empty chasm. All that open, silent space. You can almost hear him asking:  "What will be expected of me there? What will I do with myself? What will fill that time? What will I encounter when the chatter and the noise and the distractions cease for so long?"

    I recall the weight of silence descending on me the first time I entered into a discipline of silence. The first twenty-four hours I was very restless. I was like a bee buzzing from one bloom to another in the garden, although it is doubtful I was harvesting anything like nectar. I couldn't sit for more than a few minutes at a time before I was off again, walking around, exploring the monastery grounds, visiting the bookstore. Walking up to the top of this hill, I would sit for ten minutes, then I trooped over to another hill. Looking back, I am conscious of the fact that every time the pall of silence began to drop, I peeked out from under it, looked around in panic, and immediately went in search of another place to be quiet.

    Mind you, I wasn't talking. But my mind was chattering and my body was chattering, and I would not allow myself to fully enter the silence however little audible noise was coming from my mouth. It wasn't till the next morning, waking up early and feeling exhausted from the previous day's attempts to escape the silence that I began to pray: "God, silence within me any voice but yours." And then, I began to settle down.

    St. Antony, often regarded as the Father of the Desert Fathers, said, "He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart."*

    I have observed other people ruthlessly avoiding silence and solitude while on retreat. My initial response to them, I am ashamed to say, was anger. I know. I know. Having had such a hard time myself with silence, I should have felt empathy and compassion. Well, that only came later.

    As I was sitting alone in the garden at Gethsemani Abbey one morning, I recall two guys I had heard after breakfast talking in the hallway leading from the refectory. We all had received the same instructions the night before: silence is the rule. Unless you are in one of the designated speaking areas (the reception area, a conference room, or the one speaking dining room) you should not speak.

    Now the same two guys were walking together in the garden talking away. I was sitting on an elevated knoll behind the monks' cemetery, reading Merton's little guide to contemplation, having just meditated for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes. From yards and yards away, across the garden, I could hear them chattering and laughing as they walked around the path of the Stations of the Cross.

    Again, my first impulse, driven I'm sure by self-righteousness, was irritation. I judged them harshly for interrupting my prayer.

    Then it occurred to me that they were just doing in a different way what I had done the day before; to be exact, they were doing externally what I had been doing internally. I had been trying, with only mixed success, to silence the voices inside my head so I could hear the Word of God. I had been externally quiet. I'm an introvert; there's really no virtue in me not talking! Of course, I hadn't spoken a word, but inside I was running with every crowd I could find chattering away with unseen companions. The weight of silence was bearing down on me. And I should have recognized that it was bearing down on them, too. We were just responding in different ways to what silence demands.

    The great struggles all seem to happen in our hearts.

    Why do we try so hard to escape silence? The answer, I think, lies in another story from the Desert Fathers, which I shall quote at some length from Sister Benedicta Ward's translation of their sayings:

    "This story was told: There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, 'Blessed are the peacemakers' (Matt.5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found him also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see him who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, 'Look at the water,' and it was murky. After a little while he said again, 'See now, how clear the water has become.' As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. Then he said to them, 'So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults."*

    This brings us, of course, to the ironic shift in awareness which we experience regarding the weight of silence.

    When we allow silence to do its work, revealing ourselves to ourselves, in times and places where God's grace can be heard and felt and allowed to touch our hearts, silence becomes spacious and light, a refuge we find ourselves seeking again and again. Yes, as the hermit said, we will be able to see ourselves face to face, and that means recognizing ourselves as sinners. But, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we also will be able to see the face of Christ who is all mercy and grace, and in whom we find forgiveness. The weight of silence, if endured, gives way to the astonishing lightness of grace.

    Several years ago, driving south of Bardstown, Kentucky, on the way to my first silent retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, I longed for what I anticipated at the Abbey like a person dying of thirst longs for water. And, yet, I was also apprehensive, with the anxiety of a person who doesn't know what will be expected of them. I just wasn't sure what it might cost me to quench my thirst. I entered into the silence with some trepidation. After all, I was praying with the Marine Corps of the spiritual life, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

    In the days that followed, through silent struggles of the heart, through tears and sighs too deep to utter, through prayer, meditation and contemplation, long silent walks in the hills, long silent vigils in my room, worshipping with the community in the chapel, I faced myself. I came to myself. And, at the end of the retreat, from this place of silence and solitude to which I had driven in some trepidation, I departed only with the greatest reluctance.

    These days, as I drive the farm road on each visit to the Abbey, and look for the spire of the Abbey church as it appears above the fields and forest, I am eager for the freedom I feel nowhere else in such abundance. I feel the weight of the world being lifted from my shoulders as I move again into the silence.

    The challenge, of course, is to take the spirit acquired in silence and solitude back into the world beyond the Abbey, to take the lessons silence teaches into our daily lives, to allow a heart forged in solitude to respond in the midst of our crowded lives. "There is," as Antony said, "one thing with which we must struggle" whether in silence and solitude or among the most noisome crowd, "our hearts."

    Both of these stories can be found in Benedicta Ward's translation of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London, 2003), pp. 8 and 11.

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