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Thinking Out Loud
  • Songs

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 05, 2016


    SongsWhen the great Glenn Frey, co-founder with Don Henley of the rock group The Eagles, died recently, I heard several people say that The Eagles had provided the soundtrack for their lives. I may have said it too. But, for some of us, much the same could be said of so many other singers and song writers: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Simon and Garfunkel (and then just Paul Simon), Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, Otis Redding, James Brown, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendricks. I could go on and on.

    We could all produce our own soundtracks from the songs we love most. Many of us have done so courtesy of the "playlist” function of those ubiquitous little iPods, iPhones and iPads. Recently, I discovered that when my iPod tabulated my most frequently played songs, Nanci Griffith's "Going Back to Georgia" was No. 1, followed by Thomas Tallis's "O Lord, Give Thy Holy Spirit" (sung by Pro Cantione Antiqua, conducted by Mark Brown), and ZZ Top's "Tush."

    Some may argue that this is taking eclecticism too far, but there it is. Our songs reflect who we are. They also shape who we have been and will become.

    George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and the score of "Jesus Christ Superstar" shaped my teenage piety more than my pastor's sermons. Kris Kristofferson elucidated my restless heart when he sang, "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33." My brother, the week before he died, gave me a pirated copy of Don Williams singing, "Good Old Boys Like Me" because he knew the lyrics felt like they had been written just for me. Willie Nelson's "There's Nothing I Can Do About It Now" has gotten me through a lot of rough days. And Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," in all its gloriously sacred profanity, never fails to remind me why, how, and because of whom the spirit endures.

    Songs travel to places inside of us that nothing else can reach. And they have the power to stick there, not just for days, or months, or even years, but for decades. They reflect us. They shape us. They cheer us up and balm our wounded souls. Songs don't represent the only form of music, and certainly not the highest, but they speak, and the best of them speak eloquently.

    One of my most treasured memories relates to a small Christmas service I conducted in a nursing home many years ago. Debbie came along to play the piano. Our then very small children, Jeremy and Jessica, came along to see their old friends. I said a few words of introduction to the service, read the story of the birth of Jesus from St. Luke, and prayed. By this point, some had fallen asleep where they sat. Then we sang, and they woke up.

    We sang and we sang. Carol after carol after carol. No hymn books were needed with this crowd. I shall never forget their eyes, cataract-clouded or clear, some open, many closed, seeing as they sang far beyond that moment to something long ago or yet to come, something fondly recalled or dimly hoped. People who could remember next to nothing (some of whom struggled to remember the names of their children) remembered the words of "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The moment that we began to sing, the present became (to use Paul Tillich's phrase) the "Eternal Now." The moment shimmered brighter than tinsel and rang truer than any bell.

    That was a Christmas service, but something similar happened any old time we got the songs right. "Amazing Grace" with some, "The Old Rugged Cross" or "In the Garden" with others.

    One of the sweetest memories I hold as a pastor was leading a Women's Guild meeting at the Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, when I served there. I had done a Bible study, which covered the usual business. Before we retired to the parlor for tea and cakes, we sang, "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." It had never occurred to me to listen carefully to this familiar song. But when this group of women, many of whom were widows, sang: "Oh, ye'll tak the high road and I'll tak the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye; but me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond," I saw in their tear-filled eyes the longing they let one another see in that moment through years of practiced stoicism, and I put aside my cynical view that this was just a song sung for the sake of the tourists.

    When I was a young pastor, I held strong convictions about what was proper to be sung at Christian burial services, but I'll tell you right now, if any of those women asked me if we could sing "Loch Lomond" at the close of their memorials, I would have said yes without hesitation. And, I suppose, after they sing "For All the Saints" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (tune: hyfrydol or don't do it!) at mine, I hope they'll let Willie sing too, "There's Nothing I Can Do About It Now."

    Stand if you are able, and let us sing.


  • The Way, the Truth and the Life

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 01, 2016


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!


    the way the truth and the lifeAs dusk gathered and our neighborhood bat swooped and dived skimming water from the surface of the pool, a group of about twenty students and I drifted into a time of silence allowing the stillness of the evening and the chirping of cicadas to take our thoughts away. We sat quietly. Some sat and thought. Some sat and prayed. Some sat and sipped their drinks. And some reflected on the words I had just read from one of my all-time favorite sources of spiritual wisdom.

    For many years, at the seminary in which I served before coming to Louisville, I met weekly with a group of students and staff  for prayer and reflection on classic texts of Christian spirituality. Over the years, we read brilliant texts both historical (by Lady Julian of NorwichBlaise Pascal and Thomas á Kempis) and modern (Karen ArmstrongC.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). We covenanted to pray the Psalms daily using the arrangement provided by the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer. Some of us prayed morning and evening according to the Daily Office of the Anglican tradition; others made use of the Daily Prayer resources of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

    One year, some students from our group decided to engage in an exercise that turned out to be lots of fun. The students asked various members of our faculty if they would share with the students their own personal spiritual practices. In many cases the students were invited to the homes of the professors to engage in these practices with them. The exercise was open to anyone in the seminary community who wanted to participate.

    Toward the end of the year, the group asked me to share my personal spiritual practices with them. Since they already knew the core of my practice to be the Episcopal Daily Office and the daily praying of the Psalms, I thought I would share with them other aspects of my devotional life. This turned out to be a surprise to some because, in addition to reflection on classical Christian sources, I have for the past thirty years regularly drawn on sources of spiritual wisdom from other traditions, such as Abraham Heschel's The Sabbath, Epictetus's DiscoursesThe Epic of Gilgamesh and the Tao Te Ching.

    As I explained to the students, this part of my spiritual discipline consisted of sitting in our back garden, usually as the evening gathered over the pool and often drinking a nice bourbon or scotch and enjoying a good cigar. Often I would read quietly and then reflect on a passage from the reading. Sometimes, after I finished this lectio process, I would listen to music.

    Naturally, the students wanted to engage in my spiritual practice with me. The group that gathered at our home, for some mysterious reason, swelled to become the largest such spiritual gathering of the year. (Call me suspicious, but I do suspect that the popularity of this gathering had as much to do with what we imbibed as it did with what I was actually going to read to them.) They joined me one warm spring evening for cigars, a whiskey (or another suitable beverage of their choosing), readings from the Tao Te Ching and quiet reflection, followed by the music of Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt, and, of course, lively conversation that lasted into the very wee hours.

    The Spell of the Tao
    I cannot now recall when I first came under the spell of the Tao Te Ching (also sometimes transliterated from the Chinese as the Daode jing). From my first encounter with the Tao Te Ching, I was struck by the apparent simplicity and the real paradoxes of this ancient text, the roots of which date well before the Common Era.* The verses are often lyrical, often contrarian, sometimes veering toward the anarchic. They are thoroughly resonant with the natural world and virtually redefine the notion of "counter-cultural."
     
    Some of our most familiar sayings have their origin in the Tao Te Ching, like: "Those who talk don't know, and those who know don't say."

    At the heart of the Tao Te Ching resides a respect for the mystery that lies beyond and beneath and within all things: "There is a Tao that can be spoken, but it is not the eternal Tao."

    The word "Tao" is very hard to render into English; it is frequently translated as "the Way," though it means much, much more.

    Whenever I turn to this text, I find myself drawn ever more deeply into a sense of awe and respect for the natural world and for the eternal wisdom and creative power that brought this world into existence and sustains it by unseen and unknowable forces. The text is profoundly humbling, reminding us that it is hubris and insecurity rather than a zeal for righteousness that drives so many of our attempts to "improve" other people.

    I have often recommended the Tao Te Ching to others in leadership, and they have sometimes returned to me mystified that I encouraged them to read the text. From the perspective of the Tao Te Ching, the greatest leader is the one who, like the great sea, is content to lie below and serve the surrounding rivers and plains.

    "Why is the sea king of a hundred streams?
    Because it lies below them.

    Therefore it is the king of a hundred streams.
    "If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
    If he would lead them, he must follow behind. ...

    "Because he does not compete,
    He does not meet competition."
    (Chapter 64)**

    The leader is not inactive (a common misunderstanding of the Taoist concept of "wu-wei"), but the leader (who should also be a sage) seeks not to attract attention to his or her own efforts, does not insist on having his or her own way, and does not need to strive to prove his or her own merit. The sage/leader of the Tao tradition knows that he or she is not indispensable.

    The greatest service of the leader is to BE in a particular way, in harmony with the eternal Tao, in harmony with the true nature of reality, glorying in silence, listening with care, speaking mindfully when speaking is appropriate and responding always in reflection rather than reacting in anxiety. As Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes observes in a recent essay:

    "Particularly in Western culture inaction is a term that denotes a pejorative character in nature of idleness or abstention from involvement of any sort. Yet in ancient Taoism the philosophy of wu-wei is a type of action so well in accordance with the flow of things that its author leaves no trace of himself or herself in the universe." ***

    Recently I was thinking about the similarity between the wisdom of the Tao and the spirituality of some of the First Peoples of the Americas. This similarity is exemplified by Willa Cather in her novel, Death Comes to the Archbishop, when she contrasts the way of the Navajo traveling companion (Eusabio) of the French missionary bishop (Father Latour) of New Mexico and the way of the Europeans lately come to that region. Cather writes:

    "Traveling with Eusabio was like traveling with the landscape made human. He accepted chance and weather as the country did, with a sort of grave enjoyment. ... When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. ... Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass through the country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air." ****

    One could not find a better illustration of the spirit of wu-wei in any collection of tales of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching's conception of wu-wei conveys as much an exhortation to reverence as a warning against arrogance, as we see in the following passage:

    "Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
    I do not believe it can be done.

    "The universe is sacred.
    You cannot improve it.
    If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
    If you try to hold it, you will lose it."
    (Chapter 29)**

    My favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching sits here beside me now as I write these words. It is dog-eared, margin-marked, cross-indexed, and thoroughly loved to tatters. It tempts me now to take you on an excursion into its chapters of ancient wisdom. But I simply wouldn't be able to stop myself if I got started; I'd probably end up reprinting the entire Tao Te Ching in this blog. Instead, I'll close by responding to a query I often get from folks who are confused or concerned that a Christian (and Christian theologian, at that) is nourished to such a large extent as I am by spiritual traditions beyond the Christian family, especially, in my case, by Judaism, Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism. I'll respond with a story.

    Several years ago, Stephen Prothero and I were speakers for a daylong educational event sponsored by a Presbyterian group in greater Washington, D.C. I had never before met Steve, but I respected his work on religious literacy and interfaith studies. His brilliant book, God is Not One, had just recently come out.

    Throughout the course of the day, in one of many side conversations with Steve, he discovered how much Taoism means to me. He observed, however, that I behave, at least professionally, in a manner more consistent with Confucianism than Taoism. We agreed that this made sense, given my Reformed and Presbyterian roots and outlook on the world. (Presbyterians are the Confucians of the Protestant Christian world!) I asked him if it was problematic that I loved Taoist thought but acted, at least in my workday, more like a Confucian. To the contrary, he said. In fact, in certain Asian cultures, he said, it was understood that when at work one behaves as a Confucian, but on the weekends and in the evenings one is Taoist.

    What I took away from that conversation is an awareness that we can be well nourished and informed by a variety of spiritual traditions beyond our "home" tradition. Some approaches will speak to us more directly and appropriately in certain circumstances than others. I have found that it is quite possible to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and to find in the Tao a deep wisdom that also guides one's life.

    However, we must, I believe, be respectful of the integrity of the various spiritual traditions that feed us. We must not water them down, but understand them constructively and even critically, as much as possible in their own terms, as we seek to live our lives. And we must be clear within ourselves where the boundaries of our Christian "home" faith are, what is non-negotiable, and who God has revealed Godself to be in Jesus of Nazareth.

    We must do these things even while we continue to grow and learn and allow the living God to test the boundaries, to call into question even our "non-negotiables," and to act as (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis) "the eternal Iconoclast" who dismantles every idol we craft, even when that idol is made of our own most precious creeds.

    Maturity in being human comes as much from discarding the extraneous as it does from acquiring new insights. Ultimately, that which ennobles us is our humility in the face of the holy. As the Tao Te Ching says: "When [humans] lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster." (Chapter 72)**
    ________________________________________
    *One "manuscript" version of the Tao Te Ching, written on bamboo strips, dates to around 300 B.C. The origins of this book are cloaked in legend. It is traditionally attributed to a legendary sage called Lao Tzu or Laozi. The text itself is quite short, consisting of about five thousand Chinese characters. It is divided into eighty-one brief chapters, and consists of two parts, the Tao (or Dao) and the Te (De). A very helpful introduction to Taoism is provided by Alicia Kohn, "Taoist Traditions," in an excellent volume Merton and the Tao: Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages, edited by Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2013), 1-29. Those familiar with Thomas Merton will know of his amazing book The Way of Chuang Tzu, the most recent edition of which includes a preface by the Dalai Lama (New York: New Directions, 1965/1997).
    **Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, with introduction and notes by Jacob Needleman (New York: Vintage, 1972), 68. This is my favorite edition of the Tao Te Ching.
    ***This essay, "The Mystical Teaching of Wu-Wei in the Daode Jing: A Comparative Study of East and West on Spiritual Detachment," appears in the volume on Merton and the Tao, edited by Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, 30-44.
    ****Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop, (New York: Vintage classics edition, 1990), 232-233.


  • Call it What You Want, but Don't Call it Christian

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 29, 2016


    Our Neighborhood of Many FaithsI watched a fascinating interview on television recently. Fascinating and disturbing.

    The interview was on the evening news. It was with three Muslim American citizens. Each of the three was proud to be an American.

    The first man interviewed spoke eloquently of his love for the values that define America, values such as freedom, equality and justice. Another spoke insightfully of the fact that Muslims in America have become well integrated into American culture and have had a real stake in American society. This is a major reason, he said, that America has proven to be infertile ground for Jihadists' propaganda in contrast to some European countries. This man, a native-born American, also talked about his worries that some political rhetoric seems to be aimed at separating Muslim Americans from non-Muslim Americans, segregating them, treating them as perpetual suspects, keeping them under surveillance, and thus providing a real boost to the propaganda of those radicals who would divide Americans along lines of faith and ethnicity.

    The interview that really disturbed me most, however, was with the third person, a woman. She was quiet, modest and soft-spoken. She seemed to carry a solemn grief. When she told her story, you saw the source of her sorrow. She had been attacked some months ago while eating dinner at an American chain restaurant. Another woman came up to her and hit her in the face with a beer bottle because she wore the headscarf representing her faith. The interview cut away to show still photographs of the restaurant where she was attacked and pictures of her face cut and bruised. This Muslim woman, also a native-born American citizen, was singled out for an act of hatred and violence because of her religious faith and because of her ethnicity. The loss she felt related directly to how much she loves this country and the values for which it stands.

    One might call the attack on her un-American, and it was.

    The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as some people may have forgotten, was insisted upon as a condition by some for the ratification of the Constitution. In particular, the First Amendment, guaranteeing religious freedom, was insisted upon by those who belonged to religious minorities, particularly the Baptists, who feared that the state might establish a state religion thus limiting the free exercise of their beliefs.* These representatives of minority religious faiths insisted that the United States should be a place where religious minorities can safely practice their faith. The Baptists were not the only religious minority at that time. There were also then in this country Quakers, Roman Catholics, Jews and others, including Muslims. Indeed, lest anyone think that the boundaries of "religious freedom" imagined by the founding fathers were limited to Christians and Jews, we would do well to consult the text that influenced the framers more than any other on this subject, not least because of its influence on Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia bill guaranteeing religious freedom. In 1689, John Locke published his "Letter Concerning Toleration", which specifically included Muslims as an example of religious faiths which should be tolerated. Locke's thought occupied a position of prominence in the minds of the founders of our republic second only to Thomas Paine. The Virginia statute guaranteeing religious freedom, a bill close to the heart of Thomas Jefferson, specifically guarantees religious freedom to Muslims. And, lest anyone think practitioners of Islam are late arrivals on these shores, George Washington worked with Muslims to insure they would not have their taxes used to support Christian worship and said that he would welcome Muslims to Mount Vernon.

    Tolerance of faith is woven into the American republic from its founding. We might say that while it is the most American of values to guarantee people can live as they choose as long as they don't harm others, it is the most American of virtues to ensure that people can practice their faith unfettered by the beliefs of others.

    Thomas Jefferson (a deist, devoted to the ideals of the Greek philosophy of Epicureanism) was as much an American as was John Adams (a devout Unitarian, though raised Congregationalist) and George Washington (who, while raised an Anglican, was also a deist). This country has provided a haven for people who practice a wide variety of faiths and for those who practice no faith at all. And this country has been stronger for it.**

    But this is not my point today. Not really.

    There are those who claim that their intolerance, their bigotry, their hatred, even their violence is somehow justified by their Christian faith. And I am here today to say one thing and to say it as clearly as I know how: You can call it many things when neighbor rises against neighbor in fear, hatred and violence, but you can't call it "Christian."

    You can call it tribalism, nationalism, fascism, racism or just plain ignorance, but it isn't Christian. Those who follow Jesus are distinguished as saints for the crosses they bear, not the crosses they erect at the expense of others.

    Hatred is not a Christian virtue, though tragically our creed has harbored some world-class haters in our history. But I find some comfort in the fact that for every advocate of some newfangled crusade of vengeance against others, there has been a Tolstoy, or a Bonhoeffer, or a Mother Teresa to remind us whom Christians are called to follow: Jesus of Nazareth. And this Jesus of Nazareth, himself, was not a Christian (a simple fact that I've seen folks turn somersaults trying to contradict). And Jesus of Nazareth, that wondrous and mystifying Palestinian Jew whom some of us believe was none other than the Christ of God, died a victim of political, religious and imperial violence.

    I know a lot of folks are critiquing what some politicians are saying these days. They are concerned about the violent, divisive and hateful rhetoric among some political candidates. As bad as that may be, that's not what concerns me most.

    Politicians will say what people want to hear. If nobody's buying their message, they stop peddling it. Sadly, however, there's a booming market for hatred and bigotry in our country.

    The buyers as well as the peddlers in that market can wrap their hatred in a flag if they wish (though an American flag really doesn't fit their message), but they cannot hide behind the cross of Jesus.

    Today, as I write these words, our Christian faith observes Easter Sunday. This is the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. This is the day we confess our trust in the God who has declared that death and sin will not have the last word over life and love. In the faith of the risen Christ, early followers of Jesus defied fear and violence, even death, certain that our lives, deaths and future rest in God's hands.

    The fear that drives so much hatred and violence in our country is explicitly contradicted today by the Easter faith. God, the Bible tells us, chooses freedom over safety, creativity over selfishness, the risk of love over any security that violates humanity. So, when we Christians confess "Christ is risen!", we aren't affirming a dead dogma, but a living commitment to follow Jesus whatever the consequences may be, trusting God to raise us from whatever death may come.

    In this Easter faith we welcome all persons of all faiths into a neighborhood of humanity that knows no bounds. If God is big enough to include us in this neighborhood, we can do no less.


    *Probably the Baptist preacher John Leland, then of Virginia, exercised the single greatest influence in this matter during that period in which the new U.S. Constitution was being debated in Virginia. He played a key role in helping persuade James Madison of the political necessity to frame an amendment to the Constitution, which would guarantee that the state would neither establish a state religion (Leland and others were especially fearful that the Anglican Church would take that role) nor limit the free exercise of one's faith.
    ** Jefferson, a lifelong champion of religious liberty, made sure that copies of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was reprinted, translated into European languages, and distributed to diplomats even of despotic countries. As Dumas Malone noted in volume two of his classic six-volume biography of Jefferson: "He missed no good chance to point out that after so many years in which the human mind had been held in vassalage the standard of reason had been erected in the forests of Virginia." (pp. 103-104) While Jefferson "believed in one God, not no God, not twenty gods," writes Malone, "he thought it much better for the human spirit if a country had twenty sects rather than only one." (111) Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951).


  • A 'catholic' Spirit

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 22, 2016


    Catholic SpiritThe first church I served after graduating from college stood at an obscure crossroads on the windswept plains of West Texas. I recall, upon driving into the dusty parking lot that first time, noticing the rather strange ornament atop its steeple. It appeared oddly familiar. I just couldn't place what it was. A few weeks after arriving, I finally got around to asking someone what it symbolized.

    "Well, preacher, when we got finished putting up that steeple, it looked like it needed something to top it off. Somebody suggested we get a cross, but that looks too Catholic. So we came up with that ourselves."

    "And what is it?" I asked.

    "You'd never guess would you, but that there is a float out of the tank of a toilet. We painted it and stuck it up there. Looks real nice, doesn't it?"

    I was speechless. Still am, sort of. Not so much at their ingenuity, but at whatever it was that motivated these good folks to put a toilet float on top of their church in place of the ancient symbol of Christianity ... just to keep from looking too Catholic.

    This story comes to mind in part because we have entered Holy Week, the observance of which was not a part of my childhood because I grew up in a church that seemed more concerned not to "look too Catholic" than it was just to engage in practices that have given Christians meaning from the church's earliest days. The church of my childhood had just three holy days: Christmas (which ended by December 26th), Easter (which celebrated the resurrection of Jesus, though we didn't really observe Maundy Thursday or Good Friday), and the most sacred holy day of the entire year: Mother's Day.

    As an adult Presbyterian who has benefited from a spectacularly rich liturgical church life, I fell in love with the many festivals and holy days of the church catholic — the larger church, the universal church, the one we confess belonging to in the "Apostles Creed." The holy days of the church catholic allow us to journey through salvation history, through the life of Christ and, consequently, deeper and deeper into an exploration of our own walk of faith. From the mournful tones of Advent, full of longing and distant hope, prophets' dreams and angels' promises to Pentecost's fiery morning, if we pay attention to the church's liturgy, we can find ourselves anew in God's faithfulness.

    This week, we journey from the misguided crowds waving palms to the angry mobs calling for the death of Jesus. We sit between a betrayer and a denier of Jesus as he lovingly feeds every one of us. We see the lengths people will go to rid themselves of God and the lengths to which God will go to love them. We will keep vigil on a lonely night when the world seems empty of hope and only the grave seems full. And, on a spring morning soon, we will stand among lilies, light and a lot of folks we see only very occasionally to bear witness to news that startled the first disciples and leaves us awestruck still.

    Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. But, to sing "alleluia," we will have to wait till Sunday.


  • A 'Place' Set Apart

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 18, 2016


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Hexham Paintings

    The rain was coming down in buckets. Raining cats and dogs. Raining donkeys. We were drenched, Debbie and I, as we headed into Hexham Abbey for evensong that night. Ducking into the side entrance, we were met with stammered greetings, shyly warm smiles, and a couple of members of the congregation handing out little prayer books.

    The cathedral felt cavernous, the ceiling disappearing into the shadows far above the heads of our little band of worshipers. The priest arrived, and we began without ceremony. It was a simple "read" evening prayer service. No glorious choir. No pageantry. Just a group of Christian folk praying in a place set apart for prayer. We exchanged the peace of Christ, and in a few minutes we all went out again into the darkness, the cold, the wind and the rain of northern England.

    It was one of the most memorable experiences of worship in my life. I remember it distinctly though it happened almost twenty years ago. Why?

    Hexham Abbey has long been precious to me. Its associations with Bishop Wilfrid, whose stone episcopal seat still sits in the middle of the choir, its connections with long-ago saints of Northumbria, such as the family of Aelred of Rievaulx, and many more emotional ties are so lively and so real to me. Yet, these connections and associations don't seem to be the reason this simple prayer service in Hexham Abbey has stayed in my mind all of these years. Nor was there something unusual, neither a moment of crisis nor of great joy, in our own lives that made this time and place stand out.

    I suspect that the reason this occasion has remained in my memory is the purity of that service, or maybe the pure simplicity of it. A small group of about 15 people, mostly locals, and a bare sprinkling of visitors, including us, gathered with a priest presiding at the simplest of wooden lecterns in the front corner of that vast nave just to pray the evening collects and the appointed Psalms for evening prayer. That's all. A small gathering of Christian folk who waded through the pouring rain and chilly breeze to pray together. I found myself so deeply drawn to this little band of Christians that evening that I wished I might join them. They became a place set apart in their simple prayer.

    But is prayer ever really simple? The core of the daily office (the morning and evening prayer services) in the Anglican tradition is that set of Psalms prescribed for the day. The Psalms are anything but simple.

    Throughout the year, as each day begins and ends, we pray the Psalms, making our way through the whole of the Psalter every month: Psalms of praise, lament, wrath, gratitude and blame, sometimes humbly penitential and sometimes chest-thumpingly self-righteous; Psalms that, as John Calvin once observed, express every sort of human condition we can imagine.

    "Praise the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me praise his holy Name. Praise the Lord, O my soul: and forget not all his benefits." (103:1-2)

    "Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences. Wash me thoroughly: and cleanse me from my sin." (51:1-2)

    "Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted within me? Put thy trust in God: for I will yet give him thanks for the help of his countenance." (42:6-7)

    "The pains of hell came about me: the snares of death overtook me. In my trouble I will call upon the Lord: and complain unto my God." (18:4-5)

    "Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee: in whose heart are thy ways. Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well: and the pools are filled with water. They will go from strength to strength: and unto the God of gods appeareth every one of them in Sion." (84:5-7)

    "Lord, thou been our refuge: from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made: thou art God from everlasting, and world without end. ... For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday: seeing that is past as a watch in the night." (90:1-2, 4)

    "Hear my prayer, O Lord: and let my crying come unto thee. Hide not thy face from me in time of my trouble: incline thine ear unto me when I call; O hear me, and that right soon. For my days are consumed like smoke: and my bones are burnt up as it were a fire-brand. My heart is smitten down, and withered like grass: so that I forget to eat my bread. ...  I am become like a pelican in the wilderness: and like an owl that is in the desert. I have watched and am even as it were a sparrow: that sitteth alone upon the house-top." (102:1-4, 6-7)

    "Great is our Lord, and great is his power: yea, and his wisdom is infinite. The Lord setteth up the meek: and bringeth the ungodly down to the ground. ... He hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse: neither delighteth he in any man's legs. But the Lord's delight is in them that fear him: and put their trust in his mercy." (147:5-6, 10-11)

    Anyone who follows this pattern knows that praying in season and out of season is no simple matter. It may bring comfort, but it may also trouble the waters of our too-often, too-settled hearts. Praying the Psalms can push us out of our comfort zones, force us to see the world from the margins, set off alarm bells and awaken the voice of rage just as frequently as it may evoke praise and thanksgiving, and strengthen and comfort the timid soul. Praying the Psalms regularly, whether gathered or dispersed, the words of praise soak down into our souls like the rain that fell that night in Hexham, soaking into our hearts and forming deep reservoirs on which we can draw in dry seasons. The Psalms supply us with a language fitted to communion with God and furnish us with images that make sense of our lives in God's presence. The Psalms create the house of the Lord, a place set apart within which we may speak God's word back to God and hear God's reply on our own lips. Even a humble little group of Christians gathered in an old building on a rainy night can find themselves lifted up into the courts of God.

    I suppose this is, in part, why that evening long ago in rainy Hexham has stayed with me. I can only imagine what drew each person that night to pray together rather than to choose to sit comfortably with a book and a cup of tea in their sitting rooms as the weather lashed the sidewalks and streets without. I can only imagine what hope or faith might have been stoked by the prayers and Psalms we prayed together as the shadows lengthened. The words we spoke created a space among us where we all were sheltered, if only for thirty minutes or so, in a place set apart to be human in the presence of other human beings in the presence of God. Nothing special. It happens every day, morning and evening, somewhere and has for millennia. That is precisely why I can't get that evening out of my head.


  • What Do I Know!

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 15, 2016


    What do I knowWhat do I know! Yes, an exclamation point; not a question mark. I am only scratching the surface of knowledge, and the scratches hardly leave a mark.

    Recently I shared the following quote with alums and other friends whom I was visiting in Palo Alto, California. The quote comes from the Wall Street Journal (“Gravitational Waves Detected, Verifying Part of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity,” February 18, 2016). I found it so staggering that I have hung on to it for weeks. The quote is from the news story about the detection of gravitational waves, an empirical observation that confirms a key aspect of Albert Einstein's theoretical work. The waves were discovered because an astronomical event occurred that was so enormous (the collision of two black holes) that it literally bent the space-time continuum back and forth. Here's the quote:

    “In that moment, they released 50 times the energy of all the stars in the universe put together. That event ‘created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time, a storm in which the shape of space was bent this way and then that way,’ said Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, a co-founder of the LIGO project.”

    Let that soak in for a moment. Fifty times the total energy of all the stars in the universe. And, remember, as the late physicist Carl Sagan used to say on his PBS program, Cosmos, there are billions and billions of stars in every one of the billions and billions of galaxies in the universe.

    If that calculation isn't a cure for the hubris of Homo sapiens, I don't know what will work!

    I just can't fathom it. The scale is beyond the capacity of my imagination. If some theoretical physicists are right, we inhabit a minuscule particle of only one of many universes, every one of which may be just as huge, as complex, and as mind-blowing as this one. Whatever that means!

    Not only is the cosmic reality, which astrophysicists encounter and try to describe inconceivable, our own bodies are foreign countries to us. Of this I am reminded by a poem in Jane Hirshfield's The Beauty (New York: Knopf, 2015).

    The poem is titled, "My Proteins," and I shall quote a portion of it:

    "Ninety percent of my cells, they have discovered,
    are not my own person,
    they are other beings inside me.

    "As ninety-six percent of my life is not my life.

    "Yet I, they say, am they -
    my bacteria and yeasts,
    my father and mother,
    grandparents, lovers,
    my drivers talking on cell phones,
    my subways and bridges,
    my thieves, my police
    who chase my self night and day.

    "My proteins, apparently also me,
    fold the shirts.

    "I find in this crowded metropolis
    a quiet corner,
    where I build of not-me Lego blocks
    a bench,
    pigeons, a sandwich
    of rye bread, mustard, and cheese.

    "It is me and is not,
    the hunger
    that makes the sandwich good.

    "It is not me then is,
    the sandwich -
    a mystery neither of us
    can fold, unfold, or consume."

    Each of us is the dwelling place of a whole galaxy of lives that exist in symbiotic relationship with us, depending on us, us depending on them, related so intimately that even to describe the situation as us and them is itself false. We are habitats for non-humanity. They are at our mercy.

    Emerging from the shower, I wonder what microscopic empires I have washed down the drain. Eating my morning yogurt, I imagine the intrepid explorers who have launched themselves on a journey through my alimentary canal.

    They are at our mercy, and we at theirs. I shudder to think that, like the biblical demoniac who met Jesus, if someone asks me who I am, to be strictly factual, I must answer in the first person plural. This teaming metropolis that I am is scarcely conscious of what makes up me.

    So, I think I know something? What do I know!

    If I may, I would like to call into question those dueling expressions of arrogance: the one claims to know all about God when we cannot even begin to conceive of the most mundane physical realities, and the other pontificates with certainty that God does not exist simply because we have figured out a few facts about how the world appears to work.

    These are relevant thoughts, I think, as we make our way through Lent, toward Passion Week and Easter. We don't know nothing, but we do know next to it.


  • On Being a "Practicing" Christian

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 08, 2016


    Practicing ChristianI’ve been wondering about a common phrase and what the absence of it might say about the particular stream of Christian faith to which I belong, that is, Protestant Christian.

    The phrase is, “practicing (fill in the blank).”

    The word “practicing” is often used in this way to describe an active adherent to a religion. For example, someone might be described as “a practicing Catholic,” “a practicing Jew,” or “a practicing Buddhist.” A magazine to which I subscribe, Buddhadharma, describes itself as “The Practitioner’s Quarterly.”

    So my question is why do we so seldom refer to ourselves as Protestant Christians in a similar manner?

    Is it because Martin Luther’s “the just shall live by faith” (perhaps over-narrowly interpreted to exclude any human participation from God’s salvation of us) runs so deep in our Protestant bloodstream?

    Is it because of the relative paucity of emphasis on the benefits of practicing the core aspects of our faith – what we traditionally called “the means of grace” – in contemporary Protestantism?

    Or is it because of the high valuation placed on beliefs in Protestantism, even among the officially “non-creedal” branches of the Protestant family? Certainly, Protestants tend to identify themselves (and to separate themselves from others) based on their beliefs.

    Perhaps it is a combination of these factors. Perhaps there are others. But, especially in light of the rich literature on Christian practices written in the 1990s and early 2000s, I find it fascinating that we Protestants don’t tend to describe ourselves as “practicing Presbyterians” or “practicing Methodists” or merely as “practicing Christians” much, if at all.1 For whatever reason, the language about “practicing our faith” has not really been integrated into the lives of many Protestant congregations, at least not to a degree as to shape the language of most Protestant Christians.

    Indeed, as I was told recently by a very active lay person in a large Presbyterian church, “We need more help in understanding what it means to grow as Christians. Are there some things we can do regularly other than just ‘come to church’?” This person, an elder in her congregation, lamented that her Catholic neighbors seemed to have lots of resources and disciplines to utilize for the maturing of their personal faith. When she asked her pastor what we as Protestants offer, beyond talking about corporate worship, he had nothing much to offer.

    Now, I think we would all agree that corporate worship – gathering to confess and pray, to praise and thank God, to hear the Word of God read and proclaimed, to receive the nourishment of the Lord’s Table, to participate in and witness Baptism – is the very core of the Christian spiritual life. And, while we may not use the term “means of grace” much these days, I imagine that most of us hear a good bit about the importance of prayer, reading the Bible, and participating in the sacraments.

    Nevertheless, I think the person who spoke to me about wanting to learn more about ways to nurture her personal Christian life and to grow in the faith is articulating a concern that is widespread, and I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we have focused far more on beliefs than practices of our faith.

    If I may offer a word of personal confession: As a young pastor, steeped as I was in Barthian theology, ever suspicious of the slightest hint of “works righteousness” or “natural theology,” I recall scoffing (in my heart, though not out loud) at a colleague who told me that he was using the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in his spiritual discipline. I was, perhaps, not untypical of my generation. I suspect that today one reason that so many people, myself included, are turning to Ignatius, John Cassian, and many of the popularizers of spiritual disciplines too, is because we have longed for paths that will lead us into deeper spiritual understanding and toward greater maturity in our faith. We have not found many such paths of practice in the Protestant traditions.

    Yet, even as a young pastor, while steadily working my way through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics in my study, I spent many an evening reading Thomas Merton and Henri J.M. Nouwen. And because of the influence of my teacher, James Torrance, I also quietly began to read Hans Urs von Balthasar, Lady Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Thomas á Kempis. These writers not only spoke to a spiritual need within me, but also from the depths of their own rigorous disciplines, whether as Benedictines, Cistercians, Carmelites, monks, hermits or anchorites. Whereas prayer for me had been divided between public (which I highly valued and on which I lavished great attention) and private (which remained largely a matter of intercession), over time this strict dichotomy between the public/private categories began to dissolve, and I came to see them as aspects of a single reality, our human response to the God who draws us deeper and deeper into relationship and ever more fully into an awareness of God’s loving purposes for all of God’s creation. This response in its corporate manifestation is never divorced from the yearnings of the individuals assembled; in its personal and individual expressions, it is upheld by the Spirit who enlivens the whole people of God.

    But, I digress.

    The practices of which many feel a great need provide a regular rhythm to life that supports us even in those days when we may not “feel like” praying. Whether one uses the Ignatian Daily Examen or follows a Benedictine Breviary, the “Daily Office” of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or the Presbyterian Daily Prayer, submitting ourselves to a disciplined devotional “order” draws us into that contemplation or mental prayer that, as Thomas Merton has said in his little guide to Spiritual Direction and Meditation, awakens a consciousness of the Holy Spirit within us, brings our hearts into harmony with God’s voice, and teaches us to allow the Holy Spirit to speak and pray within us (p. 88).

    While all of this may sound a bit exotic to some Protestant ears, such spiritual practices open the door to a simple reality that C.S. Lewis described in one of his best-loved books, Mere Christianity. In Lewis’s response to the possible query: “If we cannot imagine a three-personal Being [that is, a Triune God], what is the good of talking about Him?” Lewis responds:

    “Well, there isn’t any good talking about Him. The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life [of God], and that may begin any time – tonight, if you like. What I mean is this. An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God; God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening, God is the thing to which he is praying – the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on – the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary [person] is saying his prayers.” (Collins, 1955, Fontana edition, p. 139).

    Sometimes the most ordinary Christian actions turn out to be doorways to the greatest mysteries. And these actions, these practices, have the power to transform us over time.

    I wonder if we Protestants have shied away from talking too much about practicing our faith in part because we’ve taken to heart that old adage that “practice makes perfect.” We are suspicious of the whole notion of spiritual perfection. But, let us imagine, with Kathleen Norris, that “perfection consists in being what God wants us to be” [The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), p. 27]. Then, maybe, being “practicing Christians” fits us better than we might have thought.


    1If I may mention just a few of these: Dorothy C. Bass, editor, Practicing Our Faith (Jossey-Bass, 1997, second edition 2007); Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, editors, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2002); and two resources which reflect on Christian practices in relationship to theological education: Barbara G. Wheeler and Edward Farley, editors, Shifting Boundaries: Contextual Approaches to the Structure of Theological Education (Westminster John Knox, 1991), which includes the now-classic essay by Craig Dykstra, “Reconceiving Practice”; and Malcolm L. Warford, Revitalizing Practice: Collaborative Models for Theological Faculties (Peter Lang, 2008).


  • God's Will

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 04, 2016


    God's Will“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself …" (Philippians 2:6-7a, New American Bible)


    Knowing the Love of God

    The air conditioner clattered in Father Paul Scaglione's office at the back of the parish house while outside a stifling heat bore down on the late afternoon. Hot air rippled visibly in waves as a lawnmower droned back and forth across the lawn.

    We had been talking a long time, much of my talk subtly avoiding what had brought me to that room. I sensed then, as perhaps never before, something of the frailty of the human condition. Well, my human condition anyway. Our meeting took place several weeks after a near-death experience when large blood clots that formed in my right leg broke off and showered my lungs with smaller clots. The persistent cough, which dogged my every step on a visit to New York City and left me drained at the end of each day, turned out not to be the remnants of a winter cold, as I had thought, but pulmonary embolisms in every lobe of both lungs. Lying in the hospital, my only thought had been how quickly I could get back to work. I had taken ill in the middle of chairing the Louisville Institute's Board meeting and was heading that weekend to Virginia to preach for my son's ordination, before going on to North Carolina for alum and donor events, followed by the seminary's spring convocation the next week. The fact that my life, let alone my schedule, had dramatically changed had not yet dawned on me.

    Suffice it to say, neither had I really reflected on my near death nor had I paused to reflect on why I kept such a frenetic pace. A song lyric by Rosanne Cash comes to mind now: "We talk about your drinking, but not about your thirst." Well, thirst can take many forms. And so can avoidance behavior.

    What brought me to visit with a spiritual director was a visit in that hospital room from a person who knows about human frailty - his own - my predecessor at Louisville Seminary, John Mulder. I remember waking up in that hospital bed hooked up to an IV and various monitors and hearing the “bing” from several machines made to keep me alive. Amid the disquieting paraphernalia of modern medicine, John was sitting in a chair pulled up close to my beside.

    "May I pray with you?" He asked. Waking slowly, and only gradually realizing I was not still dreaming, I said, "Hello John. Sure you can pray." After praying, John said that he wouldn't stay long, he just wanted me to know that he had left with my assistant the contact information for his therapist and his spiritual director. It was up to me, of course, but he hoped that I would call them when I was up to it. He wanted me to know that the struggles with which he dealt a decade or more before might have been avoided if he had sought such help. After a few minutes more, he left as quietly as he had arrived.

    I was grateful, but perplexed. In truth, I had a hard time understanding how all the things for which I was praised could possibly be a problem. I was, after all, often told how well I was doing professionally because of my high energy, because of the way that I just kept going and going, because of my willingness to pile on one more visit to a potential donor, to squeeze in one more trip into an already tight schedule, or to go from one meeting to another, to another, and another without a break. I was driven and emotionally intense. How could it possibly be that something so good could be a problem? How could my behavior be connected to an accident of physiology? After all, I only got sick.

    As the air conditioner clattered and whined that early summer afternoon on my first visit to my spiritual director, I gradually unwrapped for him what brought me to his office, and I debated internally whether I really needed to be there. At some point, I stopped talking. The silence gathered slowly. We sat there for a few moments. Finally, Father Paul broke the silence by saying that what God wanted for me, for all of us, is simply for us to know the love of God ̶ that we know ourselves loved and forgiven and accepted by God. That is God's will for us.

    I sat there for a few moments taking in the child-like simplicity of this message. Then I said, "Well, I've got a pretty good idea that isn't all my seminary expects of me." To which Father Paul smiled and repeated what he believes God wants for us.

    I suppose, if I had to be brutally honest, I just didn't believe him that day. I mean, I believed that he believed he was right, but I didn't think he was. What he said was "very Christian," as I said to him then. It also sounded, well, naive. As our time drew to a close (after something over two hours of conversation), I said, "So, do you want me to pray or something? Is that what you suggest?"

    I'll never forget what he said next. "No. You're not ready to pray."

    It took a long while before I came to understand that he was right, and not only about my not being ready to pray. What God wants for me, for all of us, is to know the love of God, to know ourselves as being loved, forgiven, and accepted by God. But knowing the love of God, as my spiritual director understood and I did not yet, was going to take something more than just thinking about it.

    Inhabiting the Heart

    I'm a theologian, and theologians are pretty good at knowing a lot of things we don't understand. Some theologians, like Karl Rahner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are good at both knowing and understanding, but I wouldn't say they are typical of my tribe.

    As a theologian, I knew the difference between saying "God is love" and merely saying "God loves." I had written a dissertation based in large measure on this very distinction. But it is a very different thing to make the southward journey from my brain (which knows) to my heart (which understands).

    They say that some people don't really make such journeys until they hit bottom, and bottom for me was not that winter day as I lay on a hospital bed being prayed for by John. It certainly wasn't that summer afternoon sitting in Father Paul's office for the first time. It was a year later when I found myself at Gethsemani Abbey utterly at the end of my emotional and spiritual rope, praying alone in the abbey church those simple words from the Psalms that have been a refuge for generations of Christians:

    "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." (Psalms 70:1)

    What happened during those days of silence cannot be put into words. But it had something to do with embracing the emptiness that is true to our being and entrusting whatever we are and whatever we will be and whatever we may do to God alone. Into that emptiness and surrender flowed the love that is God.

    I came to understand that when we say that God wants nothing so much as for us to know the love of God, we are not just saying that God wants us to "feel loved," although that is no small thing in itself, but that God wants us to be drenched and soaked in God's love and to learn to share in that love that is God's being so that we may become like God in ourselves and toward others. To do that requires a strange and paradoxical thing. We have to let go of ourselves. We have to let go of whatever image of ourselves we cling to. We have to let go of that false self certainty that demands that we feed its continual and bottomless appetites. We also have to let go of that self that appears so good that we would be willing to sacrifice absolutely everything to maintain it.

    I have been struck, again and again, by the resonance between the commandment that prohibits our making of ourselves (or of any created thing) a graven image (Deuteronomy 5:7-8), Jesus' warning that if we cling to ourselves, we shall lose ourselves (Mark 8:34-37), and the Buddhist belief that the root of suffering lies in the illusion of a permanent, fixed self which must be kept secure against all life's changes. When we come to the point of loosening our fisted grip upon ourselves and our deep need to control the world around us, to make the world and the people around us over in "our image," we become open to know the love of God.

    It seems that we become open to receiving the love of God by loosening our grip upon ourselves because the love that is God is a self-emptying love.

    Surely, you say, I must have known that! That's Sunday school stuff! But, again, there's a great difference between knowing something in our heads and understanding it in our hearts, between knowing something as a kind of theological fact and knowing it as an existential necessity.

    God is love. Such a simple thing to say. Such a simple thing to believe. God is that love and life and creative energy that pours itself out without reservation and without holding back. The "source" of all being gives itself away to and through the "other" who reciprocates in joy, thankfulness, reverence, and love, emptying itself in an eternal act of mutual self-giving. That love, life, and creative energy, that eternal act of self-giving that flows between God the "source" and God the "other" is itself also God the "spirit." God wants nothing so much as for all creatures to know, to be drenched in and to share in this love that God is ̶ ever-flowing, ever-giving, ever-emptying, ever-filled.

    This is the unavoidable and irresistible reality at the heart of being, the reality that empowers every act of creation, and the spirit that breathes forth compassion and justice. This is the love that made us out of nothing at all. This is the love that makes us whole, that makes peace within and among us. This is God's will for our lives, and God uses all of life as God's tools to bring us to this love.

    To know the love of God is to inhabit the spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. And, so, the author of Philippians pleads with his hearers and with us, his words climaxing in the text of our oldest Christian hymn:

    "If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being in the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.

    "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
         Who, though he was in the form of God,
           did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
         Rather, he emptied himself,
         taking the form of a [servant],
         coming in human likeness,
         and found human in appearance,
         he humbled himself,
         becoming obedient to death,
               even death on a cross."

                          (Philippians 2:1-8, New American Bible)


  • The Name of God is Mercy

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 01, 2016


    The Name of God is MercyPope Francis has been in the news again. But I'm not going to talk about that. Well, not right away.

    Recently, the pope was in Mexico, where he spoke to a large gathering (it filled a soccer stadium) of young people in Morelia. I listened to his sermon on television and was struck by his words to these young people, some of whom live in desperate poverty: "You are the wealth of Mexico," Francis said again and again throughout his sermon. He told them he was not saying this to flatter them, but to help them understand what it means to walk with Jesus. Then he warned them not to become "mercenaries of other people's ambition."

    In the midst of an age when financial considerations seem to provide the clinching argument in so many disputes, the pope broadened the meaning of “economics.” He reminded us that the church has long used the word, "economics," in ways that call into question the reductionism of so many contemporary discussions. Traditionally, the Christian Faith has used phrases like "God's economy" or "the economy of God's redemption" to speak comprehensively of the working-out of God's ultimate purposes for all creation.

    The Greek word from which we derive the term economics, oikos, denoted the basic social group in the ancient Greek political world. The word made its way into Christian theology through the Greek New Testament, where it meant a human dwelling place, a house, or a home. Thus, by extension, “economics” refers theologically to the ordering of the "dwelling place" and of the living relations of human society according to the way of Jesus Christ.

    The pope’s comments reminded me of something Professor James Torrance, a Reformed theologian and pastor, once said. Torrance observed that the fundamental mistake of Capitalism, Communism and Socialism is to reduce the human being to a financial unit, whether a unit of consumption or of labor. Human beings in God's economy are created in God's triune image for God's redemptive purposes and are called in their humanity to live together in love, justice, peace, and mercy.

    When Francis speaks of "wealth," then, he evokes a Christian theology of economics. In so doing, he challenges us to allow our faith as Christians to take priority over all other interests.

    Looking into the faces of these young people, as the television camera panned across the vast crowds, it was easy to see what the pope meant when he described them as "the wealth of Mexico." These young people, first and foremost, are children of God called to touch the suffering of the world, the human household, with God's healing love.

    But the main reason the pope has been in the news recently is because his name has been mentioned in connection with our presidential election campaign.

    I would like to say something that may surprise the readers of this blog. I agree with one thing recently said about the pope. Although the comment made about him was said derisively and as a criticism, I believe that what was said about him should be taken as a high compliment. It was said that "the pope is very political."

    As a Christian theologian, I would say that what the pope said in Mexico was political. But the way the pope is "political" is not the way the criticism seems to have meant. It all has to do with the way we have changed (and I would say perverted) the meaning of the word "political" to describe something sordid, narrowly partisan, and antithetical to authentic Christian faith. However, the word “political” has a deeper, nobler meaning than what gets tossed around by both political parties and a number of religious figures in our country these days.

    Politics, classically and theologically understood, relates to the way people order their lives together. The word “politics,” like the word “economics,” is from the Greek; it comes from the Greek word polis meaning "the people," as in "We, the people" (see, for example, Aristotle's use of the word in his classic essay on the subject). The pope is political in the best, highest, and the most theological sense of that word, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is inescapably political; the gospel is about the way people live together to the glory of God.

    The gospel of Jesus Christ is and always has been concerned with the ways we order our lives together. From the Magnificat (the prayer of Jesus' mother, Mary; Luke 1:46-55) to the pages of Revelation (a book of apocalyptic "forth-telling" not "fore-telling"), the faith of Jesus of Nazareth is resonant with the message of the great prophets of the Old Testament. Christ came to bring to every beating human heart the reign of God that restores humanity and all of creation to God's vision of love, justice, peace, and mercy. Our Christian faith prays and works for justice that rolls down "like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24) as much as for the personal repentance, forgiveness, and righteousness that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor, the hungry, those excluded and hated for his sake; Luke 6:20-22). St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. James, as well as the gospel and letters written under the name of St. John, reiterate this message, making it clear that the gnostic division of spirit (as good) from human flesh (as evil) is false. God didn't go to all the trouble of incarnation just to make us religious, but to redeem and restore us to that humanity for which we were created in God's image.

    I am saying all of this simply to provide a Christian context for some of the controversies that rage in the highly partisan and ideologically fevered world in which issues are often discussed in our society. It has become very hard for modern Christians to "hear" about certain issues without first putting these issues through their partisan and ideological filters before allowing them to be submitted to the gospel. Thus, when the pope speaks as a Christian leader and teacher on a subject such as immigration (to take just the most recent example), his comments are immediately tallied up as belonging to a particular version of partisanship or ideology, when, in fact, he may simply be trying to articulate and apply the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whatever our national interests may or may not be, we Christians are called to be "neighbors."

    Many years ago, in the midst of the controversy in our Presbyterian Church over the so-called "Sanctuary Movement" (a social movement in the 1980s in response to the plight of an earlier generation of people seeking refuge from a dangerous situation in their countries of origin in Latin America), I led the congregation I then served as pastor through a biblical study of the issue. Interestingly, while we could find scant biblical mandate for the concept of "sanctuary," which dates in the Christian world to the late fourth-century AD, we did find in Jesus' teachings (e.g., Luke 10:25-37) and in the teachings of St. Paul (e.g., Galatians 3:26-28) a much more demanding and universal mandate. According to the gospel, the "neighborhood" of Jesus Christ travels with each of us. The question Jesus raises is not, "Can this or that person be defined as a neighbor?" But, "Am I a neighbor?" We are called to view ourselves as the neighbor of whomever we meet - whatever their culture, race, religion, or nationality. And we are called to extend to them nothing less than the "neighborhood" of Christ, that is, the love and justice, peace and mercy of Jesus Christ. This "neighborhood" of Christ extends beyond every boundary ever erected by whatever political or economic powers or principalities that have risen and fallen in history, from empires to nation-states.

    After we finished our study, one of the most wonderful members of that church's session came to me with a question. "So, if a person fleeing another country comes to my door seeking help, as a Christian, I am their neighbor in Jesus Christ, and I should serve them in a way that is consistent with that calling. Is that right?”

    I told her yes, that seems to be what the Bible teaches.

    "Okay, then," she said. "I will, if they come. But I will also pray that they don't come to my door."

    This was one of the most honest responses I've ever heard to the claim of the gospel. She heard the gospel. And she took it seriously while recognizing that she didn't think it coincided with her interests or inclinations. This is where the pope's message gets really tough, because his new book, The Name of God is Mercy (New York: Random House, 2016), echoes a message preached by one of his predecessors, "the name of God is mercy." Mercy, it turns out, is not only a theological virtue, it is a political virtue as well.

    In the series of interviews presented in his new book, Francis says: "I am ever more convinced of it, this is a kairos, our era is a kairos of mercy, an opportune time."

    Drawing on the biblical concept of the fullness of time, "kairos" time in contrast to "chronological" time, God's time as opposed to the time on the clock or the calendar, this is the opportune moment, according to Francis, to accomplish what God intends for the sake of God's mercy. The pope challenges us, in the midst of a polarized age, a fearful age, an age that glorifies bullying and aggression, greed and covetousness, that now is the right moment to act selflessly, to risk living out the implications of God's redemptive economy. As Pope Francis says, quoting John XXIII in his opening of the Second Vatican Council: "The Bride of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than arm herself with the weapons of rigor." Quoting another of his predecessors, Benedict XVI, Francis says: "Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel message; it is the name of God himself, the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ."

    Mercy is the name of God. That is the pope's message. And, as we've heard at the end of a thousand paid political announcements on television, "I approve this message."


  • Cultivating Resilience

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 23, 2016


    resilienceIn recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to one particular personal characteristic as a key to thriving in leadership and ministry: Resilience.

    Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, in their popular book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (New York: Free Press, 2012), described resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances” (p. 7). In a chapter titled, “The Translational Leader,” they explain that while they had not intended to write a book on “the seven habits of highly resilient people,” they discovered in the course of their research that whenever they found communities that were able “to reorganize dynamically in the face of disruption” they also “encountered the same character over and over again” among the leadership of these communities. “These leaders demonstrated an uncanny ability to knit together different constituencies and institutions – brokering relationships and transactions across different levels of political, economic, and social organization” (p. 239).

    re●sil●ience (rĭ-zĭlˊyəns) n. The ability to come back from failures, disappointments, grief, and humiliation, and to come back stronger because of what was learned in the midst of circumstances that might discourage or even break another person.

    This is a quality valued by many leaders. We have heard political leaders of both parties talk about what they have learned from being rejected by voters or from the “beatings” they have taken. We have heard also of inventors and artists who repeatedly tried and failed until they found that original contribution only they could make.

    Ministers and other leaders of religious organizations will recognize the quality which Zolli and Healy describe because the term “resilience” is so similar to what Edwin Friedman often referred to as “persistence” and “stamina” in his A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury, 1999, 2007, pp. 188-189). More recently, my friend and colleague, George Sinclair, Jr., the senior pastor of Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Alabama, explored the spiritual and pastoral dimensions of resilience in his book, Walking in Wonder: Resilience in Ministry (Eugene: Cascade, 2014). George identifies resilience as a spiritual quality. “Pastoral leadership,” he says, “… is more art than science; it is more dance than technique. It is less about management and more about imagination. And imagination is grounded in wonder” (p. 105).

    The question we are left to ask is this: Can resilience be nurtured, or is it simply a personality trait you either have or don’t have and there’s nothing much you can do about it?

    While we might examine “resilience” in psychological or sociological terms, I think George’s pastoral exploration of the subject is especially helpful, at least to me as a person of faith. It leads me to believe we can, indeed, nurture resilience as a theological or spiritual quality. George opens the door to understanding how spiritual disciplines and practices can make us more resilient when he says that resilience is fundamentally “grounded in wonder.”

    Recently I asked a colleague in ministry, someone who is known as much by their ability to deal with the stresses of leadership as she is by her success, to tell me what she believes is the key to her own resilience. Though the words she used are different from those used by George, the theological insight is the same. She is learning (and she resisted saying she “has learned”) to understand that everything and everyone she loves and values and cares about and all she works to accomplish belong to the God who is greater than she can conceive and more loving than she can imagine.

    “How do you learn to do that?” I asked.

    “Prayer,” she responded. “Prayer.”

    I used to have a cartoon taped to my door when I was a pastor. I think it came from Leadership magazine, a quarterly that was published by Christianity Today. It showed a church secretary poking her head into the pastor’s office, and, seeing him on his knees praying, she says to the person behind her, “Oh, good. You can come on in. He’s not doing anything.”

    We active-minded, high-achieving Protestant sorts tend to think of prayer either as intercession for things we want God to do or as navel-gazing. I suspect that is why many people, some pastors included, complain that they have prayed and prayed but “nothing happened.” Many of us just don’t seem to understand a concept of prayer that runs throughout the histories of Christian and Jewish thought. Prayer isn’t primarily intended to change God, but us.

    We tend to think of prayer as “talking to God.” And there are times, places, and occasions when prayer is a matter of “talking to God.” But prayer is far, far more than this. And when it comes to developing, nurturing and maintaining resilience, stamina and persistence in us, it is to this “far, far more” that we need to look.

    Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, in an essay he contributed to a book exploring the relationship between Thomas Merton and the spirituality of the Eastern Church, writes: “The Russian Orthodox saint Seraphim of Sarov says, ‘Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation’.” [Jonathan Montaldo, editor, Merton & Hesychasm: The Eastern Church & the Prayer of the Heart (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2003), p. 3]. And how do we attain this inner peace that benefits not only ourselves but all of those with whom we come into contact (including the congregations and organizations we lead)?

    Bishop Ware continues:

    “‘Act out of stillness.’ Unless by God’s grace we possess in some measure stillness of heart, a quality designated in the Greek Orthodox mystical tradition by the word hesychia, our acts will prove superficial and ineffective. But if we act out of the stillness, our actions may effect healing and transfiguration far beyond anything we imagine possible. ‘Act out of the stillness.’ Contemplative action is the most powerful action of all.” (p. 3)

    There is no shortcut to the stillness of heart that produces and maintains resilience in us. It requires practice, regular practice that gradually suffuses our whole lives and shapes our responses to others.

    Some time ago, in a previous blog, I mentioned the thought of another teacher of Eastern Christianity, Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 AD). His understanding of equanimity in the face of all the changes and disappointments of life is particularly relevant in this context. The disposition of inner calmness and composure which he teaches us to cultivate is closely related to resilience.

    What is required in order to cultivate this inner calmness, this equanimity which keeps us balanced no matter what life brings and prevents us from living in dread of the future, regret of the past and resentment of those who may differ from us? Evagrius invites us to find places of sustained silence and periods of solitude where God can strip away all the false images of ourselves that keep us from being the persons God created us to be. Evagrius invites us to risk placing ourselves in the proximity to God’s Word beyond the reach of distractions that amuse us and keep us from seeing ourselves in light of God. He invites us, first and foremost, to listen for God. And, if we listen for God, undistracted, he believes we will learn to offer ourselves to God without reservation, trusting God to do with our lives as God intends.

    And, so, Evagrius encourages us:

    “Pray not to this end, that your own desires will be fulfilled. You can be sure that they do not fully accord with the will of God. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that ‘thy will be done’ in me. In every matter ask God in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as God does.”

    Practicing the presence of God in our lives, a practice that necessarily begins in silence and some degree of solitude, has the potential to stream into every aspect of our lives, making it possible for us to see God present wherever we find ourselves. Ironically, it is precisely in the consciousness of our emptiness in the presence of God that we can be filled with God’s Spirit of life and love; it is in the awareness of our brokenness that we are healed and made whole however life may have bruised us; and it is in our weakness that we experience God’s strength. And it is by this that resilience is cultivated in us.


  • God is in the Clouds

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 19, 2016


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!


    God is in the CloudsThe fields of Central Texas range over softly rolling topography. Crops of wheat, sorghum and cotton take their turns maturing under skies of blue that blaze white-hot from May to late September. My daily walks as a young pastor took me past fields that stretched to a horizon bounded to the West, North and South only by the curvature of the earth and to the East by The Mountain, a hulking mesquite-covered plateau notorious for harboring rattlesnakes.

    If the scenery did not stop your heart, the occasional flock of blackbirds exploding from a field would. Midday often found me watching birds break into the sky, turn, and turn again, like a cloud alive with black wings until they settled in a distant field or dipped to follow a tractor furrowing the black earth. There were moments when the only sound was a driving Texas wind, dry and hot, when the air was charged with the aromas of snuff and wildflowers, and the reign of God seemed to embrace creation right down to the roots of the blanched grass at my feet. In the midst of the land, a collection of houses and buildings rose like stubble in a gleaned field, and in the midst of it all an old church tower, white as bleached bones, marked the gathering place of the congregation where I served as pastor.

    I was not a stranger to the country, having grown up on an East Texas farm. But I was a stranger to the world of vast family farms that made up my parish, a world largely vanished now. I had lived in larger towns and in cities for more than ten years as a student and in my first pastoral position. Here, I had to become reacquainted with the agricultural calendar, the rhythms of the worked earth, of tilling, planting, cultivating, harvesting, lying fallow, and tilling again.

    The first time I visited the small town of Itasca, Texas, I was struck by how far it was from any metropolitan area. It could not even claim the distinction of being in the middle of nowhere. It was just on the periphery of nowhere. Most travelers knew Itasca only because there was a Dairy Queen and a state maintained rest stop (now gone) on the interstate where you would turn to go into town. Few turned. Most Presbyterians knew Itasca simply because of the Presbyterian Children's Home nearby. Frankly I worried about the remoteness of the parish. I wondered if my family and I would fit in, if we would get bored with the slower pace of life, if we would find the kinds of friends there we had known and loved in the city. My concerns on these scores were put to rest. When we eventually left Itasca, after almost five years as their pastor, we experienced a grief that took years to get over. We had become part of the community, the people and the land.

    "Someday you're going to look back on this time as the best of your life," a judicatory official said to me as we walked along the sidewalk in Itasca. Oddly enough, there have been few times in my life that I don't look back on as the best time of my life, including last week, or yesterday. Usually I feel like "this moment, right now" is the best time ever in my life. But I have, in fact, looked back on this first solo pastorate as particularly wonderful, and I have often wondered why it was so good.

    I think there are basically two reasons, and they are related to two things I learned then.

    First, I discovered in that first solo pastorate that the great voices of the church's past, including its distant past, are a living cloud of witnesses, that they are our exact contemporaries (to adapt a phrase from Sǿren Kierkegaard), that they have something to tell us and something to teach us that we would be infinitely poorer if we did not know.

    Second, I realized that the people with whom I served - the members of the congregation I knew and loved and cared for - were also among the great cloud of witnesses. I learned that sainthood is a living category, that one does not have to die to be canonized. These two discoveries transformed my ministry right at the beginning of it and made me understand that our salvation is a matter of our long-term transformation, and that this transformation occurs in real concrete communities of faith. We are shaped as pastors by the congregations we shape. We change them (we hope, for the better); and often they transform us redemptively.

    I think my learning these two things was somehow connected with the geography, the place, we inhabited together. Somehow I was able to focus on the sacrament of human community because distractions were subdued. I do not mean to idealize or sentimentalize or romanticize the country parson's life. To do so would diminish its sacred quality. The people I served were not paper cutouts. These were real people, often leading difficult lives. People suffered irreparable losses in that community. There were divorces, bankruptcies, illnesses, injuries and deaths. There were betrayals small and large. All of humanity, its good and bad, is concentrated in a village. We knew one another well - sometimes too well. But there was integrity to the life, wholeness of earth, sky and community that made our churchly life come into focus.

    The ancient formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the church there is no salvation") took on new meaning for me as a statement of the most common and obvious sense: we are called into wholeness by God, and we become all God created us to be only in communion with others. This may not be what the Church fathers meant by this statement, but I came to believe it is the doctrine's truest meaning. God calls us from disintegration into a community that is grounded in the very being of God's own communal being. Father, Son, and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer: these halting attempts to speak of God's own plurality in union, name the relationship that God is, in the image of which we were created. We were made to be together (this is the character of the God in whose likeness we were made), and without this togetherness we can't become who we were created to be.

    I learned these lessons, the first about the contemporary nature of past saints, and the second about the sanctity of my contemporaries, simply by paying attention in the particular setting in which we lived as a congregation, by allowing the classical witnesses to Christian faith to become my conversation partners and by privileging the wisdom of those with whom I broke bread. Of all the things I learned as a young pastor, these are the lessons that remain.

    Clouds of witnesses surround us like mists rising early before the day settles in. Clouds of witnesses break from fields of stubble like black birds on the wing. And God is in the clouds.

    [This blog is based on a chapter I contributed to a book edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr., From Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral Beginnings, Michael L. Lindvall, foreword (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008). Used with permission.]


  • Love and Sacredness

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 15, 2016


    Pinecone Church

    Down a leafy country road, curving and climbing through the English county of Cumbria, just when we thought we'd gone astray, the small village of Wreay came into view, hardly more than a wide spot in the narrow road. Getting there had been an adventure.

    The GPS wasn't much help. Nor was the huge British highway atlas that Debbie cradled in her lap. The tiny roads on the map looked like sinuous blue capillaries, unnumbered and without intersections. We'd left the big six-lane motorway that runs down the western side of the country from Glasgow to "the South" (as all the signs on the freeway vaguely read, as though to say, "If you don't know where you're going, we don't much care if you get there"). Just beyond Carlisle was where we decided we take our cross-country chances because we knew the major highway didn't go to a village as small as Wreay. We chose a small road toward Penrith, exited the motorway, and catapulted off the roundabout in a generally eastward direction.

    Now, if ever you're trying to find the turn to Wreay from the old Penrith road, just one piece of advice: If you come to the turn for the village of Unthank, you've gone too far. Find a driveway and turn around. But don't turn around in the driveway of the apparently perpetually irritable farmer who has a "No Turning! This means you!" sign in his drive.

    We did find the turn to Wreay, and our marriage survived the journey. And that's saying "summut" as they say in the north of England. We found St. Mary's Church, better known as the Pinecone Church, smack in the middle of the village. It is surely one of the most remarkable church buildings ever designed, combining naturalistic and mystical carvings, references to paganism, the natural sciences, paleoarchaeology and patristic theology. Insects share wall space with angels, and everywhere pinecones are carved. The elegant curved apse graces an otherwise simple rectangle of stone. A couple of years ago I wrote a whole blog on the church's remarkable architecture and it's even more remarkable architect and patron, Sarah Losh, who built this basilica in the nineteenth century.

    I had wanted to see the church since I first read about it. What most struck me about the church "in the flesh" was not its unique design and its wondrous, playful carvings, or even the richly wooded site where it stands. What struck me most was the love to which every stone and tree bears witness.

    Love can make a place holy. As surely as lives sacrificed in war can hallow a place like the battlefield at Gettysburg, compelling a visitor to tread quietly across a wide pasture where hundreds fell, just as surely Wreay's churchyard hushes the voice, slows the step, bows the head.

    Sarah's love is what does it. Sarah's love for a friend, a brave young army officer who never returned from a distant war. Sarah's love for her parents. Above all else, I think, Sarah's love for her sister whose tomb dominates the small graveyard, hallows this place; her beautiful, graceful likeness is carved in marble, her gown flowing softly in the darkness of the mausoleum.

    So much whimsy among the cavorting figures that festoon the church inside and out, but the pinecones carved everywhere solemnly remind us that this place of worship is not just about life's joyful abundance, but about death as well, and a hope almost desperate for resurrection. So much grief over lives cut down before their time, and lives lived out into a lonely old age, so much love poured out in tears. Holy rivers of tears baptize this beloved soil, all the more beloved because of those who lie beneath its surface or rest in tombs upon it.

    After Debbie and I visited the church and the family graveyard and strolled the park in which the church stands, we went across to the ancient pub, hoping we weren't too late for lunch (we were). There we found a chatty publican who told us that the pub dated virtually from the founding of the village, centuries before this church was built, and that if it wasn't for the pub the church never would have been built.

    Maybe he was right, from his perspective. But it was love that built St. Mary's, and it is love that holds it in time and space to this day, suspended in this world as in a gossamer web of pure devotion.


  • A Mantra for Leaders

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 08, 2016


    MantraWhen presidents of theological schools gather, you get a really interesting combination of conversations ranging from hard-won wisdom to pedestrian kvetching. This year's gathering of presidents of graduate schools belonging to the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) was no exception. Except that it offered an especially large amount of the former and much less of the latter.

    Over the course of three sun-drenched days in San Antonio, Texas (does anyone want to guess why ATS, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, has its annual January meeting of presidents in San Antonio?), we heard from some of the most knowledgeable people in theological education, including Dan Aleshire, the longtime executive director of ATS, Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Seminary, and Richard Lischer, professor at Duke Divinity School and author of the best-selling memoir, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery (New York: Harmony, 2002). We also heard from our fellow presidents sharing some of those "I wish I'd known then what I know now" sorts of insights that are priceless.

    Among the most valuable of these sessions was a brief presentation by Dale Meyer, president of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Among the insights Dale doled out to us was what he referred to as his "mantra," three phrases which were handed down to him by another colleague who in turn had received the saying from yet another leader. Like so many great pieces of wisdom, the advice finds its way to us as an oral tradition. If you happen to know the original source, please let me know.

    Here's the mantra that Dale repeats to himself regularly and which I guarantee will become part of my prayer and meditation:

    "Accept chaos.
    Give back calm.
    Provide hope."

    I'm going to reflect briefly on each of the elements of Dale's mantra.

    Accept Chaos
    Will Willimon once observed that the worst possible preparation for becoming a minister (and I would include institutional leaders of most any sort, too) is a prior career as a group photographer. Anyone, Will says, who is going into ministry needs to give up on getting everyone pointed in the same direction, standing still and smiling at the same time.

    You don't have to be a Zen priest or a Greek philosopher to know that life just doesn't hold still for long. Everything changes. Order proceeds toward disorder. When you get up in the morning, it is utter folly to expect that everything you nailed down yesterday remained fixed overnight. Nothing stays fixed. Either in place or repaired!

    This is why the most important preparation we do for any meeting is not the agenda (as important as it obviously is), but ourselves. And we prepare ourselves best not by trying to anticipate every single, imaginable, possible thing that might arise in the meeting, endlessly playing the tapes of the possible disputes or arguments we dread might happen. We prepare ourselves best by entrusting ourselves and the group that is meeting to God's providential care, asking that God lead us all into God's own purposes - which, incidentally, are almost never identical with the will of any individual around whatever metaphorical table we are gathered.

    Change is the fundamental reality of life. The sooner we come to realize this, the better for us and the organizations we lead. Improvisation fits the reality of organizational leadership better than the ability to read a musical score. But, as every jazz musician knows, improvisation is as much a matter of practiced skill as it is art. In the midst of the change, craziness and chaos, there is something else required of us, even if we are skilled in improvisation.

    Give Back Calm
    I think it may have been Ed Friedman who said that the indispensable gift a leader has to give her organization is to be a circuit breaker within its systems. If he didn't say this, he should have, because really this is at the heart of his much-discussed ideas of a well-differentiated leader who projects a non-anxious presence.

    Organizations NEED their leaders to be calm, cool and collected, especially in the midst of all their chaos. The more conflict there is, the more calm the organization needs from its leader. Rattled leaders, anxious and excitable leaders, emotionally reactive leaders only make matters worse. To return to the metaphor of the circuit breaker, the hotter the system runs, the cooler the leader needs to be to make sure the whole thing doesn't blow.

    Shortly after becoming a seminary president, I asked several experienced presidents what was the most important thing they had learned about leadership. One said that a leader must learn to speak very, very softly. The louder the situation, the softer we should speak. Though he had a pretty quiet voice to start with, I really think he was speaking metaphorically. Bombastic posturing seldom leads to good decision-making. It just tends to turns up the temperature in the room.

    If the system needs a circuit breaker, so does the leader herself. Each of us needs that internal switch that allows us to hit pause in the midst of a tense situation, that mechanism that restrains us from reacting on impulse and allows us the emotional room to respond thoughtfully, constructively and calmly. Calmness makes it possible for us to listen to others. A leader who is calm and who listens tends to influence others to do the same. Reflectivity is as contagious as is reactivity, and calm reflection allows the room needed in a group to see a fuller range of options than does anxiety-driven reactivity.

    Provide Hope
    Hope is the opposite of cynicism, and hope is a theological act. It goes far deeper and is far more enduring than mere optimism.

    Hope is the confidence that we and our families, churches, schools, organizations and, indeed, the whole wide world belong to God. "Into thy hands," is a prayer of pure hope, and it is the prayer a leader can pray throughout the day without ceasing.

    A year or so ago, I was visiting a young ministry couple. Over lunch, the wife shared with me her frustrations about a worship service she had recently attended. The whole thing was so dismal, she said. The minister seemed tired and distracted throughout the entire service; the sermon was about depression, but it mostly just seemed depressing. After describing the service to me, she said, "The church should be about hope. Our people need hope."

    I was reminded of this conversation during the recent ATS presidents meeting when Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, related a similar experience of a friend of hers. She said her friend was attending a Mass conducted by a priest who dolefully and drearily stumbled through the liturgy. It was a very sad affair. Her friend told Kerry that afterward she had to bite her tongue to keep from telling the priest, "Father, I know this is the holy sacrifice of the Mass, but you're not the one being sacrificed!"

    Our churches and other organizations look to their leaders for hope. Not glorified gold-plated nonsense, by the way, but real hope. And that hope resides in the confidence that God will take the best we can do and do with it more than we could ever have imagined. This hope lives in the confidence that God is up to bigger and better things than we can ask or imagine.

    So, here's a mantra worth remembering always and repeating often:

    "Accept chaos.
    Give back calm.
    Provide hope."


  • Do We Worship the Same God?

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 05, 2016


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Thin Places 11When I meet God I am prepared to stand corrected. This is because, as a Christian, I believe that when I meet God, I'm in for some surprises. I think we all are.

    The incomparable Daniel Migliore, for many years professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, was often heard to quote St. Augustine of Hippo, the greatest theologian in the church's history, as saying: "If you understand God, it is not God you have understood." The impenetrable wonder, the utter incomprehensibility, the wholly, infinite otherness of God mean that God defies all of our definitions, exceeds all of our expectations, will not be contained in any of our little doctrines however sincerely or ferociously we hold them. The most ancient of Christian orthodox traditions holds that God is not a thing, that God is not an object, and that God is not one more category among all the other categories within human conception. Or, to put it in terms familiar with Christian theology, we are made in God's image, not vice versa.

    Yet, the tendency persists among religious folk to believe that some of us have God in a box, our own little box, and that God belongs to us alone. All others must be mistaken.

    There's the old joke about a recent arrival in heaven being shown around the grounds by an angel. He is shown Presbyterians happily playing volley ball with Roman Catholics and Baptists; Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and Hasidic Jews making s'mores by a campfire, even a weathered Neolithic shaman wrapped in elk hides laughing it up with a Buddhist priest and a Muslim imam. As the new arrival and the angel make their way across a vast Elysium field, they come upon a tall stone wall with "Quiet Please" signs prominently posted. "What's with the signs?" asks the new arrival. "Shhhh, that's where the [ ___ fill in the blank with your favorite sect ___ ] live. They think they're the only ones up here."

    The inclination to exclude others on the basis of religious beliefs is virtually universal. That doesn't make it any less offensive or puzzling.

    Recently I came across a passage in H. Richard Niebuhr's Social Sources of Denominationalism (a book written in 1926!) which posed the conundrum with a wry twist of humor. I'm paraphrasing, but Niebuhr expressed his own bewilderment over the idea that God evaluates our eligibility for eternal salvation on the basis of opinions we hold regarding metaphysical processes.

    When you say it like that, it really does sound bizarre.

    Again, as a Christian, I believe we live in the two-thousand-year-old afterglow of an encounter with a human being in whom we believe we have met none other than God. We are left with the stunned, often frightened, even sometimes disbelieving, testimonies of those who first met this man. We are left with questions galore about how it is possible for God, the immutable and eternal, to become a human creature, frail and subject to change. But all of these questions about "how" evaporate, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, when in awed silence we meet this Word who is God.

    The one thing we are not left with after this encounter is a secure, dogmatic place on which to stand in the presence of the eternal Mystery. We certainly are not left with a divine mandate or even permission to judge who has the right answers. As a Christian, I just don't have the option to judge, not if I want to follow the Palestinian Jewish rabbi named Jesus who said, "Judge not, lest you be judged."

    Yet, again, the impulse to exclude persists among us.

    A new (or perhaps renewed) version of exclusivity has arisen lately related to the question of whether or not different faiths ultimately worship the same God. (Note, please, that this is quite a different conversation from whether or not different people intend to worship different gods. We know some people worship different gods. It is a fact attested to in many of the world's great faiths, including the faith articulated by Jesus of Nazareth who said that we can either worship God or Mammon, but not both at the same time.) The question often posed these days is not about our tendency to erect competing gods in the place of the eternal God, but (again) whether or not all attempts to worship the eternal God are feebly and sincerely directed ultimately toward the same divine being, whether or not we recognize this fact.

    I remember a story told by my teacher, the late Professor James Torrance, a remarkable Reformed theologian who studied under Karl Barth and with C.S. Lewis. James related what happened to him one day walking out of an ecumenical service in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the time of "The Troubles." An angry Presbyterian woman came up to him and shouted into his face, “How can you, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, worship beside those idolatrous Catholics?” To which James graciously responded, “If you are asking how it is possible that we Presbyterians and Roman Catholics can offer our imperfect worship to Almighty God, the only answer is that it is by the grace of God. All of our broken efforts are caught up into that perfect worship that Christ offers God the Father on our behalf."

    If anything, the question posed about whether we ultimately worship the same God has only become more pointed in the past couple of decades as we have become more generally aware of the presence of persons from faiths other than Christianity in our midst. The discussion of the question often provides more heat than light.

    Recently, Stephen Prothero, one of our culture's genuine public intellectuals and a brilliant communicator on world religions and religious literacy, wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal asking, "Are Allah and Jesus the Same God?" (Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2016). It is a provocative title and a question, frankly, that would likely rankle many Muslims and Christians, but the title gets at the heat behind the question of God's identity; it may also provide some light.

    Prothero relates the story of a Wheaton College associate professor of political science who was placed on administrative leave after posting on Facebook that she was donning a head scarf, a hijab, for Advent. She wrote: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book." Subsequently, Wheaton College began the process to terminate her employment. Wheaton has made clear in its own statements that the professor was placed on leave not for wearing the head scarf, but because of the theological statements she made including the belief that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God."

    In his editorial, Prothero comments:

    "Islam and Christianity both affirm that there is one God, creator and judge, who speaks through prophets, whose words are written down in scripture. Still, they are not two paths up the same mountain. Christians do not believe in the divine inspiration of the Quran. Muslims do not believe that Jesus is an incarnation of God."

    I think that what Prothero says is essentially accurate, though I'm as doubtful about an out-of-hand dismissal of the whole "different paths up the same mountain" metaphor as I am of its theological durability. Either way, its affirmation or its denial just claims to know a lot more than I know. And, about that which I cannot speak, I would simply prefer to remain silent, if I may drag Ludwig Wittgenstein into this dispute (though he may come kicking and screaming).

    It seems to me that we may be approaching the whole question from the wrong end, by evaluating whether or not it is ultimately the same God we worship based on our various beliefs about God. Doing so only plays into the hands of the most radical and least sensible elements in every faith, those who seek to divide and conquer. And doing so misses the most obvious point, that God is not reducible to any human concepts about God.

    Within my own faith, a Christian faith shaped in the forge of Protestant history yet still related to the wellsprings of the orthodoxy of the ancient catholic church, we attempt to express what cannot be expressed about the Holy One whom Jonathan Edwards called "the Being of being" by speaking of the Triune plurality of the One God. We feel compelled to talk about God in this way because we believe we have met none other than God in this man named Jesus. This existential, historical encounter with Jesus of Nazareth forces us to rethink what it means to confess, with our spiritual forebears, the people, prophets and patriarchs of ancient Israel, "The Lord is God, the Lord alone."

    We Christians speak of the eternal Word, the Son of God, the Beloved, the Begotten, who comes from and returns to the eternal Source, God the Father, the Almighty; we speak of the act of Procession by which the Son comes from the Father, not as a mere action but as divine person, the Spirit, the very Life and Love of God. We speak of creation as the overflowing of divine Love which cannot be contained. We speak of the deep need for God implanted in the hearts of God's creation. We speak of the frailty of our human nature, our need for redemption, for healing, and the belief that we are somehow redeemed and healed in God's assumption of our humanity. We believe that God is revealed to humanity in the life and death of Jesus, and that God confirmed that the life of self-giving love which Jesus lived is not a mistake by raising Jesus from the dead. But, in all of this Christian theological reflection (and it is just that, Christian theological reflection), we have not narrowed the options of who God is. Rather, we have kicked open the doors of possibility to express that age-old word of deepest piety, asking again and again and again in our amazement, "Who are You, Lord?"

    Ultimately we all stand in the presence of divine Mystery, and anyone who thinks they have the answers in that presence is foolish.

    Each time I read again the giants of the Christian faith, whether it is Justin Martyr, John CassianJulian of Norwich or John Bunyan, as I listen to their struggles to speak of meeting the Eternal, I find reverence renewed and certainty dashed. We Christians do not hold an exclusive copyright on the nature and character of God. Nor can we speak for God. We just don't know what God may be up to with other people who conceive of God in terms foreign to our experience. But this we do know: far from being a sign of strength, it is a sure sign of insecurity in one's own faith to feel we must prove the sincerity of our beliefs by judging the beliefs of others.

    Prothero is, I think, correct in warning us against "pretend pluralism" that tries to paper over the differences among faiths by saying that they are all basically headed in the same direction or trying to teach the same truth but in different ways. Faith is, as Abraham Heschel once said, the indispensable prerequisite to interfaith dialogue, and we should be ready and willing to articulate and to hear the differences in our faiths and to recognize that they are not all trying to accomplish the same ends. To go beyond this, and to say that the God to whom we try to bear witness and about whom we try to speak in the stuttering phrases of our creeds is NOT the God worshiped by others, is saying far more than any of us can say. If it does nothing else, reverence produces humility.

    As Augustine writes at the opening of his Confessions:

    "Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and thy wisdom infinite. And thee would a human praise, a human, but a particle of thy creation, a human, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that thou resists the proud, yet would this human praise thee, he, but a particle of thy creation."


  • Currents of Change

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 05, 2016


    Currents of ChangeRecently I participated in two group discussions reflecting seriously on the changes facing our churches and theological schools in North America. These were wonderful and difficult conversations: the first among the presidents and board chairs from our Presbyterian seminaries from across the country; the second among presidents from a variety of seminaries in a gathering sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS).

    As Dr. Ann M. Garrido, associate professor of homiletics at the Aquinas Institute of Theology, made an excellent presentation on the spirituality of administration for our ATS gathering, I remembered an experience I have had repeatedly and something it may be teaching me about leadership in a time of rapid change.

    Walking along through the shallow waters of a beach, sand shifting beneath and through my toes, I have often wondered at how surprised we are by change when it is among the most constant realities of life.

    From season to season the sandbars on my favorite beach shift dramatically. These are huge hills of sand that weigh tons. They are seemingly immovable, yet they are moved all of the time by the ceaseless rhythms of wind and waves and the regular rhythms of tide powered by the pull of the moon on the earth.

    The sandbars teach us what we resist recognizing. Everything moves, even the most apparently solid, heavy and permanent. We cling to anything in life in vain. Still, everything moves.

    Recently, while practicing meditation using Jon Kabat-Zinn's guided mindfulness meditation program, I was invited to become conscious of the rise and fall of my breath as if I were riding gently on it, up and down, like a small boat rising and falling on the waves. Completely still, completely quiet and the mind recalled to rest, I was more conscious than ever of the constant movement and change that runs like a current through each of us and all of life.

    It occurred to me later that it might be a good exercise for most of us, worried about changes threatening the ways things have always been done, to walk more on the beach and to spend less time in the mountains.

    Certainly things are changing in the mountains too. But the mountains and the hills don't move as fast as the dunes and sandbars. From one season to another, a ridge does not seem to shift positions at all. It takes millennia to notice. Of course, over time even continents move, but only God gets to see this happening.

    Walking along the beach, the tide relentlessly shifting the vast sandbars on which we walk, we sense and we see what remains otherwise much less apparent. All things are moving; all things are changing. To lead well or to live well, we must learn to love the moment and the movement, neither to resist nor deny it.

    We are not made of stone. Nor are the groups of people, the organizations, the institutions that bear our faith, our traditions, our deeply ingrained ways of finding meaning, passing on from age to age the hopes and beliefs we hold most precious. Flesh and blood, sand and sea water, move and change continuously. And, yet, a beach is always a beach, and the sea water is always salty, and the sun and the moon and the winds endure.

    I wonder what new sandbars God is carving on these beaches we love?

    "Be thankful to the Lord, and speak good of God's name. For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting: and his truth endures from generation to generation." (Psalm 100:3b-4)


  • An Artist of Wonder: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 25, 2016


    HeschelAll my best ideas I've stolen. Usually from my friends. So it was that I stole my friend Ted Wardlaw's idea of asking our faculty "surprise questions" at the dinners we host twice a year for prospective students visiting our campus.

    In one of those dinners a few years back, I asked our faculty, "Of all the theological figures from the past, with whom would you most like to spend an evening conversing?" Among the people who got a vote were John CalvinKarl Barth and Mother Teresa. But at least four professors (myself included), each from very different scholarly disciplines, selected one person: Abraham Joshua Heschel (pictured).

    I never knew Abraham Heschel personally. He died in 1972, the year I graduated from high school. Yet, from my days in seminary, his wisdom has remained a touchstone for my thought and life.* My high regard for Heschel is far from unique. He continues to exert a tremendous influence on people from across the spectrum of faiths.

    What is it about Rabbi Heschel that causes him to be revered, honored and beloved by persons of so many different faith traditions over forty years after his death?

    In the introduction to a recent anthology of Heschel's thought, its editor, Samuel Dresner, provides at least a partial answer to this question, reminding us of the breadth of soul of this remarkable person. Ten days prior to Rabbi Heschel's death, Dresner tells us, in an interview with NBC, he addressed young people saying: "Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Know that every deed counts, that every word is power. … Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art. …" This advice from a man who, the very day before he died (nine days after giving this interview), stood in the snow before a federal prison adding the final brushstrokes to his own work of art, "waiting for the release of a friend, a priest, who had been jailed for civil protest." [Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder, edited with an introduction by Samuel H. Dresner (New York: Crossroad, 2014), 9.]

    As I sit here, near dusk on a mid-winter Sabbath, Heschel's classic study of the Sabbath beside me, I recall why I came to love Heschel in the first place. Here was a scholar, a teacher and a faith leader who, like a prophet of the Old Testament, did not believe that spirituality and social concern are polar opposites that need to be reconciled but are essential aspects of the same character, the love of neighbor flowing naturally and necessarily from our wholehearted love of God. Heschel believed deeply that either God is all-important or not important at all. And his devotion to God led him to claim people the world over as God's children and his neighbors. As Dresner notes, when Heschel died there were two books at his bedside: one a classic of Hasidic spirituality, the other a study of the war in Vietnam. "The combination was symbolic," writes Dresner in his introduction. For Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as practitioners of other faiths in this tragically torn world, perhaps there is no better example of a person convinced that humanity "dwells on the tangent of the infinite, within the holy dimensions; that the life of [humanity] is part of the life of God." (Heschel, Wonder, 10-11.)

    In a time when people are bewitched by the accumulation of the things that consume their lives, when we feel threatened by the very forces of violence that promise to give us security, and when those who compete to lead us speak out of the emptiness of their own lust for power, Heschel's voice is more than prophetic, it is sane. And it is a sanity which recognizes that the world in which we live is not a mere accident but an act of God, and that this God is both merciful and just. As Heschel's daughter, Susannah, said in an interview in the Catholic magazine, America, in 2007: "For my father, religion may begin with a sense of mystery, awe, wonder and fear, but religion itself is concerned with what we do with those feelings. … God poses a challenge to go beyond ourselves and it is precisely that going beyond, that awareness of challenge, that constitutes our being." (Doris Donnelly, “Lovingly Observant: An Interview with Susannah Heschel,” America, June 18, 2007. Accessed December 13, 2015. http://americamagazine.org/issue/618/article/lovingly-observant.)

    Reading the new anthology assembled by Dresner, as good as it is, only whetted my appetite to go back to Heschel's classics. I started with Rabbi Heschel's magisterial two-volume study of the prophets of ancient Israel, where I came across this passage:

    "Others may suffer from the terror of cosmic aloneness, the prophet is overwhelmed by the grandeur of divine presence. He is incapable of isolating the world. There is an interaction between [humanity] and God which to disregard is an act of insolence. Isolation is a fairy tale.... The prophet's word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven." [Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper, 1962), Vol. 1, p. 16.]

    And in what is possibly the most remarkable textbook ever written for the study of philosophy of religion, Heschel confronts us, not with chapters on abstruse and abstract ideas of speculation, but with subject matter that places us in the bull’s-eye of obligation, such as: "The awareness of grandeur," "philosophy begins in wonder," "the mystery within reason," "to be is to stand for," "the problem of the neutral," and "needs are not holy." [Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951).]

    Of course, I had to return to The Sabbath, a book that by the sheer power of its evocation of the beauty of God's purpose for humanity puts to shame every pale attempt we make to construct our little imitation "sabbaths" and "sabbaticals." Just a sample must do, as when Heschel writes in this amazing book:

    "For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise. The art of keeping the Sabbath day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation." (Abraham Joshua. Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 16.]

    Few theologians of the twentieth century were better prepared to speak to the modern human condition. Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. He was, as one biographer has said, "a prince among Hasidim," the successor to Martin Buber in Frankfurt, arrested and deported from Germany in 1938 by the Nazi regime, and eventually arriving in America where he flourished at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for the remainder of his life. With a voice tempered by human loss and divine hope, Heschel taught and wrote against the backdrop of the Shoah that had devastated his own people, the rise of nuclear armament that threatened the entire world, and the raging wars of post-colonialism. It was, in part, because of Heschel's influence that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the anti-Vietnam War movement. He suffered greatly, at times, because of some of the positions he took. Yet, his involvement in the political world was integral to his faith in God. He knew personally the high social cost that must be paid if persons of faith and good will refuse to stand against evil.**

    Drawing this blog to a close is much more difficult than usual. Once one begins, there is so much from Heschel's thought and life one wants to share. But I shall close by returning to Dresner's fine brief introduction to the new anthology. Dresner tells the story of visiting Abraham Heschel in his apartment in New York City when the rabbi was recovering from a heart attack. Quietly, and with great difficulty, Heschel spoke to Dresner about the inevitability of death, and the fact that he was ready and willing to offer his life back to God. "Take me, O Lord," Heschel said, not in despair or resignation, but with great joy. "I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime. … That is what I meant when I wrote [in the preface to his book of Yiddish poems]: 'I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.' "

    Perhaps, of all the gifts we may pray from God, this is the greatest. May we all ask not for success, but for wonder.


    *One of the most joyful activities of my ministry as a young pastor was to help organize, together with Christian and Jewish leaders in Dallas, Texas, an event honoring Heschel's memory some ten years after his death. Byron L. Sherwin, author of the small volume on Heschel for the Makers of Contemporary Theology series published by John Knox Press in 1979, spoke for that event. And one of my greatest joys as a scholar was being asked by Heschel's Dutch publishers to allow an essay I had written on wonder in the presence of the Holy to serve as the foreword to a new edition of Heschel's writings in the Netherlands.

    **Biographical information in this paragraph is principally drawn from Byron Sherwin's book, mentioned above, pp.1-8; also of value was the introductory note Heschel himself wrote for his posthumously published book, A Passion for Truth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), viii-xv.


  • Busy-ness, As Usual

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 22, 2016


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Gethsemani Lake

    Sitting toward the back of the auditorium at Southern Methodist University, a harried, distracted young associate pastor in a busy Dallas suburb, I felt as though the speaker at the lectern was talking directly to me. Henri J.M. Nouwen was at the podium delivering the address that would soon be published as a book, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (New York: Seabury, 1980).

    I would like to say that I have never forgotten the lessons I learned that day. The truth is that I have forgotten them repeatedly. I had even forgotten that I had once learned them. Each time I learn these lessons, it is as though for the first time.

    Of this I have been reminded, because I brought my old copy of Nouwen's The Way of the Heart with me on retreat to Gethsemani Abbey earlier this month. In the back of the book (which I apparently bought in 1980 for the princely sum of $7.95!) were the notes I had written to myself the first time I read the book. Written in pencil, more than thirty years ago, were the things I had learned. Or thought I had learned. Because reading them again on my retreat, I couldn't recall learning these things way back then. Yet, I do recall sitting in a coffee shop with another young pastor after we heard Nouwen's lecture that day mulling over his stark diagnosis of our calendars full of activities and our hearts drained of meaning and life.

    I might have forgotten I had ever learned the cure, but I surely remember commiserating over the disease. And when I re-read the book, sitting in my room at the retreat house with winter skies threatening and winds whistling through the window, the remembrance of my first encounter with Nouwen came back in a flood.

    He wrote:

    "Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul. The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people's fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives.

    "Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying or doing. We simply go along with the many 'musts' and 'oughts' that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. ... [W]e ought to move up the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life. Thus we [ministers] are busy people just like all other busy people, rewarded with the rewards which are rewarded to busy people!"
    (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 21-22.)

    I remember this other young pastor and I, sipping our coffee between comments to one another, reflecting on the accuracy of Nouwen's assessment of the lives we lived. Two stunned young ministers, silence at times hanging in the air between us, as we squinted at the light that came glaring down on our lives and our ministries. "What good are we doing?" we asked each other. Acting compulsively out of our own fears and anxieties, resentment, and anger, greedy for success and starving for applause and approval. "What sort of liberation are we offering our people who are also caught up in the same vicious cycle?"

    The conversation I remember. I just don't remember ever knowing in my heart of hearts, at the core of my being, what I had written in pencil in the back of that book. Here's what I wrote down:

    "We thirst and we hunger after God, but we are not filled because we refuse to be filled. We go only far enough, take only enough of a drink or a taste to say, 'Ah, that is good. Thank you.' But we do not drink to fill or eat the feast provided. In a solitary place God waits for each of us, to show us ourselves in radiant, direct honesty, to show us our abject hunger, our spiritual dehydration. God waits in the desert, in the wilderness of trials for us. And if we want God we must go there alone. This is the painful news: Our need is great, absolute. Without [God] we will die. This is the good news: [God] waits for us in the solitude of transformation. [God] promises to fill us and to send us on changed."

    Maybe I did learn what Nouwen was talking about after all. Or maybe I just regurgitated a paraphrase of his message. I really don't know. I rather suspect I had not yet suffered enough, had not yet thirsted or hungered or hurt enough to really long for the filling and healing about which I was writing. But maybe that is just the arrogance of age now speaking. Surely a young pastor can feel spent and tired and can suspect that his ministry is an act of vanity because he detects the compulsions that drive and motivate him. Surely a young pastor can discern the anger she feels at her people for not living up to her expectations or appreciating her sufficiently, but discerns also that the anger may really come from her own fear of being found wanting. It is a strange thing to enter into this sort of conversation, your contemporary self wondering at whether you were once wiser than you are today. But really, all such speculation is ultimately fruitless because we are perennially pretty clueless at whatever age we find ourselves.

    The author of Galatians speaks of the danger of constructing again and again edifices of self-justification that he had previously torn down. I think he may be reminding us that progress in the life of the Spirit is not linear. We don't rise rung by rung on Jacob's ladder, getting steadily higher and nearer to heaven with each step. Rather, progress in the life of the Spirit is a matter of spiritual proximity. Inasmuch as we entrust ourselves to God, to the degree that we rest in God, conscious of our utter dependence upon God, we may be "making spiritual progress," if that's even the way to say it. Perhaps better, we testify with St. Paul that daily we just keep dying to the self, the false self that wants defending and craves security and longs for validation because it thinks that if it gets enough external confirmation of worth and accumulates just a little more of whatever the world values it will finally and forever we safe. According to St. Paul, the score-keeping that validates the false self has been nailed to the cross, where Jesus died, where we also have been crucified. And the life we live now hangs on trust in the God who promises love for us in the dying breath of the risen Jesus. (See: Galatians 2:15-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 3:2-16)

    A story from the Desert Fathers that Nouwen relates helps me to understand the nature of the lifelong pilgrimage we are on. He tells the story of Abba Elias, a holy man tormented by demons. The demons persecuted him, taunted him, threatened him. He tried desperately to fight them off. Finally the old man cried out, "Jesus, save me!" And immediately, the devils fled. Just as suddenly the Lord spoke to Elias, who by that point sat sobbing. "Why are you weeping?" asked the Lord. "Because the devils have dared to seize a man and treat him like this," answered Elias. The Lord said to him, "You had been careless. As soon as you turned to me again, you see I was beside you." (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 29.)

    From time to time in life and ministry, we are likely to find ourselves trying to live as though we could defeat the powers of evil on our own, as though we don't need God to provide every breath of life and whatever strength we possess. And from time to time in life and ministry, we are likely to discover that our attempts to live life under our own power are utterly illusory, that before very long we have become victims of all the demons of hell, the compulsions, fears and anxieties, the anger, resentment, jealousy and greed that become so easily the driving forces behind our actions. In such moments, if we are very fortunate, we will come to ourselves and realize that we are in real danger of losing our souls even while we are preaching the gospel to others.

    The task is to keep turning to the God who is always beside us and within us, always present, though hidden in the solitude of that wilderness to which we can resort whenever we wish, where the Spirit and the Word of God never fail to bring healing. There is a river that makes glad the city of God, the dwelling place of the Holy. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be shaken, though the nations rage and the kingdoms tumble and the earth itself trembles. However distracted we may be by busy-ness, as usual, God waits for us there, while the river eddies, pools and flows.


  • Truth to Power and Privilege

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 19, 2016


    The Ethical Legacy of Barbara Jordan


    Power and PrivilegeIf you are of a certain age, you may remember her speech. I was a college student, midway through the summer term, glued to my television set that evening, as U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan spoke. The date was July 25, 1974, and we were in the midst of a national crisis. Citizens across the country were about to receive a lesson in constitutional law and democracy that we would never forget. Please allow me to quote from Barbara Jordan’s comments, and as I do, I encourage you to bring to mind the power of that voice, that utterly peerless, commanding tone and authority:

    “Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States, ‘We, the People.’ It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787, I was not included in that ‘We, the People.’ I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in ‘We, the People.’

    “Today, I am an inquisitor. And hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
    [Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, edited by Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 27.]

    Recently I was reflecting anew on Barbara Jordan’s words as I returned to a book given to me many years ago by my friend Bill Powers, at the time the dean of the Law School at the University of Texas and subsequently the president of that university. The book Bill gave me is Philip Bobbitt’s Constitutional Fate: Theory of the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). In his book, surely one of the most fascinating texts in the field of constitutional law, Bobbitt argues that too often, when we think about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, we do not necessarily take ethics into account. In a chapter titled, “Good and Bad/Good and Evil,” Bobbitt writes:

    “Ignoring the existence of ethical arguments has had other costs as well: not only candor, but simplicity too is sacrificed. Most importantly, the exile of ethical argument from the domain of legitimate constitutional discussion has denied an important resource to the creative judge who exploits all the various approaches [i.e., to constitutional interpretation, including the historical, the textual, structural, prudential and doctrinal approaches] from time to time and case to case.” (p. 137)

    Bobbitt’s comments could be used as a sort of hermeneutical lens through which to read anew Jordan’s words, spoken originally on that summer evening in 1974. Our faith in the U.S. Constitution is not an abstract allegiance, nor an adherence to some ancient standard forever fixed in stone. It is a living confidence in the ability of “We, the People” to respond ethically to the challenges of living together with all our differences over the long haul of history.

    Barbara Jordan alludes to the challenge of forging and honoring among us “We, the People” in the keynote address she offered two years later at the Democratic National Convention in New York City.

    The driving question behind her address that evening was, “Who then will speak for the common good?” Again, she began her speech with a historical reference that is also an intimate reference, a very personal reference:

    “It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a presidential candidate,” she said. “But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?” she asked, “I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.” She continues:  “A lot of years have passed since 1832, and during that time it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask a Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am. And I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.” After reflecting on the variety of things she might speak about on such an occasion, given this historic opportunity, she tells us what she will speak about: “We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community.” (Jordan, Eloquent Thunder, pp. 35-36)

    In the past two years, I have often longed to hear Barbara Jordan’s voice again.* As we have witnessed national tragedies and national disgraces, as we have endured patches of genuine soul-searching, even repentance, but also moments of disappointing denial, I have wished that I might hear Barbara speak truth to power and privilege, as only she could.

    Her historical perspective would, doubtless, have helped us think about how far we have come with reference to race in America; but I firmly believe that she would not let any of us off the hook. She would also remind us of how much further “We, the People” have to go to make “justice for all” more than just a rhetorical flourish on an old document.

    Her deep personal faith in God would remind us that we are not a law unto ourselves, but that we owe our lives and all we are, including our lives as “We, the People,” to God. Her faith in God would remind us of our own limits, our blind spots and our tendencies to corrupt and undermine even our best inclinations and motivations.

    Her profound faith, “whole,” “complete” and “total” in the power of our U.S. Constitution to do good, to speak for the common good, would remind us also that we are not helpless, that we have national resources that transcend party allegiances and ideologies and our own narrow self-interests.

    In a time, when so many citizens are prepared to throw up their hands and give up even trying to construct a common good in the midst of dissent and dissension, I wish I could hear Barbara pray the prayer she offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1978. On that occasion, this daughter of a Baptist preacher and one of the most respected political leaders and teachers of her time, prayed to God:

    “Teach us to know that if we are to be successful stewards, we must be your servants. We know that we cannot solve the many difficulties which beset your people. But you can. We cannot reconcile people whose prejudices and narrow-sighted self-interest prevent brotherhood. But you can. We cannot infuse hope in those who despair. But you can.” (Jordan, Eloquent Thunder, p. 68)

    Amen.


    *I am grateful to Texas State Senator Max Sherman for this wonderful collection of Barbara Jordan’s speeches, which includes a compact disc on which we can indeed again hear her voice.


  • Faith and Political Rhetoric

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 11, 2016

    Faith and Political Rhetoric
    Editor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post was originally published January 31, 2012. Dr. Jinkins felt that, given the current trends in public discourse, this blog warrants further reflection.


    For some time now, a sort of economic and political rhetoric has grown up around the country. This rhetoric belongs exclusively neither to the Republican nor to the Democratic Party, and, indeed, has “liberal,” “conservative,” and “libertarian” supporters. Its variants are many. The premises of this view might be summarized as follows:

    • Individuals have priority over community, and the only right that ultimately counts for anything is the right of the individual not to be constrained by the needs or interests of others.
    • Altruism is suspect because the only thing we can vouch for with anything approaching certainty is the purity of self-interest and the will to survive.
    • The single great power we can trust is the power of the economic free market to reward industry and provide the greatest good.
    • The middle way, moderation, negotiation, and compromise are evils because morality has no shades of gray.

    In recent years, we have all likely heard various applications of this rhetoric (and perhaps seen it on the silver screen, in the 2011 film Atlas Shrugged, based on the novel by atheist and ideologue Ayn Rand). We have heard this world view articulated by representatives of different political parties. Both liberals and conservatives have been among those who have exalted the “individual” to the point that the “individual” of whom they speak bears little to no real relationship to actual persons in community (the only sort of people who actually do exist!). Some politicians have run for office arguing that if persons do not have the means to afford health insurance society should, essentially, let them die. Others, building on the premise that welfare in certain circumstances unintentionally undermines personal responsibility and industry, go on to argue that, therefore, all social altruism and all programs to help the poor are confidence tricks. Such unyielding positions are correlated with one of the most disconcerting developments in contemporary politics: the rise of politicians who refuse to work together with other elected representatives for the common good if working together means listening, negotiating, and compromising.

    Among those who have critiqued this political rhetoric, there have been responsible commentators on both the left and the right. As Carl T. Bogus observes in his fascinating (and, at points, disturbing) book, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011), one of the most vocal critics of one version of the premises bulleted above was Whittaker Chambers. Another was William F. Buckley Jr. While both Chambers and Buckley were vigorously argumentative and conservative, they recognized the rampant individualism, self-centered rejection of altruism, absolute faith in the power of the marketplace, and arrogance, represented in the premises listed above, as fundamental dangers to society as a whole. They were particularly concerned about the undermining of altruism — that empathy for others which is an expression of generosity of spirit and a commitment to mutuality, and that serves as the basis for the social capital that binds us together as a society.1 M. Stanton Evans, a colleague of Chambers and Buckley, weighed in on the explicitly anti-Christian message of Ayn Rand’s version of these premises, appealing to Christian faith as a belief system "predicated on something more than mere survival."2

    These conservative criticisms of the set of economic and political premises I have enumerated could be seconded by critics in the ideological middle and on the left, of course.3 But perhaps the most trenchant criticism I have ever heard comes from an old personal friend of vaguely libertarian stripe. One day, he and I were having a discussion about altruism, specifically about whether it is right or socially constructive to give to someone in need (a panhandler, for example), or whether one might be simply enabling that person to remain dependent. He shook his head and said that while he could make some really good arguments against helping someone else in need, nevertheless he knew he had to do it.

    "Why," I asked.

    "Jesus told me to," he said.

    This is where I ended up, too.

    The interchange reminded me of something Garrison Keillor said about the Lutheran minister in Lake Wobegon. When the pastor was doing carpentry in his garage and he hit his thumb with a hammer, he was, said Keillor, somewhat limited by his vocation with regard to his vocabulary. So it also happens whenever we as Christians are confronted with the needs of others — needs that call us beyond our self-interests, needs that place on us burdens binding us one to another and obstructing our allegiance to various political premises that might otherwise appeal to us. Our vocation as Christians qualifies our responses. If we don’t like that fact, well, I guess that’s something we will just have to take up with the author of the Sermon on the Mount.

     

    1Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 198-221.
    2Ibid., 217.
    3See, for example, Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, ed. Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 43-48, 56-65; Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Basic Books, 1993); and Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).


  • Behold the Beauty of the Lord

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 10, 2016


    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    TOLImage010816The cotton fields that once lined the roads of East Texas between Lufkin and Dallas looked like row upon row of popcorn bouquets by late September, not long after which defoliating would begin. The crop dusters soon would come spraying their defoliants, and leaves would drop to expose the cotton for harvest. I remember the stark beauty of the cotton crops, the thick white tufts set in green foliage against a field of rich black earth.

    One particular drive along these fields stands out from the many. My grandfather and I were in his car. I can't recall how old I was, but I couldn't have been more than eight. We had delivered my grandmother to Dallas to stay a few weeks with her mother (Big Momma), and we were returning home. The little bronze Ford Falcon flew along the two-lane road, windows down. This was the early 1960s BCA (Before Conditioned Air). On the front seat between my grandfather and me lay a sheaf of music with a rock on top to keep the pages from blowing out the windows. There was music from all our favorite collections: Golden Steps, Stamps Baxter Quartet Specials, Happy Haven Radio Songs, and pages of sheet music for hymns and choir anthems. My grandfather, Bonnie Corley Fenley, directed music for the Redland Baptist Church, a nonpaid position in those days. He had a fine tenor voice and never met a musical instrument he couldn't master in an afternoon. He taught me to sing harmony.

    The indelible imprint of that hot September day is of an old man and a boy singing their hearts out, the laughter blending with music. I remember the wind and the love and the songs. I would have stayed in that front seat singing forever if I could have. I would have built three tabernacles right there if I'd known how. It was the house of the Lord on wheels with a standard transmission and dicey brakes.

    I suspect that the reason the highly technical theological doctrine of perichoresis, inherited in Orthodox Christianity from fourth-century theologians like AthanasiusBasil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, made perfect sense to me intuitively the first time I came across it in seminary was because of my childhood experience of singing with my grandfather. This doctrine can appear, at first blush, so abstract, the idea that three persons of the divine Trinity are in such a relationship of mutuality that they almost seem to flow into one another. Yet each person possesses full integrity, the Father as Father, the Son as Son, the Spirit as Spirit. This doctrine, for all its intricacy and sophistication, resonates with my simple childhood experience of love: The singers, a grandfather and grandchild and the music they sang together bear striking similarity (though the dissimilarities are striking too, of course) to the divine Giver, the Gift and the eternal act of Giving; the divine Lover, the Beloved, and the Eternal Love they share; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    Here is an "analogy of being" that never stopped holding true, even in the Barthian deluge of seminary. Hans Urs von Balthasar's soaring tribute to the mystery of the triune God, which I would not learn about until I was a graduate student, was fully prefigured for me that day as we drove along singing in that old Ford. Von Balthasar wrote about the primal reality of God's Being, which is not a "statically self-contained and comprehensible reality, but one that exists solely in dispensing itself; a flowing wellspring with no holding trough beneath it ... the pure act of self-pouring-forth." [Von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed (Spring Valley: 1990), p. 30]. Pouring forth, singing out, joy and love reverberated into the hot Texas breeze that flowed through that car and out over the cotton fields participating in the mystery of God's creative love that will never be contained.

    This reality, the reality of Reality itself - that God's being is in communion, that God's being is in becoming - seemed to me (then and now) concrete and personal and anything but abstract. The church's halting attempts to make sense of the living God as Trinity made sense to me because of the lived approximations of the God in whom I had participated (though imperfectly and unconsciously and after a creaturely fashion "through a mirror in a riddle") as a child. After all, I had sung with my grandfather. I had experienced deep in the marrow of my bones something of the truth of that life and love and trans-cosmic music that is the Spirit shared by God the Father and God the Son caught up in adoration, joy and mutual love.

    Others have done a fuller and more profound job of theologically reflecting on this reality, Eberhard Jüngel and John Zizioulas, among them; and at least one theologian, Jeremy Begbie, has performed a far more subtle and sophisticated analysis of how music and the arts reflect and give expression to God's being.* All I am really qualified to do is bear witness to what I believe I have experienced of this reality. And this experience began early for me.

    Years later, when I performed in jazz, blues and rock groups in high school and college, I discovered the deep magic of musical improvisation. Playing with small bands of musicians who created something among themselves at once practiced, disciplined, but also utterly new and unexpected every time we performed, I felt as though I was tapping into a reality at the heart of creation - this otherness, this beauty, this transcendence, this something indefinable and real woven into life by a prodigiously talented God who enjoys sharing with us and invites us to participate in creation. In many ways, I have always felt like a child trying to tap into the perichoretic wonder that I experienced while singing harmony with my grandfather. Recently, it occurred to me that my lifelong spiritual harmony has also always been an aesthetic journey, whether acknowledged at the time or not, a quest to behold the beauty of the Lord.**

    Sometimes my memories skip like a stone over the surface of the past, and I recall an evening when our youth choir played and sang for church campers on the banks of the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country. I recall the exultation, pure and sublime, that I experienced when playing piano for them. I remember the afternoon on a visit home from college, sitting in a darkened room playing blues guitar with my friend Ben, just before he joined the Navy. We traded riffs back and forth in a musical conversation. Remembering these and countless other moments, I realize that there is no way under heaven to express the deep rightness, the in in-sync-ness, I sensed in those moments. In those moments and hundreds of others, playing music with others, it was as though we were tapping into something beyond ourselves, some rhythm, some harmony or melodic line, some reality at the core of creation, something perfect and real and good.

    The stone skips across the surface of something deeper than we can imagine. It is the weight of the depth that makes the stone stay airborne, skipping again and again, before it takes its final plunge and disappears into the darkness waiting below. In those moments as the stone dances across the water, I know, every place we play becomes thin.


    *Eberhard Jüngel's Gottes Sein ist im Werden (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1965, 1986), and John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985, 1997) helped renew an awareness in theological circles of the dynamics of God's being as Trinity. Jeremy Begbie's engagement of Trinitarian theology with the arts is simply extraordinary, Voicing Creation's Praise (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991) and Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

    **This blog is extracted from a much longer essay of mine by the same title, which was published in A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets and Preachers, edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). Used with permission.


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