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Thinking Out Loud
  • Too Busy to Pray

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 05, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Redefining Faith

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 02, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Martin Luther's Christmas Day Sermon

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 26, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Reverend Jane Hays: In Memoriam

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 22, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • The Iron Entered Into His Soul

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 19, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    There. ... And turn to ...

    There it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • What the Dickens is Going on Here?

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 12, 2017


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

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

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

    Or do these Christmas stories exemplify goodness?

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

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

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


  • Lady Julian's Revelations

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 08, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    As Julian herself writes:

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


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

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

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

    As Julian herself says at the close of her Revelations:

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


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

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

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


  • Learning Leadership One Life at a Time

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 05, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Are You Having Any Fun?

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 28, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But HOW?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    So … "Are you having any fun?"


  • The Weight of Silence

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 24, 2017


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

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

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

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

    Why was he frightened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The great struggles all seem to happen in our hearts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • The Spirit of Antichrist

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 21, 2017


    The Spirit of AntiChristWhen I was a teenager one of my favorite games was "Pin the Tail on the Antichrist."

    Fundamentalist preachers up and down the country were busy identifying first this public figure then another as "THE Antichrist." They needed the Antichrist to appear in order to whip up enthusiasm for their “Second Coming” sermons.

    I began to grow suspicious about this game, first, because every year or two we seemed to get a new Antichrist. Then, I also noticed that Fundamentalist preachers who leaned Democratic (and, yes, they existed back then) always seemed to discover pachydermian Antichrists while Republican Fundamentalists unfailingly pinned the tail on a donkey.

    Perhaps the most entertaining Antichrist was introduced in the very funny novel that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett co-authored in 1990 titled Good Omens.* The novel is about two babies who are accidentally exchanged at birth; the infant Antichrist is taken home from the hospital by a nice suburban family while the innocent ordinary baby is raised by a demonic lot. Hilarity ensues.

    What most Antichrist antics tend to have in common is their global scale.

    Armageddon is often involved, as are sinister international organizations and fallen angels. But, today, I'd like to stay at a more mundane level, at the level of our ordinary everyday lives. I'd like to examine the spirit of Antichrist that rears its head close to home. Specifically, I'd like to explore what happens when we fool ourselves into believing that we can achieve good and gracious goals by employing demonic means.

    I would like to leave to one side for now all the (at least to me) offensive caricaturing of Jesus Christ which seem to have one thing in common: that is, remaking Jesus in our own image. There are plenty of people who want Jesus to represent their values and beliefs, whether he looks like a surfer dude with long sandy hair, a tenured professor in tweeds, a gun-toting vigilante in camouflage, or the marketing director for a Fortune 500 company. It's one thing to want to be more Christlike, and quite another to want Jesus to serve as mascot for our lifestyles.

    Today, I would like us to reflect on something so common, so very ordinary, it tends to slip right through the net of our consciousness.

    What does it mean that we set lofty Christian goals but fail to entrust them to means appropriate to those ends? What does it mean that we pay lip service to Christian virtues like love and gentleness but tend to regard them as weak when the rubber meets the road? What does it mean that we would rather demand that our faith serve as an apologist for vulgar and violent forces than to allow the Christian Faith to call perhaps unworthy goals into question?

    I raise these questions simply because it seems to me that when the way of Jesus is sacrificed for the sake of institutional, political or cultural interests, the first causality may well be the humanity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ. Through the waters of baptism we renounced the powers of evil, yet we appear to believe that we can keep them on speed-dial just in case love, peace and mercy don't get the job done.

    Sociology has a helpful distinction between "espoused beliefs" and "actual values" which I think is especially clarifying, although the distinction may make us a little uncomfortable. Among the "espoused values" of most Christians are a whole range of teachings of Jesus derived straight from the gospels. They include aspects of the mission that Jesus claimed for himself, "to announce good news to the poor ... to proclaim freedom to prisoners ... and recovery of sight to the blind ... . To release the oppressed." They include admonitions that are unqualified, for example, to refrain from judging others, to forgive others without limitation, to return good for evil, to care for the helpless, to welcome strangers, and to act at all times for the sake of mercy.

    I think most of us recognize these and other teachings of Jesus as the real thing.

    Yet, from time to time I hear sermons that attempt to prove, sometimes through the most elaborate exegetical and homiletical acrobatics, that Jesus didn't really mean what he obviously said. I've heard preachers try to justify judgment of others in the name of righteousness. I've heard ministers claim that Jesus wasn't really against violence, he just reserved it for special cases. Despite the fact that virtually all Christians would recognize that the Sermon on the Mount represents the authentic teachings of Jesus, I've even heard preachers who have claimed that Jesus' teachings are really irrelevant. What matters is not what Jesus taught, not the example he set, but the way he fits into their theology of redemption.

    I find such preaching refreshingly frank in attempting to reject Jesus' words and way in the name of another ideology, but I would find the preachers even more honest if they just admitted, "I don't agree with Jesus", or "I would rather not follow Jesus", or "I like the idea that he will get me to heaven, but I'm uncomfortable with what he seems to require on earth."

    Our "espoused beliefs" make us feel better about ourselves while allowing us to go right ahead and justify what we want to do. And, of course, our "espoused beliefs" also tend to be miles away from the "actual values" that guide our decision-making.

    While Jesus teaches us to keep a light hold on our lives, reminding us that to try to save our life is to lose it for sure, we cling to survival and self-interest in every way imaginable, and not just when it comes to preservation of our physical existence. We expend a great deal of energy constructing an image of ourselves to which we are capable of sacrificing virtually everything we say we hold precious and sacred. And, while Jesus teaches us to place our hearts on the kinds of treasures that endure, we tend to live our lives, to borrow a phrase from Don Henley, as though hearses had luggage racks.

    Our hypocrisy is well-documented. But that's not my point today.

    My point is simply this, again: How do we imagine we can achieve the goals of Jesus while pursing the means of Antichrist?

    If the spirit of Antichrist is hatred, violence, lust, bullying, greed, self-seeking, self-justifying, boastfulness, and vulgarity, then what is the Spirit of Christ? The Apostle Paul answered that question long ago by describing the "fruit" of the Holy Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). The fruit of the Spirit doesn't represent soft options in contrast to the strong options of violence and force; but the Spirit's fruit may cost us our lives. And what is required of us to bear this fruit is a whole different kind of courage than the kind necessary to demean or destroy others.

    Let's imagine what might happen if we acted as though the fruit of Christ's Spirit is more powerful than the spirit of Antichrist.
    ___________
    The novel by Gaiman and Pratchett is subtitled, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world's only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded).


  • A Bibliophile's Christmas List

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 14, 2017


    Bibliofile's Christmas ListIndependent bookstores appeared to be on the edge of extinction only a couple of years ago. What seems to be keeping the survivors afloat is the staff's knowledge of good books, their service, and a selection that takes us beyond the bestseller list. My favorite independent book shops include Carmichael's in Louisville, Kentucky; J.G. Ford on St. Simons Island, Georgia; Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee (co-owned by author Ann Patchett); and The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The books I recommend today (and the variety should satisfy at least some readers on your Christmas list) are undoubtedly available at an independent bookstore near you. If they are not on the shelf, just ask the staff to order them and rediscover the joy of anticipation.

    FICTION
    Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
    This is the most wonderful weird novel I believe I have EVER read. The review published in the New York Times described it as "a weird folk art diorama of a cemetery come to life." The word "Bardo" is a Tibetan Buddhist term for an intermediary state between death and one's final destination. Not Purgatory. Really, a sort of way station of the soul where you wait until you're ready to get on the train to your final stop. Saunders intersperses short pieces drawn from actual period newspapers with his fictional accounts and dialogue to draw the reader into the mental and spiritual world of a grieving president, his dead child, and a cast of the most bizarre ghosts you'll ever meet. Funny, soul-rending, joyful and profound: this novel is among the most original and imaginative grown-up novels ever written.

    A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
    My friend Scott Black Johnston sent me a copy of this book with the simple encouragement to "enjoy." It is the story of an aristocrat under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in an elegant Moscow hotel. Beautifully, even elegantly, written, utterly enthralling. About half-way through the book, I realized I was reading it too fast. I wanted it to last longer. So I started rationing myself a limited number of pages each night. I haven't felt that way about a novel since Anthony Doerr's brilliant, All the Light We Cannot See (which won the 2015 Pulitzer). If you buy this one for a friend, do yourself a favor and buy a copy for yourself, too.

    The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old (begun as a pseudonymous diary on the Website of Torpedo magazine), translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans.
    Enchanting, touching, and darkly funny. One reviewer said it is the best book about institutional life since Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Set in a Dutch Rest Home for the aged, 83-year-old Hendrik takes us on an odyssey of friendship and loss. The humanity of the narrator had me at the first page. His ability to deal with the many griefs and transient joys of aging, with subjects such as euthanasia, love and how to remain adventurous when life's boundaries constrict is remarkable.

    Silence by Shusako Endo, translated from the Japanese by William Johnston. Originally published in Japan in 1966; in English in 1969.
    Last summer, in the course of trading reading recommendations with my friend Don Frampton, he strongly recommended this book which is back on the bookstore shelves because it was recently made into a movie. The story is harrowing, but the truths embedded in it (complex, contradictory, and disturbing) make the journey through its pages more than worthwhile. The story is set in seventeenth-century Japan in the years after Christianity was forbidden there because of its ties to foreign control and European imperialism. The subjects of faithfulness and apostasy are explored through the eyes of Portuguese Jesuit priests who secretly have infiltrated the country. The book is riveting.

    NONFICTION
    Russia's Dead End: An Insider's Testimony, from Gorbachev to Putin by Andrei A. Kovalev, translated from the Russian by Stephen I. Levine, with a foreword by Peter Reddaway.
    Get ready to be disturbed by the account of modern Russian history by a high-level official who served at the heart of its government for thirty years, from the fall of Communism through the first years of the Putin era. Andrei Kovalev's father, Anatoly Kovalev, together with Edvard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev, worked at the heart of the Soviet government to launch perestroika only to see Gorbachev's stunning achievements unravel, partly due to Gorbachev's own miscalculations, partly due to the arrogant, autocratic, easily distracted and frequently inebriated Yeltsin, and finally due to the triumph of old KGB insiders who, under Putin, returned Russia to a non-ideological and thoroughly corrupt authoritarian regime. This is about as close to a must-read as you can get.

    The Trouble with Reality by Brooke Gladstone
    Written by the co-host of NPR's respected program, "On the Media," this essay (the book is only 87 pages) confronts what the author calls the "moral panic" of our time. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I have purchased over ten copies and given them to friends and family. In a chapter, "Lying is the Point," Gladstone quotes Hannah Arendt's depressingly relevant observation made in a 1974 interview: "... A lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie ..., but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people, you can then do what you please." I happened upon Gladstone's book a few days after reading P.J. O'Rourke's book, How the Hell Did This Happen?, a hilarious but also thoughtful series of columns chronicling the 2016 presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath. Gladstone is progressive in her politics, O'Rourke is a delightfully curmudgeon of conservatism. Surely one or the other (or both!) would satisfy the politicos on your Christmas list.



  • The World Within, Part 2

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 10, 2017


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

    World Within Part 2For St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine movement, the purpose of relocating himself to the backside of a mountain was not so much to get away from the world around him as it was, like the Desert Fathers before him, to remove any distractions that might keep him from paying attention to God and allowing God to anneal him in God's furnace of grace. In other words, the motives of the Desert Fathers and the motives of St. Benedict sound more like one another, and not so much like the motives that are driving many today to abandon a society that doesn't reflect their tradition, family or religious values.*

    Religious Worldliness
    The worldliness with which the early monks struggled in other words doesn't sound much like the worldliness I was taught to avoid in the church in which I grew up. I suspect this may be true for you too, whatever your denominational affiliation.

    Adultery and fornication were the really big sins of "the worldly," or so I was taught. But avoidance of adultery and fornication seemed mostly to do with not dancing and not drinking. Nobody really talked about wealth, social position or power over others as being aspects of worldliness, at least not in our church; mostly this was the case, I suspect, because these were such remote possibilities to the people in our church. There wasn't a wealthy, well-connected or powerful person in that little rural congregation. Frankly, I think the deacons would have been the first to join Tevye in a chorus of "If I Were a Rich Man," except, of course, the performance would have involved dancing. But there was a long list of other aspects of so-called worldliness. Worldliness also included gambling and cursing.  Smoking tobacco was not considered to be a sin in our church; the dads and deacons did that in the parking lot.

    Your church's characterization of worldliness might have looked different from the one I grew up with. But I'll wager (oops!) that the things considered tokens of worldliness were largely external acts that most of the church folk weren't much tempted to do in the first place and found it easy to avoid. Worldliness, in this sense, ironically, was determined by culture, the basic category of social existence in the world. The church in one time and place may reject as chief vices what the church in another time and place encourages as virtues.

    In her recent biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle (the remarkable wife of the literary lion and misanthrope Thomas Carlyle), Kathy Chamberlain demonstrates how new models of an emerging feminism in the mid-nineteenth century were causing social and religious ripples throughout European society. A popular novel of that time, written in Germany by Ludwig Tieck, described the conflict between the novel's heroine and the Church. The conflict was over her organizing of salons, evening gatherings in her home bringing together leading intellectuals and artistic figures.

    In the story, a group of Cardinals assembled to judge this cultured woman of the Renaissance who had transformed her home into a sort of think tank. Implying that the woman had degraded herself by indulging in such "worldly behavior," one of the Cardinals says that she has made "her home into a poetical academy, a rendezvous for foreigners and authors, a stage for the exhibition of public performances, poetical compositions, music and singing, and all sorts of offensive and unfeminine discussions, to which she gave the name philosophy."** The Cardinals left no doubt that she had committed a grave sin and opened the door to even greater vices.

    We Are the World
    Worldliness often seems to be in the eye of the ecclesiastical beholder, and the condemnation of some behavior as worldly has always been a handy way for religious people to try to undermine social changes with which they disagree. And, at the more personal level, the religious condemnation of some social changes as worldly, sinful, secular or at odds with "traditional values" provides a convenient way for some Christians to reinforce their own small-mindedness in the name of their faith while demonstrating that they are "holier than" some other "thou."

    Condemning the sins of others provides a convenient way to keep score. And this is exactly where the Desert Fathers and other early monks such as St. Benedict are so helpful for understanding our relationship with the world. They fled "the world without" in order to flee "the world within." They knew the world within was the more dangerous one. This is why they were dedicated to relentless self-examination under the grace of God. They knew what dangers they carried in their own hearts.

    The monks and hermits were aware that the man or woman who rode through the ancient city market in a litter borne by burly servants might be showing off an ancient version of conspicuous consumption. They understood that the person who wore rich garments of silks might be guilty of wasteful extravagance, that the person who lived enthralled to insatiable appetites for more wealth, finer goods and richer foods might be dangerously self-indulgent. But they also knew that worldliness was not limited to such examples. They knew that the monk who envied the rich and the hermit who hated them for what they possessed were drowning in their own worldly bitterness and sin.

    Worldliness is a moveable famine threatening the lives and spiritual health of everyone. Everyone. Everywhere. It follows us home whether home is in a city or on a farm, in a palace or in a cave in the desert. Simply fleeing to a cloister or an intentional community can't keep out the world. And a community of people seeking to live the same values, however sanctified, are in as much danger of worldliness as anyone living anywhere else.

    Tools for Living a Christian Life Wherever
    Some years after Benedict's initial attempt to escape the degradation of Roman society to live a holy life in isolation, a group of his neighboring monks came to ask him to serve as their abbot. Hesitantly, he agreed. But the arrangement didn't last long. These monks soon rebelled against Benedict and tried to poison him. Now THAT, my friends, is a leadership crisis in a congregation!

    Later, another group of monks attached themselves to Benedict. It was at this time that he established twelve monasteries consisting of twelve monks each. But, because of the envy among local clergy, Benedict abandoned this monastic arrangement too.

    Finally, he journeyed with a few monks to Monte Cassino, high in the central Apennines of Italy, about eighty miles to the south of Rome, to found his new monastery. This one endured, and became the model for cloistered monasticism thereafter.***

    When St. Benedict set down in writing his rules for living in community, he dedicated a chapter to describing the tools Christians need to live the kind of life God wants us to live, a life that focuses our full attention on God. One of the most interesting things about the tools he describes is this: They are as readily available to the woman who sits at the head of a board table moderating a meeting of her company's directors as to the monk who has taken vows to live a cloistered life. They are tools anyone can employ wherever they live and work. They promise to deliver us from the world within, not just the world around us.

    The tools start with: "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself." They include renouncing yourself, relieving the needs of the poor, not repaying a bad turn with another bad turn, and avoiding pride and grumbling. They conclude: "Never lose hope in God's mercy."

    My recommendation to Christians frustrated with living in contemporary society is to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" Benedict's "Rule." Here is spiritual wisdom as old as the mountains and deserts to which the monks long ago fled, but applicable no matter where we live and move and have our daily existence. It will repay our efforts a hundredfold. Our biggest challenge as people who want to follow Jesus is not "out there" (wherever "there" is) or "with them" (whoever "they" may be); our biggest challenge is dealing with "the world within."
    _________

    *As in previous blogs, I highly recommend Benedicta Ward's wonderful collection of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003). Also of interest are Thomas Merton's and Henri J.M. Nouwen's books on the Desert Fathers. I also recommend Esther de Waal's Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1984), which provides one of the finest and most eloquent expositions of Benedictine thought available.

    **Kathy Chamberlain, Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World (New York: Overlook, 2017), pp. 86-100. Ludwig Tieck's historical novel, originally published in German in 1843, was titled Vittoria Accorombona. One of the real world models for the heroine of the book was a fascinating and heroic woman named Rahel Levin Varnhagen, the Jewish wife of a German aristocrat. Her salons were the stuff of legend in nineteenth century Europe.

    ***The Rule of St. Benedict in English, edited by Timothy Fry, O.S.B. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1982), preface, p. 10, and pp. 26-29. I also recommend Brother Benet Tvedten's book, How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job (Brewster: Paraclete, 2006/2013), a resource which would be a great deal of fun to study in a book club or Sunday school class.


  • New York Values

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 07, 2017


    When Debbie and I reached the side door of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday morning, our old friend Scott Black Johnston was standing outside the door, eagerly awaiting someone's arrival. Not ours; though his bear hugs were as enthusiastic and all-embracing as always. Scott was waiting for His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

    New York Values 1Cardinal Dolan was at that moment headed from Saint Patrick's Cathedral, a couple of blocks down the street, for his historic visit to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. This was the first time in the 209-year history of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian that it had hosted a visit in worship from the city's Roman Catholic archbishop.

    On the way into the sanctuary we received the Order of Worship, the cover of which was decorated with the picture of a wonderful icon of St. Peter (symbol of the Church of Rome) and St. Andrew (the Patron saint of Scotland) embracing. After the joyful processional, the singing of the congregation (John Calvin's hymn, "I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art") and anthems by the choirs, our confession and assurance of pardon, and Scott's warm welcome, Cardinal Dolan stood to preach.

    Confirming the Cardinal's gregarious reputation, he began by telling the congregation that, on his way down the sidewalk from Saint Patrick's Cathedral that morning, he had been stopped by two young people who asked to take a picture of him. Touched, he posed. What a delightful thing, thought the Cardinal, two young people so pleased to meet the Roman Catholic Church's leading figure in the city that they would like a photograph of him. After they took the picture, however, the truth came out. They had no idea who Cardinal Dolan was. As they walked away, they shouted back to him, "Great Halloween costume, Dude!" If possible, the Cardinal laughed harder than anyone at his own joke.

    It quickly became clear that Cardinal Dolan was deeply touched to be asked to preach in this Presbyterian Church. A historian and an Irish American himself, he reflected on the often bloody conflicts between Protestants and Catholics through history. He said that, as a boy growing up in St. Louis, his family could never have imagined that a Catholic priest would someday stand to preach in a Presbyterian church such as Fifth Avenue. Yet, here he was.

    New York Values 2The Cardinal reminded the congregation that the Protestant Reformation of the church begun by Luther in the sixteenth century was not the first reformation of the church. Nor the last. There had been reformations for a thousand years before Martin Luther came along, beginning with St. Benedict of Nursia. Cardinal Dolan talked about other reformations before and after our own before reaching the climax of his sermon. The Reformation of the Church continues, he said, and can never stop, not in this world.

    The Cardinal told the story of a woman who met him at the doors of St. Patrick's one day after mass. The cathedral was, at that time, undergoing repairs and was shrouded in scaffolding. The woman suggested to the Cardinal that they should keep the scaffolding up all the time to remind us that the church is always under construction, always in need of repair. He agreed that it would indeed be a great reminder to us of the continuing need for reformation of the church. Then he added, however, that the scaffolding was much too expensive to keep up. Since Luther came along, there's no way they could sell indulgences to raise money. And there's no way bingo was going to bring in enough. And again he laughed.

    Between the laughter, and the historical and biblical insights, the congregation saw something truly remarkable: Two Christian leaders and brothers, and two Christian congregations, and two Christian traditions with every reason to look for what divides us, celebrating instead what makes us one.

    Someone is bound to say, "Sure, but this happened in New York City, not in a small town in the Midwest or the South." But maybe this is the point. Maybe there are times when we ought to engage in some of the so-called "New York Values" that get criticized from time to time by politicians. I note this in particular because while we were worshipping in Midtown Manhattan, on the Upper East Side another old friend, Michael Lindvall, the senior minister of Brick Presbyterian Church, was exchanging pulpits with the priest at St. Ignatius Loyola Church. Michael reports that both churches were packed, and after he preached, the Catholic congregation gave him the first standing ovation he had received in forty-one years in the pulpit.

    If Reforming might just come to mean re-forming, wouldn't it be a marvel to behold! I've got a feeling that the world may be waiting to see if that old song could be true: "They'll know us by our love."


  • Martin Luther Meets Jesus

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 31, 2017


    Luther RoseMartin Luther came to a religious calling via a thunderstorm on a sultry day in 1505. He was then, as the great church historian Roland Bainton has explained, a student of twenty-one years returning to the University of Erfurt following a visit home.

    Suddenly, a bolt of "lightning struck him to earth," Bainton writes. "In that single flash he saw the denouement of the drama of existence. There was God the all-terrible, Christ the inexorable, and all the leering fiends springing from their lurking places in pond and wood that with sardonic cachinnations they might seize his shock of curly hair and bolt him into hell." In a flash, Luther cried out to his father's patron saint (the patron saint of miners), "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk."*

    Luther's terror was driven by a conception of God that many of us will find strange.

    For Luther, God the Father is wrathful and vengeful, a God of fury and anger, and Jesus Christ is the inexorably righteous judge sitting upon the covenant rainbow, sword in hand. Even after Luther became a monk, he could not shake his terror at the thought of such a God.

    I suspect that he nearly drove his Confessor nuts. Dr. David Johnson, the distinguished historical theologian and friend, once told me that a priest responsible for hearing the confessions of nuns complained to him that it was like being stoned to death by popcorn. I imagine Luther was exactly the same with his Confessor. He was terrified that if he died with a sin - no matter how small - on his conscience, God would take pleasure in tossing him into hell. He confessed everything he could remember but was terrified his memory would fail him.

    Luther desperately tried to earn his salvation, shackled as he was to a strict understanding of "works-righteousness." And, yet, he saw the hopelessness of this approach. No matter how hard you try, you just can't do enough to make yourself good enough to deserve salvation, not if the God you believe in is an obsessive monster whose bloodthirst drives him to hate eternally those who fail to be absolutely, perfectly righteous.

    Luther had some wonderful teachers, such as John Staupitz, who tried in vain to teach him that God is love and that the response God desires from his creatures is love. But Luther, convinced of his concept of God the almighty and unmerciful, just couldn't believe it. And he surely couldn't love and adore the God he believed in. Who could?

    Even the sight of the crucifix frightened Luther. He fled from the vengeful Son of God hanging upon the cross and sought protection from the Blessed Virgin, the merciful mother of Jesus. In light of his understanding of the character of God, it is not surprising that Luther grew more and more depressed. He believed that all humanity deserved to be damned because all are sinners. Luther's scheme of redemption was based on the idea that God demonstrates his capacity to "love" by arbitrarily choosing a few sinners to go to heaven. On the other hand, God demonstrates his capacity for justice by sending all the rest of the sinners to everlasting hell. Luther himself bears witness to the injustice and cruelty of this scheme, saying that the God behind such a plan of salvation must be "iniquitous, cruel and intolerable," and, yet, Luther also believed that this God is God. Thus he says, "I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!"**

    It was about this time that Luther was assigned the job of teaching the Bible. He began to study scriptures very closely, lecturing on the Psalms in 1513, on the Epistle to the Romans in 1515, and on Galatians throughout 1516 and 1517. These studies proved transformative to Luther.

    Gradually he came to see that his understanding of God was at odds with scripture. Jesus Christ, for Luther, had assumed a pre-assigned role in his theology, but Luther had not really seen Jesus as he was in the Gospels. Even God had played merely a pre-assigned role in Luther's theological scheme. But Luther had never sought to understand God in terms of God's own self-revelation in Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible.

    Luther came to realize that God is love, as his teacher John Staupitz had insisted, and that the God of the Bible revealed himself as love in his coming to earth in Christ, living, teaching, healing, and ultimately dying at the hands of human beings without seeking vengeance upon those who killed him. In time, Luther would believe that we can only say about God that which God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As Luther said in 1518, a person deserves to be called a theologian who seeks to understand God, not through flighty speculation, but through the life and death of Jesus.*** In other contexts Luther said that if you want to know what God is like, run to the foot of the cross; run to the manger in Bethlehem.

    Martin Luther has probably spent more time on the couch of modern psychotherapy than perhaps any other theological figure. This can easily be overdone. But his crisis of faith, the personal-religious conflict he suffered for so long, the self-loathing and guilt he bore without relief, and the despair and depression that wore upon him because of his gruesome concept of God all likely played a part in his eventual break from Rome. There is no way to extricate his theological perspective from his personal. He and his theology changed together. As Paul Althaus once observed, "the knowledge of God is not theoretical knowledge but rather a matter of [a person's] entire existence."**** This is nowhere more true than with Martin Luther.

    When in October of 1517 Luther confronted his church, the Roman Catholic Church, with a series of arguments he wished to debate, one is struck by the energy of this remarkable man, by his passion and his creativity. The treatises he penned over just the next few years shaped the Protestant Reformation for generations after him (including the work of a young Frenchman named John Calvin); his translation of the Bible into vernacular German not only inspired the piety of a people, it helped forge a nation. Luther is a giant of a figure, taking huge strides across history. His mistakes are as enormous as his virtues. But it is impossible to imagine Christian Faith today without him.

    Irony upon irony meets us in the history of the church. Few ironies are stranger than the realization that the conception of God and the scheme of redemption that plagued Luther before his study of scripture was largely reproduced in the scholastic versions of Lutheranism and Calvinism that set in by the close of the sixteenth century. It is ironic that even the great motto of the Lutheran Reformation ("The just shall live by faith") would be truncated into a slogan that either excused the excesses of enthusiastic and pious antinomians or the lack of responsibility of those who wanted merely to excuse their knowingly unrighteous behavior. And, of course, it is ironic that the Reformation turned into an excuse to split the church again and again and again, although the reformers had intended to restore the one holy and apostolic church to its primitive purity.

    There's no way to go back, but there may be ways forward.

    Recently I was riding my bicycle past a Catholic Church in our neighborhood. The church's bells were playing a selection of sacred hymns. I stopped to listen. Some tunes I did not recognize. But one stood out. I knew it well.

    As the evening shadows lengthened that day, I stood amazed to hear Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God," ringing out from the bell tower of the Catholic Church.

    Strangely, I felt a surge of hope.

    ___________
    *This story is told with unsurpassed color by Roland Bainton in his classic life of Luther, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, 1950), p. 25.
    ** Bainton, p. 44.
    *** E.G. Rupp and Benjamin Drewery, eds. "The Heidelberg Disputation," in Martin Luther: Documents of Modern History (London, 1978), 28.
    **** Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia, 1966), p. 28.


  • The World Within, Part 1

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2017


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


    The World WithinThe Benedict Option
    There's been a lot of talk recently among some Christians about finding an alternative to contemporary society. Some people are discussing what it might mean to flee "the world" for the sake of their Christian Faith. One approach discussed is represented in the new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

    Dreher's alternative is not all that different in spirit from the perspective proposed by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon several years ago in their book, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, expanded 25th anniversary edition, 2014), although Hauerwas and Willimon are more sophisticated in their theological outlook and much more subtle in their ideas about how a "resident alien" interacts with secular society. Their perspective shares something of a theological stance discussed by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic study, Christ and Culture, under the category of "Christ Against Culture." So does Dreher's proposal.

    Evoking the name of St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), the founder of the first monastic order, brings a new perspective and fresh energy to this conversation, especially given the conservative social and political perspective represented by Dreher and the appeal of his proposal among some Evangelical and Non-denominational Christians. Indeed many people, and from a variety of theological perspectives, are seeking the sanity and balance of what are often called "intentional communities." And, while many of us who would not share Dreher's conservative politics and social agenda, his assessment of what's wrong with contemporary society or his understanding of a well-lived Christian faith, we would probably find some of his observations interesting, even compelling.

    When, for example, he writes of conservative Christians in America who define themselves almost entirely by being against "abortion and gay marriage" while accepting uncritically the "radical individualism and secularism of modernity," I find it difficult to imagine who among us might not agree with him. And when he goes on to say of his own Christian tribe, "We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it means to be Christian," not only would I say "Amen", I would want to take care to examine the beam in my eye. Dreher has listened to a lot of Christians, especially self-described conservative ones, in recent years who want to flee a society they see as increasingly hostile to "traditional values." (Dreher, The Benedict Option, p. 2) His arguments deserve our attention, whether or not we agree with his judgments.

    In light of the popularity of Dreher's new book (David Brooks, the New York Times columnist recommended it in a recent essay) and the conversations going on about his ideas, it seems to me a good time to revisit one of the great themes of the early hermits and monks of the church, many of whom sought to flee the world, to put behind them the tangled webs of human civilization, the deceit, the violence, and the vanity of the world they lived in.

    In particular, however, I want us to reflect on the motives these early Christians gave for the monastic flight, because I think motives make such a big difference in the efficacy of any action. And it seems clear that the motives of the early monks, including Benedict, were rather different from those articulated in Dreher's book.

    The Monastic Flight
    The first wave of Christians to flee society, the Desert Fathers, were leaving behind centers of culture where the church had traded its status as a forbidden and intermittently persecuted faith for that of an officially recognized and often favored religion. In some ways, therefore, their experience parallels ours nicely.

    Our American culture is certainly secular, in that it views faith as a matter of choice, an option which may be taken or left (as Charles Taylor has demonstrated), but if we doubt that Christianity (in the form Christianity takes metaphysically and mythically underpinning American civil religion) is the default religion of the contemporary American empire, we are kidding ourselves. If you'd like to test this argument, I encourage you to ask a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Hindu, or a card-carrying atheist what they think about Christianity's de facto role as the "normative religion" in American society.

    Contemporary American culture may only be superficially, conventionally, and reactively "Christian," in the sense of Søren Kierkegaard's anemic 19th-century European "Christendom," but that only makes it more like Byzantium in the days of the first Christian monks and hermits. But even more than this, Christians are not the outsiders, the aliens in America. Not by a long shot. They are favored and privileged. And it is fascinating, I think, and it is troubling, the way conservative Christianity continues to flex its cultural and political muscles while claiming to be a small persecuted minority.

    By the time that St. Benedict came along in the sixth century, social conditions in Europe and Asia had dramatically deteriorated. You wouldn't be speaking metaphorically if you said, of Benedict's time, that the Barbarians were at the gates. The "bar-bar-barians," as the Greeks mockingly named the northern tribes whose language sounded strange to sophisticated Hellenistic ears, literally were at the gates. In fact, they had already breached the gates. Rome had been sacked by the time Benedict was born. What was left of classical civilization was in tatters. And the church was splintered apart, shattered by controversies, schisms and heresies.

    For Benedict, to leave this mess must have felt like jumping overboard a sinking ship. Previous generations of Christian monks had mourned the worldliness of culture and civilization in cahoots with a favored and rich official church and had fled the world for the deserts. Benedict was fleeing a worldliness compounded by chaos in the church and violence everywhere.

    As many early Christians had already discovered by the time Benedict came along, however, it is one thing to flee Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria or even Barbarian hordes, and it is quite another thing to flee "the world." We can change our geography without changing ourselves spiritually. We can trade physical addresses and still have the same baggage, because we carry the world inside of us wherever we go. It is not only the toxins around us in our environment that threaten to kill us but the malignancies within. This is as true of matters of the spirit as of the flesh. The early Christian monks knew this better than anyone.

    More than one early monk bore witness to the fact that the most difficult pilgrimage wasn't over sea and land, but across the rugged terrain of the solitary heart. To be worldly might mean many things, including assessing the value of human life (our own and other human lives) based on how much one acquired and what one controlled: whether the "much" consisted of wealth and possessions, offices, power or authority, knowledge or even external virtues. To be worldly might have to do with dominating others, manipulating others, allowing our souls to become captivated by the forces that diminish creation.

    One might even say that it was the very impulse to keep score (spiritually speaking, to judge others) and to make an image of oneself (spiritually speaking, to worship a false god made of me) that was at the very core of worldliness. This is why pride is the biggest vice of all, and self-righteousness is such a deadly trap. Worldliness often does not look "worldly." Some of the worst aspects of worldliness can be disguised as piety.

    The early Christian monks sought to clear away the clutter in their lives so they could better pay attention to God. They sought to find a place where nothing could distract them from the "real" in distinction from the "illusory," the "eternal" from the "transitory.”

    The earliest monks went into lonely wilderness places so that they could narrow their focus to "God alone" (a phrase that echoes throughout monastic literature and history). Their renunciation of goods was intended to free them so they could face God with open hands. The fasts they undertook and the rigorous lives they lived were intended to discipline them so they would not feast upon one another in anger, jealousy and envy. But try as they might - and many of the early monks gave themselves to the disciplines of silence, solitude, prayer, contemplation, fasting and celibacy for decades upon end - they bore witness to the fact that the world was resident in them although they saw themselves as resident aliens in the world. And they never ceased to wrestle with the world within.

    It is true that a great wealth of wisdom and knowledge was preserved in monasteries, Benedictine and Celtic, through barbaric ages. And while much additional classical wisdom and knowledge, including vital scientific and medical knowledge, only came into Western civilization through Islamic culture, it is important, as Dreher points out, to remember the role Benedictine monasteries, especially on the edges of Europe, played in preserving the culture of the past.

    But this wasn't the purpose of the monasteries. And it wasn't the motive of the monks to preserve a set of values we might describe as "traditional." They sought to focus their entire lives on "God alone," an orientation of life and faith that would as quickly call into question a "traditional value" as it would any other thing that might claim our attention, our loyalty, or our worship. Their motive was not so much to keep the world out, as to discern God in the world.

    For those of us who have long been inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's belief that the time may be upon us for new forms of monasticism that focus our lives upon God alone, it is clear that any such intentional community is also grounded in a worldly Christianity, a faith in a fully incarnate God who created the world in love, never stopped loving it, and refuses to walk through it today holding his divine nose.


  • The Vow of Ongoing Conversion

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 24, 2017


    Ongoing ConversionThe first theological controversy I recall witnessing occurred over the backyard fence at my grandmother's house. She and Lilly Belle, her next-door neighbor, were having a discussion about the difference between Lilly Belle's church, the Redland Methodist Church, and my grandmother's church, the Redland Baptist Church. The two church buildings stood virtually back to back in our little East Texas village, and an outsider would have had a hard time telling them apart. I had often wondered myself why everybody didn't just go to one or the other of them. I had skin in this game because we had family in both.

    "I just don't understand, Cecil, how you Baptists can believe that your salvation doesn't depend on what you do at all." said Lillie Belle.

    "It does," said my grandmother, "but all we do is believe. God does the rest."

    "But the book of James says, 'Faith without works is dead,'" countered Lillie Belle. (These were the days of biblical literacy.)

    "Well, all I know is we believe that once you're saved, you're always saved," answered my grandmother.

    Swinging of garden hoes re-commenced with added vigor. These were formidable women.

    This conversation happened over weeding the garden. I was only a junior partner in the enterprise. And the conversation seemed a lot more interesting to me than the weeding.

    Obviously I have approximated the dialogue, in case you're wondering, but this was the gist of the conversation. Later, over iced tea, I asked my grandmother what the fuss was all about. She told me that Methodists believe you can fall from grace, Baptists don't.

    Several things have stuck with me from that conversation: Our faith is something that regular normal people can talk about. Neighbors can disagree about pretty big questions and still remain neighbors. And doing theology is a lot more fun than weeding the garden, at least it seemed that way to me then.

    Later still, I would be exposed to the distinction between those Christians who believed that conversion is a matter of having a "born again" experience (folks like Billy Graham, whose correspondence course on making a profession of faith I took at twelve) and those who believe that being a Christian is a slow lifelong process of nurture and maturation (like Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, who had been brought up as a Presbyterian). Frankly, I can see a lot of wisdom in both perspectives and can't imagine why one has to exclude the other.

    If I've learned anything in over sixty years of being a Protestant it is that they are wrong who say that "only good wood splits," and Protestants have become expert rail splitters. I wish we were as good at coming together as we are at going our own way. I truly am concerned that we will reach the point sociologist Robert Bellah once predicted when every single Protestant Christian will be a denomination to himself or herself.

    It was much later still in my life since the conversation between my grandmother and her neighbor that I came across another perspective on conversion that I've found to be very helpful. While it is perhaps less familiar to those of us who were brought up as Protestants (and may be unfamiliar to a lot of Catholics too), it is a cornerstone of the Benedictine and Cistercian monastic orders: the vow of the "ongoing conversion of manners" ("conversatio morum"). Thomas Merton has said that this is "the most mysterious of the three vows" monks take.

    Whereas the monastic "vow of stability" binds the monk to live and die in the particular monastery they enter, the "vow of ongoing conversion" is a promise that the monk will submit himself to a continuing process of change in light of God's grace, what Esther de Waal describes as "a commitment to total inner transformation." As she explains further: "Ultimately this is nothing more and nothing less than commitment to Christ's call to follow him, whatever that may mean." [Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 1984), p. 70.]

    More than merely a recognition of the inevitability of change in our lives, and more even than promising not to resist change when it comes, this vow represents a personal, individual devotion to change and to keep on changing as God keeps increasing our understanding of God, of others, and (perhaps most importantly) of ourselves. It reflects St. Paul's commitment to die daily so that he might continue to rise to new life in Christ.

    I find at least three things especially remarkable about this vow.

    First, it assumes that none of us has arrived.

    Second, it assumes that changing and growing is not unlike dying, which none of us really want to do.

    And third, it assumes that it is so hard to stay with this course of action it requires our taking a vow in the presence of the whole community to make us stick with it.

    I think the first point is pretty easy to recognize. None of us has arrived. Our redemption is wholly God's business, into which God invites us to participate. And we all know we've got a long way to go.

    One afternoon over drinks in a pub, an old friend, who was trying to make a point about sanctification, said to me, "I KNOW I'M A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH!" We both were probably on our second pint of Old Peculiar because I blurted out, "No. You're not a diamond in the rough, Bruce. You're a chunk of coal, and God's got a long way to go with a lot of heat and pressure before you're a diamond." We stayed good friends, but I seem to remember having to buy the next round.

    The image of the refiner's fire in scripture is disturbing, perhaps. Maybe we resist imagining that God will burn away the dross to render us pure. But, as someone has said, "Aren't there things about you that you long for God to burn away?" As a Protestant I may not recognize Purgatory as a place, but I surely recognize purgation as necessary to my ongoing conversion.

    This image reminds us that change, conversion, transformation are not painless. Transformation can hurt, sometimes a great deal. Conversion means turning from one thing into another. The humanity to which we are called lies on the other side of a multitude of daily deaths and a multitude of resurrections. New life lies on the other side of the holy fire of God's love.

    I remember sitting with my grandmother as she lay dying. This was the same grandmother who long before argued theology with Lilly Belle. My grandmother possessed a simple but deep and abiding faith in God. At one point, she said, "Oh honey, I just hate this dying. Being dead will be fine. I know I'll get to be with your granddaddy again. But, oh, this dying is awfully hard."

    So it is. The apostle knew this. When he inserts the reality of dying into the middle of Christian living, he takes seriously what he says. Dying is hard. It is frequently painful. It can be frightening.

    This often comes to mind when I meet our newest students in the seminary. They are almost always eager and excited. Usually their greatest apprehensions are about learning the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. But the real trepidation ought to be: To what shall I be asked to die in order to live more fully in Christ? As C.S. Lewis once observed, we all know that God will do the very best for us; we're just worried about how much the very best for us will hurt. The whole Christian life is like this, and not just once or twice. It is every day.

    Finally, the seriousness of this whole business requires that we take the most solemn, sacred vows imaginable and stick with them.

    I often think of something said in that marvelous play, "A Man for All Seasons." In the play, Sir Thomas More is pitted against King Henry VIII who is splitting with the Roman Catholic Church because they won't let him divorce and remarry. The king desperately wants More to go along with him, because More is known for his integrity. But More's conscience won't allow him to discard the vow he has previously made to satisfy the king's wishes.

    More is being badgered by his friends and family to go back on his vow in order to save his life. But More tells them, when you make a vow, you are making a promise to God. It is as though you hold your immortal soul in your hand. Can we expect a person to hold this lightly, casually? Vows aren't just pretty words you say on special occasions, they have eternal consequences.

    I can understand why we would have to be bound by sacred promises to submit our lives to continuing, costly, ongoing conversion, to "total inner transformation." Every day, what courage it will take to rise from our beds knowing that God will place in our paths opportunities to be changed forever; knowing, every evening when we lie down, that God will be ready again tomorrow morning to lead us to face we know not what. Surrendering ourselves not just to a single moment when our ticket is forever stamped, agreeing not just to try to be a better person, but vowing to die in Christ and arise anew each day.

    Of course, this vow which Benedictines and Cistercians take is already embedded in the vows we all take in our baptism. Baptism is an enactment of this vow.

    The next time we attend a baptism, just notice in the midst of the joyful celebration of the family, the beauty of the newborn baby and the pride of his or her family, just notice amid the lace and the water and the music, what is said in the vows. The promise to follow Jesus is there. So is death. So, also, resurrection. We promise God never to stop being changed by him.


  • The Hidden Beginning

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 23, 2017


    Hidden BeginningDriving along wooded byways, it is not unusual to come across a sign that says something like "Caution: Hidden Entrance Ahead." And, sure enough, I have periodically been startled by the appearance of the hood of a pickup truck peeking out between tall hedges as I careened around a curve.

    Consider this essay as such a signpost on the byways of Protestantism.

    Warning: Hidden Beginnings

    If there is anything we tend to miss as Protestant Christians it is the hidden entrances and beginnings of the faith we hold. This can be taken to extremes.

    When I was a boy, I went to my pastor to enlist his help in working on the Boy Scout's God and Country award.* My childhood pastor was a fine man and a very good minister, and I have admired him all of my life. He read the material I gave him on how to earn the Protestant award, but then he told me that there was a serious problem with the award. He said something to this effect: "Mike, we aren't Protestants. We aren't protesting against anything. Baptists go all the way back to the beginning of the church. Even when the church strayed from time to time, there have always been Baptists." Then he gave me a copy of a book that taught that Baptists can be traced through a "trail of blood" through the history of the church, not only back to Jesus, but to John the Baptist.

    Now, however wonderful my pastor was, his doctrine was, of course, simply historically inaccurate. "The trail of blood" was a mythology. What we call the Baptist movement today dates from the English separatists of the seventeenth century, not from the first. And although I never stopped admiring my pastor, it was decided that I couldn't proceed with the God and Country award because there wasn't an appropriate award for our church.

    The "trail of blood" mythology my pastor taught had one thing going for it, however. It did try to connect the Protestantism of today (and I apologize, Brother Bob, but Baptists are Protestants, too) with the centuries of Christianity that went before the Reformation. Among the problems we face as Protestants today, one of the gravest is the inclination to think that "our church" (in my case, the Presbyterian or Reformed branch of Protestantism) began in the sixteenth century when, in fact, the reformers themselves were very clear that they were reforming the Christian Church which was already then sixteen centuries old.

    When, as a seminary student, I was introduced to the full spectrum of the church's history, I was astonished by the range of experiences, beliefs, and wisdom that poured out of the abundant treasure chest of this (our!!!) rich, rich church history. Suddenly, I saw that the saints, sages and scholars of the Ancient Catholic Church, of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and of Roman Catholicism all around the world were our ancestors and our conversation partners just as much as were the Protestant reformers. And, in time, I came to realize that through the gift of faith, I also could say to my children, "We were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand." (Deuteronomy 6:21)

    I suppose I've never gotten over the astonishment of that experience. It has only grown.

    What a gift to realize that Gregory of Nyssa is as much a part of our Christian family tree as St. Paul, John Calvin or Elizabeth Johnson, or that John Bunyan can be read alongside Lady Julian of Norwich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And what an opportunity to draw upon the insights of Abraham Heschel as well as Thomas Merton. Christianity didn't begin in the sixteenth century with a German Augustinian teacher named Martin Luther. It began in the life and teachings of a Palestinian Jew who never ceased being a Jew. And the faith our founder represents, despite our worst efforts, is about breaking down the walls that alienate us from one another and from God, not about reinforcing them or (God forbid) erecting new ones.

    As I am writing these words, in anticipation of various Protestant celebrations around the world that will culminate in late October, it is actually still summer, and I am sitting not in my office on the campus of a Presbyterian seminary, but in a small room in the Retreat House of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside Conyers, Georgia. I am the guest of this community of Cistercian monks who spend their lives seeking to praise God, to work faithfully in their fields and in the chapel, and to live according to a set of disciplines that are more than fifteen hundred years old. They have welcomed me graciously and allowed me to pray beside them in the choir and to receive the blessing of their abbot at Compline each evening before we retire. They and their brothers at Gethsemani Abbey have taught me to learn from some Christian ancestors who were, until meeting them, only vague names on the pages of history books, ancestors like John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus. And they have taught me practices of faith that can nurture the "prospective aspect of redemption" of which I wrote in the previous essay.

    Today, as I watch the soft rain fall on the garden below and the wooded hills beyond, I am reminded once more of the vastness of the being of God to whom our little ways bear witness. If our Protestant Christian faith works to make our minds broader and our hearts more generous, then it has performed well its function as a doorway to faith in God. But if it closes us off into ever smaller ways of believing in ever smaller gods, thus making us smaller of mind and heart, then it and we have failed.

    As we celebrate the Reformation, I think this is worth bearing in mind.

    The world, after all, is not waiting and longing to hear about the history of our various denominations; the people of this world are waiting and longing to hear about the way of life that lies beyond the hidden beginning of this faith.

    So, let's do enjoy the celebration of the Reformation by all means. Everybody loves a good party. But remember, this celebration pales in contrast to the one we get to have every year on Pentecost Sunday!

    ______________
    * Now, parenthetically, I just want to say something about the Boy Scouts of America, even at the risk of chasing a rabbit into the tall grass. I loved scouting and was active in it from Tenderfoot to Explorer. I am an Eagle Scout. Order of the Arrow. I learned some of the most fundamental lessons of life from scouting. I learned reverence, tolerance, and openness to people who are not like me. There were gay scouts in our troop and they were respected. They were friends and fellow scouts. I learned respect for the faiths of others also. That's ultimately what the God and Country program was all about: teaching us religious literacy both of our own faiths and the faiths of others. I have grieved in recent years at the struggles this organization has had in finding its way back to its own core values, and I continue to hope that it will not fall victim to the polarized politics so common in so many corners of our society.


  • Mountains of Solitude

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 13, 2017


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

    Mountains of Solitude


    "Better the thousandth in love," wrote Evagrius Ponticus, "than one alone with hate in inaccessible caves." His warning was to monks, hermits long ago living in seclusion in desert places, but his proverb deserves our attention today.

    Evagrius understood, as he intimates in another of his proverbs, that living in solitude with love will purify a person's heart, but living alone with hatred only corrupts and agitates. To allow our memories to cling to grievances is like covering a fire with a pile of dry wood chips; eventually a conflagration is bound to break out. His advice is both spiritually sound and psychologically astute.*

    Evagrius received his theological education from Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus (two of the three theologians of the fourth century known collectively as the Cappadocian Fathers; they were largely the source for the third article of the Nicene Creed, on the Holy Spirit). Evagrius served as a deacon under Gregory in Constantinople. He was forced to flee Constantinople under a cloud of scandal involving a woman who is believed to have been connected to the imperial court. Eventually Evagrius became a monk in the deserts of Egypt where he was discipled by both Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria.

    Evagrius seems to have fled not only the shipwreck of Byzantine society, but the shipwreck of his own life.** But perhaps in this he demonstrated the fullness of God's providence because Evagrius brought to the desert a first-rate theological mind and the keen analytical intuition of a psychologist. And he turned both of these resources to the service of spiritual direction for the benefit of all those who sought God in solitude.

    In some past blogs I have dwelt on specific teachings which Evagrius shared, but in today's essay I would like to consider a larger subject. I want us to reflect on the origins and value of spiritual direction.

    One often hears, especially among some Protestant Christians, talk about the recent popularity of spiritual direction, as though it is a new thing. It is also common, in these circles, to hear complaints about the relative poverty in Protestantism of resources related to spiritual direction. Only gradually have Protestants discovered that the history of Christian spiritual direction stretches over some two millennia and always has been, in the largest sense, a catholic issue, that is, a matter of importance throughout the universal church, East and West.

    How one explores one's relationship with God, with creation, and with other persons, how one grows and matures in faith, how one engages in practices, corporate and individual, which nourish the life of the Spirit, and how one learns to resist those forces that erode one's spiritual life and one's humanity: these have been matters of spiritual direction since the earliest days of Christianity. And because spiritual direction operates at the junction of the most personal aspects of human life (emotions, thought, behavior, and relationships), it has always drawn upon sources of wisdom that cross all sorts of boundaries: theological and ritual, psychological and philosophical, ethical and political, to mention only a few. The pattern for spiritual direction was set early in the church by Evagrius Ponticus and another theologian who also spent considerable time in the wilderness of Egypt: John Cassian (c. 365-435 AD).

    Colm Luibheid, in his preface to the "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition of John Cassian's Conferences, sums up the core task of spiritual direction as he introduces readers to Cassian:

    "For in his way John Cassian is someone responding as he can to the old problem of what to make of the life one has. And that problem in its turn rests on the deeper one of making sense of whatever reality we have happened to meet. Is reality deeper than the farthest reach of our own perceptual capacities? Is this - what we encounter - all of it? The old question refuses to go away. It nags and worries. ... Can this be all of it?" (Luibheid, Cassian, p. xii)***


    Spiritual direction is about learning to live a genuinely human life alongside a wise companion. It concerns the big questions of life's meaning and purpose. That's why it touches on every aspect of human feeling, thought and behavior.

    Spiritual living is living with the "whence," the "why" and the "wherefore" of existence clearly in mind. Spiritual living is living mindful of the origins, terminus and ultimate ends of human life. Spiritual living is living with care and compassion. This is why spiritual direction begins not with a set of rules or a template that all must follow but with the person in direction, wherever that person finds herself or himself.

    Cassian and Evagrius entered into the way of the desert. They shared in the wilderness and spoke from within the experiences of the hermits and anchorites themselves. They understood that the monastics whom we call Desert Fathers were "located" emotionally, psychologically and theologically in the wilderness, as well as just geographically in a desert. These men and women were wagering with their whole lives that everything one sees in this world is an outward sign of an inward reality, that creation is a sort of vast sacrament through which God communicates life and nourishment and meaning with humanity. They believed that we cannot know this deep reality unless we cut ourselves off from everything that distracts us.

    In one of his most moving passages, John Cassian tells us that human beings can see God face-to-face, but only if they go off with him into "the high mountain of solitude." Only in solitude can we be liberated from "the entire swirl of worldly considerations, of worldly disturbances." (Cassian, Conferences, 10:6).

    Owen Chadwick, in his Introduction to this same edition, comments of Cassian's "method," if it may be called that. Chadwick writes:

    "The soul seeks the ultimate unity or oneness of the world, which is conceived variously as a spiritual or an intellectual entity. The soul seeks this One, which is permanence, unity, foundation of the universe, Being beyond all being, ultimate Mind. Its method of seeking is to strip itself of all distractions that turn the attention to anything lower in the scale of value, that is, everything not the One." (Chadwick, Cassian, p. 3).


    One may debate why Cassian felt it necessary to turn attention away from that which is all around us in creation in order to seek the One (if, that is, the One contains all things in its Oneness).**** But we cannot argue, really, with the logic that the various distractions surrounding us do have a way of preventing us from looking more deeply into reality.

    We have found so many ways to drown-out whatever we don't wish to bring to consciousness; even the most ordinary facts of life (for instance, death) go largely unacknowledged, ignored, or denied as facts within our personal experiences. Somehow most of us live as though suffering and death are common facts of life for "other people," but we act as though an exception will be made in our case.

    Anyone who has dedicated time to solitude and silence attending to one's heart knows the terrors which lie therein - and the potential for grace. In solitude and silence one is confronted with one's failures and flaws. They rise up before us in the forms of regret and guilt. But, surrounded by God's mercy, while encountering our sin, we also can know the freedom that only love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness make possible. In solitude and silence one allows reality's chickens to come home to roost - including the personal consciousness of death - but in a context in which we are able to entrust what we are to the hands of God.

    What we find in such solitude and silence is the "space" to sort out our souls in the presence of God. We find space to differentiate between realities, illusions and delusions, to let go of the obsessions and anxieties and the clinging that characterize life unskillfully lived, and to recover compassion for ourselves which, in the secret places of our hearts, is transformed into compassion for others. And it is here, in what Louisville Seminary's own Lewis Sherrill called "the struggle of the soul," that we sense our need for a companion in our spiritual quest.

    As Cassian and Evagrius teach us, we need someone to remind us of the truths we know and to make us attentive of the falsehoods that trip us up. We need someone to keep us personally mindful of the realities of which we are only generally aware. We need someone to encourage us when courage is thin on the ground. We need someone we trust to go with us into the wilderness. This is why we need spiritual direction.

    The greatest spiritual athletes of all time needed that. Certainly we can do with no less.

    ____________
    *Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399 AD) has often been compared to the Stoic philosophers because of the austere sanity of his advice. His thought is similar especially to that of Epictetus (c. 50-135 AD). Both taught the value of attaining an equanimity that cannot be shaken by life's inevitable ups and downs. But in several of his monastic proverbs, Evagrius arguably is even more like the Buddha (c. 563 - 483 BC), whose teachings established a psychology and a philosophy that nourish the life of the spirit. One of Buddha's most familiar teachings (though often attributed to more recent thinkers) is very similar to Evagrius' "Ad Monachas" 8-10, cited above. Buddha said: "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."

    **There is no better starting point for understanding Evagrius than the volume of his writings in the "Ancient Christian Writers" series published by Newman Press (New York, 2003). Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, translates Evagrius for this volume; he also provides an excellent introduction and commentary.

    ***The "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition of Cassian's Conferences (Paulist Press, 1985) is a joy to read. The combination of Luidheid's translation and his brief but eloquent preface and Owen Chadwick's superb introduction make this one of the most valuable volumes in this respected series. One can easily see why Cassian had such a huge influence on the development of monasticism, and why Christians continue to turn to him for wisdom.

    ****The Neo-Platonic worldview saturates the mysticism of the theologians of this period, though it is a Neo-Platonism baptized into Christian faith and subtly transformed particularly through the influence of the early Christian theologian, Origen. Hans Urs Von Balthasar observed that, "there is no thinker in the church who is so invisibly all present as Origen." [Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (Crossroad: New York, 1991), p. 130.] This is doubly true of the fourth century, though one can trace Origen's influence throughout the medieval period; and forms of Platonic idealism are stamped even on modern devotional writers like C.S. Lewis, and to some degree on theologians such as Karl Barth. How to conceptualize reality's ultimate oneness in spite of its apparent divisions and oppositions without resorting to Platonic idealism has remained a challenge for Christian theology and spirituality to the present day. But it is possible.


  • The Neglected Redemption

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2017


    Neglected RedemptionOne of the great insights of the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell was that the dominant Christianity of his native Scotland had reduced the meaning of redemption merely to a release from the penalties of sin. He called this the retrospective aspect of the atonement in contrast to redemption's prospective aspect.

    The distinction he made is crucial. It is one thing to want to be delivered from the consequences of our sin (retrospectively) and quite another to yearn to be delivered from the prevailing power of sin in our lives (prospectively).

    This neglect of the full range of redemption is perhaps the besetting sin of the Protestant Reformation (especially as envisioned by Martin Luther). Although John Calvin, a second-generation Reformer, worked valiantly to correct this problem, for centuries his descendants would continue to emphasize the retrospective at the expense of the prospective, especially because of the way this perspective was codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

    McLeod Campbell, as a young pastor in the town of Rhu, west of Glasgow, even went so far as to question whether it amounted to Christian faith at all just to ask God to save us from hellfire and damnation. If we are only adhering to a set of beliefs in order to save our lives, in the hope that adherence to a creed serves as a kind of everlasting fire insurance, then we are surely missing the core of the teachings of Jesus who taught, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:35) So said McLeod Campbell.

    McLeod Campbell paid dearly for his departure from the Presbyterian orthodoxy of his day. He was tried for heresy and deposed from ministry while in his early thirties, going on to labor for the remainder of his long life, serving the needs of the poorest of the poor in the slums of Glasgow. But he never swerved from his teachings.

    According to John McLeod Campbell, God is the ultimate loving parent whose heart's deepest will is for us to share God's own Spirit of love and life. Christ came to earth to empower the children of God to know and to live the love of God, showing us the way of life for which we were intended and sharing with us the Holy Spirit who would make that divine love possible in our own hearts. God does not suffer from a split personality, demanding the satisfaction of his furious anger with a sacrifice of blood to "make" God merciful. Rather, from the heart of the divine parent comes the eternal child of God who lived God's life of love among humanity and was slain by humanity in its fear, ignorance, pride and vanity. In the unjust death of Jesus, we look into the very heart of the triune God. And there we see divine love beyond all measure in God's mercy and refusal to retaliate. In Jesus of Nazareth we also see the life of a human being lived the way God wants us all to live. And we are drawn by the life of Jesus Christ and by the love of the Holy Spirit of God to live the human life for which we were created.

    Jesus Christ is not, in McLeod Campbell's view, just a piece of a theological puzzle. Jesus Christ is not just another cog in a theological machine; just another doctrinal ingredient in a vast interlocking system of theological propositions. Jesus Christ is the love and life of God in human flesh. Christ's teachings about the life we are called to live matter as much as the life he lived. And the life Jesus lived matters as much as the divine mission on which he was sent, to unite in himself humanity and God.

    The proof, we say, is in the pudding. The life lived by McLeod Campbell argues more eloquently for the faith he held than anything he might have said.

    When, at his trial before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the full force of the most radical interpretation of federal theology within the Westminster Confession of Faith was brought to bear to condemn him, McLeod Campbell appealed to the verse of scripture that many of us learned first as children: "God is love." The point he wanted to make was that God is love, fully and eternally in his being; God does not merely love arbitrarily this person, whom God created to demonstrate his capacity to love, while eternally and arbitrarily God hates that person whom he created for no other purpose than to demonstrate his capacity to punish sin with eternal damnation. But when McLeod Campbell appealed to the Bible, quoting the Epistle of First John, his interlocutors cried foul. It was, they said, out of order to quote scripture at his trial before the General Assembly because the church had previously determined that the Westminster Confession definitively provided the interpretation of what the Bible means.

    McLeod Campbell's defense rested in his assurance that God would provide, no matter what his church decided. And when McLeod Campbell was declared a heretic and was deposed from preaching any longer in the Church of Scotland, rather than establish a rival denomination or wage a holy war against those with whom he differed, he simply turned his attention to the needs of others. By living among and serving those in great want, he sought to live the life to which Christ had called him. In those years McLeod Campbell wrote extensively, including what many consider the greatest book on the atonement of his time. And his thought was spread abroad influencing the next several generations of young ministers and theologians in his church, so much so, that before the end of his life, the Church of Scotland officially repented of its action in deposing him as a heretic.

    The Protestantism into which many of us were born and which has nurtured us throughout our lives has given us many great gifts. But as we observe this year the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement, and as we remember the significance of Martin Luther's great insight that "justification is by grace through faith," often rendered as "justification by faith alone," it is appropriate to remember that this doctrine is not the whole, it is not the entirety, it is not the comprehensive measure of the message of Jesus Christ.

    Not only are we released from the consequences of sin (retrospectively) by the grace of God, we also are called (prospectively) to live in the Spirit of Christ as we go forward. The retrospective view of redemption shows us only in part the magnitude of God's grace. To understand the wonder of that grace in full we must look forward, following Christ into the humanity to which he calls us, whatever the consequences may be.


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