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Thinking Out Loud
  • Good News for Everyone Who Tries

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 17, 2012

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

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

    “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

    It is even beyond our vision.

    We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction

    Of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

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

    That the kingdom always lies beyond us.

    No statement says all that could be said.

    No prayer fully expresses our faith.

    No confession brings perfection.

    No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

    No program accomplishes the church’s mission.

    No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

    This is what we are about.

    We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

    We water seeds already planted,

    Knowing that they hold future promise.

    We lay foundations that will need further development.

    We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We are prophets of a future not our own.


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

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

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

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

  • The "Nones" May Have It Right

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2012

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


    “No he wasn’t,” Blackadder responds.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

  • Seven Words

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 02, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hey, that’s seven words!

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

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

    [iii]Ibid., 152.

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

  • Humus for the Soul

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

  • We Have a Solution!

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 18, 2012

    Within the past week or so, editorials in the Wall Street Journal and on the Huffington Post have sounded the alarm about rising indebtedness among seminary graduates. Both articles cited a major study undertaken by The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.

    David Briggs, who writes a regular column for the Association of Religion Data Archives, writes: “what began as a critical problem for a small percentage of prospective clergy is reaching alarming levels…. It is not enough that growing numbers of clergy with burdensome loans report having to put off for years the ability to get married and start a family or buy a house. Or, in an increasing number of cases, face bankruptcy. Now, graduates wanting to explore a religious vocation may be ‘too poor to take the vow of poverty.”

    At the same time that educational costs for all post-secondary education have risen, wages for clergy have remained static and in many cases have dropped dramatically as congregations have been squeezed by the economy. Incidentally, we all agree that during the same period we have expected much more from the clergy we call. We expect them to be enthusiastically entrepreneurial. We expect them to become leaders in and boosters for the communities in which they live. We expect that clergy will provide the first line of care-giving for everything from social services to marriage and family therapy. We want them to be motivational speakers, spiritual directors, imaginative providers of new and exciting programs to build the moral and spiritual lives of our youth and children, and to be capable managers of well-run religious institutions. We want all this and more because our congregations remain among the most essential components of every vibrant community in the country and these are the gifts and skills required to keep congregations strong. And, we expect all of this from clergy while their median pay, according to the U.S. Labor Department for these amazing professionals is about $44,000 a year. In many places, it is much, much less. Indeed, many clergy today can only afford to serve congregations because they have other jobs.

    It is not uncommon for us to justify the high expectations at low pay by saying that those who serve in this profession do so out of “a sense of call.” And this is true. But the fact remains that “a sense of call”does not pay the grocer, or the medical bills, or a mortgage, or put money in the bank for kids to go to college. And, to return to the subject at hand, a huge proportion of these dedicated people called to serve our churches in a rapidly changing, high expectation profession have to enter this calling with crushing educational debt.

    We at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary have a solution to the problem we are hearing so much about, a solution that will work.

    Last year, our Board of Trustees, acting on the recommendation of a visionary Strategic Planning Committee drawn from our Seminary community, undertook to solve this problem. Over the course of the past year, we have been crunching numbers, developing critical path scenarios, and laying out the steps we must take to achieve The Covenant for the Future Scholarship Program.

    By 2015 we will no longer charge tuition to any student we accept into any of our Masters Degree programs. By 2021 we will ensure that all students in our Masters Degree programs will also be housed at no cost to them. Our goal is simple: to place in ministry a generation of well-educated, well-prepared women and men free of seminary debt so they can serve wherever God calls them.

    When I went to seminary in 1976, right out of college, just married, the seminary I attended gave me this gift. I paid no tuition. Our modest (some might say, Spartan) apartment cost us $100 per month including utilities. When I graduated from seminary, like nearly all the other seminary graduates we knew, we were poor. But we were well educated and well prepared to serve the church, and we were free to go wherever God might call us, because we weren’t toting a load of debt.

    It was possible for my seminary to do this, in large measure, because of the support they received from the denomination. Today our denomination’s contribution has fallen to less than 1% of our seminary’s annual budget. Now, more than ever before, our seminary relies on dedicated congregations and devoted individuals to help us educate the next generation of pastors, ministers, counselors, and Christian educators.

    We have the solution to the most widely discussed problem in theological education today. We have a solution that is do-able. And we need your help to make it happen.

    As I stand on the threshold of my third year as President ofLouisville Seminary, I am more encouraged than ever about the future of our church. The God who calls us is doing marvelous things across the globe. The people being called into ministry today, including the people who arrive on our campus each fall, are among the most highly motivated people I have ever encountered. They are confident about the ministries to which God is calling them. I am encouraged because of these factors, and because of one other: I am encouraged because of the support and enthusiasm with which the The Covenant for the Future has been received. With your prayers, with your encouragement and with your financial support, we will not only solve the problems before us, we will leave our church and its ministries better and stronger for future generations.

    Won't you covenant with us to support the future leaders of our church - wherever God calls them?

  • Visual Echoes

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 11, 2012

    The scene depicted in Andrew Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is from the Old Testament, portraying a pivotal moment in the story of Abraham. The passage from Genesis reads: “Now the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please
    let a little water be brought and wash your feet,          Andrew Rublev, Trinity, 1425
    and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will
    bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.’ And they said, ‘So do, as you have said.’” (Genesis 18:1-5, New American Standard Version)

    Sarah baked cakes, and Abraham served his guests veal. This was the visit when Sarah laughed after receiving the news that she would give birth at an extremely advanced age. And the visitor asked the question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” So much of Abraham’s story, not least the command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, lay in the future on that day when he offered hospitality to the three mysterious strangers whom he recognized as “the Lord,” thus transforming simple hospitality into worship.

    On one level, the icon conveys this story from Genesis: in the foreground are the strangers seated around a table, which holds a vessel cradling Abraham’s offering; in the background are Abraham’s dwelling place and an oak tree. But, on another level, this masterful icon, painted in 1425 in memory of the Russian saint, Sergius, also conveys the presence of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reminding us that the mystery of the incarnation is a mystery grounded in human experience— or, to put it more exactly, a mystery of God’s encounter with humanity. Through its visual echoes, the table of Abraham’s hospitality becomes the Table of Holy Communion. The dangerous command to sacrifice unborn Isaac is prefigured, the sacrifice of this beloved son presages that of another, and a Prodigal’s feast, fatted calf and all, is offered to a wandering God. We, and all of creation, are symbolically placed at this table in and through the central figure, Christ, who clearly blesses the sacrifice. Henri J. M. Nouwen, in his remarkable exegesis of this icon, describes its meanings within meanings, observing: “Through the contemplation of this icon we come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle.”[i]

    Recently, at the close of a day’s visit at the Abbey of Gethsemane, the Cistercian cloister where Thomas Merton once lived, about an hour south of Louisville, I went by the abbey bookshop where I bought a copy of this icon. It was not until I went home, however, that I discerned a new echo – not within this icon or between it and the biblical story of Abraham – but between it and a contemporary art exhibit. This echo may be entirely serendipitous. Not an echo at all, but only a coincidence. But it is so striking that, intentional or not, I felt compelled to share it. And, to share it properly, I need to relate a story.

    Some years ago, Debbie and I were touring the newly constructed Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, when I came upon Bill Viola’s video/sound installation, The Greeting (1995). The installation is described by the museum as a “color projection on large vertical screen mounted on wall in darkened space, amplified stereo sound, 111 X 95 inches (image).”

     When I approached this installation, my    
     first thought was, “What the heck?” or 
     something to that effect. There was a sound
     like rushing wind, three women meet; words
     (the sound) are exchanged. One woman is
     young. Another is older. A third woman
     participates. My thoughts immediately went
     to the visitation of Mary, mother of Jesus, to
     Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke
     1: 39-55). The "visitation" has been
     represented in scores of paintings
     throughout history (the Jacopo Pontormo, is
     particularly resonant in relation to Viola’s
    and, according to the artist, was
     the inspiration for the video).                                                        
    But, of course, the video might just as easily only picture an utterly non-theological greeting, a possibility made even more likely by the presence of the third woman, as Viola himself has said. He was attempting to capture a “social” moment, not so much a “religious” one, though the genesis of inspiration occurred in relation to a religious painting. This installation worked on me the way really good contemporary art always does: it grabbed my attention, held it, and required that I engage it at an intellectual and emotional level. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my head. When I recently came across a photograph of one of the key moments in the video, the three women in the midst of the greeting, I purchased the photo, took it home, and placed it on my dresser. It was a few weeks ago when I brought Rublev’s icon home from Gethsemane and placed it on the dresser next to the Viola that I saw the visual echo—the perhaps (probably?) unintended connection between these two pieces of art.

    The figure in the middle of both pieces of art is the most crucial. This figure, the Christ and the woman in the center, both clothed in blue, hold the compositions together, and through them produce a dynamic of community, and drama. The eyes of all three figures, in each work, connect the figures, their hands extending the communion, and the tension. Events are prefigured, shrouded in mystery. And we are, I think, included in both pieces, in the Christ (theologically) or through the mysterious hole cut in the table (symbolically) in the Rublev, and perhaps in the figures other than the women, just out of the picture down the dark street in the Viola.

    Do we have here in Viola’s installation an echo of the Rublev, anymore than we have a representation of Mary and Elizabeth’s greeting? Or do we have here only a beautiful coincidence? The three figures in the Rublev both are and are not the Father, Son, and Spirit. Rublev intended this multiplicity of meaning. The women portrayed in Viola both are and are not Mary and Elizabeth. But can they be more?

    The human brain has a remarkable propensity to discern patterns. Human beings are meaning-creating creatures. We make connections, even where there are no deliberate connections.

    So, maybe, there are no intended echoes between the Rublev and the Viola. But do connections, echoes, resonances, theological and otherwise, require authorial intentionality to be real? There is a poetic function to art that leads me to believe that sometimes the answer to this question is a resounding and promiscuous “no.” But, it is a qualified “no,” however, resounding and permissive. The visual arts offer texts for reading. These readings may be multivalent; but the texts are not infinitely malleable. And we cannot arbitrarily place our own meanings upon them without doing real damage to their interpretation. An exception to this rule of thumb, of course, lies in the nature of the visual texts themselves. There are times when the artists intend to draw from the viewer his or her own interpretive involvement. For now, I am placing these two pieces side-by-side on a shelf in my study, in part because I feel an echo here, but, in part, to caution myself against making too much of what I perceive.


    [i] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1987), 21.

    [ii] Interview with Bill Viola, www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/13


    Bill Viola, The Greeting, 1995, Video/sound installation, 430 x 660 x 780 cm. Color video projection on large vertical screen mounted on wall in darkened space; amplified stero sound. Performers: Angela Black, Suzanne Peters, Bonnie Snyder. Production Still, Photo: Kira Perov. Used with permission.

  • They're Called Students

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 04, 2012

    Some years ago while I was serving as dean of another theological school a controversy arose that has helped clarify some core educational issues for me. A member of that Board of Trustees with a distinguished record in the upper echelons of the military and in corporate management pressed our school's administration and faculty to change the way we referred to those people who attend our seminary. He insisted - and for some time with some success - that we stop thinking of them and treating them as students and start calling them customers.

    This trustee reflected a cultural shift. We have seen it in hospitals and airlines, for example. Overnight, in some places, patients and passengers became customers. I believe it represents, basically, an attempt to instill a genuinely positive value. A customer purchases a product. A customer should be able to expect that the goods they are being sold are what they are paying for. I think this trustee was attempting to instill a level of accountability which he felt was lacking into higher education. But, of course, despite the positive motives, there are all sorts of values that came riding in piggy-back on the customer metaphor, values expressed in phrases like: "The customer is always right." And: "You've got to keep the customer satisfied." These values have a way of putting a strange spin on the educational process.

    I can't speak for law schools or medical schools, but I can say with some authority that the very process of theological education is not primarily about the transmission of information for which a customer pays. It is a matter of the transformation of people. And transformation is an often uncomfortable process.

    When I entered theological education almost twenty years ago it was as a director of Supervised Practice of Ministry. I was responsible for developing and overseeing programs in congregations and clinical settings in which students would practice the varieties of ministry for which they were being trained under close educational supervision by experienced pastors, chaplains, therapists and social workers.

    The placement of students in the right settings required that we do careful assessments of each of them to discover the areas where they needed to grow if they were going to become competent ministers and leaders. Practically speaking, this process often meant that I placed students in educational settings that they would never have chosen for themselves, indeed, would have avoided if they could.

    One crisp fall morning, I was standing at the blackboard before students arrived in the classroom. It was the first day of class in the new term. Students were returning from their summer supervised ministry experiences. I didn't notice that one student had already made her way quietly into the room and was waiting until I finished writing on the board before speaking. When I put down the chalk and turned around, she said:

    "Do you know that I have been angry at you all summer?"

    "No," I replied.

    "Well, I have been. The CPE program you assigned me to was a nightmare."

    I knew it would be. This particular Clinical Pastoral Education program was in a tough county hospital in Dallas, Texas, about a million miles from the tony neighborhood this student had grown up in, serving a population this student had never before met. The program had a brilliant supervisory staff and a great reputation for clinical supervision. I knew it was perfect for her when I reviewed her pre-placement assessment and interviewed her.

    "Do you even care that I am angry at you?"

    "No." I said, "I care more about your education as a minister than your personal feelings about me."

    That was not the response she expected, but I meant those words from the bottom of my heart as a teacher.

    It took some time for this student to unpack her experience in CPE. In fact, it took a semester of her senior year. She talked often to me, to other students, to her other professors and her pastor. And she learned and grew into a superb minister and congregational leader.

    If I had treated her as a customer, I might have backed off on sending her to that particular CPE program when she objected. If I had considered her a customer, I would certainly have been duty-bound to try to make her happy, rather than to place her in a situation that was guaranteed to make her uncomfortable. But she was not a customer; she was a student - and not just because of the amount of scholarship dollars she was receiving from the seminary.

    She was a student and she deserved to be treated with the dignity of a student, which means she deserved to be granted the expectation that she would be not only informed, but transformed by her educational experience.

    During the last few years we have all read the stories of institutions of higher education under tremendous financial stress. And in times of financial stress institutions are compelled to do all sorts of things. Some of those things we are forced to do actually can make us better schools, more efficient, more effective, more flexible and responsive to the changing needs of the society around us. But some changes pressed upon some schools have nothing to do with their core mission of educating people as well as they possibly can. Among these changes, one that stands out is a simple change of name which signals a profound change of role, from student to customer.

    The people attending our schools deserve not to be called customers. They deserve to be called students. For the sake of their education, and for the sake of the vocations to which they are called, we owe it to them to resist the fads and call them by the right name.

  • Gratitude

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 28, 2012

    Early one morning this summer I was sitting in our den, looking out the window, enjoying the activities in the backyard. I had just put out new birdfeeders and the seeds had attracted an amazing variety of birds -- as well as a few squirrels. As I sat there, the morning light slowly brightening the yard, in the company of some of God’s most beautiful,
    delightful and funny creatures (squirrels are nature’s clowns), I began to pray.

    My morning prayers follow a simple pattern, borrowed generally from St. Ignatius of Loyola. One of the basic principles of St. Ignatius’s approach to prayer (and, indeed, to his understanding of all of life) is gratitude. As Ignatius said, “All the things in this world are gifts from God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily. As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us to develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.”[1]

    The first step in prayer, following his pattern, is to be still and engage in thanksgiving to God.

    That morning, a sense of gratitude came as easily as breath to my body. This is not the case every day, I am ashamed to say. There are days when, going through the exercises prescribed by Ignatius, my spirit feels stiff and achy, and a sense of gratitude comes grudgingly. My prayers of thanks on such mornings can be pretty wooden. But that morning, gratitude flooded my consciousness, and left me feeling … well … overwhelmingly grateful, grateful that God’s grace and love can break through and remind us that God has given us all things and that all things God has given us are good.

    We all know prayers of St. Francis, and these, especially “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” are among the most beloved prayers in the Christian treasury of devotion. I am just now discovering the prayers of Ignatius of Loyola, and I am finding them particularly powerful and challenging these days. This summer I have come to appreciate the following prayer:

    “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

    My memory, my understanding

    And my entire will,

    All I have and call my own.

    You have given all to me.

    To you, Lord, I return it.

    Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

    Give me only your love and your grace.

    That is enough for me.”

    Gratitude really is nothing less than a proper and proportional response to life. It is the starting point for a life well lived, as St. Ignatius understood.

    This is true not only of gratitude to God, but to other people.

    Someone has said that the most powerful position anyone can assume in any group is the position to say, “Thank you.” This may be true, but if it is, it has the potential to redefine power in our culture, to flip conventional notions of power on its head.

    It occurs to me that the capacity to say, “Thank you,” is most like the power to bless. In a society where cursing has become almost a national pastime, I cannot imagine a more appropriately countercultural action for followers of Jesus of Nazareth than this, to live our lives in a posture of thanksgiving, expressing gratitude to God and to others, taking every opportunity we can to bless others.

    Today, I am thankful for my colleagues at Louisville Seminary who edited and published our weekly “Thinking Out Loud” blog this summer. I want to thank Carolyn Cardwell, Bridget Couch, Susan DiLuca and Sue Garrett, in particular, for all they did. I especially want to thank my friends and colleagues who contributed a series of fascinating and stimulating blogs over the past several weeks: Gene March, Pam Kidd, Bridgett Green, Shannon Craigo-Snell, Heather Thiessen, Lewis Brogdon, Terry Muck, Cheri Harper, Cheryl Goodman-Morris and Kathryn Johnson. Thank you all for providing us with your insights.

    If you missed any of these blogs, I encourage you to check out our archives and retrieve them.

    Finally, I want to thank you, the readers of “Thinking Out Loud.” Thank you for tuning-in each week. Thank you particularly for the fascinating reflections and replies you have sent me during the first two years of our project. I promise you that we will do the best we can to make sure that “Thinking Out Loud” is worth your time.

    [1] This paraphrase of “The first principle and foundation” of St. Ignatius is attributed to David L. Fleming, S.J.

  • When Memories Become Prayers

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 21, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Kathryn Johnson. 

    One of teaching’s joys is an assignment that turns out better than hoped. Papers from my Augustine course this spring were such a delight.

    Augustine (born 354, died 430) was a prolific North African theologian with great influence on both the Middle Ages and Reformation. Our class read carefully through his Confessions, an unprecedented work of extended prayer from which we know, with intimate directness, his life, his failures, and his faith. Students then wrote about an experience which they could “confess” in a similar way: addressing God but mindful of a community of other “hearers,” in dialogue with the scriptures, and with some reflective distance from the events.

    The results were, as one student said, “magnificent.” Some were lighthearted explorations of personal foibles that made everyone chuckle with recognition; others were poignant examinations of long-held regrets or enigmas that united us in tears; a few were both at once. We parceled out the reading among several class sessions to delay coming to the end.

    Why were they so powerful? I’ve reflected on this question as delays in summer travel brought me two “quick reads” from airport bookstores: a new memoir, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and a prizewinning novel, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

    Many of us expect from Joan Didion an unwavering narrative vision and unmistakable crisp but mournful tone. We can awaken worried about the destinies of her characters in, for example, A Book of Common Prayer. As she put it in another title, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But in Blue Nights she blinks. She sets out to write about the death and life of her only daughter Quintana Roo, as she had written unforgettably about her grief at her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking. This is a more desperate story, however: she is frailer now and already bereaved; her own death looms closer; she did not expect to outlive her child. In the end, the sharply-remembered details do not convey the distinctive reality of her daughter’s personhood but obscure it, as Didion drops names of clothing brands, famous friends, and more famous hotels. At the end we are uncertain not only about what caused Quintana’s death but also about what passions defined her life.

    Questions raised by The Sense of an Ending are of course different – the narrator Anthony is fictional. It is, however, the same sort of terrain: the back cover promises a “brilliant, understated examination of memory and how it works, how it compartmentalizes and fixes impressions to tidily store away.” The late-middle-aged, understated Anthony tells us how he has received new information which casts doubt on the love story of his youth as he has always told it, to others and to himself. There is, he says in the final words, “accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” But that is precisely where the novel ends: Anthony has devoted most of his time with us to relating his story as he has always told it, even though he alerted us from the first that this telling is inadequate. We do not close the book confident that he will now go on to explore the implications of what he has discovered – despite his “great unrest.”

    Now, in light of these elegant, thoughtful, and ultimately unsatisfying books, the question returns: what made the confessions from the Augustine class so magnificent? Most simply, I think their strength lies in their character as prayers. They were stories self-consciously told not only in God’s presence but also to God first, with others given the privilege of listening in. The context of grace was already given; the One who invited the confidences knew already how the story had turned out – and beckoned to a future of forgiveness and closer relation. Thus self-searching could be less guarded, could perhaps laugh at itself, and surely could take more risks.

    “You have made us for yourself,” prays Augustine as he begins Confessions, “and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Antony’s “great unrest” can still mark our experiences, but it is not God’s final word for our relationship.


    Kathyrn L. Johnson is Professor of Historical Theology and Paul Tudor Jones Professor of Church History at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

  • The Wind of the Spirit

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 14, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Cheryl Goodman-Morris.

    The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

    As I write this, the wind outside my sunroom window is swirling through the trees, bending them back powerfully, like a captivating dance partner. They toss and dip in response to the expert lead, all tango and tangle. I love the wind when it’s like this. It’s thrilling, a little out of control. I have a front row seat.

    Nobody knows where the wind comes from, and nobody knows where it’s going, but everybody definitely knows when it’s there. It’s alive. Stand in it, sail in it, and you are, too. Wind at your back, it’s full steam ahead. You’re confident, you can do anything.

    Until it dies. And you can’t. What then?

    Some years ago the sails of our churches were filled with the wind of the spirit. The pews in our mainline denominations were full to overflowing, programs were robust, and volunteers were rampant. Heady stuff. Then demographics shifted; the culture changed. And those who loved the church, both leadership and lay, secretly and not so secretly wondered the same thing, "Are we dead in the water?"

    We blamed ourselves, we got busy, we tried to fix things. We formed committees, we dreamed up programs, we crunched numbers. Somehow, we felt it was completely on our shoulders to make it right. But there was always that fear, lurking in the back of our minds, “What if we can't do it? What if we are dead in the water?" It's hard to re-create the wind.

    Author Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, speaks of a similar fear successful artists often experience when they sit down with a blank piece of paper or canvas to create their next great masterpiece. The burden to repeat their past successes can be terrifying, paralyzing. Gilbert proposes that artists feel this pressure because somehow, in the last 400 years, they’ve gotten the idea that genius comes from them instead of from beyond them. The Renaissance and the birth of rational humanistic thought had put human beings at the center of the universe. [1]

    But in classical times, the Greeks and Romans felt that the creative spirit, the “genius” came to them from someplace else—some divine, unknowable place. This understanding protected classical people from both hubris and defeat. While artists still had to roll up their sleeves and do the work, ultimately their outside genius was behind their success or failure, so the genius was the one who was either brilliant or lacking.

    All that changed with the Renaissance. For the first time in history, a person was referred to as being a genius, not “having a genius”. The pressure was now on the individual alone.

    With this intellectual shift, Ms. Gilbert feels that we humans missed the mark in understanding the relationship between the act of creation and the divine.

    I think she’s on to something. We often try to restore the church to her former glory by working hard to muster up our past genius, recasting and recycling approaches that worked once but no longer do. We forget all about the realm of the Spirit. We are left exhausted and disheartened.

    What if the process of creating a fresh church could come to us in a radical, completely unorthodox new way? What if we remembered to let the Spirit find us instead of us trying to manufacture it? Ruth Stone, the poet, writes that as a girl, she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape like a thunderous train of air, shaking the earth beneath her feet. She would run like crazy to get to the house and a piece of paper. Grabbing a pencil, she would catch the poem by the tail just as it passed through her body, writing as fast as she could to get it down. She knew if she didn’t, it would move beyond her and find somebody else who was ready to receive it, and there it would be born. [2]

    What if catching a new vision of what the church could be was like that? What if we could just show up with open hands and open hearts, roll our sleeves up, and say, "We're ready, God, whenever you are. We’ll do our part, but we also need for you to do yours. Let the wind of your spirit blow where it will. We're ready to sail."

    [1] Ted Talk. “Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius.” http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html Posted February, 2009.

    [2] Ibid.

    Cheryl Goodman-Morris is Pastor of Worship, Arts, and Education at Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley, California, and Artistic Director of the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory. She is an LPTS graduate.

  • What Are We Supposed to Do?

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 07, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Cheri Harper.

    I love this time of year because amid the heat and humidity of late summer, we also get to experience the burst of energy and change as new students move to campus, returning students come back from their summer activities, and everyone gears up for a new academic year. Although this “back to school” buzz may seem limited to students, the truth is that all of us, young and old, experience tremendous change in the course of our lives.

    This continual movement is most noticeable during seminal events like graduation, a job change, loss of a loved one, or the birth of a loved one, but it’s also a constant presence in the background of our lives. Likewise, our spiritual growth comes in fits and starts – say at a baptism, confirmation, or particular conference or a meaningful Sunday school class – but it also happens as a constant presence. While all this change can be exciting and energizing, it can also be extremely anxiety-inducing, leaving us to question where God is leading and to worry whether we’re on the right path. It’s easy to wonder why God doesn’t just take us by the hand and lead us where we’re supposed to go.

    The good news is that we’re not the first ones to ask for help. I appreciate the crowd in John 6:23-33 because I think they were hoping Jesus would provide a divine roadmap through the chaos. Through their question, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they were essentially asking, “What are we supposed to do, God?” I imagine the people thought that Jesus, this miracle man with messiah-like tendencies, could certainly offer some inside tips.

    So Jesus very helpfully gave them a heavenly GPS, right?

    No, he did not. Instead, Jesus gave a very compact answer. Jesus said that God’s work was to believe in the One whom God had sent. A little later, Paul would have said, the work that God desires from us is faith.

    Faith? That’s it? Yes and no.

    Yes, God desires us to believe, but no, that’s not it. When we truly believe, our actions faithfully flow from us. For the crowds at Capernaum, believing that Jesus of Nazareth was the bread of life was a radical form of faith. Following Jesus meant risking relationships and becoming outsiders to most facets of society. Today we have much in common with the first followers of Jesus. We do not live in an entirely Christian society anymore and heeding Jesus’ words to have faith is no longer a simple matter of fitting in. We’re called to be radical believers (and doers) too.

    These are worrying times we’re living in. Not only do we deal with the regular changes of life but now we seem to get a constant barrage of unsettling news of economic decline, climate change, wars abroad and political deadlock at home. It’s no wonder we find comfort when someone says, “God has a plan for your life.” The question is what kind of plan is it? Is it a roadmap that details every curve, bump and corner? Or is it a grander plan?

    Fortunately, Jesus’ words to the crowd and to us are simple. We are offered an amazing gift of grace by faith. We have been freed from sin and released in love to go and do what flows naturally from our beliefs. We are not shackled by anger, greed, cynicism, recklessness and fear and we don’t need a specific roadmap to worry over. Instead, we have been unbound to go do what is required of us; to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

    While change swirls and anxiety looms, our temptation is to look for a straightforward and assuring path and to simply ask God, “What are we supposed to do?”

    But, perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Perhaps the question should be, “Who are we supposed to be?”

    Cheri Harper received her M.Div. degree from Louisville Seminary and serves as Director of Recruitment & Admissions.

  • Are We All One in Jesus Christ?

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 31, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Terry C. Muck´╗┐.

    As we move inexorably toward another polarizing presidential election, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the effects of such polarization. We are a divided country, filled with cultures at war with other cultures and within themselves. Not just Republicans and Democrats, but rich-poor, urban-rural, black-white, progressives-conservatives, and many more. What is the endgame of such chronic conflict?

    There was a time when we could make the case that conflict, especially conflict of ideas, was a good and necessary thing. We do not agree on everything. Talking about our disagreements produces better effects than letting them fester into hate. So conflict, managed conflict, helps create societies that function well.

    I believe there is still truth in such an argument, but am also becoming increasingly convinced that something is going on today that makes it moot. The public and private conflicts we see happening today do not eventuate in agreements, or even agreements to disagree, but in commitments to more conflict. Conflict has ceased being a means to an end, and has become an end in itself. We fight one another not to achieve peace or freedom or unity or other laudable ends. We fight one another in the expectation that we will keep on fighting.

    What kind of a culture does this chronic conflict create? Aside from the obvious answer that it will lead to more of the same, what does chronic conflict lead toward for people who see what is going on and want to stop it? Are we doomed to participate, or is there a way out?

    We have always had conflicts of one sort or another, of course, and we have always had “ways out.” I grew up in the sixties and my generation opted out by living on the streets of San Francisco, or forming utopian communities, or starting house churches—all in the name of dropping out of institutions we saw as part of the problem.

    In other eras, people dropped out of unjust economic systems by becoming “free-riders” or by creating “black markets” for proscribed goods or cheaper prices. In order to avoid restrictive political parties, the idea of a “third party” is often tried (and usually found wanting). Usually these efforts fail in themselves, but create the conditions that bring about reform in the unjust political, economic, or social structures they seek to replace.

    What is worrying about our current divisions, however, is a pervasive sense of hopelessness that such reforms have any chance of working—that our divisions can be overcome, or at least coped with, and that our larger society can be made productive again. One of the downsides of globalization and computers is that “dropping out” of society and working in the margins is almost impossible. With “big brother” watching there is almost no place to run, no place to hide. Hopeless.

    Hopelessness usually breeds fantasies, and we have our share of those. Jimmy Buffet sings of pirates and Willie Nelson sings of cowboys, idealizing cultures that have dropped out and are free. Survivalists take to the woods and try to live off the grid: The system cannot be fixed; let’s wait until it fails, and then rise from the ashes. Instead of putting our money under the mattress, we stash it in off-shore back accounts. These are indeed fantasies and either do not get enacted or fail entirely.

    What to do? I am convinced that the church has an important role to play in helping us through this particular dark night. The church realizes that this is not ultimately a problem of politics or economics or social concern, even though it usually takes those forms. At root it is a spiritual problem, exacerbated by our theological tendency to ignore the ultimately transcendent nature of our faith, or as the apostle Paul put it, “this world is not our home.” We tend to domesticate the remnant of transcendence that we still cling to, reducing our problems to material ones (politics, economics) or psychological ones (rooted in alienation or anomie).

    "We are all one in Christ Jesus” may sound hopelessly pietistic, perhaps even escapist, but until we embrace the idea (or are embraced by it), all our other efforts will fail miserably. With it, however, we have the anchor that makes our efforts at political reform and social change, realistic and worth doing. It is the only story we have to tell. We are the only ones telling it.

    Terry C. Muck is Interim Executive Director of the Louisville Institute

  • Telling Ourselves the Truth

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 24, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Lewis Brogdon.

    This past February I devoted three weeks to preaching about racial indifference, resentment, and hatred among African American Christians. Turning my attention to the African American church was a different way to approach the issue of racism because African Americans have suffered and continue to suffer the devastating effects of racism linked to centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. One would think if any group of Christians needs to think through both the systemic and attitudinal effects of racism, it would be European American Christians. While I agree that it is essential to continue to challenge white Christians to address racism’s effects, it should not preclude leaders in black churches from examining the effects of racism on blacks or from challenging racial prejudice among black Christians directed toward non-blacks. To my surprise, some of my African American pastoral colleagues were surprised at what I was doing. I was surprised because I believe the gospel challenges both whites and blacks to account for their respective contributions to the racial hostility and alienation that continues to divide us. So this got me thinking about the importance of telling ourselves the truth and what it may mean for the future of the church.

    I believe that we humans have the potential to domesticate religion, to take the teeth out of it so that it doesn’t challenge us (or worse yet use the teeth only to bite others). Therefore, one of the chief tasks of preaching is to draw on the transcendent power of God to challenge the ways we attempt to domesticate the gospel in our congregations. Paul announced to the Romans that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God, a power, I believe, that resists our tendency to domesticate it for our own purposes and to justify our behaviors. The power of God that we encounter in the gospel continually calls us to self-examination and critique, enabling us to escape a faith completely domesticated by the confines of our respective social, historical, and even racial contexts. The gospel gives us the power to not only tell others the truth, but more importantly, to tell ourselves the truth. And since Sunday morning at 11 a.m. continues to be the most segregated hour of the week, preachers must have the courage to tell people the truth, and to correct the congregation when beliefs, values, and behaviors contrary to the gospel manifest themselves.

    During this sermon series I was mindful of the origins of the Black Church. When enslaved Africans were introduced to Christianity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there were a high number of pro-slavery churches, churches that were closed enclaves giving their full endorsement to one of the most evil institutions in human history— American chattel slavery. There were two types of pro-slavery churches: churches that believed that slavery was wrong yet did nothing to challenge it, and churches that did not believe slavery was wrong and used the Bible to defend it. White Christians allowed blacks to suffer countless acts of violence and to be economically exploited by a system that benefited them. They participated in the acts of violence themselves and encouraged racial hatred toward blacks. This went on for over a century. Think about this: in many, though not all, of these congregations, there was little going on that critiqued and challenged their participation in evil. Because of this, African Americans had to leave many of these denominations and churches to start churches with a gospel center where all persons were viewed as children of God. Just think—they had to leave churches to be the church.

    This history provides a sober reminder of how congregations can become closed enclaves where evil festers and grows. If this can happen to Christian congregations in times past, I believe it can happen today. It is incumbent upon leaders in both predominantly-white and predominantly-black churches to guard against congregational cultures that are closed off to self-challenge. In the end, I hope people won’t have to leave our churches because we lack the courage to tell ourselves the truth.

    Lewis Brogdon is Assistant Professor of Black Church Studies and Director of the Black Church Studies Program at Louisville Seminary.

  • Notes from Elsewhere

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 17, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Heather Thiessen.


    My 13-year-old daughter left for Washington, DC, at 5:15 a.m. on June 9. The scene in the school gym was a curious combination of joy and tension. The 7th and 8th graders from our small-town Indiana school clustered in small groups comparing notes about what they were taking and expecting, while parents negotiated the complex demands of communicating love, encouragement, last-minute advice and not too much anxiety, without crossing the subtle line between acceptably and unacceptably embarrassing their children.

    I didn't understand at first why this particular school trip had my stomach in such a tight knot. Presbyterian summer camp lasts longer - and there's no cell phone contact. As I watched the 13- and 14-year-olds board the bus, visibly engrossed in their own web of relationships and experiences, I realized she was about to have a big, profound, maybe even life-changing experience, completely apart from us. Unlike school - which is in a familiar building, just down the street by comparison with the nation's capitol - this experience can only be imagined as remote. Unlike her sports - which I don't play, but do watch - this experience can only remain invisible to me. However much or little of it I get to share will come only through the medium of conversation, and maybe some photos.

    I've always known and respected that my daughter and I are two separate people. But this event was yet another awakening to the nature and the fragility of human connection, which we humans so easily and repeatedly take for granted. Because what became clearer to me than ever, at 5:15 a.m. on June 9, is that she has been having big, profound, maybe even life-changing experiences completely apart from us all along. I simply fail to notice, much of the time, how much of our understanding of one another depends on communication, and how often I substitute my own ready assumptions for that arduous process. I forget that my daughter's experience of what I, too, have seen and heard, may not be - indeed, almost certainly is not - identical to mine. I forget to check out my chronic premise that I know how things are for her because I know how they are or were for me.

    This particular human forgetfulness seems to be widespread. It makes it easy for us to believe we understand what someone else is going through because we have experienced a life event that goes by the same name, or once visited the place they have been living, or have ourselves used the very same words to describe something. It makes it hard for us to recognize our need to listen more deeply, beyond our seemingly common language, for the invisible, unimagined differences in experience that are the stuff of our diversity. As the CEO of the company where I worked many years ago used to say, "the greatest barrier to communication is the illusion that it has occurred" -- and that illusion dies hard.

    I know this lesson is not new. It is the same one the Women's Center at LPTS repeatedly teaches, in connection with the profound and subtle significance of humanity's gendered diversity. Women's human experience differs from men's; the understanding needed for love and justice requires care-ful communication. I thought I already knew that by heart. But the challenge that lesson poses, of putting into practice the insight that another person is really an other person, rather than myself at arm's length, I clearly have yet to master.

    This most recent reminder of the diligence demanded by a practice of respectful and attentive otherness has deepened the already deep fascination and perplexity of incarnational theology for me. As Christians, we know we live in a world marked by God's own practice of participation, of "sharing our human experience." But as we are reminded in exegesis classes, the particular experiential world of first century Palestine is every bit as much unlike our own as it is shared. Nor would any other world be any less particular. Incarnation would never eliminate, but could only heighten, the need to share conversation in order to bridge the gulf between one particular and another. And yet nothing besides incarnation could hope to share that conversation, which depends on common reference points in the material world, like perception, emotion, thought, relationship, history. The difference born of particularity becomes one of the elements of the profound understanding of one another that we call communion.

    Whether I will ever be able to communicate this to my daughter remains to be seen.

    Heather Thiessen is a graduate of Louisville Seminary and part-time Director of the Women's Center at LPTS.

    Photo illustration created using the Face Transformer at Face of the Future at St. Andrew's University: http://morph.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk/fof/index.html

  • God Is a Hoarder

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 11, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Shannon Craigo-Snell.

    God is a hoarder. The creator of the universe has a lot in common with the elderly couple down the street who have to navigate between teetering stacks of old magazines and cracked dishware as they walk from room to room.

    Bear with me.

    Christians turn to metaphor in order to describe God. This is both a theological and an historical truth. Theologically, God is beyond our comprehension. The magnificence of God and the limits of human language conspire to make a precise description of the divine impossible. Human sinfulness compounds the problem, since we are apt to picture God in our own image. Metaphor is the best we can manage. Metaphors say something about God, without claiming to say everything. They offer small glimpses of who God is. Historically, Christians have used many different metaphors for God. This multiplicity allows us to glimpse various aspects of the Holy, and it reminds us that no single metaphor can capture the fullness of God. Over the centuries, Christians have developed a broad storehouse of images for God, beginning with the rich array of metaphors in the Hebrew Bible. God is a rock and a fortress (Ps. 31:1-3), as well as a bird who shelters us under Her wing (Ps. 36:7). God is a warrior on the field of battle (Ex. 15:3) and a potter at His wheel (Is. 29:16). God is sun (Ps. 84:11) and shade (Ps. 121:5) and a still small voice (1Kg 19:12). Theology, then, is a work of metaphor, continuing the long tradition of garnering images that help us know something of God.

    I stand in this tradition when I claim that God is a hoarder. My intent here is not to make light of the devastating effects of hoarding. Rather, my metaphor draws on research into the cognitive causes of hoarding. At least one recent study suggests that hoarders suffer from a failure of categorization.[i]

    We start learning to sort things into categories from a very young age. Children learn to sort by shape, size, and color. School children have to identify “which of these things is not like the other.” Skillful categorization is important for adult life and for managing a home. If I discover there are twenty coffee cups in the cupboard, I can say that these are all the same—all in the same category—and therefore I do not need so many. Out go the extra cups.

    Hoarders are perfectly capable of sorting by shape, size, and color. However, to the degree that things are “personally relevant” to them, hoarders do not categorize as easily as the rest of us.[ii] Instead of seeing twenty cups in the cupboard, a hoarder might see a cup with a beautiful pattern, one that was purchased on a trip, a cup in a gorgeous color… This one has a broken handle, but I rarely hold a cup by the handle anyway. This one is cracked, but it would be a great pencil holder. I have to hold on to these.

    Perhaps God suffers from a failure of categorization where we are concerned. Perhaps God considers creation to be “personally relevant,” and so God does not lump us into groups where we can be sorted according to utility or value. God does not see one group when She looks at humanity, or men, or women, or rich people, or poor people, or any kind of people at all. Instead, God sees each one of us in the context of our personal relevance to God, each one of us in our beautiful and broken specificity, and God holds on to us all.[iii]

    Shannon Craigo-Snell joined the Louisville Seminary faculty in 2011 as a constructive theologian who is committed to bringing theology alive in the context of the global church.

    [i] Jeffrey P. Wincze, Gail Steketee, and Randy O. Frost, “Categorization in compulsive hoarding,” Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(1), 63-72.

    [ii] Ibid.

    [iii] For more on metaphor in Theology, see Sallie McFaque, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975). For more on hoarding, see Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

    Photo: http://buzzfarmers.com

  • Is Good Mentoring Hard to Find?

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 03, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Bridgett Green.

    Good mentoring relationships are important gifts for growing professionals. Although one usually associates mentors with the beginning of a journey, mentors are great for any stage of one’s vocational development whether one is at the beginning, middle, or senior aspect of a career or vocational journey.

    Beginning as a church professional in the mission offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I encountered one of the most formative mentoring relationships of my career with Mary Elva Smith. Before retiring, Mary Elva served as the director of Women’s Ministries. Previously, she worked as a Christian educator, presbytery executive, and spiritual director. As director of Women’s Ministries, she supervised my  work. Yet, Mary Elva was more than a
    supervisor; she was a mentor. I am one of many clergy and lay leaders, non-profit directors, and justice advocates around the country whom she has mentored through the years.

    Mary Elva was a mentor who provided a space for dialogue, honesty, and creative risk-taking. In this space, she promoted an understanding that young is not simply synonymous with inexperience; rather, young connects the present and the future. Now, as a young mentor myself, I find that reflecting on the qualities of good mentoring provides an opportunity to think out loud on the traits that I want to cultivate so that good mentoring isn’t so hard to find.


    Dialogue forges the mentoring relationship. My best experiences of dialogue with Mary Elva occurred when we talked through a situation to explore its components and dynamics in order to find a course of action or to discover a learning moment. Although Mary Elva offered great advice, she usually refrained from active advisement in order to be a more active listener. By this, she conveyed that many answers lay within me. In this process, she taught trust in one’s gut, reliance on the Spirit to lead, and recognition of resources in less than obvious places.

    Space for Honesty

    A space for honest and constructive conversation allows a person to ask difficult questions, to challenge one’s own assumptions, and to evaluate a situation with guidance. Sometimes, that space includes a mutual agreement for respectful disagreement. As Women’s Ministries provided leadership development and ministry opportunities with women, our work at that time included education about and advocacy against institutional sexism, racism, and other injustices that permeated church policies and perceptions on church leadership, particularly women’s leadership. Mary Elva and I shared in difficult conversations that reflected our generational and racialized differences. Yet even in the milieu of professional hierarchy in the workplace, Mary Elva facilitated a space where, without penalty, honest dialogue fostered knowledge of one another and understanding of the systems in which we live.

    Creative Risks

    A good mentor-relationship provides opportunity for creative risk-taking. Mary Elva would say to people, “I’ve used your name in vain today.” In regard to me, that usually meant she suggested me for participation in committees, leadership roles, projects, or promotions. Rarely was I an expert or highly experienced contributor to a process. However, she knew that I would learn. If I made mistakes, she knew that I would recover and others would help me. She also knew that I would only get experience by being involved in decision-making with experts, learning from them, and giving them chances to learn from my experiences.

    When Mary Elva retired, I continued to work with expanded responsibilities in our newly formed ministry area. Her mentoring gave me resources to continue to grow as one of many contributing young leaders in the PC (U.S.A.). Isn’t that what good mentoring is supposed to be? Good mentoring facilitates empowerment, resources, and education so that one may soar even when one’s mentor is absent. Instead of a relationship of codependence, and at worst indebtedness, it’s a relationship of interdependence that leads to independence and confidence. Even as some look to me as a mentor, I continue relationships with my mentors and forge new ones.

    Dialogue, honesty, and risk-taking are rewarding and challenging components of good mentoring. Which qualities would you add so that good mentoring isn’t so hard to find?

    Bridgett A. Green is a teaching elder in the PC (U.S.A) who is pursuing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Vanderbilt University as a fellow in the Program of Theology and Practice. For ten years, she has served the church through various forms of young adult ministry. She also serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of Louisville Seminary.

  • Finding a Bright Spot and Hope

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 25, 2012

    This blog post was written by Pam Kidd.

    I am a physician and a trustee of a Christian theological school. I have other identities as Christian, wife, mother, grandmother, but it is the combination of physician and trustee of a Christian seminary that seems to draw the most curiosity.

    One of the blessings of living as long as I have is the opportunity to look back and see positive change over many years. I am old enough to have been the only female in my medical school class and 28 years later see my daughter graduate from medical school in a class with 50% women. I have experienced the effect that an influx of different perspectives has had on the way medicine is practiced and the contributions women have made. There are still moments in the middle of a hospital conference when I realize half of the physicians participating in the discussion of patient care are women, and I remember the days when I was the only female in the room. I have experienced the reality of one of my favorite quotes that I have always attributed to Jackie Robinson: “It’s a better game when everyone gets to play”. The change I have witnessed gives me hope.

    Yet, as far my profession has come (and there is still a way to go), we are all reminded daily of the injustices, the prejudices, the unevenness of opportunities, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the growing frustration of those who are unable to find work. With so many problems to address, the media seems to be predominated by rancorous, rude proclamations with no apparent intent of dialogue or attempt to cooperatively find solutions. Where to find hope that we will ever be able to talk with each other and make progress?

    About a year ago I was introduced by Dr. Jeff Trent, a scientist and CEO of a biotech enterprise, to Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, entertainingly written by Chip and Dan Heath. Six months later one my fellow trustees recommended the same book to Louisville Seminary’s Strategic Plan Task Force. The Heath brothers suggest looking for the “bright spot”, the person or idea that is making an organization or effort work. In the chatter and less than friendly rhetoric that seems to surround us in today’s world, I think we are all looking for those places that are making a difference or trying to make positive changes, looking for the “bright spots”. I have found a bright spot in Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    Many of my friends and colleagues assume that a faith institution might actually be part of the problem rather than an answer to rigid positions preventing true dialogue. Louisville Seminary recently adopted a new strategic plan led by President Michael Jinkins. The portion of the plan that got the most attention (and is indeed worth the attention) is the “Covenant Plan,” working toward the day when all graduates will leave the Seminary with no debt for their Seminary education and be free to follow wherever God calls them to serve. However, an important part of the strategic plan builds on the already existing “Doors to Dialogue” and Black Church Studies Programs. The students, and future leaders, are being exposed and immersed in dialogue with people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and faith expressions. In the words of Professor Susan Garrett, the Academic Dean at the Seminary, they are being encouraged to practice “generous listening”. More than tolerance, a true respect for difference is being fostered, and an appreciation for what can be learned from each is being lived.

    So there you have the answer to the question why trustee of a seminary. I have had the privilege of seeing hope realized (or at least significant change realized) and now I support a bright spot that gives me hope for the future. Louisville Seminary is making a difference for not only the church but for those parts of our world that its graduates will touch. I believe we are all looking for those places that foster change and hope for the future. I am very grateful to have found a bright spot in Louisville Seminary.

    Pam Kidd is a physician and Chair of the Board of Trustees of Louisville Seminary.

  • God went to the very edges of the page

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 12, 2012

    The title of this week’s blog comes from a fascinating – and disturbing – novel by Jim Crace, Quarantine, which won the Whitbread Awardseveral years ago as Novel of the Year. The book is a literary exploration of the wilderness temptation (the quarantine) of Jesus. The passage I am quoting comes amid an extended fictional reflection by Jesus on the way God speaks through scripture, not only in the literal script, in each word, but in the spaces between the words and at the edges of the pages. God goes to the very edge of the page, we are told. But, in the next paragraph, as Jesus sits in a cave and the light of day passes away, he looks at the stars of the night sky and sees spaces there where God is also present. God goes beyond the edges of the page.[i]

    This summer I will again be concentrating on pages yet unwritten as I begin work on a new book. Crace’s comments, placed in the mouth of Jesus, represent both a comfort and a challenge. They represent a comfort because, as a writer, it is good to know that there is nowhere the vocation of writing can take you that is beyond God. They represent a challenge, however, because the vocation of writing requires a kind of reverse incarnation, making the flesh (and other aspects of creation) become word. The God whom we encounter through words and sacred nights invites and resists our attempts to speak of divine things. Nowhere, perhaps, does the gap between creation and the divine loom more apparent than at the point where we attempt to speak of God.

    While I engage in this vocation of writing this summer, I have again asked some friends and colleagues if they would be willing to think out loud for us in this space. They have generously agreed to do so. They are current and former faculty members, trustees, and seminary graduates. Some overlap categories. As a group, they represent a variety of perspectives on Christian faith. I know you will enjoy hearing from them. As I introduce our guest bloggers, I also wish to extend to them my sincere thanks.

    As I pack up my laptop computer, I want to thank you for your hospitality in welcoming “Thinking Out Loud” into your lives. Thank you for thinking along with me. Thank you especially for your thoughtful responses from week to week. I look forward to being with you again in September.

     [i]Jim Crace, Quarantine (London: Penguin, 1998), 135.

  • Seeking the Right Questions

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 09, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by W. Eugene March.

    An article in the May 28, 2012 Newsweek – “The Mystery of the Multiverse” by Brian Greene -- claimed my attention for two reasons. First, it was about the place I live (Earth), and second, it was about cosmology which in my opinion has to do in some way with God.

    The article explores what we know to have happened. We have moved from what was once a “simple explanation” of our world based on a literal reading of the Bible, a view that placed earth at the center of all that was, to a view of a multiverse containing billions of galaxies that requires a different theory of physics and sophisticated mathematical calculations for its demonstration. I did not understand much of the mathematics or physics that Greene discussed, but the suggestion that there is more than one universe, namely that there is a multiverse that contains numerous universes, does something of the same thing for theology as it has done for those who study cosmology. As Green puts it, “The multiverse doesn’t change the scientific method or lower explanatory standards. But it does ask us to reevaluate whether we’ve mistakenly posed the wrong questions” (p.24).

    Any one who has paid the least attention to the current situation in Europe and North America knows that “religion” here is on the skids. In the most recent census taken in the United States that decline is amply documented. Many of us were already well aware of it on the basis of the shrinking numbers in our congregations and synagogues, but two other “findings” were not so well recognized.

    First, the census brought home the fact that there is a growing diversity to be found among the “religious” that was totally absent here a century ago. The educated, to be sure, were aware of a multiplicity of religions around the world, but the adherents of those other traditions were out there, over there, somewhere, but not here, not in our towns or workplaces or neighborhoods. They didn’t “exist” in any meaningful way to most of those who attended church or synagogue. Of course, that is no longer the case either because a new Toyota plant just became part of the “neighborhood” or because of television and all the other social media so readily available to even the youngest among us.

    The other startling statistic for many was that the group labeled “other” (meaning “no religious affiliation”) on the census form has shown a remarkable increase since the previous survey. More and more people – especially among university-trained younger adults – no longer feel a need or desire to affiliate with any form of organized religious tradition.

    I have heard a number of “responses” concerning this reality. Some assure us that these people “will come back” to religion when they have children or face crises of one sort or another. Some assure us that the survey was flawed. Still others point to the rapid growth of the Mormons – the only organized group that has had a significant increase in adherents -- as demonstration of something or other, but it is unclear what. But I keep wondering if these “answers” do not reflect that we are still asking the wrong questions.

    For those of us in the “traditional churches” it seems to me that we need to wrestle again with what it might mean to be “the salt of the earth” and not “the rulers of this world.” We need to listen to what other people – Christian and non-Christian – are saying to us about how our “exclusive” social mores put the lie to all our high-sounding claims of desiring to love our neighbors. We need to reread the Bible to recognize how we as the “privileged” have interpreted a revolutionary text to render it harmlessly to our advantage. In other words, we need to be asking a different set of questions than we have previously entertained. Our “answers” simply do not address the “questions” of our day.

    Rather than expounding on old “answers,” we need to be seeking – honestly and diligently -- to determine the right questions to be asking with, as some might say, “everything on the table.”

    W. Eugene March is A.B. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Seminary. During his tenure he also served as Director of Continuing Education, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program, Assistant to the President, and Dean of the Seminary. Dr. March also taught Old Testament at Austin Seminary for 18 years.

  • Labels

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 05, 2012

    One of the best ways to dismiss the ideas of others, without ever having to think about them, is to label them as quickly as they are uttered.

    C. S. Lewis, in his classic satire of demonic possession, "The Screwtape Letters," has the experienced older devil, Screwtape, advise the junior tempter, Wormwood, to convince his human victim to "value an opinion for some quality other than truth." Conversely he can teach the tempted to disregard ideas on similar grounds.

    Thus a potentially life-nourishing bit of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas can be ignored because it is "old fashioned." Or a person can be persuaded that a serious study of philosophy or history is an "elitist" preoccupation. Or the habit of drawing on the insights of the best thinkers of all time can be passed off as "pretentious."

    Some roads to hell may be paved with good intentions, but others are made smooth by a flippant bigotry that avoids truth by stereotyping.

    I was reminded of the effectiveness of this ploy last weekend while watching on television one of the innumerable staged media smack-downs that pass for serious political commentary. One hired partisan hack stepped on the lines of another paid political consultant eliciting more heat than light for fifteen minutes. The two contestants spent the bulk of their time trying to stick labels on each other like two clowns in a "post-it note" circus, convinced that if they could make a label stick, their job was done.

    I wish I could say that we deal with ideas better in the church or in the academy or in life in general, but too much of the time we don't. Post-modernists dis modernists, evangelicals spurn liberals, and everyone pours contempt on fundamentalists. And vice versa, of course.

    This is why I was so encouraged recently when one of the recipients of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary's 2012 Distinguished Alum Award, Dr. David Kaylor, said what he did in his acceptance address. Dr. Kaylor, the James Sprunt Professor of Religion, emeritus, and former chair of the Religion Department at Davidson College, in North Carolina, expressed his gratitude for the three qualities he received as a student at Louisville Seminary (class of 1958).

    Dr. Kaylor, remembering his professors, said: "They challenged me to be a true conservative - to honor the tradition in which we stand, to use that tradition to minister to our time, to engage in dialogue with that tradition, to examine it in light of Scripture under the guidance of God's Spirit, to conserve what is good so that the tradition provides a foundation for our ministry and not a weight holding us back."

    "My professors also taught me to be a true liberal - to be liberated myself and to be a liberating force for others; to live the words of the Apostle Paul: 'For liberation you have been liberated," working to remove those things in ourselves and in our culture that enslave and hold captive any of God's children."

    "Most of all, they challenged me to be a true radical - to get to the root of things, to get to the heart of the Gospel, to understand root causes of things in our world that lead to injustice, disharmony and war; to know the essence of peace and the things that make for peace and not be so distracted by peripheral things that we miss what is essential for the coming of God's reign."

    Perhaps we ought to take a page from Dr. Kaylor's book. While resisting the urge to dismiss the views of others by slapping a label on them, we might also re-invest with greater significance the labels with which we describe ourselves. The qualities that make for a rich, faithful and nourishing life are, after all, far too complex to be reduced to a single label - or, so say the conservative, liberal, radicals.

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