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Thinking Out Loud
  • Self-righteousness Is Not Righteous

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 20, 2012

    Christianity keeps getting a bad rap. This is at least partially our fault as Christians.

    There are days when it is hard to turn on a television or radio, or to open a newspaper, to discover again what “Christians” are saying about somebody else’s behavior, lifestyle, values, morality, perspective on the environment, sexuality, economics, etc. etc. etc., in the most judgmental and self-righteous terms. In the last few weeks alone I have been stunned to hear repeatedly “Christian” leaders, “Christian”politicians, and representatives of various “Christian” organizations and churches denounce one group or individual after another in favor of their own righteousness.

    At one point last week, I was reminded of that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the village turned out to stone to death a person accused of blasphemy only to stone also the chief prosecutor for repeating the blasphemy in the course of making the official accusation. Once the stoning starts, nobody is safe.

    Where did we ever get the idea that being Christians gave us the inside track on righteousness? The Bible, by contrast, shows the most religious folks, the folks convinced of their own righteousness, in a consistently bad light.

    According to Jesus of Nazareth, his followers are to be good and faithful; he didn’t come to destroy either the law or the prophets (Matthew 5:17-20), but our goodness and faithfulness are defined in terms of rejecting revenge, placing the needs of others before our own needs, and rooting violence, hatred, envy, and lust out of our own hearts (Matthew 5: 21-42). Followers of Jesus are not, in fact, to be confident in our own goodness or righteousness at all. The emblem of our faithfulness is a wholehearted trust in God’s grace. According to Jesus, our resemblance to God has more to do with the quality of our mercy and forgiveness toward others than what most of us regard as ethics, morality, or even religious behavior (Matthew 5: 43-48). Jesus warns against praying and practicing our religion in front of other people so that they will notice how religious we are (Matthew 6: 5-18). He warns against trumpeting our generosity so that others will notice (Matthew 6: 1-4). And, in a remarkable passage about “values,” he is careful to say that seeking the reign of God in this world has to do with God’s righteousness, not ours (Matthew 6: 24-34). Jesus warns us not to draw too tightly our circle when it comes to those we will include, implying that the real question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but“Am I a neighbor to others?” (Matthew 5: 43-47; cf. Luke 10: 25-37).

    Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been described as teaching the ethics of the kingdom of God. But, if this sermon does teach ethics or morality, they represent a very different version from what we get in contemporary discourses on Christian values. Jesus’ approach to morality turns the light back upon us, his followers, asking us to look at ourselves, to look at our own hearts, to look at our own trust, mercy, forgiveness, lack of openness, lusts, the violence we harbor, and our desire for revenge. There is no encouragement at all here for Christians to examine the ethics and morality of others.

    From where, then, does the compulsion come to equate faithfulness with self-righteousness, especially for us Christians?

    C. S. Lewis seemed to point to taking ourselves too seriously. In his wonderfully diabolical little book, The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon instructs a demon-in-training how to ensnare human beings, Lewis describes a close connection between self-seriousness and self-righteousness. “For humor,” Lewis writes, “involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this [a sense of humor]. Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”[1]

    Hell, and a whole lot of other places (some of them very religious, some of them even “Christian”), could be characterized in these terms. Pride, ambition, lack of proportion, self-importance, envy, resentment, and a perpetual attitude of grievance, all of which are enemies of faithfulness, do not belong to any particular Christian denomination or religious faith alone; they are not the exclusive property of the left, right, or center (politically, socially, or theologically); they are, sadly, human failings in their inhumanity. They place us above others, and the higher we place ourselves above others, the harder the fall. Pride is the most unoriginal of sins.

    Recently, in a lunch conversation organized by Louisville Seminary Trustee Kyle Lanham for two of his friends from Indianapolis, our professor, Cliff Kirkpatrick, shared another perspective on the problem of faithfulness and self-righteousness. Cliff paraphrased the late Lesslie Newbigin, who reminded Christians that God has called us “to the witness stand”not “the judge’s bench. Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Maybe we just aren’t clear about our role.

    Jesus himself warned that religion can become sacrilegious. In the venerable Authorized Version (aka the KJV) of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s [or sister’s] eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”(Matthew 7: 1-2)

    Anne Lamott has said: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do.”

    What gets lost in the “Holier than Thou Shuffle” (the only dance to which even Christians who don’t believe in dancing know all the steps) is the good news of the gospel. And the good news of the gospel is not that any of us are “holier than thou,” nor that we have better values“than thou,” nor that we are more righteous “than thou,” whomever “thou” may be.

    The good news of the gospel is that God forgives sinners. There may be more than this to the gospel, but there’s certainly not less. Will Campbell famously said that the Christian gospel can be boiled down to this single phrase (please excuse Will’s French):“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” That is a message our society needs to hear, if indeed it could only hear it over the clatter of us “Christians”trying to prove that somebody else is the b*****d, but that we deserve God’s love.

    Whatever else Jesus taught, there's no doubt he taught us this: Self-righteousness is not righteous.

    [1] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters(London: The Folio Society, 2008), xiii-xiv.

  • Louise Glϋck speaks the truth

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 13, 2012

    In a course I taught a couple of years ago, I began each class with a poem. One day, I read a long section from Louise Glϋck’s volume, Averno. I began the reading with the passage, “death cannot harm me/ more than you have harmed me,/ my beloved life”and ended with the words, “It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./ It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./ Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.”[i]Between these two passages lie verses that repeat the theme of loss, “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared,” but they do so in a way that speak less of resignation than of acceptance and even of a profound (I hesitate to use the word but cannot find another) beatitude. The poet confesses at one point, “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end/ still believing in something.”[ii]

    When I finished reading the poem that day, I looked up from the book and observed one of the students with tears running down her cheeks. After class we spoke briefly about the poem, about how these verses touched the quick. She was awaiting a diagnosis from her doctor. She was struggling with her faith.

    A year or so later, I was leading a discussion on poetry in a local congregation. I happened to read this section of Averno again in that setting. The same young woman was in the discussion that day. After the class was over, she came up to me, and said, “I had hoped I would never have to hear that poem again. Thank you for reading it.”

    The young woman’s reaction in all its complexity—distressed, yet grateful—begins to explain why Louise Glϋck is probably my favorite contemporary poet. The beauty of her verse is inseparable from its stark aspiration to speak the truth.

    “And your hunger,” she seems to say directly to me, in another poem, “is not for experience but for understanding, as though it could be had in the abstract.”[iii]She knows better, of course, that understanding is inextricable from experience, or from some sorting out of experience, whether our experience is recast in mythological terms (Glϋck breathes classical mythology, Greek and Roman, as naturally as Gerard Manley Hopkins breathed a Christian sacramental view of life) or in naturalistic terms (as when Glϋck gives voice to the wild iris or the red poppy).

    I have read her poem, “The Wild Iris,” dozens of times. Each time I read it, it offers more. Yet, it also resists me. It resists my attempts to appropriate it directly or utilize it in any literal sense to Christian ends, though it does seem to speak of resurrection. The poem invites me to enter into it, but demands that I accept it on its own terms.

    At the end of my suffering

    there was a door.

    Hear me out: that which you call death

    I remember.

    Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.

    Then nothing. The weak sun

    flickered over the dry surface

    It is terrible to survive

    as consciousness

    buried in the dark earth….

    You who do not remember

    passage from the other world

    I tell you I could speak again: whatever

    returns from oblivion returns

    to find a voice:

    from the center of my life came

    a great fountain, deep blue

    shadows on azure seawater.[iv]


    The line that haunts me in this poem is this one: “whatever/ returns from oblivion returns/ to find a voice.” On a purely natural (or maybe naturalistic) level, we are listening to the voice of a wild iris, whose brilliant blue life springs from an apparently dry and dead bulb buried beneath the earth. And maybe that is all. Isn’t it enough? The poem holds me in its literal grip, but whispers transcendent possibilities that resist my appropriating them into any doctrinal form. I think resurrection; then I think again. The poet, in “Field Flowers,” seems to read my mind, conflicted as I am, seems to overhear the argument I am having with myself, when she asks wryly:“What are you saying? That you want eternal life? Are your thoughts really as compelling as all that?”[v]Well, no, my thoughts aren’t all that compelling. My thoughts are (at their best) like the flowers of the field which bloom today and tomorrow are dry as straw and ready to be burned away. But Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as richly and beautifully as are these flowers of the field that are here today and gone tomorrow. Should I not wish that they would last forever?

    In “The Red Poppy,” the poppy, scarlet like blood, like fire, speaking to humanity, wonders if maybe we humans were once poppies ourselves, sometime, long, long ago, when we allowed ourselves to open up, to reveal the fire of our hearts, a fire that reflects the “lord in heaven/ called the sun."[vi] By holding firmly, sticking closely to the natural, we find ourselves inevitably drawn toward transcendence.

    Her poem, “The Garment,” which begins, “My soul dried up,/ Like a soul cast into fire, but not completely,/ not to annihilation,” closes with words that could be transcribed as a cartoon text bubble over the heads of the bewildered disciples that Jesus met on the Emmaus Road: “And when hope was returned to me/ it was another hope entirely.”[vii] But which of us has not lived through some experience when our souls were dried up, when our hopes were taken from us? Surely, most of us have known hopes that were stolen or eclipsed by misfortune only to be returned or to rise to possibilities we had never dreamed of. “Bright wings” brush against us most often when little else is bright.

    And in her poem, “The Untrustworthy Speaker,” Glϋck says:“Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken./ I don’t see anything objectively./ I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist./ When I speak passionately,/ that’s when I’m least to be trusted.”[viii] We feel the “bright wings” brush against us here too, because we have learned to distrust our wants most when we are most passionate. We have learned to hesitate before we attribute to truth or to God that for which our hearts clamor most loudly.

    If it is the case, as Louise Glϋck says in Averno, that there is not enough“candor” in our world, I think we have at least one poet competent to help us restore it.

    [i] Louise Glϋck, Averno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 10, 13.

    [ii] Ibid., 12.

    [iii] Louise Glϋck, “Moonbeam,” in The Seven Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 5.

    [iv] Louise Glϋck, The Wild Iris (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 1.

    [v] Ibid., 28.

    [vi] Ibid., 29.

    [vii] Louise Glϋck, Vita Nova (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 20.

    [viii] Louise Glϋck, Ararat (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 34.

  • Challenges, Surprises, Fulfillment and the Wall of Pastors

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 08, 2012

    The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, established in 1992, serves the campus and larger community by informing individuals on matters of concern and justice related to women and all people who suffer discrimination, violence, and inequity; and by celebrating the gifts and achievements of women in the Church and the world. During the month of March, I am pleased to offer weekly “special edition” posts of Thinking Out Loud in which several of our women graduates work toward these same aims, enlightening and educating all of us about the opportunities and difficulties that they have faced as women in ministry. In turn, their accounts give us opportunity to learn about and celebrate their own distinct gifts, achievements, dedication, and courage as Christian leaders. In today’s post we hear from Angela Cowser, a 2006 graduate and PhD student at Vanderbilt, who answers my queries about the challenges, surprises, and joys of being a woman in ministry; and Melissa DeRosia, a 2005 graduate and pastor in New York, who reflects upon her experience of being the first female pastor in her 100-year-old congregation.

    Challenges, Surprises, and Fulfillment

    By Angela Cowser

    What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being in ministry?

    • Sexism. In my role as a community organizer, being female has been a challenge when working with male clergy who’ve been steeped in and affirmed inside an unreflective, unreconstructed, patriarchal understanding of ecclesial leadership.
    • A lack of sustained engagement, camaraderie, and fellowship with other female clergy, especially inter-racially. Wise leaders need people around them who love them, question them, and push them to think and act with more imagination, honesty, and faithfulness. A group of female clergy who are in sustained relationship with each other, especially across race and ethnicity, can be an important support in helping women better understand what they do and why.
    • A privatized practice of religion that disconnects and neglects the public and policy implications of Christian ministry. I have been troubled by the pervasiveness of private, therapeutic hermeneutics, ethics, and pastoral care, which are disconnected from or silent about the public implications of the gospel. Should churches have a role in public education when systems are found to be inequitable? Could we have been pro-active in helping potential homeowners understand the mortgage market, thereby avoiding toxic mortgage products? Is there more we can say and do over time—to help members in both congregations and communities improve their health? We are good at emphasizing religion’s private face, while neglecting a more public, political, and prophetic role. The public and prophetic are equally important, necessary, and faithful to Jesus whose private healings and confrontations had significant public implications and impacts.

    What has surprised you the most about being in ministry?

    I’ve been surprised and delighted by the level of affirmation and support that I’ve received from my congregation. I continue to enjoy and need to work off of the synergies that exist between congregational ministry, teaching, research, and community organizing. Each discipline and calling nurtures and informs the others.

    What have you found especially gratifying about being in ministry?

    The place of joy for me is being in the midst of people who love each other and enjoy praying with each other, and who value and celebrate sustained engagement, camaraderie, deep learning, and fellowship. Ministry creates spaces in the Sunday school classroom, the seminary lunchroom, and the research table where moments of exhilaration and freedom can happen.

    The Rev. Angela Cowser (MDiv ’06) is a PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt Divinity School and lead organizer for POGO (People of God Organized), a community group of churches organized for justice and reconciliation in east Nashville, Tennessee. While at Louisville Seminary Angela was one of the co-founders of Women at the Well, a campus organization for women of color.

    The Wall of Pastors

    By Melissa DeRosia

    The church was overwhelmingly beautiful. Light streaming through stained glass windows flooded the sanctuary with rainbows. The building held the memories and stories of generations of churchgoers in this small Midwestern town. In every room you could smell Church—stale coffee, mildew, crayons, and a mixture of aftershave and old lady perfume. I secretly believe that this is what God smells like. The mauve colored carpet had seen the spills of one too many potlucks. Now tarnished brass name plates “in memory of” were affixed to everything that wasn’t nailed down.

    The search committee and I were in conversation about our call, my call to be their pastor and their call to take a chance on a young, fresh-from-seminary, female pastor. We were all giddy and naively optimistic about the journey God was laying out before us.

    Then I saw it.

    The wall.

    The wall is in the church parlor, where people gather after service to drink coffee and catch up on the town news, and it can be seen from the sanctuary when a curtain is opened to accommodate the rare overflow crowd. On this wall are mounted, from floor to ceiling, photographs of every pastor who has served the church for more than 100 years. As I scanned the wall, I quickly noticed: all of the pastors were male—and all of them were staring at me.

    I stood there, staring back at them, in disbelief that I might be the first woman to have a portrait hanging on this wall. I grew up in a church that always had a woman pastor. I went to a seminary where more than half of the students were women. How was it possible that I would be the first woman pastor whose portrait hung on this wall?

    It was possible, because people from the congregation told the pastoral search committee, “If you ever call a woman pastor, I won’t come to church anymore.” It was possible, because this was a town where there are more churches than restaurants and hair salons combined, and there wasn’t one female pastor to be found. It was possible, because even the most progressive congregation, even in a metropolitan area where a generous number of women serve in leadership, there are still barriers of gender stereotypes for women who seek to respond to God’s call in ministry.

    These barriers aren’t new. After writing The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion (Alban Institute 2011) one of the most common responses shared with me by women who pioneered the ordination of women in mainline denominations was“I can’t believe these same stories are being lived out decades later.” While in a growing number of congregations it is no longer surprising or incongruous to see a woman in the pulpit, it can be very wearisome to encounter the same gender stereotypes over and over again. Regardless of the number of times we are stared down by the wall of pastors, the only way to break down the barrier of the stained glass ceiling and be the first woman to serve as a pastor is to be a persevering, determined, and thick-skinned woman who isn’t afraid to dance, tip-toe, stomp, and if necessary kick our way through them.


    The Rev. Melissa DeRosia (MDiv ’05) is the pastor and head of staff at Gates Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, where she lives with her husband Matt and two young daughters. Passionate and dedicated to follow God’s call in the changing landscape of the church, she has served as moderator of presbytery and is an elected member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly Mission Council. Melissa also is co-author with Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley of The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry (The Alban Institute, 2011).

  • Jane Kenyon will break your heart

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 06, 2012

    Over the next two weeks, I want to introduce you to two of my favorite poets. But before I do that, I want to say a word about poetry. During the past several years, I have led workshops and conversations on poetry. One of the reasons I do this is to encourage appreciation for poetry's capacity to do things for us that nothing else can do. From time to time, someone will say to me, “I don’t like poetry.” Most of the time what they mean is, “I don’t like bad poetry.” When exposed to good poetry, they are usually surprised to discover not only that they “like” it, but also that they feel a “need” for it.

    Jane Kenyon will break your heart. She will break your heart because of how she says what she has to say. Her verse keeps to a trim sparring weight, saying much by saying little. She will also break your heart because she falls silent far too soon—dead at forty seven, and conscious of death’s approach long before that. Her struggle with depression and, finally, leukemia provides an inner landscape for much of her poetry, but this inner struggle is vividly cast against the natural world, as in the opening lines of the poem which begins her collection, Let Evening Come (1990), “Three Songs at the End of Summer”: 
                                                                                                Jane Kenyon
                                                                                Source: http://www.aprweb.org

    A second crop of hay lies cut                                             
    and turned. Five gleaming crows
    search and peck between the rows.
    They make a low, companionable squawk,
    and like midwives and undertakers
    possess a weird authority.[i]

    Our lives, it is clear from Kenyon’s poetry, are part of nature. We find ourselves; we learn to know ourselves, in and through this natural world. The natural world of the Midwest, from which Kenyon came, and the Northeast in which she spent her most productive years, echo through her poetry. Kenyon was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she attended the University of Michigan, before marrying poet Donald Hall, a professor at the university. After their marriage, they moved to New Hampshire where she lived the rest of her life, becoming, in time, the poet laureate of New Hampshire. Hall, who would go on to become poet laureate of the United States, wrote arguably his most powerful volume of poetry, Without(1998), in response to Kenyon’s illness and death. And Wendell Berry reflects also on the loss he felt at Kenyon’s death in one of his Sabbath poems of 1998 (poem VI), writing: “For every year is costly/ As you well know. Nothing/ is given that is not/ Taken, and nothing taken/ That was not first a gift.”[ii]

    Jane Kenyon will break your heart. But enough of my telling you why; let me show you how.

    First, a poem from her 1993 collection, Constance, perhaps her most haunting poem, “Otherwise”:

    I got out of bed
    on two strong legs.
    It might have been
    otherwise. I ate
    cereal, sweet
    milk, ripe, flawless
    peach. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I took the dog uphill
    to the birch wood.
    All morning I did
    the work I love.

    At noon I lay down
    with my mate. It might
    have been otherwise.
    We ate dinner together
    at a table with silver
    candlesticks. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I slept in a bed
    in a room with paintings
    on the walls, and
    planned another day
    just like this day.
    But one day, I know,
    it will be otherwise.[iii]

    The poem takes in the world we take for granted with the same steady dark eyes we see in photos of Jane Kenyon, eyes that refuse, in the gathering darkness, to look away, but refuse also to grow maudlin and self-pitying.

    Finally, a few lines from one of my favorite poems; it appeared in the posthumously published collection, Otherwise (1996), “Happiness”:




    There’s just no accounting for happiness,

    or the way it turns up like a prodigal

    who comes back to the dust at your feet

    having squandered a fortune far away.


    And how can you not forgive?

    You make a feast in honor of what

    was lost, and take from its place the finest

    garment, which you saved for an occasion

    you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

    to know that you were not abandoned,

    that happiness saved its most extreme form

    for you alone…

    I must leave it to you to read on in these poems, and to let Jane Kenyon break your heart, too. But, perhaps, in this breaking there is also a heart healing we also need.

    [i] Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1990), 3.

    [ii] Wendell Berry, Given: Poems (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005), 60-61.
    [iii] Jane Kenyon, Collected Poems (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2005), 266.

  • Call me “Mother”

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 01, 2012

    Women Making History: A Special Edition of Thinking Out Loud

    Louisville Seminary is very proud of its progressive commitments regarding the education and preparation of women for ministry. Women have served on the faculty since the mid-1970s, and for more than fifteen years the faculty has consisted of nearly fifty percent women. The student body over the past ten years has even exceeded fifty percent. While Louisville Seminary holds all of its graduates in high esteem, during this Women’s History Month Thinking Out Loud will share insights from some of our many tenacious, courageous, and creative female graduates. I have asked several of our alumnae to write about their experience as a woman serving in ministry: What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being in ministry? What has surprised you the most about being in ministry? What have you found especially gratifying about being in ministry? Their reflections will no doubt enlighten and inspire you, as they have me.

    Michael Jinkins,

    Call me “Mother”

    By Anne Vouga

    I am old enough to have felt a call to ordained ministry before ever having met any female clergy and old enough to remember the people who gruffly changed lines to avoid taking communion from the hands of a woman priest. I was not one of the brave pioneers, however. It has taken God decades to get me into the Church, and while I have guiltily watched from the sidelines, women have taken their places as ordained leaders all around me. In seminary, surrounded by talented women professors and by female students of all ages, I thought that women were now seamlessly integrated into the life of the Church, and that my gender would hardly be noticed in my ministry. That notion evaporated my first week on the job, when my attempts to promote good environmental stewardship by accepting a donation of new dishes and getting the dishwasher repaired (so that the parish would no longer use environmentally harmful plastic) were met with resistance and the comment, “Well, it figures. We get a woman priest and the first thing she wants to talk about is dishes …!”

    First, I must point to the widespread consternation over how to address me. In the Episcopal Church, male priests are commonly called “Father,” but the female equivalent, “Mother,” makes those of us who are not highly Anglo-Catholic cringe. It conjures up a picture of a pious Mother Superior in a habit. “Rev. Anne,” on the other hand, sounds rather like a country parson and is grammatically incorrect. And as for just plain “Anne,” why should my parishioners call me only by my first name while they honor a male colleague with the title, “Father?” I have been called everything from “Father Anne,” to “Madre,” to “Priestess” in an attempt to cover the discomfort with humor, and there is no perfect solution in sight. A title is perhaps not a big deal, but the inability to name an identity is surely a sign that the identity itself is not clearly and unambiguously formed.

    While the title “Mother” might still make people uncomfortable, I must say that the life experience that has best prepared me for the role of parish priest is my experience as a mother, and a single mother at that! On the one hand, I was prepared for the long hours of never-ending work and the deep loneliness of the responsible caretaker. On the other hand, I recognize the duty to love and guide while letting go and encouraging independence. The same nerves of steel and heart of love that allowed me to care for my sick child in the hospital now allow me to pray with a grieving spouse in the ICU. I recognize the same feelings of pride and satisfaction when the governing board takes ownership of a difficult issue as I did when my teenager got behind the wheel of the car for the first time. And the eyes peering over the edge of the chalice and over the silver baby cup look up with the same openness and vulnerability. I had no idea that motherhood was preparing me for ordained ministry. That is both surprising and strangely gratifying.

    The Rev. Anne Vouga (MDiv ’08) is the Rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She also blogs at “Writing What I See” | annevouga.blogspot.com

  • Intellectual Empathy

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 28, 2012


    Our old professor would enter the classroom like a phantom from another age. His black master’s gown billowed behind him as he came through the door, the North Atlantic wind whipping across the quadrangle of King’s College and into our drafty ground-floor classroom. Halfway through his lecture, what with his frenzied scribblings on the ancient rotating chalkboard, his gown would be covered in a dusting to compete with the snow on the lawn. But what I remember most distinctly from that course was not its picturesque quality but Professor James Torrance’s embodiment of intellectual empathy,

    Professor Torrance had a way of taking us deep into the context that gave rise to a philosopher’s thought, of exploring the inspirations and motivations behind it. It didn’t matter whether he agreed with the thinker’s arguments or not; his aim was to help us to glimpse the unique genius of that philosopher’s insights. After such lectures, we would dash off to the university library to read everything we could find about the perspective in question, having glimpsed (if only momentarily) its inner logic and beauty.

    Isaiah Berlin argued that genuine intellectual empathy requires creativity and commitment—a commitment and a willingness to imagine others’ ideas from within. One has to come alongside another person. One has to be willing to say, “I may not share your perspective—in fact, I may disagree with you entirely!—but we share a common humanity and so I want to understand what you think.”

    This capacity for intellectual empathy is essential to those who wish to live generously and with integrity in a pluralistic society. Perhaps it is even more essential today than in times past, given the social and cultural forces that presently foster division and encourage peremptory dismissal of opposing views—not to mention our enhanced capacities to destroy one another. Practicing intellectual empathy is a kind of spiritual discipline, because it necessitates that we put aside our belief that the lens through which we view the world is the only right one (see Rom 12:3). In intellectual empathy we do not sacrifice critical thinking, but before we move in to offer critique we first hear others thoughtfully and try to imagine what it would be like to share their convictions. It was just that kind of intellectual empathy that I saw lived out in Professor Torrance’s classroom. He would wait until we were thoroughly entranced with whatever perspective we were studying before he would enter into his careful, critical analysis. Never once, moreover, did he exhibit the least bit of rancor or partisanship. His task was always to seek and to find the truth.

    My thoughts returned to these lessons learned from Professor Torrance as I was reading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In one passage Burke takes issue with a sermon by Dr. Richard Price, an eminent dissenting minister of the time, who on November 4, 1789, preached a sermon in London praising the French Revolution. Burke, deeply suspicious of political and social revolution, contended that “we ought to suspend judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided.” Congratulations should not be offered too soon, until it could be seen whether discipline, order, religion, and property could be properly managed—otherwise our congratulations “may be soon turned into complaints.” Burke’s response to Price gave rise, almost immediately, to a further response by Thomas Paine. Paine’s “The Rights of Man” was influential to our American democracy in its infancy (as his earlier “Common Sense” had proven influential in our own revolution against Britain).

    I find myself wishing that educators today would spend more time helping us see the deep connections among the countervailing arguments that have given rise to our cherished convictions. Here we have such a good example: Price’s sermon provoking Burke’s Reflections and giving rise to Paine’s tract. In some sense becoming educated—and this is certainly true of becoming theologically educated—is a matter of taking our own place in the vast, centuries-spanning conversation about what it means to be human. It is a conversation that began long before we entered the room and will continue long after we have exited. How might the debates that polarize our churches and our society today be different if students were practiced in such intellectual empathy?

    Teaching methods have changed. Chalkboards and chalk dust have given way to other media, and classrooms are a great deal more interactive. But what my old professor modeled years ago remains true today: to be educated is not simply to know some things; rather, it is to cultivate a posture of humility and respect toward those others who have tried (with more or less success) to understand the things that we also are trying to comprehend.

  • An Apocalypse of Hope

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 21, 2012

    A few weeks ago, board chairs and presidents of Presbyterian seminaries gathered in New York City for our annual meeting. As is our custom we began our daily sessions with a prayer and devotional. This year, we were in for a very special treat: the leader of our Saturday morning devotional was Dr. James Forbes, former pastor of the Riverside Church in New York and one of the greatest preachers of our time.

    There were so many memorable aspects of Dr. Forbes's devotional. First, there was the way he redefined the very term "devotional" into a moment of pure proclamation. Second, there was the lesson he taught us about passion and rhetoric. He filled a small room at Auburn Theological Seminary and shared with a small group the level of energy we ordinarily associate with a cathedral stuffed to the rafters. Third, there was the way he used the familiar parable of the prodigal son as a lesson about the humanizing power of employment, the redemptive power of work.

    But for me, the most memorable aspect of his devotional was in an aside. (Isn't it interesting how often God's Word breaks through when the preacher says something that isn’t on the main point? It reminds me of the old Scottish theologian's remark that the Word of God lies between the lines of the Bible.) Dr. Forbes, just as an aside, mentioned how much he loves and how often he returns to read James Washington's collection of the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope. Dr. Forbes directed our attention particularly to the address Dr. King delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. It was his famous sermon, "I See the Promised Land" (aka “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top”).

    While Dr. Forbes mainly drew our attention to the redemptive power of work, his comments about Washington's collection opened a floodgate of associations for me. This wonderful book has served as a text book in classes I have taught for years on "power and change," a subject about which Dr. King had a subtle and profoundly theological understanding. In his essay, “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” Dr. King places the civil rights struggle in theological context in a way that invites persons of all races and ethnicities into a common undertaking for the sake of God's reign. In lesser known pieces, like "An Experiment in Love" (1958), "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi" (1959), "Suffering and Faith" (1960), and "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience" (1961), Dr. King invites us to understand the spiritual and intellectual, as well as the philosophical and theological, potential of what he described as "the only road to freedom."

    James Washington titled this collection of the essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope. And that is appropriate. But reading them today, in light of all that has been accomplished but also in light of all that remains to be done in order to free persons of every race and ethnicity from the godless fetters of oppression, to open the doors of opportunity to full employment and the dignity that goes with meaningful work, to ensure that justice rolls down like a rushing stream and love finds a way to triumph over hatred and violence, I cannot but think of this "testimony" in different terms, in "apocalyptic" terms. Among doomsday prophets both religious and secular it has become fashionable to envision dire scenarios of famine and warfare, hatred and violence in the streets of our cities. But Dr. King's writings show us "a more excellent way," by recasting a biblical promise of an apocalypse—literally a “revelation”—of hope.

    I know the cynics would have a field day with a phrase like "an apocalypse of hope"—so addicted has our culture become to the rhetoric of despair. But Dr. King, like Gandhi before him, knew from bitter experience that "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" ultimately leaves the whole world toothless and blind. Dr. King knew that Jesus of Nazareth has given us an alternative, and he showed us what can be accomplished when we are willing not just to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ but to embody that gospel, to employ love as a social force, to let God use us as agents of liberation working to transform the social realities and the hearts of humanity.

    Dr. King looked into the future that we now inhabit. Despite the challenges he foresaw and in the face of monumental opposition, he etched the future with words that ring with apocalyptic hope: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

    Can he get an Amen?

  • Lessons from a Sandbar

    by User Not Found | Feb 07, 2012

    The gospels don’t have much nice to say about sand. The most familiar reference in the Bible warns us not to build our houses on the stuff. Good advice. I’ve spent some time reflecting on sand, sand dunes, and sand bars while meandering along a beach near our summer retreat, and I’ve noticed a few things which, frankly, I had not noticed before.

    Sandbars are a landform right out of the pages of Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher who famously observed that we cannot step into the same stream twice. From one tide to the next, sand bars are always changing, shifting. Walking among them your feet actually feel the change happening right between your toes, the water swirling little clouds of sand in the sparkling salt water. If you were to map the sandbars on a beach one day, the next day you’d almost have to start from scratch with a new map.

    For example, I encountered two huge tidal pools the size of good-sized ponds at the beach near our place. They were so large, it was impossible to walk down the beach at low tide without crossing several small rivulets. For over a week, the larger of the two pools supported several schools of fish and supplied cranes and other sea birds with three square meals a day. A week later, an especially high tide opened up a stream again to the ocean, and one of the pools drained completely away.

    I came across a group of kayakers who had been reliably navigating some of the larger streams among the bars the week before. To their surprise, however, the streams they had taken for granted had become so shallow, they spent more time portaging than paddling. Eventually, they gave up and put out to sea.

    It occurred to me that there are some really valuable lessons hidden among the changing sand bars. The most obvious lesson is that everything really is changing all the time. Among the sand bars, this is obvious. You can’t ignore it. The mountains, plains, even the continents are always on the move, too. But their rate of change is so slow that you don’t see it, unless you check the fossil record. The change among the sand bars is something you can’t ignore, and it is a great place to think about life, in general, and the church, in particular.

    Well, actually, you can ignore change among the sand bars. But, if you do, you could drown, as a group of tourists did about ten years ago. They weren’t watching the changing of the tides as they frolicked on a sand bar that had formed way out in the Atlantic. When high tide came rushing in (as it can do!), they found themselves cut off from the shore and pulled out to sea on a rip tide.

    Another lesson occurred to me as I was walking in the shallow water off one of those sand bars farther out. You really need to learn the difference between the dorsal fins of sharks and dolphins. This is a lesson of some urgency when you are waist deep in the water. If it is a dolphin, you’re heart will sing with joy. There are few more graceful, beautiful creatures on God’s earth than a dolphin, and they will come right up to you in the wild. If it is a shark, well, you may want to be elsewhere. There’s also a lesson here about unnecessary anxiety. There are times when I suspect that lots of people are just too frightened to go into the water because they have convinced themselves that every dorsal fin they see is a shark. You will miss some beautiful, awesome sights if you let ignorance and anxiety keep you out of the water.

    Two other very quick lessons from the sand bars: Not everything that is pretty is safe. Anyone who has ever tangled with a Portuguese Man of War or gotten a barb from a Sting Ray knows this lesson, and both of these lovely creatures are abundant in the streams that cut through the sand bars. Debbie and I saw a fellow yell out to his buddies, “Hey, watch this!” as he grabbed the tail of a Sting Ray. I wonder how often in life the spurting of blood has followed those fateful words. We suspected that a liberal quantity of beer was related to this particular close encounter of the painful kind.

    And, the final lesson: If you know where to go, just as the tide is shifting, you can walk along the top of a sand bar that is still slightly covered with surf. And it looks exactly like you are walking on water.

  • Faith and Political Rhetoric

    by User Not Found | Jan 31, 2012

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

    · Individuals have priority over community, and the only right that ultimately counts for anything is the right of the individual not to be constrained by the needs or interests of others.

    · Altruism is suspect because the only thing we can vouch for with anything approaching certainty is the purity of self-interest and the will to survive.

    · The single great power we can trust is the power of the economic free market to reward industry and provide the greatest good.

    · The middle way, moderation, negotiation, and compromise are evils because morality has no shades of gray.

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

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

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

    "Why," I asked.

    "Jesus told me to," he said.

    This is where I ended up, too.

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


    [1] Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 198-221.

    [2] Ibid., 217.

    [3] See, for example, Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, ed. Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 43-48, 56-65; Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Basic Books, 1993); and Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

  • World Changers

    by User Not Found | Jan 24, 2012

    Last week, I heard two riveting addresses on the future of the church and theological education, the first by Barbara Wheeler, Director of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, the second by Dan Aleshire, Executive Director of The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Together they painted a portrait of unprecedented societal changes that have major implications for the future of the church — societal, demographic, and cultural shifts that leave the church in a less privileged position; financial shifts that make it more and more difficult to provide the kind of theological education we know improves the work of ministry; and shifts in the culture that make it easier for persons to church-hop, placing enormous pressure on pastors and congregants to appeal to the interests and needs of people who, years ago, they could have assumed would come to church with little prompting at all because going to church was just something people did.

    But throughout the portrait they painted, amid the news that tends to deflate us, there were opportunities scattered everywhere.

    For example, predominantly Euro-American denominations like Presbyterianism and Methodism (both of which originated in the British Isles) often throw up their hands when they look at the graying of their congregations, fearing the implication that in two decades or so the church will have shrunk by half (if not more). But there is an extraordinary opportunity for the transformation of these very churches by persons around the globe who have been called to follow Jesus Christ and are members even now of Presbyterian Churches and the Methodist Churches and others. These Christians (often from the Global South) have much to teach us if we are willing to learn and are willing to join with them. But there has to be a true partnership, in which we really do listen and join with them. This means relinquishing our assumption that we have the right to determine how they must change in order to join with us, and finding ways to collaborate on our shared commitment to spreading the good news of the Gospel and to working for justice, peace, and reconciliation wherever there is war or strife, as expressions of God’s reconciling love.

    And this is only the tip of the iceberg of one opportunity. Just one! There are so many other places where our mainline denominations can expand partnerships and reach across lines that divide us, even within denominations: lines of race, and of economic inequality, to give just two examples.

    Now, more than ever, I believe "Job #1" for us — as people who love the Church of Jesus Christ and who are called to follow Christ in witness and service — is to seek out for ministerial leadership the kind of people who see the opportunities amid the apparently dismal news, the people who want to grow new churches and revitalize established ones, who respect all persons and are willing to learn from them. We need to seek them out, provide a theological education that supports them in ministry, and send them out in a position to take risks, fail, and succeed for the sake of the gospel (which is why at Louisville Seminary we intend to make seminary debt a thing of the past).

    But as we recruit this kind of risk-taking, self-starting leader, we must be aware that the sort of people who make great leaders are sometimes least compliant to rigid institutional norms and standards. They are not typically identified as teachers' pets. They may take more mentoring and coaching (not least in theological field education internships), and they are unlikely to take to old-fashioned “sage-on-the-stage” classroom instruction. But, they will endure in ministry when others have decided to pack up and go home, because they have a tremendous capacity to live with risks and failure. They are more likely to keep trying new things till they find that breakthrough.

    This is good news for the future of the church. It may be that just as in the time of Saint Paul the Spirit of God took advantage of the Roman roads (which the Romans built for military purposes) to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire; and just as the Spirit of God, in the time of Luther and Calvin, used the newly invented moveable print press and the changing alliances in Europe as nation-states emerged to fire the Reformation; so today, the Spirit of God is working amid the startling shifts of society, culture, and demography to create new hearings for the liberating power of the gospel.

    The challenges we face are huge today. But the opportunities are just as great.

  • Spirits that Encourage

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 17, 2012

    They say that you learn something new every day. I don’t know if that is true, but I remember the day last fall when I learned something genuinely new to me.

    I was reading Barbara Dianne Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2008), which has been selected as the recipient of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. What I learned may surprise you, too.

    According to Dr. Savage, it is really something of a miracle that “religious belief, religious institutions, and religious people came to be seen as so essential” to the civil rights movement. She says the fact that Black religion did play a central role in the movement “remains the central paradox in African American political history.”

    Perhaps this should not surprise us, however.

    Dr. Savage reminds us of the debate that at one time raged over the role of religion in the struggle for civil rights. Some African American leaders, for example the great W. E. B. Du Bois, expressed disdain for the practiced faith (popular religion) of many Black Christians, a fact that Cornel West has also noted.[i] Savage observes that "Du Bois had explored the question of black elite disillusionment with traditional black religion and the resulting political implications in his 1928 novel, Dark Princess."[ii] However, as she also observes, Du Bois, Carter Woodson, and Benjamin Mays “diverged on many points, but believed in the centrality of churches to the institutional structure of African American communities and to the political fortunes of the race." Nevertheless, "for them, black churches were too emotional in worship style and too focused on heaven and not enough on earth. Churches were too small, too many, and too independent of any centralized authority, including any control over their growth and direction."[iii] Thus, Savage writes: "The search for an institutional base for black political and social advancement seemed to run into a dead end at the church door."[iv]

    And yet, by the mid-twentieth century civil rights leader John Lewis would describe the civil rights movement as a "religious phenomenon." Lewis wrote of the civil rights movement in which he then participated: "It was church-based, church-sanctioned; most of its members and its activities flowed through and out of the black church, in small towns and rural communities as well as urban areas. The church, in a very real way, was the major gateway for the movement. It was the point of access in almost every community."[v]

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in many ways, serves as a critical and constructive bridge, as James M. Washington writes in the introduction to A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., which he edited: "Although he often criticized black Christians for their complacency, King never disowned either the black church movement or his own early faith commitments. He deepened their intellectual grounding, but he never belittled the faith of the people or their powerful spirituality. In fact, he tells story after story of how black people of faith, such as Mother Pollard, emboldened and inspired him to press forward."[vi]

    The story of how the situation changed so dramatically—of how, over the course of two generations, Black churches came to play a central role in the civil rights movement—provides the original power of Savage’s must-read book. She is careful to differentiate among the variety of responses from Black churches, resisting the temptation to speak simplistically of "the Black church." She also reveals the role African American women played in and through Black churches, supporting the civil rights movement and calling forth better leadership in the congregations in which they served. As Savage demonstrates, the often unsung heroes of the civil rights movement were these African American women congregants. She writes: "While formal leadership roles often went to black men, black women also maintained a great deal of authority and clout in community and political work and in the family." Black women were the "'spine’ of the civil rights movement."[vii]

    With clarity and force, Dr. Savage tells a story that all our churches and, indeed, our whole country need to hear, reminding us that we still walk shoulder to shoulder with spirits that encourage us to act for justice across our society.

    The Grawemeyer Award in Religion is presented jointly by Louisville Seminary and the University of Louisville. It will be presented to Dr. Barbara D. Savage on April 11, 2012, and she will present a free public lecture on her award-winning book. Dr. Savage is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the first African American woman to be honored with this award. www.grawemeyer.org



    [i] A point Dr. West made in a lecture he presented to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Philadelphia not long after the publication of his groundbreaking book, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993). See also David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New York: Henry Holt, 1993) and, of course, Du Bois’ classic study, The Souls of Black Folk (originally published in 1903; New York: Penguin Books edition, 1989).

    [ii] Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2008), 63.

    [iii] Ibid., 65.

    [iv] Ibid., 67.

    [v] Ibid., 262.

    [vi] James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), xi. See also Noel Leo Erskine, King Among the Theologians (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 1-10.

    [vii] Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, 254.

  • Secularism and Pluralism

    by User Not Found | Jan 10, 2012

    I greeted the recent publication of Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor's essay, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience,[1] with considerable enthusiasm, because we need the best and most serious minds of our time wrestling with the most crucial issue of our time: how to manage moral and religious diversity. We must marshal the elements of understanding and persuasion to bring along those who disagree with one another, and build or reinforce the institutional and social structures that represent a morally sustainable social compact—one that allows us to differ with respect while holding responsible those who underscore their contempt for difference with violence.

    These tasks will require our best thoughts and our best efforts.

    I find much to applaud in Maclure and Taylor's essay, including their contention that "respect for the moral equality of individuals and the protection of freedom of conscience and of religion constitute the two major aims of secularism today." I agree that these are indeed the goals we ought to pursue, because if we do not manage to protect these freedoms of individual conviction and expression, society will disintegrate. But I must critique Maclure and Taylor for their account of “the ethos or ethic of citizenship” most likely to support social cooperation in diverse societies—an account that is so atomizing and so focused on the individual that it undercuts the solution it offers.

    They begin with John Rawls’ idea that pluralism is necessitated by "the limits of reason" (in other words, it is necessary because in our finitude we are prevented from knowing the “ultimate meaning of existence”). They next assume that we come individually to choose our structures of meaning and purpose from a kind of smorgasbord of possibilities. But two of these assumptions can set us on a path to treating one another's differences of conviction and conscience as mere matters of individual taste and preference. If we get to that place, then we will be unable to make the intuitive leap of empathy that says, "While I do not see the world as you do, I can understand how one can be fully human and faithful and see the world in that way."

    I believe that there is a more constructive starting point. First, it may be that the reason we are confronted with so many ways of accounting for ultimate meaning is not because of our finitude or ignorance, but because there really are a variety of ways to be faithfully and fully human.

    By way of illustration, we might note the variety of theological ends and ways of being faithful embraced in the Old and New Testaments—variety that it actually takes effort to ignore. Consider the four Gospels: the compilers of the New Testament titled each of them "According to…,” reflecting the evangelists’ distinct perspectives on the church’s story of Jesus. It must have taken a Herculean effort on the part of Tatian, a second century theologian, to produce the first harmony of those Gospels: so many details had to be suppressed or ignored! The pluralism that is at the very heart of our biblical faith reflects the breath-taking variety in God’s world.

    The second issue of my critique is that the authors of this important essay somehow do not notice that as humans we do not disinterestedly choose from among a range of axiological options, but are formed in and through communities that that believe certain things in certain ways and value particular things and ideas in particular ways. It is from within that formation and in relationship with the persons among whom we are formed that we make all our choices regarding beliefs and values. For example, I was "converted" to Christianity as a child because I was formed in a Christian community that conceptualized the basic problems of existence and meaning in a way that required sin and forgiveness to take center stage.

    If we construe our differences as merely matters of individual taste and preference, we trivialize the religious and moral questions that unite and separate us. We also cut ourselves off from the basic social unit of understanding and persuasion, which is not the individual exercising choice among isolated reasoned options in a graduate seminar on moral topics, but the person in community, where moral choices are made in several dimensions at once, all of which are fraught with social, personal, familial, political, cultural, and religious significance.

    The difference is crucial.

    We must learn to speak from within our different cultural and religious communities—the very communities that divide us— if we are to learn and to be heard. The great challenge of our time is to live and flourish together though we are different in important respects, but similar in ways that are just as important. To succeed at this critical endeavor, we must acknowledge how the groups and communities that shape us value certain ends and not others. We will not convince one another of our mutual rights to live and practice our faith (or our right to claim no faith at all) as long as we regard one another merely as atomistic ideological or religious consumers.

    By respecting the human necessity to seek meaning in and through communities, including communities of faith (diverse as they are) we have the opportunity to make real progress at living together in peace. By knowing one another through our communities of faith and other complex meaning-shaping groups we will come to see that which we have most truly in common: our human existence as ones created in the image of the God whose very being is in Communion.


    [1] Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Translated from French by Jane Marie Todd.

  • Scoundrels

    by User Not Found | Jan 03, 2012

    Among several books in my bedside stack this year were two about reputed scoundrels: Aaron Burr and Sir Francis Walsingham.

    I had long suspected that there was more to their stories than we get from popular depictions.

    In the popular mind, Aaron Burr is the bad boy of the founders. He killed Alexander Hamilton, after all, in a duel on the banks of Weehawken, New Jersey. If your only encounter with Burr is through Ron Chernow’s excellent and magisterial biography of Alexander Hamilton (as mine had largely been), you are not likely to have a very high opinion of him. But, even after reading Chernow’s book, I had this nagging feeling that there was more to Burr than I was being told. After all, Hamilton was no Boy Scout either.

    How could the man described so negatively by Chernow (and many other historians) have been so respected at one point as to have tied with Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, an election which was eventually decided by Congress in favor of Jefferson? [1] Burr is buried in the old Princeton Cemetery at the foot of his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, the greatest theologian in American history, and near his father, Aaron Burr Sr., a revered president of Princeton. Burr was a devoted Enlightenment philosophical thinker, a critical reader of Rousseau, and a careful student of Mary Wollstonecraft. He was deeply committed to the liberation and political enfranchisement of women in a time when such ideas were considered bizarre, educating his beloved daughter with the same care reserved only for male children of that time. After reading Jeremy Bentham’s philosophical writings (in a French translation), Burr became a champion of the most humane aspects of Utilitarianism and a close friend of Bentham. And while he was vilified by political opponents as a debauched rake, an unscrupulous liar, and a traitor (and by some of Hamilton’s colleagues as a cunning assassin), he was also admired by others as the most reliable of friends, a person of unyielding integrity.

    All of this I discovered in a fascinating book, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg (Penguin, 2007). Isenberg, a professor of nineteenth-century American history at the University of Tulsa, refuses to airbrush Burr’s faults (and there were many), but she also provides the political and historical context for understanding perhaps the most complex of all the founders of the new republic. Her insights, especially her understanding of how the popular press of the time was enlisted by partisan politicians to use innuendo and hints of guilt by association to destroy the reputation of a potentially important political opponent, are more relevant today than ever.

    My second scoundrel takes us further back in history to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. If your only acquaintance with Sir Francis Walsingham is from Geoffrey Rush’s superb portrayal of him in the Hollywood film, “Elizabeth” (as mine was!), then I want to encourage you to look deeper into this scoundrel too.

    In his book, Her Majesty’s Spymaster (Viking, 2005), Stephen Budiansky introduces us to a person who is just as ruthless as the person Rush portrayed in film. There’s no denying that. But, in addition to the Machiavellian servant of a Renaissance queen, a master of spycraft and espionage, we discover a person of deep faith, a person who had to negotiate his way between conflicting loyalties.

    From the opening pages of the book, I was struck by the fact that Walsingham, a committed Protestant, was the English ambassador to France during the infamous Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre of Huguenots (i.e., French Calvinists) in 1572. In fact, Walsingham’s residence was just across the Seine from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, not far from the area of the city where the massacre began. Walsingham personally is credited with saving many people who otherwise would have been slain. His reports from the scene helped alert people outside of France to the slaughter and helped set the record straight, so that the propaganda of the French rulers would not have the last word.

    Were Burr and Walsingham really scoundrels? Yes, probably by almost any standard. But, reading their stories in fuller detail, we are able to see that they were complex people, motivated by many different, complicated, often competing factors. Their faults were real faults and large faults. But so were their virtues.

    After reading their stories, my thoughts returned to a comment Luke Timothy Johnson made when he received the Grawemeyer Award in Religion at Louisville Seminary last year. He was reflecting on why he would rather dine with a particular major theologian, with whom he disagrees deeply, rather than with another religious figure, with whom he would probably agree on most doctrinal issues. I reflected on whether I would like to dine with either Burr or Walsingham. Yes, I decided, I would. I’d like Burr to choose the wine, however, and I wouldn’t let Walsingham have access to the food before we ate it. There are stories about poison, you see.


    [1] See also American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011) by David O. Stewart, also author of The Summer of 1787 and Impeached.

  • "Behold"

    by User Not Found | Dec 22, 2011

    Louisville Seminary is pleased to share the following link to a special Christmas message from President Michael Jinkins. May the miracle of Christmas shine ever-more brightly in a world where we truly see Christ through one another.


    By Michael Jinkins

    Lilly Endowment Inc.
    Christmas Luncheon, Indianapolis, Indiana
    December 22, 2011

    Text: Luke 2:1-20

    Traffic was bad that morning as my car crept into town on the expressway during that misnomered period of the day we call “rush hour.” It was a few days before Christmas. I was listening to NPR on the car radio. For some reason, someone was reading this passage of scripture:

    “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

    You know how your mind can catch on a word? It’s like how a hangnail can snag if you trail your hand across satin. My mind snagged on that word, “behold.” It occurred to me how peculiar, how out of place in the course of my day, that word is. We don’t ordinarily use it. I don’t walk into the copy room at the Seminary and say, “Behold, this paper upon which is written words needs to be photocopied!”

    “Behold” signals something contrary to ordinary.

    Hearing that word, stuck amidst my fellow commuters on the freeway that December morning, for just a moment something was kindled in me, a longing was evoked, rich with memories of smells and sounds of churches and forests; something was awakened. I longed to hear the word again, “Behold,” because something in it associated with things over which we have no control, things we need that we cannot do for ourselves.

    It was as though, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, my car was commandeered for serendipitous purposes. The Holy intruded on my commute. I remembered how C. S. Lewis described being “surprised by joy,” surprised by that “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” “Anyone who has experienced it,” Lewis says, “will want it again."[i]

    I remember still the lump in my throat that morning, the feeling of having been brushed against by someone else, something other, the Word of God, perhaps, or the Angel of the Lord, because, you see, only angels get up in the morning saying things like “Behold” or “Fear not” or “I bring you good tidings of great joy” or “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will” – we don’t.

    “Behold,” something is going on here that could change your way of seeing and hearing and knowing God and experiencing the world we take for granted. “Behold.”

    “Behold,” something is going on that will claim you in a whole new way, something so unprecedented that it won’t allow you to remain a disinterested bystander. This will demand that you belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to yourself, but to God. “Behold.”

    “Behold what?”

    Something you never dared to dream, something only prophets hoped for on your behalf, has happened, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

    “And they came with haste and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

    You are invited to download the entire Christmas message
    at the following link: Behold


    [i] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (London: Collins, Fontana edition, 1959), 20.

  • Away in a Manger

    by User Not Found | Dec 20, 2011

    We have all seen the rapt wonder in the eyes
     of children on a Christmas morning as their gaze dances across the lights, the tinsel, and the gifts under the tree. But the real marvel is not the wonder in their eyes on Christmas morning, is it? It is the wonder in their eyes just any old day when they see a dog or a cat they have seen and petted and talked to a dozen times before, and seeing this family pet, they look upon it as though for the first time and see as if it were the strangest and most wondrous creature ever to emerge from the pages of mythology. We have observed the same experience when a child’s gaze falls on a perfectly ordinary twig in the yard. Picking it up, they toddle toward you, holding the twig, bringing it to you. They place it in your hand as though to say, “Look what I have discovered. It’s a miracle, a tiny, bark-encrusted miracle. Have you ever seen anything so amazing?”

    The wonder is that children find wonder in everything, absolutely everything. Children are enchanting because their world is enchanted.

    Scholars have long noted the “disenchantment” of the world around us. Some have chalked it up to the Enlightenment, to modernity, or post-modernity, or post-post-modernity. There is surely some truth in all their theories, though I am inclined to chalk up our “disenchantment” of the world to a tendency that humanity has had for a long, long time, the tendency not to notice.

    Surely, our tendency not to notice could be tied to the assumptions we have carried around since the dawn of the age of science, assumptions that strain-out whole categories of experience from our observations, reducing the most amazing displays of the world around us to dry calculations. And, certainly, the fact that we have become acquainted with the rule of secondary causation has had some effect on our tendency to attribute everything that happens to God. But I suspect that some of the disenchantment of our world is simply because, as someone has said, as we grow older we grow calluses on our souls. Our touch grows less sensitive. We stop noticing just how utterly astonishing the world is.

    I suspect that one reason, long after we achieve adulthood, we find ourselves drawn to tales of wonder—whether in the form of complex cinematic worlds peopled with science-fiction avatars or in the myths, fairy tales, and stories from C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and J.R.R. Tolkien we read to our children, our grandchildren, nieces, and nephews—is because we hunger to notice the world again in all its enchantment.

    Of all the amazing scenes of the Christmas story, the one that never fails to amaze me is that of the shepherds who found their way to the manger, and who noticed something miraculous there. Having grown up on a farm, I can say with some authority that most farmers and ranchers are pretty unsentimental people, not given to flights of fancy. They don’t go searching for elves under cabbage leaves, or wherever elves are supposed to dwell. Shepherds lived with both feet planted on the ground. But that didn’t stop them from finding enchantment in a manger.

    Undoubtedly lots of other people passed by the vicinity of the barn where Jesus was born and never noticed what the Creator of the Universe was up to inside. But, thanks to the intercession of angels, a group of shepherds noticed that God had become flesh and blood, and was curled-up next to a young woman, his mother, on a bale of hay. They noticed—and wonder attended.

    Especially at Christmas, I love to watch the old film, “Harvey,” starring Jimmy Stewart. It is not a “Christmas movie.” It is a sort of comedy of errors, really, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Chase. Even more, it is a comedy of attentiveness, reminding us of presences unnoticed, of a world wrought with wonders through which we pass yawning.

    One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs when Dr. Chumley, the head of a psychiatric hospital, speaks with Elwood P. Dodd, our young hero (played by Jimmy Stewart) who is in the process of being committed to Dr. Chumley’s asylum because he sees Harvey, a pooka, a six foot tall rabbit. Dr. Chumley’s problem—and the reason he is speaking to Elwood in this scene—is that he has begun to see Harvey too. Dr. Chumley, whose scientific world has unexpectedly crashed on the rocks of Celtic mythology in the person of Harvey, asks Elwood to tell him all about Harvey. As Elwood talks, the doctor grows even more enraptured. Elwood could talk for hours about Harvey, about how they met at the corner of 18th Street and Fairfax, about how Harvey and he have made new friends, and how Harvey has overcome “not only time and space, but any objections.” Finally, the Doctor leaps from his chair and says: “Fly specks! Fly specks! I’ve been spending my life among fly specks while miracles have been leaning on lampposts at 18th and Fairfax.”

    Miracles indeed are leaning on lampposts at the corner of 18th and Fairfax, and on countless other street corners. The miracle that lies “away in a manger,” the child “asleep in the hay,” reminds us this is true.

    The glory of God is that God is among us whether we notice God or not. And the Christmas story is a neon-lighted, tinsel-bright sign pointing out this fact that is always a fact whether we acknowledge it or not. The Christmas story invites us to be amazed like children enchanted by crystal Christmas balls, twinkling lights, the gifts wrapped in foil paper, and the freckles on the hands of the person by whom the gifts were wrapped. God is not a million miles away, so the story of Christmas reminds us. God is present with us. Enchantment follows when we notice again.

    Merry Christmas


    About the Artwork

    Whatever It Takes, Get to the Manger

    by naïf/Vallarta artist Manuel Lepe (1936-1981)

    The artwork is a gift from Louisville Seminary alum Rev. David Sharp (MDiv ’66), who commissioned this piece in 1979 to encourage within all of us childlike anticipation of Christ’s coming during the season of Advent. Sharp has bequeathed his collection of religious art—more than 50 paintings and sculptures—to Louisville Seminary in gratitude for his LPTS education and to theologically inspire others. His gift represents his personal testimony of faith and a legacy of his calling as an effective interpreter of the Gospel.

  • “What’s in there, anything worth my time?”

    by User Not Found | Dec 13, 2011

    Seminary Dean David Hester and I were recently talking about the kinds of Christian education that really make a difference in people’s lives.

    We discussed the value of people learning to read and interpret scripture for themselves—the skill, incidentally, that was the powerhouse behind the Protestant Reformation.

    We also discussed the value of people learning to reflect theologically on their own lives, and noted that some of the greatest theology ever written came from persons we offhandedly call “lay people,” including the incomparable C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and William Stringfellow.

    Our conversation then turned to a related subject: how hard it is to find really great curriculum these days and how we have all become complicit (intentionally or unintentionally) in the trivializing of the Christian faith. There’s no way we would tolerate an equivalent trivialization of medicine, law, or finance—we still treat those fields as serious matters. And yet we endure and even encourage a dumbing-down in our church’s efforts to teach the faith.

    My conversation with the dean reminded me of a sermon by the great Baptist preacher and intellectual Carlyle Marney. The title of the sermon, which was first preached in 1958, is “The Recovery of Center,” and the opening paragraph reads:

    He was halfway up the broad entrance-stairs to Marshall Field Museum and had stopped; hands on hips, socks drooping over shoetops, shirt-front bulging, campaign buttons on his lapels. With pens and pencils dripping from his pocket to declare his responsible status, he stood there. Arrogant in his ignorance, I remember him because he was calling to a friend, “What’s in there, anything worth my time?”

    Is there anything in a grand museum worthy of this arrogant and self-important fellow’s time?

    Today, there are people standing outside the church wondering if there is anything in there worth their time. But is the problem their arrogance? Or is it our failure, as preachers and teachers, to believe in the power of the Gospel and proclaim it boldly, in all its fullness and mystery? Too often, the gospel’s unwitting worst enemy is not the outsider who spurns it, but the insider who simply can’t or won't take it seriously.

    I wonder why we tend to trivialize the Christian faith. There may be several reasons.

    1. Perhaps it is familiarity that breeds a grudging contempt for the gospel among us. Maybe we just take for granted the wonder and power of the Christian message, convincing ourselves the gospel must be trivialized in order to appear relevant.

    2. Perhaps is it our own arrogance that leads us to trivialize the faith. We are convinced that we are wiser and more powerful than the gospel, that we can’t seriously entrust the world’s problems to God. We seem to be convinced that if only we can get the organizational structure right, introduce the right program, hire the right consultant, we can fix everything.

    3. Or perhaps our drive to reduce and contain the gospel (which is another version of trivializing) is actually a consequence of our fear of the gospel’s magnitude and mystery. Deep inside, where we don’t like to look, maybe we know that anything that has the power to raise us from the dead also has the power to bury our fondest aspirations. Our trivializing of the gospel may be a backhanded expression of our reverence for a God we know we can’t control.

    “What’s in there?” Marney asked in his sermon. He hypothetically samples some responses:

    ‘A tie with our sacred past,’ says the ancestor worshiper, whether Shintoist or D.A.R. ‘A mighty fine preserver of the status quo is in there,’ says the social conservative who fears all changes. ‘The Church is a harmless and mildly beneficent cathartic,’ says a psychologist; ‘a convenient January and April charity,’ says the economic opportunist…. With even more dreadful seriousness, but just as shallowly: some say the Church is a great institution, and will preserve the American Way…. To others, the Church is an arena for personal aggrandizement; while still others, carrying all their frustration forward at the bottom of each column, make their church a scene of perpetual warfare.

    Marney is clearly not satisfied with these answers, and neither should we be.

    “What’s in there, anything worth my time?” someone asks on the steps of our metaphorical church.

    What’s “in there” is the gospel of the crucified Christ who has the power to raise us from every death. And, yes, that gospel is more than worth our time.

    Marney ended his sermon by reflecting on Jesus Christ as the Center of our faith, echoing St. Paul’s insight (I Cor 1:18-31) that the scandal of the cross of Christ claims the center of the church’s proclamation. I suspect that it is right to bring up the scandal of the cross since we are forever preoccupied with impressing everyone around us that we are sophisticated and smart, and the gospel never does quite stop being a scandal. We really are offended that the gospel has more power than all our attempts either to organize or to entertain people into the reign of God.

    Marney observes that “the Church is no Church without this scandal, this offense, this Cross.” This cross—horrific, cataclysmic, and offensive—finally and mercifully, is not reducible to a cartoon or a program. This cross, finally and mercifully, resists being trivialized even by the church in its anxiety and its compulsion to be accepted.

    “We pray, God,” Marney says in closing, “that the life and witness of us all will issue from this Center, not from a lesser fragment.”

    Can the preacher get an “Amen”?

  • A Matter of Substance

    by User Not Found | Dec 06, 2011

    This year, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company turned 100 years old. At a time when many Christian publishers are responding to the swiftly changing environment in the industry by producing tripe and pretending it is prime rib, thus treating persons of faith as though being a "fool for Christ" must make one foolish, the venerable publishing house of Eerdmans proves again its worth by cultivating a list of books distinguished by devotion and depth. And, their faith in substance has been rewarded by continued success in the marketplace. Who says the age of miracles has come to a close?

    "We're a company doing its duty under the eye of eternity," Bill Eerdmans said in an article in The Grand Rapids Press. Bill (William B. Eerdmans Jr.), who succeeded his father, William B. Eerdmans Sr., 48 years ago, is only the second president the family-owned business has had in its 100-year history. Anita Eerdmans, in a quote from the same newspaper article (which she has since said must have made their bankers cringe; though I'm pretty sure it did no such thing), said: "It's always been about the books. It's not about how big we can grow or how much money we can make. The books are always central."

    Both Bill and Anita (husband and wife) are good friends of Louisville Seminary; and Anita, who serves as vice president for marketing and director of young readers, is a trustee of the Seminary. It only takes about five minutes with Bill or Anita to understand the significance of this statement, "The books are always central." Or, you could tour their new headquarters in Grand Rapids and visit with the long-time employees of the publishing house, like Jon Pott, the company's managing editor, who cannot keep himself from talking about the scholars with whom he works closely and theological content as though what matters most for this publishing house, and for him personally, is the quality of the content of their books.

    There's a lesson here, for publishing houses, who are tempted to give in to every passing fad in the desperate hope that they will survive, but also for churches and seminaries. Of course, all institutions must change and adapt to shifts in the environment. But how you change matters. Quality matters. Knowledge matters. Those of us in the knowledge business have a duty to respect those who buy and read our books, listen to our sermons, and attend our classes. In the final analysis, people will not thank us if we sell them attractively or provocatively or humorously packaged messes of pottage (to use a biblical metaphor) when what they wanted and needed were the words of life. It's a matter of substance, maybe even a matter of life and death. Three cheers for a publishing house that understands this.


    For follow up reading, see Larry Tenharmsel, with Reinder Van Til, An Eerdmans Century: 1911-2011 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); and Ann Byle’s "WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids celebrates 100th anniversary" The Grand Rapids Press, August 14, 2011.

  • Water Skiing with a Dead Poet

    by User Not Found | Nov 29, 2011

    A few weeks ago, in one of those small independent, often idiosyncratic, bookstores that we see fewer and fewer of these days, I came across a poet who had been (up until now for me) only a name on a list of lesser-known writers from long, long ago. The poet's name is William Dunbar. He was a court poet for King James IV of Scotland. James was the grandfather of Mary Queen of Scots and founder of my alma mater, King's College, in Aberdeen.

    Dunbar was, in some ways, a conventional court poet, but he wrote a passage that guaranteed at least one sale over five hundred years after he went out of business. I came across the passage standing in the bookstore scanning his verse:

    Done is a battel on the dragon blak,

    Our campioun Chryst counfountet hes his force;
    The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
    The signe triumphall rasit is of the croce,
    The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
    The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go,
    Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:

    Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

    Christ battling the dragon! Hell's gates crashing down! Demons trembling!

    No wonder C.S. Lewis said of this poem by Dunbar that "it vibrates with exultant energy" and "defies the powers of evil" with the ring of "a steel gauntlet flung down."

    By the way, a hint for comprehending Dunbar's mixture of late Middle English, Scots dialect and the occasional Latin: Read him out loud. Much (if not all) will become clear.

    C.S. Lewis gives another bit of advice for comprehending Dunbar's Christmas poem. This one needs to be sung, said Lewis. If you read it late at night, sitting alone in the quiet of your room, Lewis said, "On laying the book down," you are "almost shocked" to discover "that the choir and organ existed only in our imagination."

    Lewis does not share the tune he hears. Try one of your own favorites.

    Dunbar's poem about Christ's birth is perfect as we enter the season of Advent. Lewis observes of this poem that it has nothing in common with "the modern—the German or the Dickensian—attributes of Christmas."

    There's certainly nothing sentimental about it. Dunbar is closer to Gregory of Nyssa than he is to the shopping mall Santa when he writes:

    Synnaris be glaid and pennance do

    And thank your makar hairtfully,

    For he that ye mycht nocht cum to

    To yow is cummin full humly;

    Your saulis with his blud to by

    And lous yow of the fiendis arrest,

    And only of his awin mercy

    Pro nobis Puer natus est.

    A couple of days before I came across this little book by Dunbar, I heard Billy Collins, the former poet laureate, on A Prairie Home Companion. I remembered the poem in which Collins encourages readers of poetry to water ski across the surface of a poem, or to feel your way in the dark along the poem's wall until you find the light switch. This is nowhere truer than with a poet from another age, another whole world, like Dunbar. But somehow, the deciphering makes the discovering that much more fun—and that much more memorable.

    Today, in this age of instant access to ideas that are seldom worth even the small trouble, I want to encourage you to seek out a poet, a good poet, who will require a little work; slap on a pair of water skis, and have a go!

  • The Purest Form of Thankfulness

    by User Not Found | Nov 22, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 
    "To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it," writes Wendell Berry in his classic essay Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (2000). As we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving, in a prolonged season of insecurity and want, when many people lack the most common necessities and many others fear the reverberations of economic shoes that may or may not yet drop, Berry's words are especially appropriate.

    Perhaps the purest form of thankfulness is simply not to take life for granted as we are living it. Just paying attention in the moment may be the most sincere expression of devotion in response to God the Giver. Perhaps, in fact, it is a prayer of gratitude more profound than any ever to enter the official liturgies of our churches just to savor those silent moments sitting with an aging parent who may not remember our visit; or listening to the problems facing a maturing child without giving-in to the temptation to offer advice; or sharing a glass of wine with a spouse or partner or friend who has had a really, really bad day. Herein may lie the mystery of the Eucharistic feast, reminding us that the very word Eucharist is all about a kind of thanks we offer because we have noticed God at work among us. I suspect that at life's end we will regret how poorly we attended to the ordinary occasions of tenderness far more than many of the things that clamor now for our attention.

    These thoughts have been on my mind lately, not least because of the publication of Joan Didion's achingly unsentimental memoir reflecting on the loss of her daughter, Quintana Roo. Her just-published book, Blue Nights, tells the story of an unspeakable grief hard on the heels of the death of Joan's husband, John Gregory Dunne, which was the subject of her magnificent memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Blue Nights opens with an elegant chapter explaining the title:

    "This book is called 'Blue Nights' because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning."

    Over the years, I have found repeatedly in the greatest chronicles of sorrow (like C. S. Lewis' A Grief Observed and John Claypool's Tracks of a Fellow Struggler) the same hard-won lesson that we find in Didion's memoirs, a message not unlike the one expressed by Wendell Berry. Life is a miracle, precious in every respect, precious beyond words, and it deserves all the reverence we can muster. Nowhere is this truer than in our regard for and care of the persons we love but so easily take for granted. The most haunting line in Didion's new memoir was evoked by her reflection on how all the most ordinary items and objects associated with her husband and daughter now serve "only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here."

    So, this Thanksgiving, I want to encourage us all, whether we will celebrate the holiday surrounded by loved ones or separated from them by miles, not to fail to appreciate the moment when it is here. If we are with our families, let us enjoy the warmth and insanity, the unintended humor, the differences between us that make us irritating and the similarities that make us even more unbearable to each other. And if we are separated, for God's sake, let's pick up the phone and not let the moment pass. Let's make it clear that we are not giving up on life or each other by treating life and those we love as the miracle they are.

    As the Book of Common Prayer reminds us to pray: "Most gracious God ... We beseech thee, give us a just sense of these great mercies, such as may appear in our lives by an humble, holy, and obedient walking before thee all our days."

  • The Next Frontier

    by User Not Found | Nov 15, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 

    The following is an excerpt from “The Next Frontier,” a sermon presented by Michael Jinkins at the Stated Meeting of the Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, November 14, 2011. The sermon is available in its entirety in video or as a downloadable PDF

    “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” (Luke 10:2)

    I want to tell you a story about where we came from and where we may be going.

    The western territories of the United States spread out before our ancestors just like all the songs say, prairies that terrified us with their vastness, mountains that defied us with their craggy heights, and forests that whispered in the haunting wind and beckoned us to enter. To many of our ancestors, the west summoned us to take a chance, to move into the unknown. This was the case even before our War for Independence, but especially so after it. The richness of the resources of the American west laid virtually untapped, at least in the eyes of our ancestors, those adventurers, pioneers, and first settlers. The land was a vast promise just itching to be kept. And the people flooded in.

    By 1790 there were about 100,000 people settled in the Mississippi River Valley. Just ten years later, that number had nearly quadrupled. But the challenges of the west must have seemed even more numerous and more daunting than the strength of the first settlers. The land itself resisted the efforts of the settlers as much as it invited them. And there were other challenges, especially for those who hoped that civilization and godliness might flourish together on the new frontier.

    There is an old saying that saloons and brothels were the first institutions of the west, and there’s some truth in that. So there were clearly some moral challenges facing the church. But it is also true that the intellectual challenges to the truth of the Christian faith were, if anything, greater in the late eighteenth century even than today.

    If you think that modern atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, have the ear of the public, it’s nothing compared with the influence of Thomas Paine, a man who was read not only by eminent leaders like Thomas Jefferson but also by stable boys in Louisville and Lexington. Paine is often remembered most as the author of Common Sense, the tract that more than any other single piece of literature fanned the flames of colonial revolt. But Thomas Paine was also a virulent enemy of Christian faith.

    Far from feeling overwhelmed and dispirited at the enormous scale of the challenges facing it, including such challenges against the Christian faith, the church was filled with confidence. A defining biblical text for that whole era might be:

    “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” (Luke 10:2)

    Presbyterians began to build seminaries across the country to provide ministers of churches that did not yet exist in communities that were then only barely forming. We built seminaries to educate pastors and teachers for the frontier: Pittsburgh Seminary (1794); Princeton Seminary and Union Seminary in Virginia (1812); Auburn Seminary (1818); Columbia Seminary (1828); McCormick Seminary (1829); University of Dubuque Seminary (1852); Louisville Seminary (1853); Johnson C. Smith Seminary (1867); San Francisco Seminary (1871); and Austin Seminary (1902).

    Notice, in the year that Pittsburgh Seminary was founded (1794) the population of the United States was just under 4 million persons. The year Austin Seminary was founded (1902) the population of our country was just under 80 million. During the span of history of the founding of all ten Presbyterian seminaries, our nation grew by 76 million souls. We were convinced that we needed ten seminaries across this country to supply ministers to preach the gospel in a period that culminated in a population of 80 million.

    The current population of the United States, according to the population clock on August 23, 2011, was over 312 million. The population of the country is four times greater today than when we established our tenth seminary.

    In the 1790s, despite the claims of the nostalgic, the romantic, and the politically-motivated who will tell us that the founders of this country were more Christian than we are today, some historians estimate that less than 10% of the total population of this country actually belonged to churches.[i] Even the most generous studies estimate that the proportion was less than 20%.[ii] That percentage had risen to about 50% by the time that we stopped building seminaries.[iii] Today, according to Gallup, 43.1% of the American public claim to attend some church, though, that figure is often disputed. Apparently people like to give the impressive even to anonymous pollsters that they are more faithful than they really are.[iv] But all of this means (and this is the point we shouldn’t lose no matter how we cut the statistical pie) that today, by any count, there are more (far, far more!) potential hearers of the gospel than at any other time in the history of this country.

    Why has the church not kept pace with the needs and challenges of the growing populations around us?

    I believe the church has lost its confidence regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want us to identify the loss of confidence in our church for what it is.

    This loss of confidence is not the consequence of a realistic assessment of unfavorable demographic trends. It is the consequence of an unrealistic theological assessment of the love and power of the God we serve. What we have here is not (vis a vis “Cool Hand Luke”) a failure to communicate or organize or ride the crest of the demographic tidal wave, but a failure of trust.

    I would be willing to be discouraged today if two things were true: (1) If the gospel of Jesus Christ has lost its power; and (2) if there were fewer people to hear Christ’s message of liberation. But there are millions more people today than when we first built our seminaries to provide ministers for churches that did not yet exist in communities that were only beginning to be formed on the frontiers of this country. And the gospel of Jesus Christ still liberates persons today around this globe.

    The only thing that has changed is the location of the frontier. The frontier is not somewhere “out west.” The frontier is “among us.” And so is the reign of God – “among us.” Yes, we need to identify this frontier. And, yes, we need to articulate the gospel through media that will be heard on this frontier. But, mostly, we need to believe again, because really the only thing that has changed is the location of the frontier.

    Oh, and one other thing has changed. We no longer have confidence in the power of God to seek and to save, to liberate, and to raise from death to new life. Our goal must be to proclaim the message of Christ and Christ crucified that still has the power to save, to liberate, and to raise humanity to life abundant.

    Generations ago, those who brought Christian faith westward, those who founded our seminaries and churches throughout the west, took up the challenges of the frontier to build new churches in communities that did not yet even exist. They did this because they had confidence in God and in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Today, our challenges are great. But it is time for us to stop focusing on the challenges and to remember the God who is more than a match for any challenge, in whom alone we can entrust the future. The people on today’s frontiers need the good news of Christ crucified to raise them to life abundant. They want to hear this good news of liberation, even if they have no inkling of what it is or what it means.

    The above blog is an excerpt from “The Next Frontier,” a sermon presented by Michael Jinkins at the Stated Meeting of the Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, November 14, 2011. The sermon is available in its entirety in video or as a downloadable PDF


    [i] Jerald Brauer, Protestantism in America: A Narrative History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 94.
    [ii] Stanley I. Kuther, Dictionary of American History, (Thomas Gale, third edition, 2003), Volume 7, p. 83.

    [iii] Ibid., 83, figure 1.

    [iv] See Bob Smietana’s article, “Statistical Illusion,” in Christianity Today, April 2006.

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