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Thinking Out Loud
  • What is the Purpose of Education (part 2)

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 19, 2017

    Purpose of Education 2Last week, we explored how a good education helps us learn and learn to keep on learning. It helps us to see the promise in threats and the opportunities in change. As important as adaptation is, however, education does even more.

    Education can make living worthwhile.

    Just having a steady job does not guarantee a life lived fully. There are many people who can make a good living but have no idea what makes a good life.

    In her recent book, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street (Random House, 2017), author Sheelah Kolhatkar tells the story of Steven Cohen, a hedge fund trader who was either a money-making genius or a criminal mastermind of insider trading and stock manipulation. Or, perhaps, both.

    In a review of Kolhatkar's book in The Economist, among the lessons that stood out to the reviewer was the "hollow life" led by Cohen. The reviewer comments: "Clad in a fleece, surrounded by 12 [computer] screens, masseuses, a manipulative wife, a hostile ex-wife and a cast of millionaire sycophants whom he periodically culls, Mr. Cohen cuts a sad figure." Undoubtedly many envy what he possesses, but few would exchange his life for theirs.

    We know that financial wealth and a rich life do not necessarily go together, that fame really is an illusion and the adoring public is notoriously fickle. We know this in our heads. But too often we stand all-too-ready to sacrifice what is most precious to us for something that isn't real and a little more of what we know does not last. And we will find our culture only too ready to reward us in the short term in exchange for what we are willing to sacrifice in life's long game.

    Our culture calls workaholism an addiction while praising it as a virtue, and many ministers, counselors, teachers, lawyers (the list could go on and on) begin every conversation by bragging about how overworked and overbooked they are in an attempt to prove their importance. I suspect planning calendars outsell Bibles, or at least get a better workout on a daily basis.

    We all know people who spend their lives working every waking minute, even when they aren't "at work," because they fear stopping and facing themselves and what they may encounter in the emptiness of silence and solitude.

    We all know people who, when the workday ends, must divert themselves endlessly with activities and entertainments to fill their empty hours before they return to the busy-ness of business.

    We all know people for whom even their moments alone are either occupied with distracting chatter or the endless loops of mental recordings inside their own heads to keep up the false selves they spend their active hours projecting.

    Others we know become addicted to substances or something else to distract themselves from themselves.

    There's another category, of course, those who, when work is done for the day, plug what is left of their brains into a television set, shift their minds into neutral, sitting day-after-day on their couches waiting for God to collect their bodies.

    The purpose of work is to make a living. The purpose of education is to make a life worth living.

    Among the most poignant moments in the Gospels is that moment when Jesus of Nazareth turns down the devil's dinner invitation with those immortal words: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

    There's more to us than our appetites. There's the need to be nourished in our spirits. And the purpose of this nourishment is to make of us the people God had in mind when God first imagined us. Wherever wisdom is to be found, God is its author. And human life is nourished by the words that originate in the heart of God more than by bread alone.

    A good education opens us to this wisdom, makes us learned in this learning, and gives us the ability to think well enough to live before we die.

  • A Stairway to Heaven?

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 15, 2017

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

    Stairway to HeavenIs there such a thing as a stairway to heaven?

    The Led Zeppelin song says yes, and "she's buying" it. But, after more than twenty centuries of debate, Christian theology remains resolutely ambivalent on the question: Resolute, because so many individual theologians, priests and preachers have weighed in "definitively"; ambivalent, because the Christian tradition as a whole can't decide.

    I am very pleased about the ambivalence. It shows a rare humility in a tradition that has sent far too many people to the stake or the gallows because they had the temerity to disagree with the religious majority.

    As we begin our yearlong exploration of Christian spirituality, I want to begin by considering the perspective of a contemporary writer whom I have admired for many years, Karen Armstrong. She is not only a thoughtful writer, she possesses an openness that goes far beyond mere tolerance, and she explores her own spiritual journey under the suggestive title, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (Anchor, 2005).

    I've twice read this book, the first time on my own, the second time with a group of students with whom I met weekly for prayer and study of classic literature on Christian spirituality. I was so moved by Armstrong's honesty and intelligence that I wanted my students to consider her perspective.

    Here is a woman who, at seventeen, entered a convent. She did so with the conviction and passion of an idealistic young person seeking to know God better. Seven years later, she left the convent to pursue the study of English literature at Oxford University, feeling herself a failure because she didn't "succeed" at being a nun. She writes:

    "I had tried. I told myself … I had not been the best nun in the world, but I had honestly done my best, and my superiors had tried to help me. But it was just no good. If God did exist, he clearly wanted nothing to do with me, and right now I couldn't blame him." (Spiral Staircase, p. 45)

    The "darkness" in the subtitle of Armstrong's book, from which she says she climbed, included physical illness and psychological struggles that only exacerbated her spiritual crisis. In the midst of a long period of extraordinary personal anguish, Armstrong studied T.S. Eliot's sequence of poems titled "Ash Wednesday." Feeling alone, feeling like a failure, and in the throes of a terrifying illness, she found herself "thrilled" by Eliot's poem, noting especially the lines:

    "Because I cannot hope to turn again
    Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
    Upon which to rejoice."

    She comments on this passage:

    "There was nothing depressing about this deliberate acceptance of reduced possibilities. It was precisely 'because' the poet had learned the limitations of the 'actual' that he could say: 'I rejoice that things are as they are.'" (Spiral Staircase, pp. 141-142)

    Despite her academic brilliance, Armstrong's life seemed for some time to be tumbling out of control. All the while physicians and psychiatrists tried to help her toward stability and health through a variety of treatments and medications. Even as she was writing her first book, she was fired from her beloved teaching position. Wondering if, indeed, she could ever "hope again," she gradually was able to make peace with the universe. In the midst of her "darkness," she apparently came upon something like what one medieval mystic called "the cloud of unknowing" and another described as a perception of the "groundless ground," the sense of transcendent understanding, of enlightenment, of intuition more profound than mere knowledge.

    Just as everything she tried to make fell apart, she found the key for which she had searched. She writes:

    "This must be the way that human life worked. He who loves his life shall lose it; he who loses his life shall save it. This was not an arbitrary command of God, but simply a law of the human condition. If you cast your bread upon the waters and were prepared to give it up for good, it would somehow come back to you - albeit in another form." (Spiral Staircase, p. 142)

    Her own "loss of life" was far from theoretical. Each time she labored to construct a life, it seemed to fall apart. But when her grasp failed, what she sought was placed in the palm of her hand, though "albeit in another form." The other "form" of life which came "back" to Armstrong arrived through her intellectual interest in the various ways different peoples and cultures experience God. She had been reading about the things that separated - often violently - Christians, Jews and Muslims.

    "Why not explore also the things they held in common?" she thought.

    Armstrong began to explore other faiths empathetically, attempting to understand and articulate the perspectives of other faiths authentically enough that practitioners of those faiths would recognize themselves and their convictions in her descriptions. At the same time, she also tried to articulate the reality of these other faiths in terms that could be understood in idioms more familiar to herself and to those who come either from Christian or secular traditions. She became both a translator and an honest broker of religious pluralism. She refused to smooth over differences, but neither would she resort to caricature others.

    Among the most important insights to which Armstrong came was this one:

    "All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it. Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality. Most would agree with the Greek Orthodox that any statement about God had to have two characteristics. It must be paradoxical, to remind us that God cannot be contained in a neat, coherent system of thought; and it must be apophatic, that is, it should lead us to a moment of silent awe or wonder, because when we are speaking of the reality of God we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do." (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    The greatest heresy begins in our compulsion to force God to serve as the exclusive representative of our metaphysical opinions and social values. This compulsion may originate in our desire to make gods of ourselves, which itself comes from our insecurities, our fears and sense of powerlessness in the face of mortality, our inability to come to terms with the starkness of reality; therefore, we feel the need to believe that “Someone Exactly Like Us” ultimately is in charge of the universe and that this Someone will guarantee our interests. When we speak of humility, religiously speaking, we are describing the fundamental rejection of the temptation to craft gods in our own image and likeness.

    Armstrong discovered in her quest to understand other faiths, what had eluded her in her struggle to understand her own. Drawing on the thought of Cantwell Smith, Armstrong came to the realization that all our ideas about God are by necessity human constructions, and that the compulsion "to equate faith with accepting certain intellectual propositions about God" was a modern preoccupation dating from the eighteenth century. (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    This seemingly startling and startlingly humanistic conclusion is shared by some of the most orthodox of Christian theologians: St. Augustine of Hippo and Karl Barth, for example. Both of these great Christian thinkers warn of the "idolatry" of worshipping our ideas of God (which amount to projections of ourselves and our wishful thinking) as though our ideas about God are identical with God.

    Armstrong, though working from a basis of comparative religion rather than constructive theology, comes to a position reminiscent of John Calvin, at least with respect to the meaning of "belief." Armstrong writes:

    "Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary. … The Middle English word beleven originally meant 'to love'; and the Latin credo ('I believe') probably derived from the phrase cor do: 'I give my heart.'" (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

    Reformed folk may want to read John Calvin's writings again, this time with his personal motto in mind: "I offer (or give) my heart to God promptly and sincerely." And we may want to examine again St. Anselm of Canterbury's famed statement of faith, usually translated, "I believe in order that I may understand," in light of Armstrong's insight; if we do, we will discover that Anselm might just have meant, "I love so that I may understand."

    Rather than joining the throng ready to go to war over our doctrinal differences, Armstrong proposes "a more excellent way." She rejoices in a kind of faithful agnosticism, again, not unlike what we find in some of the most orthodox Christian thinkers of all time. As St. Augustine once wrote, "If you think you have understood God, it is not God which you have understood." When one considers that this humility in the face of divine incomprehensibility originated from the same pen that bequeathed to the world untold thousands of pages of carefully reasoned Christian theology, one might well pause before demanding one's dogmatic way.

    So, is there a stairway to heaven?

    Maybe the question is just wrong. Maybe the whole intellectual scaffolding for asking the question is just wrongheaded.

    Perhaps we are beckoned by “SomeOne” beyond our knowledge to love that which we do know: the world and the people in it. That seems to be what the Epistle of First John was getting at when it warned us that we can hardly claim to love God, whom we cannot see, if we don't love the people we can. And maybe that same love will help us to entrust all that lies beyond the boundaries of our knowledge to the One who beckoned us to love in the first place.

    Maybe taking life "on faith" is less about believing the unprovable and more about loving the unlovable. In other words, if faith doesn't start and end in love, we're not headed in the right direction, wherever a stairway claims to go.

  • What is the Purpose of Education (part 1)

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 12, 2017

    Purpose of Education part 1Trick question: "What's the purpose of education?"

    According to generations of our ancestors, at least since Socrates queried his way through the streets of Athens or St. Augustine sat in northern Africa writing more books than anyone could possibly read, the purpose of education has been to make us knowledgeable and wise.

    Education might also make us more humble, teach us to reflect analytically, cure us of the disease of dogmatic certainty, and make us conscious of the fact that the more we know, the more questions we will have. But first and foremost, a good education has been seen as equipping us with knowledge and wisdom.

    No longer, I am often told these days, is this the purpose of education.

    Politicians regularly get elected these days on the platform that the purpose of education is to get us a good job. And even some educational leaders today draw thunderous applause by parroting this message.

    They are wrong.

    Now, let me be clear about this: I believe that it is a good thing to have a good job, and most good jobs benefit from educated people doing them. Not only do I believe it is a VERY good thing to have a good job, I believe that it is among the most sacred joys of life to work; it is a joy and a blessing to employ the gifts God has given us to earn our daily bread, to support our families, to stand on our own, and to care for those who are less fortunate. I believe that work bestows upon a person a sense of purpose and human dignity and personal maturity that few other things in this life can equal. I believe, conversely, that a person without work is like a puzzle with some vital pieces missing. A person without work often longs for a sense of purpose and worth. Work is good.

    The purpose of education, however, is not to get a job, not even a good one, not even a job to which we believe God has called us. This is especially true today, because no matter how well-educated and well-trained we might be for a particular job, it is entirely possible that this job won't exist in ten or fifteen years. And, even if the job for which we trained is still around, our own vocational aspirations might alter in a decade. Many of us these days will have a half-dozen different jobs before we retire, each requiring its own specialized skills and technical knowledge which will require additional vocational training and continuing professional development.

    Something more is needed from education than job training, however. Something more has always been needed from an education. And this goes double for a theological education.

    One needs the capacity to think well and to think deeply in a disciplined manner and to develop the capacity and skills to keep learning throughout one's whole life.

    One needs the ability to know how to accumulate accurate knowledge and worthwhile information, certainly, and also the ability to rethink what has previously been learned in light of new information.

    One needs a lively appreciation for this very wide world that belongs (every bit of it) to the God who loves it and everyone in it, and one needs opportunities to allow this appreciation to expand previous horizons so that the world becomes even larger.

    One needs the confidence to adapt to changing environments, but also the wisdom and discernment to distinguish between fads and trends, potentially good ideas and potentially bad ones, to "hold fast to what is good," the received wisdom of the ages, not with tight greedy little paws, but loosely with generous and grateful hands.

    And one needs the character necessary to delay gratification (what our grandmothers meant when they expected us to eat our vegetables before having our dessert) and to stay with something to which we've committed ourselves however onerous that task becomes (what Sir Winston Churchill expressed when he said, "When you're going through hell, keep going!").

    These are all the good fruits of a good education. This is why, no matter what happens to job markets, a genuinely well-educated person has the capacity to adapt to changes, maybe even to stay ahead of changes, and maybe to be the author of important changes.

    Cliché Alert: Change is one of the few constants you can count on in life.

    But, cliché or not, it is true.

    There are many cautionary stories, but I will tell you only one.

    The venerable Eastman Kodak Company, which dominated the photography industry for generations, disappeared virtually overnight, and corporate analysts shook their heads in wonder. How was it possible for people who knew their industry so well to misread so badly the moment in which they lived?

    The answer: This company was shackled to one technology (film) as another technology (digital) took over, without ever realizing that they were perfectly positioned to dominate the emerging industry by doing something they had always done well - innovation.

    Unfortunately in this critical moment, they mistakenly thought their mission was to make film. In reality, their mission was to produce images. Because they couldn't imagine producing images digitally, they now make nothing. Keep in mind that photography hasn't stopped. The art of photography continues apace. Great photographers are still taking our breath away with spectacular pictures. But Eastman Kodak is gone.

    A good education helps us learn to learn.

  • A School for the Lord's Service

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 05, 2017

    HumilityOne day this summer, just a couple of weeks before the beginning of our fall term, I decided to read The Rule of St. Benedict straight through.

    What began as an act of discipline, and, frankly, a bit of a chore, quickly became a delight. I had never before read the whole thing in one sitting, but reading it that way, especially right before the school year began, I saw parallels I had never before noticed between the mission of Benedict's monastic community and that of the seminary.

    Anyone who has been following the literature on theological schools for the past twenty-five years or so will know that our seminaries don't suffer from a lack of analysis. That can be helpful. But, then, as one leader quipped a few years ago, most organizations fail for "non-analytical reasons." (They don't do the things they know they ought to do.) Sometimes analysis keeps us paralyzed from taking action, particularly analysis that divides us into opposing camps. And anyone who has followed the literature on theological education also knows that we have been locked in something of a feud over exactly what a theological school is for a very long time.

    One model of theological education sees a seminary as a "school of the church," primarily an institution where future ordained leaders in a denomination are taught what is expected of them by their tradition. Another model sees the seminary as a professional school, where men and women receive the educational qualifications they need to function in their chosen profession of ministry. Still another model understands the theological school as a graduate school, the purpose of which is to provide the latest and best academic scholarship and tools to conduct research in the various theological disciplines.

    All of these models reflect realities. All of these models are reflected in one way or another in every good theological school. And all of them require not only that students be educated but also formed in various ways: churchly, professional and academic.

    There is another model that I haven't yet mentioned, and it is the oldest by far. It is the model that lay the cornerstone for all future theological schools, and, indeed, for all the great universities. It is the model of theological education that is grounded in discipleship, forming persons in the faith with the understanding that such personal formation as Christians is essential to all the knowledge we acquire and every task we undertake.

    This model need not be placed over/against the others, as though it is "the right" model. Really each model needs the others in order to achieve that balance essential for education and formation for ministry. But I would like to single out this last model today because the need is so great for seminaries to take on the role of passing on the faith and forming persons in it. We simply can't take this for granted any more. And to help us see better the potential of this model, I would like to return to its origin. This is the model that dominated St. Benedict's experience and was the result of his Rule, a small document from the sixth century consisting of seventy-three short chapters which, according to some, is second only to the Bible in the influence it has had in shaping Christian behavior for a millennium and a half.

    Benedict envisioned a learning community of a very specific sort. God calls people, says Benedict. But they need to learn and to be formed in order to live the life God calls them to live and to do the work which the Lord calls them to do. "Therefore," Benedict writes in the Prologue to his Rule, "we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service." With a clarity that has never again been achieved in an official church document, Benedict writes what he calls a "little rule ... for beginners." (Rule, p. 96)

    As I think about the students who are just entering Louisville Seminary, Benedict's words, although intended for a monastic community, provide wise counsel to those of us in leadership and those of us who teach, as well as for our students.

    "In drawing up [the community's] regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love." (Rule, pp. 18-19)

    Benedict's Rule sets its sights on the ends and purposes of the learning community. He writes:

    "If you hear [God's call to follow] and your answer is, 'I do,' God then directs these words to you: If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim. Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers, and even before you ask me, I will say to you: I am here." (Rule, 16-17)

    Benedict's Rule not only casts a grand vision, it also gets into the nitty-gritty of the way his monastic community should live together. At first I suspected that the sections dedicated to the various offices of the monastery and other institutional details wouldn't be applicable to a seminary, but I was wrong. On virtually every page I discovered valuable lessons we would do well to learn.

    Offices of the community are described (such as the abbot, deans, monastic cellarer and prior) with their responsibilities and authority; tools for living well together are provided in great detail; penalties for not living up to the community's covenant are explained, with restoration to community always the goal; orders for daily prayer, including which Psalms are sung when, are spelled out; principles of governance are laid down, placing a high value on what we would call a democratic approach, though reserving certain decisions for particular offices and bodies, tempered with a deep respect for order and a touch of political realism which I found surprising. The Scriptures provide the atmosphere the Rule of St. Benedict breathes, giving the motivation for virtually every regulation, from obedience to the abbot to the unconditional welcoming of guests (no matter what their faith or nationality or social status) into the monastery.

    Members of the community are to place "the work of God" (that is, the services of daily prayer and worship) above every other duty, but they are also to engage in assigned manual work for the sake of the whole community and in study for their own edification. Repeatedly, woven into instructions in almost every section of the Rule, one finds a reminder that community members are to live together in humility, competing with one another in doing good. Again and again, particularly in what I have come to regard as the heart of the Rule, chapter 4, "The Tools for Good Works," Benedict marshals passages from every corner of Scripture to admonish the community members to love as Christ loved, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to never repay evil with evil, to refrain from judging others, to renounce yourself and to reject pride. Closing this section, Benedict describes the community as a workshop, what we might call a laboratory, where all of these virtues are practiced daily until they become habitual. (Rule, pp. 26-29)

    It was while reading this section that I remembered something that happened several years ago, in the first years of my tenure as the academic dean at another Presbyterian seminary. I led that faculty into a revision of the school's curriculum. Before we began the fairly conventional work of looking directly at the curriculum, what we expected students to learn and how we envisioned that happening, we spent two years engaged in self-reflection and research, asking how we could better serve the church and society. In looking into the results of one of our research projects, as we disaggregated the findings of our study, isolating the responses of lay persons from those of ordained clergy and other groups, we found something fascinating.

    When we asked the lay persons in congregations what they valued above all else in a church leader, they overwhelmingly said, "humility."

    This was especially surprising because, given the variety of populations we were polling, this finding hadn't shown up before. The larger aggregated group included pastors, other church professionals such as Christian education directors, judicatory leaders and other religiously related professionals like chaplains, counsellors, leaders of social service agencies and so forth as well as the lay persons; these other categories of respondents simply had overwhelmed by their sheer numbers the findings from the lay people. The aggregated data told us that people value knowledge, expertise, and character in church leadership, but humility had only shown up way down the list of characteristics.

    But the lay people, when their voices were allowed to be heard on their own, overwhelmingly, said that they wanted leaders who are humble. They said they wanted leaders who were not proud or puffed up. They wanted leaders who listened (as one lay person said) "as if I've got a brain too."

    Someone in a group to which I presented this information asked, "So, how in the world is a seminary going to teach humility?" To which another member in the group responded, "I don't know, but we sure as fire have figured out how to teach arrogance in some schools. Why not humility?"

    Maybe St. Benedict shows us a way to do what we need to do educationally and formatively to provide to the church and society the best leadership possible. We often say that seminary can't put in what God left out. But maybe it is more accurate, with Benedict, for us to say: "What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace." (Rule, p. 18)

    Let us construct a life together in seminary that, while not short-changing the vital theological education we all value and the crucial knowledge that grants perspective and depth to our ministries, also provides the formation of character and Christian faith even more than professional formation, and which prefers wisdom over the mere acquisition of information, so that those who graduate from our theological seminaries will be the kind of persons from whom and beside whom and among whom the people of God will want to learn, worship and live.

  • The Most Important Thing

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 29, 2017


    Ashley HIcksEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by Ashley Hicks White, an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at Louisville Seminary. Ashley is also the seminary’s fall 2017 Convocation speaker. She will deliver her Convocation address, “Toward a Relational Approach to Social Justice,” on Thursday, September 7, 2017, at Caldwell Chapel (1044 Alta Vista Road, Louisville, Ky. 40205). The Convocation service begins at 11:30 a.m. All are welcome.

    Over the last year, I have experienced a number of major life milestones and transitions. I finished graduate school, got married, moved to a new city, started a new job, and purchased our first home. All of these new experiences and transitions were good. I looked forward to each of them with joy and excitement, nervousness and fear. Some would say that in the last year I have accomplished a lot. Friends and family talk about how proud they are of all my new accomplishments. And I would agree, that I am excited and grateful to have been blessed to experience all of these things. I count myself very blessed and privileged to have the opportunities that I have. I know that some are not as fortunate as I, and I never want to forget that I carry a measure of privilege and subsequent social responsibility. However, this summer I was reminded that all of these accomplishments are not the most important thing.

    This summer I have been reading a book entitled, The Relationship Principles of Jesus by Tom Holladay*. It is a book that I purchased over three years ago but never had the chance to read it until this summer. Holladay’s book reminded me of what the most important thing is in life: RELATIONSHIPS.

    In his book Holladay tells the story of how he was reminded of the importance of relationships while reading a book on time management. The quote that stuck out to him and has stuck out to me all summer is this: “God does not demand of me that I accomplish great things. He does demand of me that I strive for excellence in my relationships.” Since reading this quote, I have written this statement on an index card and taped it to my computer monitor on my desk. I read it every day at work, and I come back to it to help ground myself during this busy season of life full of transitions and milestones.

    Relationships are the most important thing. I can accomplish wonderful things in this life, but if my relationships are weak, then what is the point?

    My training as a marriage and family therapist draws this point home to me even further. As family therapists we are trained to focus on relationships. We think about larger systems and processes, interactions, and patterns. This helps us in the therapy room and it helps in our everyday lives. We live in a world that is becoming more and more divided by difference. Tension is increasing, and some relationships are becoming more explicitly hostile than before. As a therapist I can utilize my skills to help facilitate difficult conversations and repair relationships among individuals, couples, families, students, neighbors, congregations, and communities. As a Christian, I am called to prioritize relationships, first with God and then with others. Sadly, it is easy to forget about relationships in our attempt to accomplish good things or to be good ourselves. I am hopeful however that just as I have been reminded of the importance of relationships this summer, you will be reminded of what is most important.

    Ask yourself these questions:
    1)    What do I place the highest value on in my life right now?  
    a.    If it is not relationships, consider what I might have to shift in order to focus more on relationships.
    2)    What is getting in the way of me being all I aspire to be in my relationships?
    3)    What can I do right now to become more like my aspirational relational self?

    * Holladay, Tom. The Relationship Principles of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

  • We Are Pastors

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 22, 2017


    Emily MillerEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Emily Miller. Emily is the Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Louisville Seminary. She is also a Louisville Seminary alum (MDiv ‘09) and a Minister of the Word and Sacrament for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She previously served as Associate for Recruitment and Relationships for the Young Adult Volunteer program of the PC(USA)’s national office.

    The conversation usually goes something like this:

    Other person (OP): What do you do?
    Me: I’m a pastor.
    OP: Oh, what church?
    Me: I’m actually the Director of Admissions at Louisville Seminary.
    OP: Neat! But what church do you serve?
    Me: Well, I GO to church, but I don’t serve one as their pastor. This is where I serve.
    OP: Oh …
    If I had a dollar for every time in the last four years that this conversation has happened, I'd be able to pay off my student loans a lot faster. These conversations don't bother me, as I thought they would when I started my work outside of the congregational walls. In fact, these conversations help me do something that I've hoped to make a part of my ministry and call since my ordination seven years ago: to redefine what a pastor looks like.
    In my current role, I experience the breadth and depth of ministry in an educational context. I regularly have discernment conversations with prospective students who come from different places - denominationally, geographically, and/or in their discernment processes.

    I hear everything from, "This is a dream and call I've had for so long, but only now is it possible," to, "I'm interested in therapy, but didn't realize I could become a therapist at a theological institution. What does that look like?"

    I get to meet people who may know exactly what they want to do, but have no idea how it will translate into life after seminary - or, at the end of the day, if they can get paid to do the work their heart is set on.
    When I began my studies at Louisville Seminary in 2006, I knew that I wanted to go into ministry, in whatever way became clear later, because at the time, I didn't have a plan. As time went on, I realized I wanted to be ordained, and within that, hoped to show that it could look like many different things. Becoming part of the Young Clergy Women International showed me that there are women all over the world who have been called by God to serve the church - inside and outside of traditional contextual walls.

    We are seminary employees, chaplains to persons experiencing homelessness, executive directors of nonprofits, denominational staff, camp directors, faculty, and bi-vocational ministers working part-time in a congregation and part-time in retail. We are pastors. We are called by God to serve those who have been put in our paths, in this place, in this time, and to be ministered to as well.
    Sometimes I look at my desk stacked with the lists of people I have to call, meetings I need to set up, or events I have to register for, and I remind myself that this, too, is a holy call. My friend, Sherry, reminded me recently that our students are not just our students: they will be our colleagues and perhaps our friends in the years to come. If walking alongside those who I will one day call a colleague doesn't help define what a pastor looks like, I'm not sure what will.

  • The Story Continues

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 15, 2017


    G. Todd WilliamsEditor's note: Today's "Thinking Out Loud" blog post is written by G. Todd Williams. Todd (pictured) is a Louisville Seminary alum (MDiv. '99) and is the 2017-2018 president of the Louisville Seminary Alum Board of Directors. He is also a chaplain at Houston Hospice, a nonprofit organization that provides physical, social and spiritual support to individuals with a life-limiting diagnosis, and their loved ones, irrespective of their ethnicity or beliefs.

    A few months ago Michael Jinkins asked if I would be a guest blogger for “Thinking Out Loud.” It didn’t take me long to say “yes,” but it has taken me longer to think about what I would share with the Louisville Seminary community.

    It has been nearly twenty years since I was a student, however, I still consider my life to be filled with new lessons about life and God each day. I am just returning from a weeklong camp with a group of junior high youth from Southeast Texas. Talk about daily life lessons! I was asked to serve as the keynoter for the camp, with our theme being loosely focused on the adventures of Indiana Jones, and scripture being from Lamentations 3:23-24:

    “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”
    While I thought about God’s mercies, and how the word “mercies” is connected to the Hebrew word chesed, I was reminded of what God’s compassion and everlasting covenant of God’s love looked like.

    One of the things that I learned early in my ministry is that being vulnerable invites God’s mercies to be seen and shared.

    I spoke to the youth of an experience I had eight years ago that changed my life completely in a matter of minutes. I was in a terrible auto accident returning from work one day. Within a few days following an accident, I would learn that I had cancer and that I would need to do treatment or I would die within a year.

    There are no words to describe the hopelessness that enters when you suddenly realize that your options involve moments of desperation, regret and pain. While it is easy to embrace the darkness often associated with a diagnosis like cancer, I had to work to see God’s compassion in this situation, even as I lost my job, my home, and sometimes, my faith. There is no amount of theological training that can prepare any of us for all of the moments of our life’s journey.

    As I shared with the group of youth, I discovered that part of me was back on that journey. I thought about the questions that I had asked God, and I suppose that I realized that once again there were simply no answers. I was reminded, and commented, as I read the beginning of Ecclesiastes chapter 3 to the youth one session, that there are times for all things. While that chapter is closed, there are still pages that I revisit from that period of my life.

    I thought about my camp experiences as a youth, and that, like the writer of Ecclesiastes shares, they were times with definitive beginnings and endings. Significant chapters that shaped my life, but also, my cancer experience served as a chapter that forever changed me.

    The significance of the chapters we breathe helps us to understand the importance of God’s presence and the unending availability of God’s mercies in our lives.  Prayerfully I shared that the importance of each chapter, whether good or bad, eventually serves as the means by which we can relate chesed to one another.

    For any of us, the idea of God’s everlasting mercies can sometimes remain a mystery, while our ability to be bearers of that love to one another must prevail.

    As I closed my week out with these youth, I have to admit, I looked into the rearview mirror as I drove away from the camp and asked that God remind me of the newness of each day. That I could close that chapter once more and simply give thanks.

    I hope that each of you may find a way to be the living expression of God’s compassion and love.

    Stay in God’s grip!

  • The Good News: Community and Food at Louisville Seminary

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 08, 2017


    Steve CookEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest written by Steve Cook (pictured). Steve is Registrar and Associate Dean of Institutional Research and Effectiveness at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    Faith traditions and schools share many values in common. Among the most widely shared is a commitment to creating and sustaining community through eating together. Formally or informally, as an expression of belief or not, eating together nourishes people through the development of common bonds and respect for differences and offers the chance to reflect on how time together prepares us for our work in the world. Surely a seminary, of all places, must be attentive to how it promotes the ability to eat, learn, and grow as a community.

    Faith traditions and schools also know how hard it can be, financially, to promote common meals. Put simply, it costs money to equip and staff a cafeteria, and there has to be enough business to justify the expense. The expense/revenue challenge was fully felt at Louisville Seminary when our campus cafeteria service ceased completely in February 2017 after the seminary’s on-site catering company went out of business.

    Consider the above comments as prelude to the good news on which I want to report. I make this report, mind you, not as someone who oversees the cafeteria’s financial stability. I am the seminary’s registrar, and I have never been too aware of our food services budget. Rather, I write as someone who has been blessed by eating with others in religious and educational settings.

    The good news is this: Louisville Seminary is once again eating together because the community values it and wants to make it happen. Further, we have gained a renewed sense of why we eat together and who constitutes our community.

    The first expression of the resolve to maintain community through food occurred because our students took it upon themselves to organize “Loaves and Fishes” lunches every Thursday after the 11:30 a.m. chapel service. In most ways, it was just a weekly potluck. But it soon became apparent that it could reteach all of those raised in the ways of the church potluck just what the tradition means. “What do you have to offer?” we asked ourselves each week. Maybe it was a favorite recipe, or a box of Girl Scout cookies, or nothing at all.

    Each week also brought reminders: Bring whatever you have, and most importantly bring yourself. If you see someone you do not know, meet them and bring them. It’s “Loaves and Fishes” day, and there will be plenty. Our “Loaves and Fishes” lunches were spirited events. While we ate and talked, we did other things, too. We heard each other read aloud during African American Literature Week. We learned from students who returned from January term travel seminars. We were entertained by youth from arts programs supported by our donations to The Fund for the Arts. When the spring semester was over, I was sad to see “Loaves and Fishes” lunches end, but I was proud of our seminary.

    This summer, Louisville Seminary took a new approach to how it could provide meal service five days a week. Having a kitchen staff, employed by the seminary, would be too expensive. Hiring an outside company, which we had effectively done most recently, would not be possible because of our small size. Instead, the seminary invited the New Legacy Reentry Corporation – a community organization that helps ex-offenders overcome barriers to success after incarceration – to use our kitchen for a vocational training and apprenticeship program. While the New Legacy program serves breakfast and lunch at prices they set, they also use the seminary’s kitchen space to fulfill their own contracts (ex. for a city-wide lunch program that helps youth impacted by hunger when school is not in session).

    As the New Legacy Café, the Winn Center cafeteria is open again with new food and friends and with more chances to share meals together. This relationship is already giving our students fresh opportunities to serve as they have volunteered to help deliver summer meals in the local area.  While the New Legacy culinary arts program helps its participants learn new skills, both cooking-related and interpersonal, it provides Louisville Seminary with new ways to live, eat, and learn in community.

    Have you heard the good news? There is community and food at Louisville Seminary. Please come and join us. There is always plenty.

  • Community or Chaos

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 01, 2017


    Lake LambertEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is written by Lake Lambert, Ph.D. (pictured) who is president of Hanover College (Hanover, Indiana). He has also served as dean of Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts (Macon, Georgia) and professor of religion and Board of Regents Chair in Ethics at Wartburg College (Waverly, Iowa). Additionally, Lake was the founding director of the Center for Community Engagement, a $2.5 million program funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. His research has focused on workplace spirituality, professional ethics, and church-related higher education. He is the author of Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace (NYU Press 2009).

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 49 years ago in Memphis. The year was 1968. It was a time of incredible tension in our nation and a period when a great political divide was also present. Our nation was divided over an escalating war abroad, protests at home and especially in our cities, a growing awareness of economic inequality, a continued desire to end racism but division over what was still required, a feeling by many in the heartland that a so-called “silent majority” had been ignored, and a feeling there and elsewhere that the American dream was increasingly unattainable.

    Not long before he was shot in 1968—and in the midst of this social and political turmoil—King published his last book. The title seems to speak to both our time, and King used a question as the starting point. The book was entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

    King knew that there could be different answers to the question. The subtitle of his book named the two he could foresee. He said that America and the world could choose chaos or community. I am amazed how this choice still seems to be the one that faces us now—and perhaps it always has been and always will be—but I am also convinced that it is not only a societal and global choice but also a personal and even existential choice as well.

    As individuals, we have before us the choice to make a positive difference in the world, the choice to fashion a life of meaning and purpose in service to others, the choice to nurture bonds of community in multiple settings or the choice to pursue self-interest at all costs, the choice to leave the concerns of community and the world to others, and the choice to deny the entire idea of vocation, meaning and purpose in life apart from the acquisition of personal wealth, power, satisfaction and privilege. As a people, our choice may be community or chaos, but as individuals it seems that our choice is between community or nihilism.

    To describe his vision of community in the book Where Do We Go From Here?, King offered his own parable, the story of a novelist who left at his death the outline for a new story as stated thus: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” King goes on to say:

    "We have inherited a large house, a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who because we can never live apart, must learn how to live with each other in peace" (167).

    Joining King, I would say that we have been given a false choice today between valuing a global community or valuing local community. A liberal arts education has long sought to encourage global perspectives and engagement. We have embraced the Stoic idea of being “cosmopolitans,” literally “citizens of the world.” This is what liberal arts colleges should and must continue to do.

    However, I worry that we may not have done enough to teach the skills and values of local citizenship. Small-town Indiana does not sound as interesting as Brussels or Taipei, and I fear that college students who have been detached from local communities may not be prepared for or even interested in engaging the communities where they find themselves after graduation. I must add that indifference is just another path to chaos.  It is not chaos with a fist or gun but chaos with a shrug.

    As higher education becomes almost exclusively focused on individual career development, church-related liberal arts colleges must stand apart as places for vocational discernment and preparation. An individual’s work can be part of living out that vocation, but it cannot be all of it. Community life is an equally important place of vocational responsibility, and it too requires discernment and preparation. This is a form of institutional vocation and one not without risks. Students and families may conclude that education for citizenship isn’t worth the investment, threatening our financial solvency, and colleges cannot determine the life paths of their graduates, meaning that we may provide skills that can be used just as easily to foster more chaos. No calling is without risk, and even an institution must have a form of faith. We must have hope.

  • On the Repentance of Whiteness

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 25, 2017


    Michael LoudonEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by Michael Loudon (pictured). Michael is a retired professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. He served as acting coordinator of EIU’s African American Studies program from 2006-2008. His research focused on New Zealand writer Patricia Grace; the experience of Pacific Islanders during WW II; South African literature; memoirs from South Sudan; twentieth-century Korean poetry; and the work of poet Kwame Dawes.

    I want first to thank President Jinkins and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for this opportunity to write for “Thinking Out Loud.” Since retiring from university teaching after thirty years and turning to raising cattle in an effort to revive an old family farm in Southern Indiana, I have been blessed to maintain my divergent interests in cattle and academia by participating in the Black Church Studies Consultations over the last three years at Louisville Seminary. This past spring’s consultation on “Mass Incarceration” awakened me once again to the horrifying reality that white supremacy has managed to extend the enslavement of African peoples long past Abolition in the nineteenth century through Jim Crow and segregation, American apartheid, and well into the twenty-first century through the disparities in our criminal justice system.

    Too often we white people are simply oblivious to the ugly underbelly of our own history, which Jim Wallis has written of in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. If you’re white, or think of yourself as white, and haven’t noticed the stunning rise in the number of murders by police officers of black “suspects” in the last few years, then perhaps you are sleeping too deeply during the daylight hours.  Seeing Ava DuVernay’s film 13th at the consultation stirred me to comment in the discussion that followed our viewing of it.

    After I had spoken, probably at too much length, my wife touched my arm and said that I sounded far too angry. I was, and I am, and that is my sin with which I wrestle, for I do not understand fully why white people and especially white Christians are not also outraged at denying themselves their own full humanity and a much greater participation in the unity of Christ than is too often the case not only in our daily lives, but also even in our Sunday morning worship services. To pursue and to address my ignorance, I have, as the weather breaks and pastures and cows need attention, been reading and re-reading Reverend Michael Eric Dyson’s new book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. He reminds me of much that I already know, having taught in Africana Studies for three decades but most persistently driven home by the many hours in conversation with black students in my classes who would stop by my office in the late afternoon to talk—and I am honored to have listened and to have learned from them all those years. As valuable as the scholarship may have been and as much insight as the black voices in literature have offered, those students have been my best teachers.

    They have taught me that whiteness is not a condition of my skin at birth but a cultural construction that I can all too easily accept growing up in white America.  White privilege is a “natural” status that makes my lack of color seem “normal.” Consequently, unlike my students, no one follows me in Wal-Mart up one aisle and down the next suspecting that I am there to shoplift whatever I seek. No one yells a racial slur at me as I walk down the street to campus for my early morning classes assuming I have not earned my admission into the university like every other “normal” student. No one assumes I am teaching among my colleagues as a consequence of affirmative action. No fellow student or professor looks at me with a gaze of probable intellectual inferiority, wondering from the first days of class whether or not I will do my reading and submit my homework. No police officer pulls me over because a white person committed a burglary on the other side of town. No police officer ever stops me because I am white behind the steering wheel. No one inflicts these daily stresses and strains on me because I am “normal,” because I enjoy the four hundred years of white privilege born of institutional and individual white supremacy.

    So how do we white people wake up? Taking Dyson to heart, we need to repent of our whiteness: we can address our ignorance by realizing we do not have to accept the construction of our privilege. We can study the history of all of us in this country—and it doesn’t mean we need to go to school. We can choose what events we attend, we can choose what books we read, and we can choose what films we watch. We can choose to give a person five minutes in conversation to begin to know that person rather than falling prey to the invisibility of white blindness that fails to see a person precisely because of the visibility of her skin. We can choose to listen to a man because we see him clearly as a fellow human being.

    But those gestures are far from enough. We can tear open our own whiteness and expose its lies, we can reject our too often unconscious privilege and we can begin to heal ourselves by addressing our white guilt and the grieving that accompanies it. Doing so permits us to see how easily we construct an awkwardly deceptive innocence that drives us further away from the unity in Christ. We can forgive ourselves, through our repentance, and we can seek the redemption offered not only by Jesus, but also from the many black people who have extended it to us, whether we have noticed or not, through exceptional  tolerance, generosity and compassion across the centuries of the brutality inflicted by white supremacy. We can seek to transform our anger at this pervasive racial injustice into love. We can go to work.

    For help, I have turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. She reminds me of the African concept of Ubuntu, the sense that I cannot be fully human without you being fully human. I cannot realize my humanity unless I permit you to realize your own. You cannot see my face until I see yours.

    Will you go to work to repent of your whiteness along with me? Will you work through white guilt and denial, rejecting a false innocence that diminishes us all? Will you help me in transforming my anger into love?  

    Ava DuVernay, dir. 13th Netflix, 2016.
    Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
    Martha C. Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 228).
    Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Brazos Press, 2016).

  • Radical Hospitality

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 18, 2017

    Steve YoungBY STEVE YOUNG
    Editor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by Steve Young (pictured), executive director of Living Waters for the World, a Christian ministry that provides sustainable clean water, emphasizing relationships between volunteers and community partners. He is also a documentary filmmaker, guitar player, songwriter, husband and father of two. His blog, “Living in the Flow,” is available at https://livingintheflow.wordpress.com/.

    We were temporary residents of Karaganda, Kazakhstan, in the fall of 2008, halfway through our two-month stay to adopt our first child, Lily Grace. Our interpreter, Julia, was a godsend, helping us navigate the many conversations required each day, translating from Russian to English and back again. Along the way, we began to get to know more about this bright young woman, who had learned English to make a better life for herself and her family.

    When we learned that she still lived at home with her parents, we decided to invite the three of them out to dinner – it seemed like the least we could do. Julia was stunned, as apparently no one had ever done this before. We had a wonderful evening in a local pub, getting to know her father, Slava, a driver for a bank executive, her mother, Sveta, an administrative assistant, and sharing stories, hopes and dreams.

    Radical HospitalityWeeks passed, and finally the time to leave Kazakhstan was drawing near. One morning, Julia greeted us with, “My family would like to invite you to have dinner with us this Sunday before you leave, if that would be okay.” We were touched by the invitation and enthusiastically accepted.

    Sunday arrived, and we bundled up 10-month-old Lily Grace to make the drive through the snow and ice to the small apartment in a Soviet-era high-rise where Julia had lived with her parents all her life. When we walked in, we were warmly greeted by Julia, her parents – and her aunt, cousin and grandparents.

    Rounding the corner, our jaws dropped. A table had been beautifully set and could barely contain all the bowls and platters of food, many Kazakhstani specialties among them. The family had begun cooking the day before, providing the best they had to celebrate with us.

    We were overcome with emotion by this extravagant demonstration of hospitality, deepening bonds between new friends.

    In a world so divided, how does this happen? How do bridges get built in spite of it all?

    The Rev. Todd Jenkins, a Living Waters for the World volunteer leader, shares that the practice of “radical hospitality” as demonstrated by Jesus to those he encountered is “an invitation to deliberation and depth in relationship; a hospitality that allows our guests to be the focus of everything that we do.”

    Our Living Waters partners strive to do this at every step along the way, in the warm embrace, the negotiated covenant, creating a banner of handprints and yes, even in the construction of a water system.

    The opportunities lie around every corner. Soon to be nine years ago, strangers from the other side of the world became friends, sharing bonds of love in the context of hospitality. Today, Julia is married with a little girl of her own – some of those shared hopes and dreams fulfilled.

    This day and every day, with loved ones near and far, may you experience and practice the radical hospitality made possible by God’s grace.

  • Sources of Spiritual Wisdom

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 11, 2017

    Upcoming Special Series of Blogs

    Spiritual WisdomAs readers of the "Thinking Out Loud" blog will be aware by now, next year (2017-2018) is my last academic year as president of Louisville Seminary, following which I will enjoy a year of terminal sabbatical. Thus next year will be the final year of this blog as well.

    During the coming year, it is my intention to continue the Tuesday blog on a variety of subjects as always, but the Friday blogs (on alternating weeks) will reflect on what I consider to be the most significant sources for Christian spirituality.

    The purpose of this series will be to explore classics from the Desert Fathers to Lady Julian of Norwich, including familiar resources such as the venerable Thomas à Kempis and the relatively less-familiar such as The Cloud of Unknowing and Meister Eckhart.

    As anyone who has spent time with the writings of Thomas Merton knows, the spiritual life goes hand-in-glove with a life committed to practices of love, compassion and justice. Far from leading to quietism, dedication to prayer, contemplating and meditation open one up to the suffering of others and call upon the individual to seek to serve others practically and actively.

    My hope is that readers will discover at least one or two significant new sources with whom they would like to continue to spend quality time. I can say from experience that a year invested in contemplation of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love or Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ can be life-changing. And I would be willing to predict that some of the best surprises await discovering a writer whom you have never read before, maybe you haven't even heard of yet.

    I hope you'll join me for this special series on alternating Fridays next year as we close out eight years of "Thinking Out Loud." In case you're wondering about the Tuesday blogs, as usual, I haven't the foggiest idea of where they will go yet.

  • Owner's Manual of the Republic

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 04, 2017


    First there was discontent. Then came a Declaration of Independence. This we celebrate on the Fourth of July. A war followed, then the Articles of Confederation which proved to lack the unifying power needed for the new nation. Finally, there emerged The Constitution of the United States, a document which has at least two things in common with the Christian Bible: (1) It is far more often talked about than read; (2) It is most often used to support ideas its champions already believe. (Those parts of it that contradict its champions' views are usually ignored.)

    When the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia advocated some years ago that every school in our country should devote a day to celebrating the United States Constitution, I happily signed on. Why? Because I believe that this document is the Owner's Manual of the Republic.

    Most often we think of it, if we think of it at all, as containing the Bill of Rights, which is a set of constitutional guarantees in the form of the first ten amendments. A Baptist minister (a member, at that time, of a small, outlier and minority brand of Protestant Christianity) was among the most vocal advocates for the Bill of Rights, especially the freedom of religion. The first amendment requires that the federal government not establish its own favorite religion or religious institutions and that the government not intervene in the religious practices of its people. This amendment holds even if the religion in question appears strange or repugnant to the majority or is practiced by only a small handful of people. This same amendment also guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom to petition the federal government to redress grievances. If these first ten amendments had not been part of the package, the Constitution would not have been ratified by the states.

    Again, we usually think of the Constitution in terms of the freedoms it enshrines, especially through the Bill of Rights. But it also enshrines responsibilities and obligations, principles of self-governance and virtues of citizenship, assumptions about human nature, a commitment to the common good, and the need for and benefits of government.

    Famously, the Constitution provides for a balance of powers (checks and balances) among the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the government and appropriate limits on official powers, but it also embodies the assumption of competing values. It assumes, in other words, that even very high values stand in relationship to other values. It is suspicious of any value that attempts to claim an absolute position over other values. The Constitution is a living thing, trembling with life and with tensions. Thus, I have freedom of speech but that freedom is not absolute. It is balanced by the rights of others. Given this fact, as has often been said, I am not entitled to endanger the lives of others by shouting fire in a crowded movie theater. The same tension exists among all the rights guaranteed in the constitution.

    Someone (I think G.K. Chesterton) once observed that Americans are big on preserving their freedom to speak, but notoriously lax about exercising their freedom to think. That's worth pondering, particularly in light of the mindless and vicious squabbles our politics engenders these days.

    What sets our Constitution apart from so many others is its genius for assumptions, including its assumption that it is as fallible as the human beings who framed it, who offer amends to it, who govern using it and are governed by it. From the very beginning the Constitution assumed that it did not represent the last word on many issues of national, even universal, importance. This is why the process for amending the Constitution was baked into the original document.

    Most owner's manuals make certain assumptions. The manufacturer of my car assumes I will not want it breaking down on a lonely highway far from help. So the manufacturer assumes that I will be intelligent enough to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" the car's owner's manual, at least the section about getting regular service. The deeper assumption behind this assumption is that enlightened self-interest motivates me because I live in a rational world. This is not a safe assumption. I know many people who have never cracked open the owner's manual to their car and only become curious about maintenance when the "check engine light" comes on.

    There is a similar flaw woven into the fabric of the assumptions guiding our republic's owner's manual. The manufacturers of our republic knew from the beginning that a republican form of government, which is the kind of liberal democracy we inherited, requires the governed to invest time and effort into understanding how the whole thing works and some energy into maintaining the thing. This means more than just popping the hood to check the oil periodically.

    One of my most formative memories was watching the late Barbara Jordan of Texas, then a member of the House Judiciary Committee, during the closing chapters of the Nixon era. With a cadence borrowed from Winston Churchill and a moral heart shaped by the Old Testament prophets she had heard preached in her father's pulpit, Barbara spoke in the impeachment hearings on July 25, 1974. I still recall standing in the television room of our college dormitory witnessing the events unfold. You may be able to quote her from memory: "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution." The constitution assumes this kind of active investment on our part: rational, moral, more committed to the common good than to personal interests and private gain.

    During that awful time, as I watched the first president for whom I had ever voted leave office in shame, I recall being profoundly sad. But, however sad I felt to witness this national tragedy, I also felt proud of my country and its leaders.

    The Owner's Manual of the Republic saw us through. God knows it isn't perfect. Like all human inventions, it has had its failures and has reflected our devils and not just our better angels. But it saw us through. And I believe it will continue to do its job. But it will be able to do its job only to the degree that we fulfill our obligations and responsibilities as citizens.

    So, this Fourth of July, let's not just celebrate our independence. Let's celebrate our interdependence. And let's celebrate the document that still makes it possible for us to live together as a people.
    The winners of the Grawemeyer Award in Education this year is particularly interesting in the context of teaching responsible citizenship in our public schools. I hope you'll take a look at it: Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (New York: Routledge, 2015).

  • When the World Breathes

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 27, 2017

    When the World BreathesBetween the ages of eleven and eighteen, I spent a lot of time outdoors. It was not unheard of for me to spend as much as three months of a year "under canvas," as we said, that is, camping. From the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada to the Rio Grande border with Mexico, I travelled – hiking, canoeing, fishing, camping. And I shared this love of the outdoors with my children as they grew up.

    There are so many memories.

    The night the small group I was in (all of us teenagers but for a couple of adult leaders) got disoriented beyond our map's borders and wandered into a deer fly and mosquito infested swamp in the Quetico wilderness of Canada. We had to pitch our tents on a little mound of mud and dirt just feet above the surrounding swamps, skip dinner, and wait until morning to find our way out.

    The morning I woke up, camping with a Cub Scout pack in Scotland (which included my son, Jeremy), in the "wilds" of the hillside paddock behind the elementary school. Clearing my eyes of sleep on that damp cool dawn, I saw the most delightful sight. In one corner of the tent there were five little guys curled up together sound asleep like a litter of puppies.

    And I recall the day that my daughter, Jessica, and I stood high on the South Rim Trail of the Big Bend in West Texas, looking out over the desert. She was probably eight years old. Debbie, the kids and I were on a family outing, trekking the fifteen miles around the rim of an ancient volcano. Standing on the mountainside, looking southward into Mexico, I told Jessica that if she looked really hard out into the distance of the great Chihuahuan Desert, she might just see the dust clouds thrown up by a herd of the majestic little dogs in their natural habitat. It's a wonder she ever decided to trust her father's word.

    Of all the memories, however, that have stuck with me, none is more profound than the sense I have gotten, walking through a forest or beside the ocean, of the way the world breathes. Whenever I find myself outdoors, I am reminded of this reality.

    Before the storm of a cold front arrives in full blow, walking a woodland trail, the warm scents of sassafras and hickory bringing every sense to life, the winds above twisting the tree tops, the cooling, softening breeze working its way along the trails and avenues between the trees, you can hear and feel the forest breathing in and out. It is as though you are contained within the lungs of the forest.

    Early in the morning walking along the ever-shifting sandbars of the Atlantic Ocean, the brisk winds blowing, the ocean waves reminding you that not everything that breathes is above the surface of the deep, the sound of the waves advancing then retreating tumbling in and out, over and over. The respiration of the cosmos resounds.

    We can find something similar on the high deserts of the Southwest, in the wheat and corn fields of the Great Plains, and, I suspect, in every corner of this globe, if we are attuned to listen, sense, feel. When we do, I believe we will also feel ourselves for the tiny creatures that we are, breathing along with the world's breath. When we do, I believe we may just notice that our breathing is not something separate from, not something apart from, but is but a small expression of, yet a full participation in, the breath of the world.

    Where it comes from, we do not know, said Jesus, nor where it is going. The Ruach, the Pneuma, the spirit of being itself, the breath God breathes into our nostrils and into the nostrils of nature: this is a mystery that meteorology cannot explain beyond describing how this fullness rushes into that void. But the void makes itself full, and longs to be emptied again if life is to continue. And life itself takes a breath, and gives it away.

  • A Soul Sharpened

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 20, 2017

    Sharpening StoneI've been reflecting recently on some of the writers to whom I turn most often for guidance: Julian of Norwich, Abraham Heschel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example. Their writings have always demonstrated to me the virtue of a soul sharpened on the stone of scripture.

    Whereas so many contemporary theologians and religious writers seem to believe that the only way to develop a social consciousness is by drilling oneself or one's students on contemporary moral causes and ethical hot topics, without reference to a grounding in transcendence, these writers reflect an alternative. Let the human soul live in constant conversation with the sacred texts of one's faith tradition, these spiritual thinkers tell us, while being attentive to the moment, the situation, the need du jour.

    The difference has to do with depth. Specifically, the depth of the soul, heart and conscience of the person living in a particular moment. The difference also has to do with one's ultimate ground of allegiance. We serve others because we serve God. We are "our brother's keeper" and "our sister's keeper" because we have the same holy parent.

    One moment gives way to another. The present situation steps aside for the next. Needs of one day may not resemble the needs of another. And the attempt to educate ourselves or others that focuses on the social setting alone, even the injustices of the moment alone, almost inevitably surrenders to either/or dynamics, pitting one group of people against another.

    The soul sharpened on the stone of sacred texts finds the timeless in the time, that which is humanly and divinely momentous in the moment. And it knows beyond any doubt that all humanity stands before God troubled by their own limitations and failings whatever side of whatever issue they may stand on. Unless we can find ourselves standing in the shadow of God's paternal grace, we will find it hard to see the face of a sibling in the face of the stranger.

    Such soul whetting does not happen quickly but only gradually over a lifetime. Psalms prayed daily become a part of who we are only over the course of long years. Prophets digested slowly and wisdom acquired through the irony of Ecclesiastes or the Sermon on the Mount does not yield to quick acquisition. The Epistles of the New Testament provide a chorus that is as stirring in their frequent dissonance as in their harmonies, and superficial readings will not reveal meaning within either.

    The soul text-sharpened is ready for the moment in which God places us. And no other preparation makes quite so much difference.

    Which is why we keep reaching for Julian, Heschel or Bonhoeffer when today's hot topics grow cold. They are always there to remind us where we can find the whetting stone.

  • The Healing Power of Compassion

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 13, 2017

    Healing power of compassionContrary to what the song says, "Rainy Days and Mondays" do not, in fact, get me down. Overcast, chilly, showery days tend to be among my favorite days, probably because as a kid rainy days gave me the perfect excuse to stay inside and read. It was "contrary to ordinary," therefore, (as another song says) that I was feeling pretty down one particular rainy Monday morning this spring.

    I don't know if this ever happens to you, but it wasn't really depression. And I had nothing to be sad about. I just felt down. A little blue.

    Still, life and work must go on, so after running by the office for a few minutes, I headed out for a visit with a potential "friend" of the seminary. These conversations with potential new friends of the seminary often are surprising. You meet the most amazing and wonderful people doing what I do. But when I got to the coffee shop on this particular morning for this particular appointment, I got a bigger surprise than usual.

    We made small talk as we got our coffee. We talked about the usual kinds of things. But within just a few minutes, I found myself listening to someone pouring his heart out, exploring losses, griefs and struggles. My role that morning, I realized quickly, was to listen, and to listen actively. That was it. This person didn't need a seminary president. And he wasn't really looking for a pastor. He just needed another human being to connect with him.

    There was a time when, especially as a young pastor, I would have been tempted to apply emotional bandages to this person's wounds. I would have rushed to do something, without realizing that my urge to do was mostly an attempt to manage my own anxiety. But sitting there listening to this person, I could also hear the echo of words from one of my clinical supervisors from long ago, "Don't just do something! Stand there!" Or sit there. Just sip your coffee, and listen.

    I have no clue at all if my listening helped this person on that morning. No clue at all. But listening to him, hoping my silence was communicating a measure of compassion to him, completely turned my day around.

    That was the big surprise.

    After our visit – and I guess this visit went on for an hour or more – I got back into the car, and driving back down Lexington Road it suddenly occurred to me: my blues has lifted. I don't feel down any more.

    Suddenly I realized I felt – and I do not use this word lightly – joyful. Really. Full to overflowing with joy.

    Isn't that amazing?!

    A few years ago, I was in a theological book group reading the late Hans Urs Von Balthasar's book titled simply, Prayer (published by Ignatius Press in San Francisco). The book is, as readers of Von Balthasar would expect, profoundly Trinitarian. At some point, while reading this book, something dawned on me. It may mean I hadn't been paying attention for a long time, but somehow in all the mix of doctrines I had studied, it had never sunk in at a personal level that when we talk about the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Christ, we are talking about the life-giving love beyond all measure that is God, the creative power of self-giving divine love that flows eternally from the Father to the Son, from the Son to the Father, and through the Son to each of us and all of creation.

    When we love, we are tapping into that mighty rushing stream of God's essential being, that same power that created all things and holds all things in being, that same love which seeks to draw us into loving relationship with one another.

    Whenever we respond to God in prayer – listening to God, opening our hearts to God – we stand in the face of a tsunami of God's love. Whenever we attend to one another, forgetting ourselves in the act of listening to someone else open their hearts, we are giving ourselves over to the outgoing tide of God's love.

    To change metaphors to recall that word from which the word “spirit” is derived in our Bibles (in Hebrew, ruach; in Greek, pneuma), the spirit is the very living breath of God breathing through us. And whenever we love, our little human windmills are hit by a hurricane of life-transforming love flowing right from the heart of God.

    We use pale expressions like "participating in the nature of God" to try to describe what it means to open ourselves to God's life in us. But we're really a lot like that poor blood-bloated little mosquito in the Gary Larson cartoon, stuck into a person's arm and swelling up alarmingly fast with his victim's blood. The mosquito sitting next to him is yelling, "Pull out! Pull out! You've hit an artery."

    So why was I so surprised that I felt so full of joy, so full of life, after sitting across from someone for a while listening to him attentively enough that for just a while I forgot about myself? I had hit an artery of God's love. This wasn't really a professional relationship, not after the first five minutes. It was a human relationship that happened to get caught up into the mystery of the inner life of God the Trinity.

    The really amazing thing was, I could hardly wait to experience it again.

    Compassion might just be habit forming.

    If I can remember to forget myself.

  • Don't Shoot! I'm On Your Side

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 06, 2017

    Don't Shoot"Just remember, if you get out too far ahead of your people, they'll mistake you for the enemy and shoot you."

    I recall getting this advice, but I don't remember who told me. Whoever it was gave me a great gift because they showed me a dynamic of leadership that is true no matter who is involved. The most sophisticated organization is not immune to this dynamic; the smallest congregation is subject to it as well.

    The pace of change as much as the direction has led to many failures of leadership. Of course, this doesn't take into account the fact that some organizations are simply more change-adverse than others. Academic institutions, for example.

    When Don Shriver became president of Union Seminary in New York City, he asked Ellis Nelson (then dean) to fill him in on how a seminary works. Ellis told him that however socially or politically liberal any academic institution may be, its faculty is inevitably conservative when it comes to institutional change. It is easy for an energetic president to leave the faculty further and further behind until - you guessed it - they mistake you for the enemy and shoot you.

    The same is true for principals of schools, directors of certain nonprofits (especially those with staffs and very engaged volunteer groups), and pastors.

    I often encouraged senior seminarians not to make any significant changes when they were called to their first congregations (and, incidentally, ANY change to worship is by definition a significant change) for the period of one year. Not only should they not make any significant changes, the governing board and the congregation should know about this pledge when the new pastor comes in.

    The first goal of the new pastor is to get to know her people. She should become the historian of the congregation, even if only unofficially. Her love for the congregation should become a matter of conversation throughout the community. After that reputation is well-established, she has the freedom to begin thinking with the congregation about what needs to be accomplished and changed.

    Many a beginning pastor has been burned at the stake as a heretic for doing something as seemingly innocuous as moving the pulpit Bible, changing the order of the service, or making the congregation sing unfamiliar hymns. And, while many beginning pastors have claimed they were rejected because they were fearless prophets for social justice, most of the time they actually failed because they did not communicate a deep respect for the people and their distinctive ways of being faithful in that particular place.

    Every good rule has its exceptions. And as true as it may be that most new leaders fail by failing to connect adequately before making changes, sometimes change is the very thing needed to convince the people that their new leader understands their situation.

    This is especially true in cases where an organization or a congregation has languished and drifted without direction or fallen behind because of unimaginative, unenergetic or chronically conflicted leadership (or all three). In these cases, the first order of business for a new leader may be to bring together the leadership of the group (official and otherwise) and to begin to chart a new course right away.

    Even here a delicate dance is necessary. The leader cannot afford to send the message: "I would like you better if you were different." Rather, the leader must communicate in actions and words: "I love this organization. It has amazing strengths and capacities, and I'm here to work with you in helping you to flourish. Let's imagine our future together."

    In these cases, the leader is not so much the historian of the organization or congregation as the facilitator of adaptive change. But once the organization or congregation starts moving again, the pace of change will become just as important in these cases as in the more conventional situations.

    The old saw just never gets dull. People must know deep in their hearts that the leader is on their side. Otherwise about the only advice I can give a new leader is, "Dive for cover!"

  • For the Time Being

    by Michael Jinkins | May 30, 2017

    For the Time Being

    Sometimes I have no idea why I pull a particular poet from the bookshelf. Perhaps it is an intuition I cannot explain logically. Maybe it is because of a sense felt so deeply I can't express it even to myself. But this morning, as flowers were bursting into bloom all over Louisville, and although the liturgical calendar was well past Christmastide, I reached for W.H. Auden, and for his For the Time Being: Christmas Oratorio. The volume fell open where an old business card was stuck, and I read the closing of a speech by the "Second Wise Man."

    "We anticipate or remember but never are.
           To discover how to be living now
           Is the reason I follow the star."

    For whatever reason I selected this poet and turned to this passage, Auden spoke to me with almost prophetic urgency.

    Late yesterday afternoon, alone at the house, I had set aside time for prayer and meditation. It had been a long day of meetings. As the day wore on, I found myself regretting more and more what I had said in one of the meetings. It wasn't that I had said something unpleasant. Rather I had said something that left me feeling especially vulnerable. It felt as though my "ego" (whatever that is) was standing alone in a stiff winter wind. I found myself wishing I would just shut up and not say what I meant. I also found myself remembering the admonitions of the Desert Fathers to remain silent. As Arsinius, an Egyptian hermit, once said, "I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent."*

    Try as I might, I could not settle myself into prayer. I could not contemplate. I could not meditate. "Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner" indeed! Thoughts hijacked my mind making it impossible to settle in. "Lord, silence every voice but thine own!" Wildly distracted monkeys swung from limb to limb in my brain chattering at me about my foolishness. I regretted what I had said. I worried about the consequences. I was all over the map internally. I was everywhere except where I was.

    "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," said Jesus. "Do not worry about tomorrow." We are taught by our faith to confess our faults, believe in the everlasting mercy of God and get on with living. We are taught that we should live in what Paul Tillich called "the eternal present." Easier said than realized!

    Then Auden comes along. The passage was underlined. Clearly I had valued these words before, though I don't recall why?

    "We anticipate and remember but never are.
          To discover how to be living now
          Is the reason I follow the star."

    "To discover how to be living now ..."

    If there's a beef I have with my Protestant tradition it is that it is long on “shoulds” and short on “hows.” The Desert Fathers, whose spirituality lies at the heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, have their Evagrius Ponticus; the Cistercians have the resources inherited from the Benedictines as well as John Cassian; the Jesuits have their Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises, but too often we Protestants give the impression that once you believe that "the just shall live by faith" (or with Evangelical Protestants, "you let Jesus into your heart"), there's little more to do than attend weekly club meetings. But the truth is more complicated.

    Somehow we know we need disciplines to reinforce the habits of grace. We need "to discover how to be living now." We need calisthenics for the spiritual heart, for the mind, for the soul, to keep us from atrophying in the past and the future, and to bring us fully awake into the present. Sometimes the thing we most need deliverance from is our own obsessive minds. Then we can be attentive to God and others.

    We tend to tell ourselves stories about our "selves" and "others" on endless feedback loops in our brains, narratives that stoke the fires of anger and keep alive old grievances, stories that conjure up old guilts and griefs, resentments and regrets. All of this lies in the land of remembering. We replay a moment of defeat; reminisce a moment of glory. We obsess about a conversation we had or wished we'd had, or regretted having, or intended to make time for.

    Like records worn scratchy from playing too often, our voices crack and crackle in our memories. All of these remembrances we use to construct a "self," what Thomas Merton often referred to as a "false self," which justifies ourselves to ourselves, explains ourselves, defends ourselves, and ultimately stands in place of ourselves.

    Then there are our anticipations, the conversations we might have, the occasions we might entertain. The "what ifs" of the future rise up in our minds connected to dread or hope, anxieties and fears. And rising in our minds (promising to help prepare us for a future engagement or conversation), in fact, they sap our energy.

    Whether seemingly positive or positively awful, anticipations fixate us on an endless array of unrealities, worries and aspirations, when mostly we need to collect ourselves and entrust ourselves to God. Moments of imagined triumph that will finally prove our worth compete with imagined catastrophes that will prove too great for our abilities. Records of things that have never happened or will never occur play incessantly in our minds. Thoughts tripping through our heads like mad Morris dancers accompanied by a cacophony distract us from what is happening now.

    And "What IS happening now?"

    Unfortunately, too often, we aren't mentally attentive enough to notice. Not really. We are off worshiping at the shrine of St. Elsewhere Perpetua, the patron saint of the habitually distracted. "Lost in thought," a victim of hope, or dread, or fear, or fancy.

    "We anticipate and remember but never are.
         To discover how to be living now
          Is the reason I follow the star."

    Why does it matter that we aren't present for our own lives? Well, I suppose it matters because it is the only life we're likely to have in this world. God gave it to us to make the most of. And it is such a shame to waste what God has given.

    Even the quietest life is blessed by such amazing things.

    A child playing quietly with a spool and a thimble she found in an old box, talking to herself and laughing at her own silly jokes. I would hate to have missed her because I was dreading a meeting I need to have tomorrow.

    That peculiar and wonderful slant of the spring sunshine as it sets, the way the shadows are cast through the twisted branches of trees still denuded of their leaves, but showing just a hint of promised green. I would hate to have missed the promise of spring because I was obsessed with my anger at something someone said yesterday.

    "To discover how to be living now" requires something of us. This doesn't mean it is not a matter of grace and faith, but that it is a matter of grace lived and active faith.

    We follow the star, to learn to live this life, the real one that only exists right now in this moment. The star leads us to the one who says, "Take no thought of tomorrow." Perhaps it is the star itself that adds, "And forget about yesterday." Only this moment is. Don't miss it.
    * This particular passage comes from Henri J.M. Nouwen's The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (Seabury, 1981, p. 43), to which I have referred in previous blogs; I have drawn from Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions, 1960) too; but I also highly recommend Benedicta Ward's superb collection, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin, 2003). All three books are accessible for general readers, and Sister Ward's is by far the largest collection, accompanied by an excellent scholarly and clearly written introduction.

  • The Privilege of Being Here

    by Michael Jinkins | May 23, 2017

    OxfordThe loneliness went so deep, it felt like a physical ache.

    I had been away from Debbie and the kids for months. At that time she was a researcher on childhood literacy in a federal think tank, our children were both in high school, and the opportunity came for me to take a sabbatical at Oxford University on a fellowship. There was simply no way we could afford for them to be with me on sabbatical. And there was no way I could pass up an Oxford fellowship. So I went alone.

    A confirmed creature of habit, I thrive on routine. And I like to work. Each day began early with a breakfast at the faculty club where I had a room. Then I went right to work researching and writing until six in the evening, either in the Bodleian Library or with colleagues at one of several colleges.

    The days were much like days back home, just a different location. So nothing much felt different from being in Austin.

    However, I came to dread six o'clock p.m. when work for the day ended and the loneliness began to set in. Ordinarily I would walk to a favorite restaurant or pub and have dinner. Once a week, a Manchurian physicist and I watched a ridiculous slapstick British comedy in the senior common room together. It became a regular event for both of us far away from home. But most nights, after dinner, I just wandered around Oxford to avoid going to my room.

    The particular night I am thinking about was toward the end of my sabbatical. Within a few days I would be traveling north to Scotland to visit with friends in Edinburgh, before wrapping up my sabbatical by serving as the external evaluator on a Ph.D. Viva Voce at Aberdeen University.

    My mind, typical I suppose of all of us, was swirling around what was coming up (especially dreading the oral examination in Aberdeen because the dissertation I was examining was not up to snuff). And, of course, I longed simply to be home with my family.

    I remember the moment distinctly when I came to the realization on that evening walk: "You idiot! You selfish, selfish idiot! Debbie and the children, and some very nice people at a foundation and at Oxford, and my colleagues at the seminary, are all making it possible for me to have the incredible privilege to be here to do the research and writing I want to do. Then, for goodness sake, I need to BE HERE NOW! Soak it up! Enjoy it fully! To do otherwise is to heap selfishness on selfishness."

    Walking along, my head down, I stopped dead in my tracks and lifted my eyes to see where I was. At that moment I was on the turn in the lane that runs from Merton College past Oriel College back toward the center of Oxford and St. Mary's Cathedral. I had been walking along until that moment utterly unmindful of the path I was walking, unconscious that I was walking along a path trodden for hundreds of years by some of the people I most admired in the world. J.H. Newman and J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and W.H. Auden had all walked right here. The great John Locke was memorialized a few steps away in Christ Church Cathedral. The whole time I had been in Oxford, day after glorious day, I had been able to attend Evensong sung by some of the finest choirs in the world in some of the most beautiful college chapels, and I had heard concerts at the Sheldonian, including an unforgettable performance of Verdi's Requiem.

    Suddenly I felt so ashamed of myself for taking the opportunity, the moment, the place and the sacrifice of others for granted, and I realized that one way I could value what they were doing for me was to take in as fully as possible being there. This great undeserved opportunity was mine as a gift from others. And the gratitude I needed to show them was in the form of joy.

    This lesson has stayed with me for years now; when I have forgotten it, it has thundered back into my consciousness.

    Somehow this lesson has touched even the most mundane family and work chores. Being here is a privilege, wherever "here" happens to be.

    What a privilege it is to be able to wash the family breakfast plates. What a privilege to vacuum the living room floor. What a privilege to sit with a group of colleagues trying to figure out the best way to provide an education for our students. What a privilege to sit with a potential friend of the seminary asking them to consider supporting theological education.

    The awareness has turned many a task from drudgery (washing the dishes comes immediately to mind) to a moment of grace and enlightenment. And the lesson has only become more profound the older I have become.

    Life is so fragile, so tenuous, so brief. We hang like spiders from a silken thread over eternity at every moment (apologies to Jonathan Edwards for the theft of his image).

    Death is not a destination at the end of a long road for any of us, not really. The grave is a reality yawning beneath us all the time.

    What a privilege to be here, wherever here is. What a privilege to be here now, whenever now happens to be.

    As I made my way back to my room that night, I felt pretty humbled. But I also felt a new sense of joy.

    I stopped in at a favorite pub for a pint. And before I turned in, I wrote my wife a postcard, as I did every day while I was away, this time just to say, "thank you."

  • Mercy

    by Michael Jinkins | May 16, 2017

    Charge to Louisville Seminary's Graduating Class of 2017

    MercyIn Anne Lamott's delightful new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (Riverhead Books, 2017), she remembers a cartoon that once appeared in The New Yorker magazine. It pictured two dogs, one of whom says to the other: "It's not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail."

    "This is the human condition," Lamott writes, "that ... cats must lose."

    This is the human condition. And there's never been a time when we found it easy to be merciful, as I'm sure John Calvin would want to remind us. But I think it is also true that we live in a particularly unmerciful age. This age might be summed up in that phrase: "Cats must also fail."

    The unmerciful especially surfaces in the politically charged atmosphere of our time.

    Recently I was reading a collection of obituaries written by William F. Buckley, and the thing that immediately struck me was how many very close, very dear friends this arch conservative, this intellectual founder of libertarian conservatism, had who were among the leading liberals of his day.

    I've often marveled at the wisdom of the late Jack Stotts, the ethicist and seminary president, who noted with lament that moment in our country when we stopped saying, "I disagree with you. You're wrong." And started saying instead, "I disagree with you. You're evil." When we crossed that line, political opponents became implacable enemies. Clashes over ideas and values became battle lines that no one could question without transgressing the orthodoxy of the right or the left.

    So why am I talking about politics today when you are all graduating from a theological school? Surely, religious faith represents the solution to the problems of polarization and division, hatred and violence. Surely, religious faith lifts us up into a transcendent realm far above such mundane matters.

    You and I both know this isn't true. Somehow politics always seems to find a way to co-opt faith.

    Mercy 1Whether we are reflecting historically on the ways in which imperialism co-opted Christianity in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the United States leading to two world wars and the slaughter of untold millions; or we are reflecting on the impotence of Buddhism to resist the rise of radical nationalism in the second of these world wars in Japan; or we remember the violence that followed in the wake of the independence of India from its colonial oppressors when Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other in their thousands. In each case, religious faith followed political allegiances toward hatred and division, rather than leading their adherents toward mercy, compassion, love and peace, all of which are valued above other qualities in each of these great faiths.

    The powers that work against mercy are as seductive as they are ubiquitous. It is hard for the canine representatives of any economic class to imagine succeeding without also wanting "the cats" to fail. And it is nigh on impossible for the dogs of most any group in society to imagine their own liberation, freedom or flourishing without wanting the cats to suffer.

    Nation, culture, tribe, family all will make their demands on our loyalty, and they will be suspicious of any obligations of faith that counter their interests. They will lift up this sacred text to justify their hatred and reinterpret that sacred passage to fit their interests, assumptions, prejudices and bigotry.

    Even, maybe especially, our highest aspirations can fall victim to the unmerciful impulses of inhumanity.

    Hatred dressed up as faith, justice, righteousness, peace-making or any other lofty aspiration is no less hateful than hatred dressed up in the most vile uniforms of division and suppression, colonialism and fascism. If the devil can successfully convince us to hate other people in the name of God, he has us three-quarters of the way down the path to hell. An evil must appear good to be really attractive.

    So what are we going to do? Are we sending you the graduates of 2017 out, as the Bible says, like sheep to the slaughter? Some of you will be pastors of flocks, preachers called to speak the Word of God. Some of you will counsel those whose lives have been broken on the rack of hatred and violence and those who are breaking others. Some of you will be leaders of communities, congregations and organizations charged to do some good in an often angry and divided society.

    Graduating class of 2017, I want to ask you please to stand to receive your charge:

    My charge to you today is deceptively simple:

    Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God, as the Prophet Micah exhorted us. Remember when you stand in a pulpit to preach that all of us stand under the grace and judgment of God's Word with the people to whom we speak. Don't allow the altitude of your pulpit to fool you into thinking you are above your people, morally, intellectually or theologically. Remember that however difficult it is to be merciful and to love kindness it is the thing God requires of us especially when we are seeking justice. Humility demands that we never stop recognizing that we are not God, that we don't know the mind of God. But we do know this: we do know what it means to see a man sent by God broken on a cross built by human hands, and we do believe that seeing him, we have looked into God's heart. Jesus reminds us that for the dogs to succeed, the cats have to succeed also.


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