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Thinking Out Loud
  • Pandaemonium

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 03, 2015

    PandaemoniumPandaemonium is the opposite of Serenity. And, as John Milton, who gave us the term, knew, Pandaemonium is the domain of all the demons. But we don't really like to talk of demons, do we?

    Modern. Educated. Sophisticated folk that we are. With Rudolf Bultmann and his minions, we have so thoroughly demythologized Christianity that we have a hard time reading many of the Gospel stories about Jesus with a straight face.

    Yet the stories remain, starting with the reading often associated with the commencement of Lent: Jesus' earthly ministry begins with a demonic confrontation that in many ways defined his life. "Then Jesus was driven into the desert where he was tempted by the devil." (Matthew 4:1)

    We sometimes forget this, but Jesus was an exorcist. "When [Jesus] came to the other side [of the lake] to the territory of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs who were coming from the tombs met him. They were so savage that no one could travel by that road." (Matthew 8:28) And to ignore or interpret away the stories of Jesus casting out demons is to miss something at the heart of his identity as God incarnate.

    Indeed, Jesus's teachings take for granted the realm of personal evil. "When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it roams through arid regions searching for rest but finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my home from which I came.' But upon returning, it finds it empty, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and brings back with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they move in and dwell there; and the last condition of that person is worse than the first." (Matthew 12:43-45)

    Strange as it may seem, even after the horrors of two world wars and the Holocaust, after decades of existence under the threat of nuclear annihilation, and even in the shadow of international terrorism, we modern Western Christians seem a bit too smug to imagine that the biblical writers might have been less naive than we. So we avoid speaking of demons because we think that their absence from our philosophy makes us more responsible rather than less so.

    John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, in his introduction to The Praktikos of Evagrius Ponticus (to which I referred in last week's blog on "Serenity"), depicts modern society's attitude toward demonology by quoting Paul Valery, whose version of the Faust story has Faust informing Mephisto that the devil's "reputation in the world is not so grand as it used to be."1 Frankly, if I were a demon, I think I might prefer for people not to believe in my existence. More room for mischief!

    Evagrius's concept of demons is theologically astute and psychologically subtle. At certain points he reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who firmly believed in demons as fallen angels and enemies of God's goodness and self-giving love. From Lewis's perspective, demons are characterized as "entirely practical," simply motivated by a "fear of punishment" and "a kind of hunger." They also lack "a sense of proportion" about themselves and an inability "to see themselves from the outside." The defining sin of demons, we should remember, is pride. Thus, Lewis writes: "we must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment.” (C.S. Lewis, Foreword to the 1960 edition of The Screwtape Letters, originally published in London by Geoffrey Bles in 1942, xi-xvii)

    This last sentence is crucial, I think, for any of us who want to encourage spiritual and psychological health in ourselves and in our communities of faith. For Lewis, the fallen angels cultivate in humans all of the sins that make them miserable. They seek to multiply the misery they feel and the fear in which they exist. They wish to replicate among humans the characteristics of hell. The fact that a community is labeled “Christian” only makes it a more delicious target for the demons.

    Evagrius observes that while the demons attack the solitary holy men and women (hermits) directly in a kind of hand-to-hand combat (the story of the Desert Father, St. Anthony, as pictured memorably by Salvador Dali and portrayed by Gustave Flaubert comes to mind), demons work through the weaker and less mature members of communities to bring chaos and destruction. (Evagrius explicitly mentions monasteries, but all sorts of Christian fellowships and churches could be included.)

    The demons feed on human misery, anger and malice, and seem utterly powerful. But there is one thing the demonic powers cannot abide, as Christian thinkers such as Evagrius, C.S. Lewis, Martin LutherSir Thomas More and G.K. Chesterton all agree, and that is being mocked and scorned. (Lewis, xiii) It may be surprising that Evagrius speaks at times so light-heartedly as he explains the serious business of defeating demons. But he would readily have understood what Chesterton centuries later would say with such wit, that the devil fell through force of gravity and angels fly because they take themselves lightly. A sense of humor sets the powers of hell into a frenzy like poking a wasp's nest with a stick.

    Our minds can be such fertile ground for demons to set up shop and do their work. According to Evagrius, the only way to find peace is (metaphorically) to knock some demonic heads and take names. Naming demons correctly, it turns out, is especially crucial, according to Evagrius because we need to understand the nature of the spiritual forces assailing us. Fashionable or not (and in his own fourth century AD it was fashionable) he invests considerable energy in naming demons, describing their ways, and finding effective means to counter their wiles. For Evagrius, demons are slippery characters: he variously describes them as "temptations," "evils" or "spirits." He does the opposite of demythologizing the demons into non-existence. He enriches his complex psychological analysis of our humanity with a distinctively theological language. He speaks the names of the demons, and as he does so, we recognize them: Gluttony, Impurity, Avarice, Sadness, Anger, Acedia, Vainglory and Pride. Like a skilled stalker, he learns their ways. And he tracks them into their lairs.

    In a blog, it is impossible to go into detail about each of these demons or temptations, but I would like to suggest the relevance of Evagrius in his reflections on just four of those he names.

    1. Avarice
    "Avarice," Evagrius writes, "suggests to the mind a lengthy old age, inability to perform manual labor (at some future date), famines that are sure to come, sickness that will visit us, the pinch of poverty, the great shame that comes from accepting the necessities of life from others."(17)

    As someone who often wonders if, when I eventually retire, I will outlive my savings (a worry that is no less potent just because its possibility resides in the future) his words hit home, although I had never named this worry as Avarice. And certainly I never thought I was dealing with a demon. But for Evagrius, Avarice is a demonic power because it preys upon the mind by taking all the joy out of the present, infecting each day with anxiety in anticipation of the future. The demon comes disguised as responsibility or self-sufficiency or independence. And who does not admire these qualities. But like a con-man, the demon assumes the appearance of someone we can trust in order to defraud us of our Serenity. Evagrius's treatment of the subject of demons reminds us of Augustine's insight that every sin is a distortion or corruption of a good; the higher the good, the greater the sin.

    Yes, it is wise and prudent to invest for the future. Yes, we should do so with thought and care so as not to be a burden to others. And, yes, the alternative to doing so is irresponsible. But, the wisdom of this ancient theologian might just help us stay sane in the face of an unknowable future. It is possible to plan for the future without becoming fearful, grasping (avaricious) and so anxious and fearful that no one wants to share our company now.

    2. Sadness
    "Sadness tends to come up at times because of the deprivation of one's desires. On other occasions it accompanies anger." (17) Like a depth psychologist, Evagrius looks deeply into the root causes of our sadness. And like a Stoic philosopher, Evagrius encourages us not to place ourselves at the mercy of external circumstances. We should hold all the things of this world with love, but lightly, as a gift we have been given, but only for a brief season. Thus Evagrius would encourage us to rejoice in all things that come our way, in the knowledge that our lives belong (in life and in death, in fortunate moments and in distressing times) to the God who can be trusted to do better things than we can ask or imagine.

    3. Anger
    Anger is a particularly dangerous demonic spirit for Evagrius. It is "the most fierce passion" which boils and stirs up wrath "against one who has given injury" or a perceived insult. Reading Evagrius, I am reminded that in some Asian cultures, anger is seen as a kind of madness, a form of insanity. This is easy to believe for anyone who has ever been confronted with someone in the grips of uncontrollable fury. But Evagrius takes us deeper into the dynamics of anger and, with astonishing pastoral sensitivity, he discerns something that many of us miss, especially in the heat of the moment. The soul of the angry person, Evagrius believed, is characterized by profound sadness. What we may witness in some social setting as toxic anger spewed forth from one person onto others, may originate in self-contempt, in wounds too deep for any of us to fathom, reachable only by God's grace.

    There are ranks among the demonic legions of anger (resentment, indignation, and hatred, included), and they can only be dealt with by cultivating meekness, humility, i.e., a proper sense of proportion regarding ourselves in the presence of God, the ability to see ourselves more objectively but with grace. Knowing ourselves as small and flawed but loved and forgiven by God, we can afford to think largely of others.

    4. Acedia
    Perhaps Evagrius is most eloquent in his analysis of the demon Acedia. He calls it "the noonday demon." One might also call this "the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill" demon.

    "This demon," Evagrius writes, "drives [the person] along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life's necessities, more readily find work, and make a real success of himself."(18-19) The person under the spell of Acedia exists in a constant state of resentment against the present time and place, and the people who co-inhabit both with him, yearning for an elusive "elsewhere" among people who will finally appreciate him and his gifts.

    Interestingly, Evagrius says that wrestling with this demon over time produces "a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy." This makes me wonder if Evagrius himself (whose life took him from Pontus to Constantinople to Jerusalem to Alexandria, from the highest heights of Hellenistic intellectual culture to the simple hermits of the Egyptian desert), didn't perhaps know this demon intimately throughout his own life.

    The means by which we route all the demons are the Means of Grace, particularly the Eucharist and meditative prayer. Praying the Psalms, calling on God for help, practicing contemplation on the love of God, giving alms to the poor, these may seem commonplace, but these are the powerful weapons Evagrius encourages us to use against our own demons. And along with these, he invites us to submit to careful self-examination, observing when we are most subject to which temptations, how we feel when we are in the thrall of a particular demon, and how we have found our way out of its clutches.

    After reading Evagrius, I had a whole new perspective on why we begin Lent with the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is a story of our lives.

    1Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters On Prayer, translated and with an introduction by John Eudes Bamberger (Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 1972).

  • Serenity

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 23, 2015

    TOLImage022415Modern life assaults us on many fronts. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

    The local news lifts its headlines directly from the police blotter, the national and international news reports confront us with perils and tragedies. The media captures our attention with sensational teasers crafted to worry us into watching. Even the office water cooler offers little consolation with the latest reports of illnesses and losses from our coworkers.

    No wonder the most popular prayer in much of the English-speaking world remains the so-called “Serenity Prayer” written by Reinhold Niebuhr half a century ago:

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.

    Evening prayers and vespers have always touched upon this theme because peace of mind is hardest to possess when the skies darken and the busy world is hushed. Of this I was reminded recently praying through the new revised edition of John Baillie's classic, A Diary of Private Prayer. I was particularly moved by the prayer which reads:

    Give me freedom from restless dreams;
    Give me control of my thoughts, if I lie awake; Give me wisdom to remember that the night was made for sleeping
    and not for harboring anxious or distressing thoughts.
    Give me grace, if I lie awake thinking, to think of you.

    Some time ago, a friend whom I have mentioned before, John Wimmer, suggested I take a look at Evagrius Ponticus (345 - 399 AD), a father of the early church. Evagrius, he said, relied on Stoic philosophy for some of his key insights. And one of the greatest scholars on Evagrius, John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, had once been a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, Kentucky. Indeed, Father Bamberger did study under Thomas Merton and is described by Jean Leclercq as "a master of the monastic life and spiritual teaching who was one of the geniuses of our time."3 (xxi) I decided that during my next silent retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, I would meditate on Evagrius's two greatest works, his Chapters On Prayer (often referred to simply as "De Oratione," i.e., "On Prayer") and The Praktikos.

    What I discovered in Evagrius was a spiritual contemporary, a person of astonishing theological depth and psychological subtlety, who understands both the root causes of our restlessness and anxiety and the sources of serenity. This week's blog is devoted to "Serenity"; next week's to "Pandaemonium." Both themes reflect on the teachings of Evagrius of Ponticus.

    "The state of prayer," writes Evagrius, "can be aptly described as a habitual state of imperturbable calm." The Greek word he uses meaning "imperturbable calm" is apatheia, a term drawn directly from the Stoic lexicon. This apatheia he continues, "snatches to the heights of intelligible reality the spirit which loves wisdom and which is truly spiritualized by the most intense love." [On Prayer, 52]

    Apatheia is not to be confused with today's English word "apathy" any more than the classical terms "apology" and "apologetics" should be confused with saying "I'm sorry." Rather apatheia, as Evagrius uses the term, is similar to "the fear of The Lord." It is grounded in a due sense of proportion (creatures in contrast to the Creator) and an appropriate sense of justice (sinners in relationship to a righteous God). Saints, it seems, have a greater sense of the distinction between God and humans than most mortals. And saints possess apatheia by the bushel. This is why saints know how to love. As Father Bamberger explains, apatheia represents a state of calm "arising from the full and harmonious integration of the emotional life, under the influence of love." (lxxxiv) "Apatheia is not a leveling out of the human emotions to an equal degree of indifference towards all [people]. No, it is a state where all [people] can be loved! at least to the extent that one loves peacefully and without resentment towards others." (lxxxv) For Evagrius, then, "perfect love casts out fear" and the banishment of fear invites perfect love.

    There is no quick fix for our restlessness and anxiety, in Evagrius's thought. There are no easy-to-apply techniques that deliver us to lasting calm. What is required, if we wish to know Serenity, is not a set of relaxation breathing exercises, but a whole new orientation on life. This new orientation is grounded in a life of "unceasing prayer" even in the midst of activity, a rendering of our lives to God and a committing of all outcomes to God's providence. Serenity is not an escape from the world we live in, but a way of living in this world in grateful openness to God.

    Pray not to this end, that your own desires be fulfilled. You can be sure they do not fully accord with the will of God. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that 'thy will be done' in me. In every matter ask [God] in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as [God] does. [On Prayer, 31]

    God seeks to give us better things than we can ask or imagine, as the Book of Common Prayer teaches us.

    Evagrius confesses, in the next chapter, his own struggle to place his life entirely in God's hands, writing: "Many times while I was at prayer, I would keep asking for what seemed good to me. I kept insisting on my own request. …" [On Prayer, 33] With wry humor, he observes that God sometimes even allowed him to receive what he requested, just so he would see the folly of his mistaken understanding of his own needs. His comments remind us of that old saying, "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."

    Evagrius removes us from the driver's seat, relinquishes control of the steering wheel, but will not surrender us to the wheel of fate. Rather, he asks us to entrust ourselves to God alone.

    What else is there that is good besides God alone? Therefore let us cast all our concerns upon [God] and it will be well with us. Certainly, [the God] who is wholly good is necessarily the kind of person who gives only good gifts. [On Prayer, 33]

    Do not be over-anxious and strain yourself so as to gain an immediate hearing for your request. The Lord wishes to confer greater favors than those you ask for, in reward for your perseverance in praying to him. For what greater thing is there than to converse intimately with God and to be preoccupied with his company. Undistracted prayer is the highest act of the intellect. [On Prayer, 34]

    For Evagrius, the goal of life is love. For him, this means a full participation in the life which God shares within God's own eternal being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God uses all the tools at God's disposal in this world to draw us into that love. Even now, even in this world, we can enjoy eternal life.

    Thus Evagrius can say, "Renounce all things. You then will become heir to all." [On Prayer, 36] Which is another way of saying, "Seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33) The renunciation of all things is at the heart of the doctrine of apatheia which Evagrius borrows from the Stoics, but into it he breathes the gospel of Jesus. He calls us to do that "one needful thing" and leave off the distractions that trouble us. This is the source of Serenity, as Jesus himself teaches. Only when we seek the reign of God above all else can we take the next step with Christ: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for the day is its own evil." (Matthew 6:34)

    The proof of apatheia is had when the spirit begins to see its own light, when it remains in a state of tranquility in the presence of the images it has during sleep and when it maintains its calm as it beholds the affairs of life. … The soul which has apatheia is not simply the one which is not disturbed by changing events but the one which remains unmoved at the memory of them as well. [Praktikos, chapters 64, 67]

    Serenity, we learn, may be a habitual state of imperturbable calm, but it does not come without some discipline and practice. And the gift of prayer.

    1While there are various popular versions of the “Serenity Prayer,” as it was originally authored by Reinhold Niebuhr and published in a column in 1951, it read: "God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed; Give us the courage to change what should be changed; Give us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other." Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 290.
    2John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, updated and revised by Susanna Wright (New York: Scribner, 2014). Originally published in 1936.
    3Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters On Prayer, translated with an introduction and notes by John Eudes Bamberger (Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 1972). Numbered references in brackets refer to "Chapters" not pages; those in parentheses refer to page numbers.

  • A Leadership Notebook: When the Circus Comes to Town

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 19, 2015

    TOLLeadership-022015Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    “Strategic planning is really important,” I said. “But, sometimes as a leader you’re really more like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus than anything else. And you’re just trying to keep the lions from eating the clowns.”

    My comments were made in the context of a Skype conversation with students in a strategic leadership course at Duke Divinity School taught by Dr. Craig Dykstra and Dr. Greg Jones. They asked me to reflect on various factors contributing to transformational thinking in a religious institution. By the way, I refused to say who I think the lions and clowns might be. Some lions are pretty funny, and some clowns can be scary.

    The point of my reflections was not to detract from the importance of strategic thinking or of planning sweeping changes in an organization. Far from it. Strategic thinking and long-range planning are crucial to the health of an organization. But I did want to raise up an aspect of planning that sometimes gets overlooked.

    What I would call “big picture” planning is very important. When we plot out major strategic shifts, our planning can energize an organization. Such “big picture” planning can inspire an organization. It certainly can help a group of people break out of old patterns and imagine new possibilities for themselves. It can assist an organization to transform threats into opportunities.

    However, the accomplishment of “big picture” plans requires hundreds, maybe thousands, of much smaller day-to-day steps forward. Yes, we must see the big picture, but we achieve great things by achieving many small things, steadily, one step at a time.

    One of the most common mistakes organizations make related to strategic planning occurs after the “big picture” plan has been adopted. Often they print the strategic plan. They place it in some sort of attractive folder. They make sure every office has a copy. They place the bound strategic plan on a shelf. Then they move on as though nothing has changed.

    Well, of course, nothing much will change in this case because they have neglected to chart the small goals that need our attention in order for the “big picture” to become a reality. These small goals, if I may return to my circus analogy, might include developing a better system to ensure that the trapeze artists stay in shape, or create a more reliable breakdown and setup process to transport the circus tents from one city to another.

    Keeping tabs on the small goals and gains (and setbacks) also helps us make the necessary adjustments in our plan that inevitably crop up in light of unforeseen developments. Charting the small goals and gains (and setbacks) also helps us keep our eyes on the relationship between dreams and realities. A few years ago, following a catastrophic financial crisis in a seminary, for example, I asked a colleague who knew that particular seminary well what had happened. He said, “Every day there was a circus parade, and nobody was cleaning up after the elephants.”

    Great successes in organizations usually require strategic thinking, as well as good fortune, but great failures often have as much to do with a lack of attention to relatively small matters as they do with a lack of vision.

    When Ellis Nelson was president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, he wrote a little book with the rather unpromising title, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975). In a section on “Developmental Decisions,” Nelson discusses the tendency of many leaders to assume that once a direction is determined, all that is necessary is for an organization to more-or-less automatically move in the chosen direction. A few years ago a faculty colleague in another seminary expressed this misunderstanding when he said that the job of administrators is “to watch the machinery work.” In fact, according to Nelson, it is at this point when an organization has charted the direction for change that the organization is most vulnerable. In essence, the leadership of the organization has made a wager that certain changes will produce better results. They are making this wager on the basis of hypotheses which may not yet have been tested. They may not know precisely how to make the small changes that will lead to the larger transformation they are seeking. They almost certainly do not know what the unintended consequences of their changes will bring. “So we are now in a zone where anxiety reigns,” wrote Nelson.1

    Drawing on the research of David Braybrooke (an ethicist and philosophical thinker) and Charles E. Lindblom (an economist and political scientist), Nelson examines how “the mind” tries “to project from the immediate past into the immediate future with minimum risk to the seminary and maximum opportunity to move ahead.” According to Braybrooke and Lindblom, the secret to navigating an organization toward real and lasting transformation is the employment of disjointed incrementalism. They believed that “sure progress in human affairs proceeds by small steps taken in a prudential mood with pragmatic reasoning.”2

    Nelson’s lesson is perhaps more important today than it was in the nineteen-seventies. In a time when churches and seminaries feel besieged by cultural shifts beyond their control and often beyond their understanding, and in the midst of financial and social instability, making appropriate and sometimes big strategic changes may be the only way for some religious organizations to survive. However: “If a seminary (or a church or other organization) launches out on a great new plan and fails to deliver the goods, such a school suffers for a generation or more from the memory people have of its failures.”3

    Fear of failure can, however, prevent leadership from making the bold changes that can lead to an organization’s viability and excellence. Indeed, anxiety can itself cause catastrophic failure by inducing paralysis when purposeful innovation is most needed. In other words, freezing in place before a threat may not be a better option than trying to escape it by jumping in the wrong direction.

    This is where Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s “progress principle” makes a creative advance on disjointed incrementalism. The gap between an organization’s present location (faced by various threats) and its strategic ends (where it converts environmental threats into opportunities and achieves a stronger position) lies in the work of “managing for progress.” As Amabile and Kramer observe, this is the next step after what Jim Collins describes as “getting the right people on the bus.”4

    While keeping in mind the organization’s strategic ends, good leaders help the people in their organization succeed with lots and lots of small wins. This produces greater buy-in to the organization’s strategic goals and greater care in attending to the day-to-day steps necessary for success. These small (incremental) successes fuel the enthusiasm of those in the organization to greater ends. Encouragement in achieving relatively small goals translates into much-needed energy toward the large strategic vision of the organization.5

    Obviously, this means much more than just keeping the lions from eating the clowns. It even means more than attending to tent transportation and the fitness of our acrobats.

    It is a reminder that the small stuff is worth sweating.

    1Ellis Nelson, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975), 63.
    2Ibid., 63.
    3Ibid., 64.
    4Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2011), 10.
    5Ibid., 20-41.

  • Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2015

    Ash Wednesday
    If there's an equivalent of the "urban legend" for nursery rhymes, one of the most popular is related to:

    Ring around the rosie,
    A pocket full of posies,
    Ashes! Ashes!
    We all fall down.

    I have heard it said - with great authority in Ash Wednesday sermons no less - that this nursery rhyme is about the plague. In fact, this is pretty doubtful.

    The dates of the origin of the rhyme (c. late eighteenth century by the oldest estimates) just don't fit the plague hypothesis: not nearly old enough for the Black Death, and the symptoms don't fit the plague that swept England in the mid-seventeenth century. The plague explanation for the rhyme first occurs in the twentieth century, anyway. (See The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren and The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, both by Iona and Peter Opie.) So let's leave medical explanations to one side, shall we?

    Let's just say that as I've been driving around town recently, seeing signs going up at local churches reminding the faithful that Ash Wednesday is on our doorstep, my mind keeps going back to the children's rhyme. Not because it cryptically speaks of plagues. Nor even because of its eerie echo of the words every minister has spoken at the graveside, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." I've been thinking about the nursery rhyme because it reminds me that "we all fall down." And not just physically.

    "We all fall down." As it happens, this is the central message of Ash Wednesday. The collect for the day from the old Book of Common Prayer reads:

    Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    There's something in this prayer that gives me hope whenever I feel mired in guilt and regret.

    Apparently when God creates a "new heart" in us, it is a "contrite" heart. When we take this "new heart" out for a spin, we find ourselves "worthily lamenting our sins." When God renews one's heart, in other words, the new heart is much too busy acknowledging its own wretchedness to go around judging others.

    I find this fact strangely comforting, and just a little bit disturbing. Because it means that whenever I'm engaged in righteously looking down on the behavior of others and judging them, I am not acting from a new heart. I'm likely acting from an old and cold one.

    This leads me to make a modest proposal for Lent. In addition to or instead of the usual things we give up, let's give up judging others. At least for Lent, let's just go on a "judgment fast."

    We can pray that God will create in us "new and contrite hearts" so that we can worthily lament our own sins and acknowledge our own wretchedness. But even here, let's lament, but leave the judgment of ourselves to God. We're just not qualified to engage in the judgment business, however good at it we may think we are.

    One of the traditional readings for Ash Wednesday is Joel 2:12-13 which reads:

    Turn even unto me, says the Lord, with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning. Rend your heart, and not your clothing, and turn to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and great in kindness …

    According to the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the goals of contrition are that we may be bathed in the love and mercy and grace of God, so that we may extend the love, mercy and grace we have received toward others.

    "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down." None of us is immune to falling. Let's help one another up this Lent.

  • On a Roll: New Verse from Christian Wiman

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 09, 2015

    New VerseThere are few things more exciting in the world of letters than a poet on a roll.

    I felt this way when Louise Glück wrote the run of slim, achingly beautiful volumes beginning with “Ararat” (1990), that included “The Wild Iris” (1992), “Meadowlands” (1996), “The Seven Ages” (2001) and culminated in the incomparable "Averno" (2006). During that season of verse, I don't think anyone was writing better poetry in English than her, not even the magnificent Seamus Heaney, God rest his soul.

    These days it is Christian Wiman who is on a roll. His “Every Riven Thing” was astounding. His My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), though prose, sings like verse wrung from the tempered soul. Now Wiman's Once in the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) speaks with a voice so original that comparisons to previous poets seem contrived. Yet I shall try. If there's any writer to whom I might compare him, it is Aeschylus, but only because the most haunting poem in this new volume (“Memory's Mercies”) seems to me (and this may be pure eisegesis) to echo the agonistic lyricism of Agamemnon. But that echo may be purely in my own brain, i.e., contrived.

    Wiman takes us home, and not just because home for some of us was shaped by the vast empty features of the Texas landscape. He could just as easily have taken us to the plains of Kansas or the forests of Oregon or the shores of Troy, I suspect, if any of these places had been home for him. He does what great poets do. He takes us deep into a place, deep into a common experience, making the familiar unfamiliar so we can see our lives anew. He locates us so as to dislocate us. He forces us into our own skin by inviting us to feel the world through his.

    He has been compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins. There are grounds for such a comparison. But, reading Wiman, I do not find myself hearing the voice of another poet so much as listening to a voice speaking from within myself, yet speaking to me from outside too. Like words given to my own doubts - and my hopes - this verse shares secrets buried I thought only inside me. How humbling to discover they belong to others, maybe many others. How humbling, and yet what consolation.

    There's no better place to start than with a few lines from "Memory's Mercies."

    Memory's mercies
    mostly aren't

    but there were
    I swear
    veined with grace

    like a lucky
    electrically over

    whatever water
    there was -

    Or, from "Prayer" with which he opens the volume:

    even now,
    my prayer

    is that a mind

    by anxiety
    or despair

    might find

    a trace
    of peace.

    And, then, there are the outrageous passages that surprise you, that lift up your heart, the way life and grace do, as in the beginning passages of "We Lived":

    We lived in the long intolerable called God.
    We seemed happy.

    I don't mean content I mean heroin happy,
    donkey dentures,

    I mean drycleaned deacons expunging suffering
    from Calcutta with the cut of their jaws

    I mean the always alto and surely anusless angels
    divvying up the deviled eggs and jello salad in the after-rapture

    I mean
    to be mean.

    Dear Lord forgive the love I have
    for you and your fervent servants.

    I don't want to stop quoting him. You won't want to stop reading him.

    I pray he won't stop writing, not while he is on a roll.

  • A Leadership Notebook: Firefighting

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 05, 2015

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Scott WilliamsonThis spring our "Leadership Notebook" blog will look at particularly interesting and helpful insights that have emerged from a variety of sources. I am grateful to my old friend David Forney for sharing Karl Weick’s fascinating insight with me. David, now the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Charlottesville, Virginia, was associate dean for academic affairs at Columbia Seminary when he shared Weick’s article. Most people in leadership have brushed up against the rhetoric Weick explores though few have gone to the depths he has, unless, of course, like our own Professor Scott Williamson (pictured), they actually know the world of firefighting from the inside out!

    “Oh, putting out grass fires today. How about you?”

    This is not an unusual remark from the lips of folks in leadership, in response to the query, “What have you been up to today?” Most of us have said something similar at some time.

    A few years ago, Karl E. Weick, sometimes referred to as the “dean of educational administration,” decided to take our rhetoric about firefighting seriously. Seriously enough, that is, to do some research into the experience of real firefighters, particularly the sort who fight wildfires.

    Weick’s thesis is straightforward (and directly related to educational leadership): “The ways in which wildland firefighters preclude failure when they fight fires in forests have direct relevance to the ways in which educational firefighters can preclude failure when they fight fires in schools.” Weick’s findings are fascinating and highly applicable to all sorts of organizational leadership, including, of course, the church.

    Part of Weick’s research was documentary, studying the infamous Mann Gulch fire that occurred in 1949 in which “15 young smokejumpers and a forest ranger were trapped near the bottom of a 76 percent slope in western Montana by an exploding fire at 5:40 in the afternoon.” The story of this tragedy is told in Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire (University of Chicago Press, 1992). [Maclean is best known for his beautiful book, A River Runs Through It (University of Chicago Press, 1972)]. Weick summarizes the Mann Gulch experience:

    Thirteen were killed when they tried to outrun the fire. Of the three who survived, one lived by burning a hole in the fire and the other two squeezed through a break in the rocks at the top of the slope. The person who lived by building an escape fire had ordered others to join him in the area cleared by his fire, but all refused to do so. (Karl E. Weick, “Fighting Fires in Educational AdministrationEducational Administration Quarterly, Vol. 32 (October 1996) No. 4. p. 566).

    Weick found that the manner in which these firefighters was organized actually contributed to the disaster.

    There were weak interpersonal ties among people on the Mann Gulch firefighting crew because they had been assembled from several different crews.

    Leadership kept shifting because two people informally vied to replace the formal leader.

    The crew’s radio was destroyed, which made it impossible to get the big picture of what was happening around them.

    They received no briefing on fall-back positions, safety zones, or escape routes.

    There was a solution within the group to the problem of how to cope with a fire that blows up (build an escape fire), but only one person understood it, and that person could not persuade others that it was a solution.

    They ignored clues that the fire was becoming more dangerous to confirm their prior belief that it was an easy fire to suppress.

    They were unable to communicate with each other because of the noise and smoke.

    They had little experience with fighting fires in grassy terrains (they had been trained to fight fires in timber) or with fighting fires where they were the first ones on the scene (9 of the 13 were first-year jumpers with little prior experience fighting established fires)
    . (Weick, 567)

    Weick observes that management teams in schools (and other institutions) are often organized in precisely the same way that the Mann Gulch team was organized. Our organizations are, therefore, vulnerable not only to wildfires (that is part of nature), but also to the kinds of failures that lead firefighters to get burned, literally. Weick moves from the descriptive, however, to the prescriptive.

    Based on his research drawn from a variety of sources, Weick explains that there are basically five conditions “under which it seems likely that fires will be contained rather than explode in both wildlands and schools.” Effective firefighting can happen, he writes:

    1. When people appreciate the complexity of small events and mobilize complex systems to sense and manage them;
    2. When people know what they do not know and simultaneously trust and mistrust their past experience;
    3. When people have a model for the origin of rogue events;
    4. When people strive to manage issues rather than to solve problems; and
    5. When people improvise after first putting into place a system of lookouts, communication, escape routes, and safety zones (LCES).
    (Weick, 567)

    Some of the lessons he draws from his research may seem obvious. For example, “You can never afford to be complacent. Alertness is your most valuable asset.” (Weick, 568) Other conclusions may be surprising. For example, while most of us would not be startled to learn that many fireline accidents occur among firefighters with only two years of experience, we would likely not expect that the other group of firefighters who tend most often to be injured or killed have 10-15 years of experience. Obviously, the first group doesn’t know enough about the varieties of peril to stay safe. The second group, however, may have come to believe that the fire has nothing new to teach them. Humility and a teachable spirit, in other words, might just save your life.

    Weick also reminds us of the value of holding on to fundamentals of good practice. Many firefighters who get hurt, he reminds us, know but ignore basic practices that would have kept them safe. One firefighter who was caught up in a disastrous accident admitted later, “My ditty bag contained a copy of standard fire orders and watch-out situations. I considered looking at it, but didn’t. I knew we were violating too many to contemplate.” (Weick 575) It is also true that the group of firefighters Weick considered in the South Canyon fire disaster simply “did not know a lot of things they should have known. That ignorance cost 14 of them their lives.” (Weick, 573) This is especially pertinent for firefighters or leaders who confuse the contexts they are in, assuming that everything they learned in another context transfers to the new one, or that nothing does. It takes wisdom and good judgment to apply knowledge in different contexts.

    It won’t surprise anyone that communication is a crucial issue in firefighting. But what some may not realize is that communication is not simply a matter of imparting information, but, even more, of trusting those who share the information. As Weick put it: “Fire is not the problem. The problems are alertness, trust, trustworthiness, respect, candor, and ‘the will to communicate.’” (Weick 574) He reminds us that one of the firefighters in the Mann Gulch fire did precisely the thing that would have saved the team’s life, burning an escape route, but none of his partners trusted the well-tested practice.

    One aspect of Weick’s analysis of firefighters is reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, always making sure you have a reliable escape route. Weick, in fact, thinks there should be several viable escape routes in any combustible situation. Flexibility is extremely important “under fire,” because leaders need options, not only if they want to survive to fight the next fire, but if they want their organizations to thrive.

    Weick’s essay is exceptionally helpful. Every time I re-read it, I discover new insights because it speaks to new experiences.

    Stay safe out there!

  • SWOTting the Future: Theological Education "For the Time Being"

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 02, 2015


    “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all,”i writes the poet W.H. Auden toward the end of his, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Auden’s phrase has been on my mind a great deal as I read three particularly timely documents:

    The “Schmidt Report,” as the first of these has been dubbed, raises crucial questions about the leadership of boards for the future of higher education. It illuminates the fact that serving on the governing board of a university, college or seminary is far from a merely honorary position. The legal, fiduciary and custodial roles of trustees has become more crucial with every passing year.

    The “Auburn Report” makes for sober, but ultimately hopeful reading. Its co-authors make it clear that strategic planning based on a careful, critical analysis of the best research available has become essential for theological schools.

    Today, however, I would like to reflect primarily on the third of these documents: the grant proposal submitted by ATS to the Lilly Endowment.1

    The authors of the ATS proposal seem almost to be writing a churchly riff on Auden’s poetic phrase when they say: “we seem to be in the messy moment between the decline, but not dissolution, of the old and the emerging, but not yet mature, structures of the new” (ATS proposal, p. 7). This comment relates directly to the contemporary situation among Christian denominations especially in North America. Denominations seem to be caught “in the time being” between the large corporate institutional structures that dominated the religious landscape for much of the past century and whatever these forms will be (largely inchoate for now), which are just emerging. The comment could apply to forms of ministries, congregations and theological schools as well.

    Dan Aleshire and his colleagues at ATS, in their grant proposal, sketch some of the monumental shifts in churches and theological schools since 1936 when the Conference of Theological Schools (an earlier name for ATS) decided to begin accrediting seminaries. Leaders in theological education across the country then realized that “theological education needed to become more advanced to serve the needs of churches because they had grown to new levels of capacity and patterns of ministry in the modern era. Pastors and other religious leaders were (then) being educated in ways that did not fit the changed reality of churches and changing patterns of ministry” (ATS, p. 1).

    The Conference of Theological Schools in the 1930s adopted accreditation standards for theological education that reflected a rapidly changing environment, especially, but not only, related to the increasing professionalization of ministry and the greater complexity of church leadership. These standards were revised periodically throughout the twentieth century culminating in the redeveloped standards adopted by ATS in 1996.

    As ATS looks forward, it is raising questions which would not have been out of place in 1936, though the answers to these questions will certainly differ at crucial points:

    Is theological education providing the patterns of education that fit the needs and realities of congregations? Are schools educating leaders in the ways most needed to serve the changed and changing realities of religious leadership? How are religious leaders best educated for their work? What education do religious leaders need?

    What educational models and methods are theological schools currently using to prepare leaders for the variety of areas of service? What is the relationship between sustainable economic models and effective educational practice? What educational models and practices enable theological schools both to fulfill their missions and to sustain economic vitality? What resources do the schools need to implement new models?

    Which models are most effective for which educational goals and ends? What are the common elements of good educational models and practices, both curricular and extra-curricular?

    What role should ATS assume to provide appropriate organizational support for schools to implement models that serve their constituencies more effectively, to become more nimble, and to realign their work better to reflect the changed and changing realities of communities of faith and the social location of religion in North American society?
    (ATS proposal, pp. 2-3, italics added.)

    The questions raised in the ATS proposal touch upon virtually every aspect of theological education from pedagogy to governance, from recruitment to placement, from fund development to financial stability to intergenerational stewardship of resources in schools. These questions remind us that seminaries and other theological schools are servants not of their own interests and ends, but of the needs of the churches and the communities which send us our students and to which we send our graduates.

    These questions also remind us that even as seminaries are servants of needs beyond the walls of the schools, our responsibilities extend beyond our present moment. We are responsible to use the resources left us by previous generations in ways that benefit generations yet unborn.

    Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats … and Hope
    Recently I heard a respected educator say that seminaries must face the fact that in the future the dominant form of ministry will be bi-vocational, that seminaries must adjust their programs and their expectations both to accommodate and to prepare people for “tent-making ministries.” Her advice was sound - as far as it went. Demographic and economic factors are conspiring in many places to require those who serve as pastors to be able to support themselves at least partially through vocations other than ministry.

    But bi-vocational ministry is only one face of the emerging reality. In addition to tent-making ministries, and in addition to traditional pastoral ministry and multi-staff ministry -  both of which do, in fact, survive and in many places thrive - there are many other opportunities for new church development, pastoral counseling, social work, legal advocacy, community organization and various forms of nonprofit leadership. Some of the emerging ministries are sanctioned and supported by traditional denominational judicatories, but many more are not. Many of these require considerable entrepreneurial creativity.

    Anyone who has ever performed a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of an organization knows that virtually every perceived threat represents an opportunity, and a sizeable proportion of leadership lies in finding the creative potential of threats. I read these three reports and attempted to “learn, mark and inwardly digest” them (as the Book of Common Prayer encourages). In doing so, I was struck repeatedly by the reason why Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Covenant for the Future campaign is receiving such a positive response throughout the church. The campaign has confronted the threat of student indebtedness as an opportunity to liberate graduates from debt. It has confronted the increasing polarization of our society along religious, political, sociological and racial-ethnic fault lines with curricular and extracurricular programs that teach our graduates to become bridge-builders in their communities.

    I believe that we are surrounded by many other threats just waiting to be turned into opportunities.

    Thus, I am mindful, in the midst of this “messy moment,” this “between the times,” this “for the time being,” as trying as it is, that W.H. Auden did not allow the existential angst of the moment to have the last word in his poem, significantly written for Christmas when we celebrate God’s ultimate risky venture of incarnation. The chorus closes “For the Time Being” with the following beautiful and hopeful lines (please excuse Auden’s lack of gender sensitivity):

    He is the Way.
    Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
    You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

    He is the Truth.
    Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
    You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

    He is the Life.
    Love Him in the Word of the Flesh;
    And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.ii

    1The proposal, incidentally, was approved by the Board of the Lilly Endowment Inc.; ATS will receive about $6 million to conduct an in-depth four year study of educational models and practices of theological education.

    iW.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (London: Faber and Faber, 1941-42), 123.
    iiIbid., 124.


  • The Way of the Abbot

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 26, 2015

    Lately I have been thinking about my vocation as a seminary president. After attending the recent annual meeting of Presidents and Board Chairs of Presbyterian Seminaries, I wanted to share with you my thoughts about a vocation which I share with some remarkable men and women. I'm not sure these reflections, incidentally, will be of any interest or value to anyone else, but I hope some aspects of these thoughts might apply to other vocations, for example, to congregational ministers as well as to those who lead social agencies and organizations that seek to promote healing and justice in our world. These may just be private musings, in other words, but I offer them nonetheless for what they are worth.

    way of the abbotBeing a seminary president is neither fish nor fowl. Though I am an ordained minister and have served as a pastor, and though there are clearly pastoral dimensions to my current vocation, I am not a pastor. While I served as a professor and academic dean for many years, I do not now spend much time at all in a classroom as a teacher. A seminary president is, of course, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the school. And more and more, a president must accept the mantle of being the chief development officer of the seminary, though both the CEO and the lead fundraising roles deserve considerable theological reflection and should be used of a seminary presidency with care.

    I have come to believe, in fact, that all four of these roles or aspects of the president's office (pastoral, teaching, chief executive and fund development) stand in need of theological reflection, especially at a time when suspicion of institutions is rife and the legitimacy of authority is broadly questioned in our culture. I have only begun the task of theologically reflecting on the seminary presidency during my first five years in this vocation. Already some insights have emerged as I have entered into conversation with a rather surprising source, at least for a twenty-first century Protestant seminary president, "The Pastoral Prayer" of Aelred of Rievaulx, who served as Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, England, during the twelfth century. Teacher, pastor and "chief executive," as well as what we might call "chief stewardship officer," are humbly and nobly woven together in Aelred's practice. (You may recall my mention of Aelred some time ago.)

    In so limited a scope as a blog entry (even so long a blog entry as this one), there's no way to do more than hint at the richness of Aelred's understanding of the Abbot's vocation, but I shall try to do that, at least by pointing to the principle that gives life to every role played by the abbot or abbess. I believe these roles have a lot in common, not only with a seminary and college presidencies, but with other vocations too.

    The guiding principle at the heart of Aelred's thought is love. Easy to say, hard to do. Especially when one reflects on certain duties the abbot must perform. Aelred's prayer, what he calls oratio pastoralis or "the prayer of shepherds" speaks to each aspect of the vocations mentioned above. It is suffused with a spirit of humility, a hope for the office to which he has been called, and a love for those to whom he has been given charge.

    The Teacher
    Though he was born in 1110 in the Northumbrian town of Hexham, Aelred spent many years as a courtier in the household of King David I of Scotland. In his mid-twenties, he left the royal court to enter Rievaulx, a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire. Prior to becoming the abbot of this monastery, he had served as novice master, the principal teacher of new monks, responsible for their spiritual and vocational formation.

    "To form a monk," writes Charles Dumont, "is something completely different from putting him into a mold or making him into a slavish copy of a model, even a saintly model." Ultimately, it is up to the novice to submit to what Aelred understood as a "voluntary self-stripping which consists of taking up the Cross of Christ. Ordo noster crux Christi, Aelred wrote ... “Our way of life is the cross of Christ." Aelred, the abbot, puts priority on those practices of faith through which the Spirit of God works in the lives of his monks. Aelred teaches not only with words, but through his example.

    For instance, Aelred is known for his sense of humor, which comes through in his prayer with his vivid overstatement of his own unworthiness to be a teacher, reflecting a self-effacing lightness of touch that surely served him well with those he led. He prays:

    And because you [God] have given them this blind leader, this untaught teacher, this ignorant guide, teach the one you have put in a teacher's position, lead the one you have commanded to lead others, guide the one you have appointed as a guide - if not for me, then for them!

    Reading this passage, I couldn't help but picture the joyful face of Pope Francis and think of the power of humor and humility in leadership.

    The Pastor
    Virtually every line of this prayer exudes a pastor's heart, from its first to its final words. But section eight of the prayer particularly rises to a level of prayer that can only be described as priestly, praying on behalf of the members of his community in their life together.

    Sweet Lord, by the action of your Spirit may they be peaceful, modest, and kind in their relationships with themselves, with each other, and with me. May they be obedient to one another, of service to one another, and encouraging of one another. May they be fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, in poverty, in fasting, in toils, and keeping vigil, in silence and quiet, and in all things patient. Drive from them, O Lord, the spirit of pride and vainglory, envy and sadness, sloth and slander, despair and indifference, lust and uncleanness, presumption and discord. Be in the midst of them according to your faithful promise.

    The abbot is speaking of the monks in his charge, but every president would recognize in this intercessory prayer a plea for students, faculty, administrators, staff, trustees, alumni and the extended seminary community.

    Aelred's time was an era of vast and often violent change. War broke out between the English and the Scots while Aelred served at Rievaulx. The war was led on the English side by the baron of the castle nearest to Rievaulx Abbey in opposition to the king in whose court Aelred had once served. (Aelred also wrote the history of that conflict.) The Cistercian order itself was in considerable turmoil. The Cistercians led an exceptionally successful reform movement, but as monks from other orders rushed to become members of the "reform monasteries," many of these new Cistercians resented the strict lifestyle and order of the reformers. Complaints reached all the way to Bernard of Clairvaux, who was "Father Immediate of Rievaulx," though he likely never crossed the channel from France. When Aelred prays that God will hold his people "in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace," he is praying for real, and he is praying for something beyond his control.

    The Chief Executive Officer
    The abbot, we are told by Aelred, seeks not to preside over but to profit his people. Aelred feels the weight of the impossibility of the responsibilities he bears. He prays:

    For some good reason, you have placed me - or rather let me be placed - in this office, unworthy sinner that I am. For as long as you suffer me to be over your people, you bid me to be concerned for them and to pray so conscientiously for them. … Because divine law has laid down that it is the priest's duty to offer sacrifice for himself first and then for the people, I will first offer your majesty this sacrifice of prayer, such as it is, for my sins.

    The first duty of the one who serves as chief executive officer of an organization, Aelred tells us, is to attend to his or her own spiritual health. Aelred reflects the wisdom of the airline safety announcement to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help others with theirs. But his wisdom goes well beyond this.

    The spiritual health of the leader is not an end in itself. The institutional leader's health is for the "end" of the health, wholeness and healing of others. Aelred’s prayer continues:

    Our God of mercy, hear me for their sake! I pray to you for their sake, compelled by the duty of my office, urged on by my attachment to them, yet quickened with joy when I contemplate your kindness.

    The Chief Stewardship Officer

    As a person charged with the temporal and fiscal responsibility of the community, no less than its spiritual well-being, the abbot prays for his monks:

    My God, inspire in them as well a willingness to endure in patience when you give nothing and to use in moderation when you do give. I am your servant and, because of you, also theirs; grant them the grace to trust me always and to feel that what I am doing is to their advantage. Let them love and respect me as much as you think is beneficial for them.

    I beg this one thing of your most tender love, my Lord, no matter whether it is a little or a lot, make me, your servant, the dependable dispenser, the discerning distributor, the prudent provider of all that you have given.

    Aelred anticipates some insights of modern organizational psychology, such as the benefit of creating a "culture of appreciation," an idea articulated eloquently last fall in our annual faculty retreat by Professor Loren Townsend. Aelred also reminds all of us of the central spiritual duty of the abbot, which every president would do well to imitate. He prayed regularly for the people entrusted to him. That may be the most important aspect of the abbot's role, and it might just renew the life of seminary presidents too.

    Thus, I'll leave you with the closing paragraph of Aelred's prayer. It needs no commentary:

    I, however, entrust them into your holy hands and to your loving providence, in the hope that not even one of them will be snatched out of your hand or out of the hand of your servant to whom you have entrusted them, but they may persevere joyously in their holy intentions. By persevering may they obtain eternal life. Grant this, our sweetest Lord, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

    [Notes on the sources: The edition of Aelred's prayer used is a bi-lingual version which helpfully provides good critical, annotated texts in both English and Latin. For Your Own People: Aelred of Rievaulx's Pastoral Prayer, critical edition, introduction and annotations by Marsha L. Dutton, translation by Mark DelCogliano (Cistercian Publications, 2008). Comments by Charles Dumont are from Aelred of Rievaulx: Mirror of Charity, introduction and critical notes by Charles Dumont, OSCO, translated by Elizabeth Connor, OSCO (Cistercian Publications, 1990).]

  • When Patience Becomes a Vice

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 19, 2015

    Martin Luther King JrThis past weekend, prior to the national observance of the life and ministry of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we were in Memphis, Tennessee. On Sunday, we worshiped at the historic Idlewild Presbyterian Church whose senior pastor, the Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery, is a colleague and friend.

    History hung heavy in the air across the country on the eve of this year's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Surely history weighs particularly heavily this year as the celebrated film Selma, which is about Dr. King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, is being viewed by thousands. The movie reminds us of Dr. King's personal courage, prophetic vision, and commitment to the transforming power of love and non-violence. And, surely, history presses heavily upon us as our country turns again to confront our painful history of injustice and the tragic hour through which we are living.

    The Reverend Anne H.K. Apple, associate pastor of Idlewild, preached a moving sermon, in part reflecting on a viewing of Selma she had attended at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. In the course of her powerful reflections, her sermon alluded to Dr. King's message about the danger of being patient.

    We usually think of patience as a good thing, a virtue. I often pray for more of it because I am usually not as patient as I should be. As Anne observed, and Dr. King eloquently proclaimed, sometimes patience is not a virtue, especially when it cloaks an unwillingness to confront and deal with injustice. Patience can become a vice when it insists that others who are oppressed, disenfranchised or subjected to societal injustice should be more patient and should wait for a more opportune time to press their appeals for civil rights.

    The first part of the Corporate Confession of Sin at Idlewild this Sunday spoke directly to those occasions when patience becomes a vice. We confessed: "Lord God, perhaps our sin is the encouragement toward slow waiting; for when we encourage, 'Wait. Be patient,’ we fail by silencing voices that need to be heard." Together we prayed, "Lord have mercy."

    Last weekend I also received via email "An Open Letter to Presidents and Deans of Theological Schools in the United States," posted on the Huffington Post by Alton B. Pollard, III, and signed by eminent African American presidents and deans of seminaries and divinity schools across the country. I am grateful to my colleagues for this prophetic word and for their vision, and I invite you today to read their letter in full and to hear and respond to its call. Especially, I ask that we take seriously their call, and I would like to quote several paragraphs from their letter at length:

    We call upon the leaders of our nation to reaffirm the founding principles of this nation: liberty and justice for all.

    We call on all freedom loving Americans to reaffirm a commitment to “the beloved community,” where the freedom and rights of all are respected and protected.

    We call on the United States Congress to set a civil and moral tone in the way they respect our twice-elected president.

    We call on leaders on the national and local levels to join citizens of good will to reject practices, legal and adjure, which mar the American dream of liberty and justice for all.

    We call on our churches and every house of faith to challenge their members to live out an inclusive commitment to love God, self, the neighbor-enemy, and creation across any and all boundaries that would dehumanize, alienate, and separate.

    We call on all Americans of good conscience who gather across the country to speak out for liberty and justice for all ... always. As our modern day prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

    The men and women who signed this letter represent a cross-section of the theological spectrum. Their call is not conservative, liberal or Evangelical. They speak as people of God, as Christians, as educators, as Americans. They issue an invitation that I hope we will all accept in the name of Christ.

    Sometimes a biblical text that you've read hundreds of times can suddenly open up in new ways. You see something that you have noticed before, but suddenly it speaks to you with new force. This happened for me with the sermon text on Sunday. The biblical text for Anne Apple's sermon at Idlewild was 1 Samuel 3:1-10, which reminds us, hauntingly, "The Word of the Lord was rare in that day. Visions were not widespread."

    What an extraordinary observation! What a painful judgment! "The Word of the Lord was rare in that day. Visions were not widespread."

    My prayer today, as again we walk shoulder to shoulder with history weighing heavily upon us, is that these words will not be applied to our time, and to us.

    1Alton B. Pollard, III, Ph.D., “An Open Letter to Presidents and Deans of Theological Schools in the United States,” Huffington Post (January 17, 2015): Accessed January 19, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alton-b-pollard-iii-phd/an-open-letter-to-preside_19_b_6492328.html.

  • Can God Take a Joke?

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 12, 2015


    Louisville Seminary Trustee
    Senior Pastor, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
    New York, N.Y.

    Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is guest-written by Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston, a Louisville Seminary trustee and the senior pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. This is the response that Dr. Johnston shared with his congregation via his blog at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian following the recent shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper in Paris, France. Dr. Johnston was asked to share his thoughts in this week’s “Thinking Out Loud” because his message to his congregation represented such a great response to the tragedies that unfolded in Paris last week.

    Life of BrianDear Friends in Christ,

    In 1979, the British comedy troupe Monty Python released its most controversial and irreverent movie, Life of Brian. The basic premise of the film was that "Brian" was born on the very same day as, and in the next stable over from, Jesus.

    This coincidence leads to sustained confusion and hilarity. Throughout his life, Brian is repeatedly mistaken for the Messiah. As the film unfolds, the Monty Python guys send up a number of New Testament stories: the Sermon on the Mount, the stoning of a sinner, the trial before Pontius Pilate.

    When it was initially released, Life of Brian was met with protests and accusations of blasphemy in Great Britain and the United States. Some countries gave the movie an "X" rating to prevent it from being seen by a wide audience. Still others, including Ireland and Norway, banned the movie outright.

    As is so often the case, the movie's notoriety contributed to its box office success. A clever marketing campaign in Sweden billed the film as, "So funny, it was banned in Norway!"

    I was in high school when Life of Brian came out. Our local Presbyterian pastor cautioned parents, warning that the movie could prove "corrosive to your children's faith." So, at my mother's request, I did not see it ...

    Until seminary! Soon after arriving at divinity school, I discovered that not only had all of my contemporaries seen the film, but many of my respected professors, too. Some of them had memorized lengthy bits of dialogue.

    So I watched it. I laughed. I cringed. I cackled some more.

    True to its billing, the movie was caustic, but not to my faith. The real target of the film's humor was not religious belief, but religious hypocrisy.

    There have been times, of course, when allegedly humorous send-ups of Christianity have missed my funny bone. Sometimes attempts at religious comedy come across as mean-spirited and crude. I suppose a healthy debate could be had trying to define the fine line between prophetic humor that unmasks religious hypocrisy and malicious comedy that drags another person's sacred beliefs through the mud.

    This week, though, I am pulled in another direction. In the aftermath of the massacre at the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, I have been considering the question: "Can God take a joke?" In particular, "Can God handle a bad joke, a rude joke, a joke that we find offensive?"

    There are a lot people in this world (of various religious persuasions) who seem to think that God's honor needs defending. Is this the case? Is God offended by our crude attempts at humor? Is God angered by a cartoon depicting a famous religious figure in unflattering circumstances, or by songs and satire that poke fun at some aspect of religion?

    Does God take offense and expect followers to avenge the divine honor?

    The classic Christian answer to this question is "no." God isn't petty. God doesn't slouch around heaven with a wounded ego. God doesn't need armed defenders. The Apostle Paul put it this way: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves. For it is written, Vengeance is mine, says the Lord." (Romans 12:19)

    Amen, brother Paul.

    The tragic news out of Paris last week should set every religious tradition on alert. When people of faith lose their sense of humor, they embrace one of the oldest sins in the book -- idolatry. The assailants in Paris fashioned a deity out of their own, broken image.

    Any God who would require his followers to exact vengeance on unarmed cartoonists is a petty, insecure deity undeserving of human devotion and love. This is not the powerful, trustworthy God, I would wager, whom most of the faithful -- Christian, Jew and Muslim alike -- worship and adore.

    My friends, it takes courage to listen to the critics of our faith, and it takes spiritual maturity to love them. But love them we must, for their role in keeping the faithful honest and humble is crucial -- regardless of whether we find them funny.

  • When Love is Just the First Step

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 05, 2015

    When Love is Just the First StepHow do we love well the people we love best?

    This is not a problem of logic, but of the heart.

    How do we go about extending to those closest to us the freedom (which is essential to love) that we extend to strangers? This is an especially urgent question when the persons who are closest to us either resist our love or insist, for whatever reasons, to chart a course in life utterly different from that which we have charted. Their very being may seem to call into question our identity and values. Their way of life may require us to reorient our lives, or adjust to them, or learn to live with ideas that we had never previously considered.

    I tend to approach this question, at least partially and at least initially, through my head, by thinking about it. For example, I’ve been mulling over a line from Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death ever since I first read that book in 1996. Derrida used the phrase as the title of the last chapter: “Tout autre est tout autre,” which can be translated, “Every other (one) is every (bit) other.” The phrase has haunted me since I first read it.

    We can surely feel the truth of these words as we walk along the busy sidewalk of any urban street. Faces turned down avoiding eye contact, glancing up only occasionally at others who remain tenaciously (every bit) the other. It is, in some sense, easy to extend the freedom of difference to the people we casually meet. But what about those closest to us? What about our children?

    For the last two years, I have been carrying around a book that deals specifically with this question. I have read it slowly. A chapter here and there. Then I will lay the book aside, only to pick it up again to read more. I have recommended the book to some friends, and I keep meaning to write an essay about it. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, beautiful and moving, disturbing and ultimately providing a rich potential for hope though not without a lot of tears. The phrase, “Every other (one) is every (bit) other,” might well serve as its epigraph.

    The book is Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (New York: Scribner, 2012). In clinical language, you might say that this is a book about horizontal identities (as opposed to vertical, identities), the way in which some people find meaning, community and a sense of belonging (identity) primarily in relation to people other than their parents and blood relations. It is a book about what this means to the children themselves and also what it means to their parents and siblings. The book’s chapters explore the experiences of parents and children with deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, rape and crime.

    Andrew Solomon, whose highly respected previous book was The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Scribner, 2001) is a lecturer in psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical College and is founder of the Solomon Research Fellowships in LGBT Studies at Yale University. Solomon explores the world of horizontal identity with sensitivity and grace. He refuses to stand above or outside the subject matter he explores, allowing his own experience as a gay man to illuminate his consciousness of the experience of others, including his own parents.

    The reason it has taken me two years to bring my reflections to the virtual page is because Far from the Tree is utterly impossible to summarize and encapsulate. It defies categorization. The book itself remains “every (bit) other” even while it invites its readers to do more than just read; but also to pause, to listen, and to learn.

    Every reader will have his or her own experiences with this book. Every reader will enter the book’s pages from a different angle and will find in its pages experiences and perspectives that will touch him or her differently. I read it as a child and as a brother. But, perhaps, it touched me most deeply as a parent. I recommend the book wholeheartedly, though the book is not for the fainthearted.

    Chapter four, “Down Syndrome,” in particular has stayed with me. The chapter opens by telling the modern fable, “Welcome To Holland,” written by Emily Perl Kingsley in 1987. You may well have heard the story before. It has been reprinted and anthologized countless times and made its way into song. Rather than try to summarize the “fable,” I shall simply share it in full.
    Welcome To Holland
    Emily Perl Kingsley

    ©1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

    I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......

    When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy.  You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

    After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The flight attendant comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

    "Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

    But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

    The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

    So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

    It’s just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

    But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

    And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

    But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.

    To some degree, every love in life lands us in Holland, no matter where we thought we were going when we boarded the plane. It is just that some Hollands are a bigger surprise than others. The trick, if there is a trick, is to learn to appreciate the reality on the ground rather than to pine for another destination.

  • A Leadership Notebook: Shifting Gears

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 05, 2015

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    shifting gearsThroughout this past fall, "A Leadership Notebook," an occasional feature of my regular "Thinking Out Loud" blog, has looked at some of the more influential theoretical models that help us understand better organizations and their leadership.

    Now it’s time to shift gears. In the next series of “leadership notebooks,” we will look at key insights that have transformed our perspectives on leadership.

    For example:
    • We will consider the startling insights into leadership that Karl Weick uncovers when he explores the experiences of firefighters who deal with wildfires.
    • We will examine some fascinating insights into leadership which Doris Kearns Goodwin discloses in her monumental group biography of President Lincoln and his cabinet in her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2012).
    • We will think about the concept of “incremental gradualism,” a crucial insight for which we are indebted to sociological research and investigations into religious organizations reported by Ellis Nelson more than thirty years ago - especially in light of new studies on leadership by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, whose work has been heralded as the “No. 1 Breakthrough Idea” from Harvard Business Review.
    • We will reflect on some lessons that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to teach us about the power of love and the necessity of finding the right levers of power if you want to make positive change possible.
    These are just a few of the crucial insights into leadership we will explore as the spring term unfolds. Until then, lead on!

  • Thomas Merton's Resolution

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 29, 2014

    Merton's ResolutionMy chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom - still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: 'Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this (God's) love is found, and in accepting this I can give back (God's) love to (God) and give myself with it to (God).1

    So wrote Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation over fifty years ago.

    For Merton, the exercise of self-surrender is not merely an acquiescence to a nameless, faceless fate, nor is it the self-righteous act of the sour-faced saints of whom St. Teresa of Avila rightly complained. The ultimate goal of our surrender to God's will, according to Merton, is nothing less than full participation in the love of God, which is the life for which we were created. Our "consenting" to God's will "with joy" means that we share in our hearts the same love that is essential to God. When our hearts are filled with the love of God, we are set on the path of becoming like the God who is love.

    This year we will observe the centennial of Thomas Merton, who was born on January 31, 1915. Doubtless there will be many publications, many pilgrimages and many, many conferences planned to celebrate the large, round number of 100. As we begin what some have called “The Year of Merton,” however, I suggest we do something much simpler. I suggest that we allow Merton to act as our Novice Master. Beginning with the first days of 2015, I suggest that, rather than making the usual New Year's resolutions to lose weight or exercise regularly, we resolve to share Merton's resolution.

    This resolution begins with the discovery that our surrender to God's will opens the door to joy and peace, love and life. Merton never assumed that this surrender is easy, nor that God's will is obvious. Merton, himself, struggled with questions of God's will and his own vocation, recognizing that questions of vocation are closely related to choosing between our real and our false selves. As he wrote, again in New Seeds of Contemplation:

    We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours, We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our true face. … Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.2

    In one of his most famous works, Thoughts in Solitude, Merton confesses: "I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. … And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing."3 The humility of Merton's prayer, including its renunciation of his own ability even to know when and whether God is leading him at any particular moment, speaks to the core of faith, one's trust in God.

    Possibly the simplest and most difficult of the lessons Merton taught, and the one which is most helpful as we pray for God to direct our steps, to know God's will, and respond to God's calling of us, concerns distinguishing between "our real and false selves." It is only the "real self" that discovers real humility. Robert Inchausti, editor of The Pocket Thomas Merton, (a singularly wonderful little resource) explains:

    At the heart of Merton's spirituality is his distinction between our real and false selves. Our false selves are the identities we cultivate in order to function in society with pride and self-possession; our real selves are a deep religious mystery, known entirely only to God. The world cultivates the false self, ignores the real one, and therein lies the great irony of human existence: the more we make of ourselves, the less we actually exist.4

    The world around us is ready to judge our lives on its ruthless scales of success and failure, but Merton calls even the categories of success and failure into question. In one of his most remarkable (and humorous) reflections, Love and Living, he says:

    A few years ago a man who was compiling a book entitled 'Success' wrote me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success. If it so happened that I had once written a best seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naïveté, and I would take very good care never to do the same again. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. I heard no more from him, and I am not aware that my reply was published with the other testimonials.5

    Not only does the false self submit itself to the relentless judgment of the world, it engages in the judgment of others. The urge to correct, chastise, rank and judge others is a compulsion of the false self, an expression of the spirit of the Pharisee or the Puritan, though sometimes writ small in its petty pursuit of one-upmanship, but no less corrosive to the soul for its smallness. It is none other than Jesus who calls into question the world's standards of success and even righteousness. As Merton writes:

    In dying on the Cross, Christ manifested the holiness of God in apparent contradiction with itself. But in reality this manifestation was the complete denial and rejection of all human ideas of holiness and perfection. The wisdom of God became the folly of men, (God's) power manifested itself as weakness! And (God's) holiness was, in their eyes, unholy.6

    Merton's resolution asks for trust in God that takes the form of "self-emptying" in place of self-assertion, even when that self-assertion is dressed up in the language of justice, righteousness and rights. Merton repeatedly speaks of "the world" which God created in love and for which Christ gave his life, but he also speaks of "the world" in an altogether different sense, warning of its false claims and false judgment and its subtle enticements of the self. "The world (in this latter sense) is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, for it will go on eternally in hell." The person in society who is a captive to "the unquiet city" will divide every community according to his or her own lusts for self and selfish interests, whether these interests are allowed to be seen in their ruthless nakedness or are dressed in the white robes of the saint. But we cannot, Merton says, escape that city merely by fleeing into solitude, because the unquiet city will follow us into a hermit's cave. The person "who locks himself up in private with his own selfishness has put himself into a position where the evil within him will either possess him like a devil or drive him out of his head."7

    Were we to make Merton's resolution our own, we might find something better than success, wealth or good health to celebrate in this New Year. We might rediscover sanctity and sanity.

    1Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. Introduction by Sue Monk Kidd (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007, originally published 1961), 17-18.
    2Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 32.
    3Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: 1999, originally published 1956).
    4Robert Inchausti, editor, The Pocket Thomas Merton (Boston: New Seeds, 2005), 1.
    5Thomas Merton, Love and Living. Edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), 10.
    6Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 62.
    7Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 78-79.

  • Christmas Again

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 22, 2014

    Christmas AgainPlane loads, car loads, bus and train loads, people groan toward Christmas. Madonna-like, whole nations, vast families of people, make their way toward improvised crèches, toward trees illuminated and festooned with tinsel, toward whatever praises the unimaginable possibility that lies beyond all human imagination, yet always seems just beyond our grasp.

    Stuck behind the steering wheel or stacked like cordwood in economy class, my mind at this time of year drifts gossamer shrouded with the Ghost of Christmas Past.

    Cedar trees in a childhood long past, cut down on Grandmother Fenley's farm and decorated with precious homemade ornaments dating from the hardscrabble holidays of the Great Depression.

    Bells hung around our children's doorknobs upstairs alerting us that they were up on Christmas morning and making for the tree.

    The session clerk of our old Scottish Kirk reading St. Luke's account of the birth of Jesus in Scots dialect every Christmas Eve; the congregation gathered in from the ceilidh in the parish hall, all of us still sweating from dancing reels and, of course, drinking the punch, straining to hear his lilting phrases.

    That moment when the whole congregation at St. David's Cathedral knelt and sang by candlelight, "O Holy Night," that midnight moment like no other when even the most cynical, like Thomas Hardy's rough countrymen, rushed to the manger, "hoping it might be true."

    Gathered around Christmas dinner tables past, faces we see in memory that we will miss in the flesh this year, and may have missed for a very long time.

    Christmas again, and we hope not just once more. Nostalgia is potent this time of year.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that we hide nostalgia behind the Christian pulpit, a bit ashamed and more than a bit embarrassed of eyes welling up watching White Christmas, A Christmas Carol or The Bishop's Wife on the late show, the kids dozing, piled-up on the couch. Religious people of a particular sort - the sort who are Presbyterians, for example - seem to regard a knowing rejection of nostalgia and its adjacent sentimentality as a badge of our spiritual sophistication, as if to say, "Yes, we believe in God, but we are much too intelligent to be subject to emotions." But, our nostalgia doesn't mean that we have forgotten "the reason for the season," reminded as we are by the signs on innumerable churches each year. Nor does our nostalgia mean we take the brain less seriously than the heart.

    What brings us together, we know, is the miracle that never ceases to be a miracle however many department store bags are stacked in the spare room. And that miracle is attended by feelings and memories that evoke feelings. The season is many things, but it is also wistful, as rich in simple emotions as any wedding - or any funeral. And this is not a pagan thing, or a foolish thing, just a human one. And doesn't that make sense?

    Christmas is, after all, the festival of the incarnation, the stubborn reminder that God is more dedicated to the flesh than any hedonist. God risked everything to become human. God still does. And, so, we celebrate Christmas again. And, again, we risk remembering, and feeling, and being as human as God.

    Merry Christmas to you, your family, loved-ones and congregation from all of us at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary!

  • Leadership Notebook 8: Some Positive Functions of Conflict

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 18, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Leadership 8Perhaps this has happened to you.

    You experience a moment, either in a conversation with another person or while reading something, when suddenly the tumblers fall into place. You can almost physically feel it happening. Not only does something puzzling suddenly make sense, but evermore after you remember that moment of insight.

    I was reading Lewis Coser’s book, The Functions of Social Conflict early one morning on a train from Oxford to London when such a moment occurred. I might as well have heard angels singing and seen shafts of heavenly light descending in the carriage. It was just one of those moments, and I often look back warmly on it. Since then, Coser’s theoretical model has provided for me a way to better understand the social dimensions of organizational life and leadership. When I look through the lens he provides, so many things come into sharper focus.

    While many people view conflict as inherently and inevitably negative, and understand it as diametrically opposed to cooperation and good leadership, Coser sees conflict as often potentially positive and constructive. He agrees with those sociologists before him (and he was a social scientist) who understood conflict and cooperation as existing in a kind of complementary rhythm as phases in a single integrated “process which always involves something of both.” (L. Coser, Functions of Social Conflict, New York: Free Press, 1956, 18.)

    Coser explores the functions of social conflict especially in conversation with the pioneering work of Georg Simmel. Along with Simmel, Coser notes the ways in which conflict “serves to establish and maintain the identity and boundary lines of societies and groups.” (Coser, 38)

    Conflict does things for a society that nothing else can do. Conflict is neither inevitably a social stressor to be avoided, nor merely a necessary evil to be endured. Rather, conflict represents those ordinary dimensions of social engagement by which individuals and groups, through varying modes of negotiation (implicit and explicit) and through dissent and disagreement, come to an understanding of who they are, what they care most about, and what they should do in relation to others who may or may not agree with them. Conflict defines boundaries.

    Conflict also defines identities and clarifies values. It plays a crucial role in what Coser calls “group binding.” He explains: “It seems to be generally accepted by sociologists that the distinction between ‘ourselves, the we-group, or in-group, and everybody else, or the others-groups, out groups’ is established in and through conflict.” Groups of people, in other words, express who they are and what they care about (identity and values), in part, by saying who they are not and what they will not accept. As Coser observes, this process of self-understanding is neither necessarily negative nor hostile, though he does not deny that conflict can at times be negative, hostile and very destructive. (Coser, 35-36)

    Far from being inevitably dysfunctional and damaging to social interaction, according to Coser “conflict is often necessary to maintain relationship” because when members of a group express their dissension and greet the conflict as an opportunity to take seriously their disagreement, their adherence to the group may actually be strengthened. If group members do not have ways appropriately to channel their disagreement and dissent, by contrast, their ownership in the group can be diminished, and they may simply withdraw from it. This is why Coser sees danger in a group’s or a leader’s habitual suppression of conflicts, ignoring complaints and disagreements. An organization is wise to provide “specific institutions which serve to drain off hostile and aggressive sentiments.” (Coser, 47-48) Those in leadership are wise who support such institutionalized means of catharsis that can act as safety valves to reduce the more extreme disruptive effects of conflict while allowing differences to be expressed in the normal course of events.

    It is at this point in his study, however, that Coser reflects on one of Georg Simmel’s most useful ideas: the distinction between what he called “realistic” and “nonrealistic” conflict. Coser explains that realistic conflicts “occasioned by clashes of interests or clashes of personalities contain an element of limitation insofar as the struggle is only a means toward an end.” Should parties in such a conflict find that their interests can be met and their goals be achieved through some means other than conflict, there is no reason why they cannot and will not pursue those alternatives. However, “where the conflict arises exclusively from aggressive impulses which seek expression no matter what the object, where in the conflict the choice of object is purely accidental,” there is no real limit of the conflict because “it is not the attainment of a result, but rather the acting out of aggressive energies which occasions the outbreak.” (Coser, 48-49) In the case of nonrealistic conflict, the conflict becomes an end in itself, and may become an end with no end in sight.

    Nonrealistic conflicts fall into the realm of broken relationships, perceived slights, resentments that are inherited from one generation to another that smolder and break-out in anger repeatedly with little or no prompting. Leadership requires discernment on many levels, and nowhere more than in assessing whether a conflict is realistic (and, therefore, represents a problem that can be solved) or is nonrealistic (and, thus, represents a predicament that must be endured with as little social damage as possible).

    The intensity of conflict follows an ironic calculus familiar to anyone who has tried to negotiate a Middle Eastern peace treaty [see, for example, Lawrence Wright’s excellent recent account Thirteen Days in September (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2014) of the Camp David negotiations hosted by President Jimmy Carter between Prime Minister Begin of Israel and President Sadat of Egypt] or who has ever been a marriage and family therapist. As Coser says: “The closer the relationship, the more intense the conflict.” (Coser, 67)

    Furthermore, conflict is only exacerbated in those groups that make a greater or more comprehensive claim on the “total personality” of group members (i.e. members of a church who understand their belonging to the congregation as a comprehensive matter of personal loyalties and ultimate values). Hostility and resentment, long pent-up, deep and infectious, sometimes seeking no end but to hurt others, can lash out in such conflicts, the more violently the longer they have been held back, suppressed and subverted into passive aggression, the more viciously the better the opponents know one another and their mutual weaknesses. (Coser, 69)

    Understanding the nature of nonrealistic conflict is crucial, because dealing with it as leaders requires a different approach from the way we deal with realistic conflicts. While with the realistic conflict the social structures exist to facilitate the emergence and expression of diverse perspectives that can help the group to gain a broader understanding and to negotiate (and re-negotiate) its values and ends, when it comes to nonrealistic conflict, it is important to limit damage by providing social structures that channel the flow of emotion in the least destructive manner possible. In both cases, it is essential for leaders not to take conflict personally because doing so actually undermines one’s effectiveness and the group’s capacity to respond to the conflict itself. Of course, this is easier said than done.

    Coser, always the social scientist, is clear-eyed in his assessment of those conflicts that contribute to the health and unity of a group and those conflicts that merely function to tear groups apart. He recalls J.S. Mill’s argument that “it is possible to pass through turbulent times without permanent weakening of the political structures only if: 'However important the interest about which [people] fall out, the conflict did not affect the fundamental principles of the system of social union.' ” (Coser, 74). This maxim, of course, implies conversely that the fabric of groups, in fact, can be weakened if those conflicts do call into question “the fundamental principles of the system of social union.” This is worth remembering in a church, a school or an entire nation.

    Of the many positive functions conflict can serve for groups, three more are worth noting. Conflict, Coser reminds us, can act as a sort of stimulus to encourage us to establish new processes, standards of behavior, norms and institutions, while also leading us to reevaluate and perhaps reaffirm norms that we have long taken for granted. Conflict can also encourage us to reformulate “power relations,” even helping us redistribute power structures in creative new ways which may help our groups adapt in new environments. Finally, conflict can break-up hardened patterns of social behavior making important and necessary changes possible. Alliances across previously unbreachable boundaries can pave the way for new, lasting relationships as people discover unimagined commonalities and develop an understanding of contrasting perspectives, interests and needs. Conflict, then, can actually lead to the development of greater trust among members of a group. (Coser, 128, 137, 148-149)

    Among the most important insights in Coser’s analysis of the functions of conflict is this: Groups that manage their conflicts well tend to be more lively, more dynamic, more interesting and more open to diversity, and (at least potentially) more resilient to change than groups that manage only to suppress their differences. This alone is an insight worth remembering.

  • "Christmas Eve and Twelve of the Clock"

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 15, 2014

    TOLImage 121614The headline of the British newspaper, The Telegraph, on November 20, 2012, read: "Nativity donkeys and cattle are a myth, says Pope." The headline referred to something then Pope Benedict XVI had written in a recent book. The former pontiff, a formidable scholar, was simply stating the historical facts as he understood them. But his comments drew a firestorm, and the Internet went nuts.

    Or, maybe not nuts at all.

    Among the responses I read to Pope Benedict's comments (and I have only read a fraction of them), there was a reminder that there must at least have been a donkey around (i.e., the one that conveyed Mary to the manger in the first place). Not nuts.

    There were several reflections on the first known living Nativity scene, which was staged by St. Francis of Assisi in 1222 near the village of Greccio, Italy, in a grotto complete with an ox and a donkey. I'm not calling St. Francis nuts, and you can't make me!

    There was an exceptionally insightful theological reflection by The Catholic Register (November 28, 2013), which explained that the reason animals are pictured at the birth of Jesus is to proclaim the fact that Christ is Lord of all creation. "The world was present" at Jesus' birth, and all creation bowed in worship and adoration at the manger. Theologically speaking, this is sensible indeed.

    C.S. Lewis, in a well-known poem “The Nativity,” used the presence of animals at the nativity (adding sheep, since the shepherds also made their way to the manger according to the gospel story) to reflect on our human struggles to respond to Christ in faith. Each animal, for Lewis, personifies something in us, and each stanza of the poem begins a devotional reflection, as follows:

    Among the Oxen (like an ox I'm slow) …

    Among the asses (stubborn I as they) ...

    Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed) …

    Though Lewis doesn't allude to it himself, there is a legend which also says that at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve all of the animals are granted the power of speech. A French Christmas carol of the twelfth century draws on this legend, concluding with the verses:

    Thus every beast by some glad spell,
    In the stable dark was glad to tell
    Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,
    The gift he gave Emmanuel.

    ("The Friendly Beasts," translated into a English in 1934 by Robert Davis)

    There is biblical warrant for the theological view that all creation praises God for its redemption, as The Catholic Register commentary reminded us. And there are few ways we can better illustrate this theological conviction than by placing words of praise in the mouths of the lowliest animals standing round the infant in the manger. Thus, the wisdom of the ancient legend.

    The most recent, and one of the most poignant, renderings of this theological wisdom is Lee Bennett Hopkins' new children's book, Manger, lavishly illustrated by Helen Cann. Hopkins selected poems by a variety of poets allowing a horse, a cat, a mouse, a dog, a cow, a wren, an owl, a fish and a spider each to praise the infant Jesus. Among the most wonderful of the short poems in this beautiful picture book for small children (and, of course, the adults who love them) are "The Mousesong" and "The Spider's Gift."*

    There's something really significant and profoundly resonant about the idea of animals attending the birth of Christ, something that reaches deep inside of us, perhaps touching the child in us who longs for wonder. This is why the Internet lit up when Pope Benedict called the presence of animals at the Nativity into question. The idea that animals bear witness to Jesus' birth even affected the romantic old agnostic poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.

    Hardy's poem, “The Oxen,” which begins,

    Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock.
    “Now they are all on their knees,”
    An elder said as we sat in a flock
    By the embers in hearthside ease

    takes us deep into a legend that would not die, even in the heart of the poet who also penned the fiercely elegiac "God's Funeral." In the minds of rugged shepherds beside a fire in rural western England, Hardy pictures a vision of animals gathered together to worship and praise God.

    The poet expresses the incredulity of his time, the modern era, and expresses doubt poured equally and liberally on superstition, legend and faith alike. But he continues on to say:

    So fair a fancy few would weave,
    In these years! Yet, I feel,
    If someone said, on Christmas Eve,
    “Come; see the oxen kneel

    "In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
    Our childhood used to know,”
    I should go with him in the gloom,
    Hoping it might be so.

    And so would I. No matter who says it's dubious. "Hoping it might be so."

    *Lee Bennett Hopkins and Helen Cann, Manger, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014).

  • Great Books for Christmas

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 09, 2014

    Recently my friend and a former chair of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees, Bob Reed, wrote me to ask why I haven't shared any new books lately. Well, Bob, this one is for you. And just in time for Christmas.

    Three excellent new books have recently come my way, the first two as recommendations from friends.

    EuphoriaFirst: Lily King’s Euphoria (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) is maybe the best novel I've read in the last few years. This novel was inspired by the career of anthropologist Margaret Mead, and is set in the 1930s along the Sepik River in the Territory of New Guinea. Anita Eerdmans recommended the book to me when she was in town for Louisville Seminary’s fall Board of Trustees meeting, and she did so with the warning, "you won't want it to end." In fact, I found myself deliberately drawing out the last few chapters. Truly, this book was so good I did not want the experience of reading it to end. Captivating from the first page to the last, Euphoria explores the meaning of humanity and the mystery of inquiring into the humanity of others against a natural backdrop described with extremely beautiful prose.

    LexiconSecond: My friend Scott Black Johnston sent me a copy of Max Barry's new novel Lexicon (New York: Penguin Press, 2014) just prior to my departure on a long road trip this fall. Scott's note with the book read: "MJ, This is almost pure fun with some darn good paranoia thrown in for good measure." Set in the not-too-distant future, this story of a secret organization that controls other people through the power of words will startle you out of your skin. It is by turns disorienting, mesmerizing, terrifying and hilarious - a richly dark comedy, with some delightful twists and turns. (I recommend reading this novel while listening to Shakey Graves's new collection of songs, "And the War Came," though I'm told by my wife that I am twisted to recommend that others listen to Shakey - a musician so weird that Austin, Texas, has named a day honoring him!)

    LilyFinally (and I do mean “at long last” for her devoted readers, of whom I am one): Marilynne Robinson's Lila: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). This is the third novel in Robinson's series which began with Gilead (New York: Picador, 2006) - the brilliant novel which won the prestigious Charles Grawemeyer Award in Religion from Louisville Seminary and the University of Louisville in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award). The second installment in this series was Home (New York: Picador, 2009). Each of the novels explores the interconnected lives of people in a small rural community in the Midwest. The theological themes are as rich as the humanity on display. In Gilead we were introduced to the Reverend John Ames, the pastor of the Congregational church in Gilead, Iowa; his wife Lila; their seven-year-old child; and Jack, the prodigal son of a close friend and neighbor of Ames, the Reverend Robert Boughton. In Home, Robinson took us deep into the lives of Boughton and his children, Glory and Jack, while in Lila we hear the story of the young woman who married the aged pastor, John Ames. A finalist for the National Book Award, Lila may just be the best of the series. Have no fear. No spoiler alert is necessary. I want you to enjoy Robinson's narrative genius entirely on your own.

    So, if you are longing for great books for those long winter evenings or some great books to give to people you love, these are the top three on my list this year.

  • Leadership Notebook 7: Leadership and Change (Part 2)

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 03, 2014

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Leadership Notebook 7In the last “Leadership Notebook” posting, I mentioned that the best theory I’ve come across to help leaders deal with change was developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in 1972.1 Their model has proven useful in congregations and schools, as Debbie and I noted in our book on power, change and leadership.2 Today, I’d like to provide a very brief summary of the high points of their model.

    Hersey and Blanchard observed an interesting dynamic about leaders and change.

    Leaders can make things happen. But just because a leader can make something happen does not mean that his or her leadership is enhanced or that the group’s ability to adapt to future change is strengthened. In fact, a leader can be successful in changing something but may make the change in such a way that the leader is unlikely ever to get anything else accomplished in that organization. Thus, Hersey and Blanchard distinguish between effective and ineffective leadership and not just between successful and unsuccessful leadership.

    Their distinction is important. An effective leader leads the group through change in such a way that the group will trust the leader more - not less - after the change is made. By contrast, a leader who manipulates or forces a group into a change (though he is strictly speaking “successful” in making that specific change) undercuts relationships that will be needed in the long term.

    Hersey and Blanchard have their eye on the prize of long-term effective leadership. If a leader wants to be both successful and effective, her followers have to want the change to happen. They have to believe in the value of the change. They need to be willing to invest in the change. In effective leadership, followers discern that their goals and the leader’s goals are consistent.

    The challenge for a leader or a leadership team that wants to be both successful and effective is to lead others through a process that encourages the group itself to formulate change in the face of new challenges, rather than merely to own the changes the leader individually is convinced are crucial for the organization’s future. Hersey and Blanchard’s theory of change speaks directly to this leadership challenge. They understand clearly that change must be viewed from a perspective deeper than just external compliance or behavior. Effective change must involve people in four levels of change: (1) knowledge; (2) attitude; (3) individual behavior; (4) group or organizational behavior.

    At some levels, their theoretical model represents the best of common sense. But there is one particular aspect of their theory that may be a bit counter-intuitive.

    According to Hersey and Blanchard, an effective leader begins the process by addressing a group’s need to know and understand. The leader helps the group gain a deeper perspective and new insights, thus preparing the ground for possible change. But, as Hersey and Blanchard note, “Changes in knowledge are the easiest to make.” Those who have participated in an organization that prizes professional development, know the acquisition of knowledge can become both habit-forming and liberating to members of a group, strengthening the organization far beyond the immediate moment of decision, provided the leader is willing to enjoy the fruit of a more knowledgeable group. But those who have ever scratched their head over why people who know better keep doing the same counter-productive thing, understand that knowledge does not always lead to positive change, even among highly intelligent people. This is where Hersey and Blanchard are really helpful.

    The effective leader must also lead the group into an exploration of the emotional or attitudinal dimensions involved in the challenge facing the organization, having allowed them to digest new information and knowledge. Deeper knowledge may actually heighten anxiety and resistance in a group, at least at first. It is a wise leader who allows followers time and space to absorb emotionally the implications of the challenge facing them. We need to remember, even positive changes can evoke negative feelings, feelings of loss and latent anxiety. Many otherwise very bright leaders fail to understand that leadership is emotional, and the effectiveness of leaders is directly related to how well they handle the emotional dimensions of a group’s behavior (i.e., leaders must remain non-reactive and non-anxious while staying in relationship with the group members).

    Emotions are all the more powerful because they are so intangible. But if a leader hopes to see a change endure, she must be willing to listen and appropriately respond to the emotional reactions, feelings, concerns, fears and hopes of individuals in the group. This does not mean that a leader must become emotionally hooked by or stuck in the negative emotions that often emerge in times of change or conflict. However, a leader who hopes to take a group to new places must work to bring the individuals along.

    How a leader handles resistance and sabotage will largely define his or her leadership. Resistance is simply part of the change process, and effective leaders know that they need not take resistance personally.

    The move from knowledge through attitudes, we should remember, is never simply linear. It may be that the leader will need to allow the group to spend considerable time cycling round from knowledge to attitudes and back to knowledge acquisition again, because changes in attitude allow people to see things anew and to understand things to which they were previously blocked by their attitudes. A leader must not lose sight of the ends and goals of the group and cannot allow the group’s anxieties to prevent it from doing what is necessary to adapt to a changing environment or to meet an emerging challenge.

    As difficult as it is to help people change knowledge and attitudes, changes in individual behavior are even more difficult to make. You may remember Edwin Friedman’s observation that unmotivated people don’t change just because of insight. Hersey and Blanchard would say “Amen.” Changes in what Hersey and Blanchard describe as “patterned behavior” is what we are after; not just episodic changes, but habitual.

    Changes in patterned behavior are difficult to achieve and more difficult to sustain. It is here that the individual must finally own a particular change and determine that the intrinsic benefits of the change outweigh the benefits of not changing. If this does not happen, the change won’t stick. If it does happen, actual change of the group or organization becomes possible.

    The most difficult level of change is, of course, in the group’s own version of “patterned behavior,” the customs and traditions that represent a group’s deep habits of being and that give a group their identity. It is at this level, ultimately, that the group as a group either supports or will undermine the proposed change, because it is at this level that the group will either accept the change as its own (i.e., ultimately consistent with the group’s identity and character) or will reject it (as alien to the group’s identity). This is essential to remember.

    Harry Truman once said that there is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t need to take credit for it. A leader must from the very outset of the change process let go of the need to take credit for the change or to demand that the change be enacted precisely as she imagined. Almost any change that will really be owned by a group will have been somewhat altered in the process of the group’s making the change its own.

    It is true that this process requires a lot of time. And there are changes that simply must be made more quickly than the process allows. It is also true that this process of change (getting buy-in along the way) is only complicated (and sometimes impossible) in highly complex institutions which are made up of several constituencies and different types of stakeholders. In other words, real-world conditions are a lot different from laboratory conditions, and leadership rarely happens in laboratory conditions.

    The principles presented in Hersey and Blanchard’s theory of change, however, are sound, and a leader who ignores them does so at his or her own considerable peril. On the other hand, leaders who want to be both successful and effective will do well to aim at long-term effectiveness and not just immediate success.

    1Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, “The Management of Change,” in Henry L. Tosi and W. Clay Hamner, eds. Organizational Behavior and Management: A Contingency Approach (Chicago: St. Clair Press, rev. ed. 1977).
    2Michael Jinkins and Deborah Bradshaw Jinkins, Power and Change in Parish Ministry (Washington, D.C.: Alban Institute Press, 1991), 57-63.

  • Lenten Days BC

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 01, 2014

    Lenten Days BCAdvent is Lenten Land. Days before God's rescue. Shadowland.


    We hardly see this Lent anymore. Not with Christmas aisles sprouting like rows of tinseled corn as soon as the Halloween candy disappears. Not with Christmas lights strung before we roast the Thanksgiving turkey.

    Yet Advent is another Lent. That's why the minister dons purple and the chancel guild decks out the church in Lent's gaudy glory.

    We do so love to rush to a kind of good news that denies the bad. When I was a child, we had only three holy days: Christmas, Easter and Mother's Day. So we skipped like rocks over the Lenten days of Advent - the long, long wait, the centuries-mimicking endurance run of faith, the dark-shuttered-shadowed days of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" that culminate finally, at long last in candlelit "O Come All Ye Faithful."

    We argue that it is a shame not to get to sing Christmas carols longer. They are so bright, so cheerful, so soaked in childhood's sheltered view of the world (or so we hope). But there is wisdom in singing the dirge-like waiting songs of Advent for a long, long while before that night when we do at last break out "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and place the baby Jesus in his crèche.

    Advent prepares us for the life of faith in which we spend much more time waiting for God than basking in epiphanies. Four weeks on the trail to God knows where and twelve days of Christmas before we have to start hiding our babies from Herod. That's about right.

    Rush if we must for the sake of Macy's and Target and whatever other markets lure us into their shrines with tinsel and Bing Crosby. I won't play Scrooge to this. It is all such good fun. And if there's not a child in us whose heart leaps at Christmas's approach, then it is a tragedy. But let's withhold a part of ourselves from the mercantile fakeries, and let's also embrace the sacredness of the wait, the long wait, the painfully long wait, that prepares us to wait some more for a deliverance long-promised and worth waiting for.

  • Humanity 101

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 24, 2014

    Thank You GodIf there’s a class somewhere that teaches us what it means to be human, the centerpiece of the curriculum surely is the study of gratitude. Learning to be thankful is basic to being a person. It’s “Humanity 101.” Thankfulness is the natural impulse of the healthy heart. It is the appropriate reciprocal response of the person who is fully alive. We are never too young to enter this course of study.

    In his new book for children, Dr. Brad Wigger, the Second Presbyterian Church Professor of Christian Education here at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, teaches this course. And, along with Jago, the illustrator of this wonderful book, Brad teaches the course, not from the sometimes isolating heights of a lecturer’s desk, but sitting on the floor surrounded by children. Thank You, God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014) ushers us into the sanity and wisdom of being grateful for all of life. There could hardly be a better preparation for Thanksgiving.

    “Thank you, God,” we read, while our eyes are dazzled with visions of sun, space, earth and stars. “Thank you, God, for the sun smiling on our earth to wake up the day, for the light opening my eyes to see all you have made.”

    “Thank you, God, for family and friends, … for home, … for meals together.” Thank you, God, for learning, and stories, and singing, and love, for all that lies outside and in, for activities and rest, and everything in between.

    There have been a lot of debates over the years about what makes humans human. Even the Psalmist feels compelled to ask of God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (Psalm 8:4) Many answers to this question are really pretty reductionistic. While Shakespeare’s response in Hamlet soars (“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!”), other answers to the question veer to the ridiculous. One college textbook, tongue in cheek, describes the human being as “an ingenious assembly of portable plumbing.”

    I would venture to say, however, that beyond the tool-making and ability to speak and reason, that which makes us truly human is our capacity for gratitude. Thankfulness flows from a right understanding of our indebtedness to God for breath, and love, and life itself. Thankfulness is evidence of a human being fully aware of his or her dependence on another (an Other). In other words, thankfulness is a concrete demonstration of genuine humility, and humility is the essence of humanness.

    This week I hope we will all go “back to school” and enroll with children of all ages in “Humanity 101,” and with Brad learn to say, “Thank you, God … for this day, for life, for your love holding us together. Amen.”

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