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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Mirror Test

    by Michael Jinkins | May 27, 2014
    Mirror TestWhat do Peter Drucker, John Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola all have in common?

    Quite a lot as it turns out.

    Drucker, the “Dean of Management Research,” wrote an article, “Managing Oneself,” which was originally published in the Harvard Business Review in 1999 – and which appears now in a collection of classic HBR essays, On Managing Yourself (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2011). In this now classic essay, Drucker recommends an approach to self-reflection he calls “feedback analysis.” Drucker writes:

    Feedback analysis is by no means new. It was invented sometime in the fourteenth century by an otherwise obscure German theologian and picked up quite independently, some 150 years later, by John Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola, each of whom incorporated it into the practice of his followers. In fact, the steadfast focus on performance and results that this habit produces explains why the institutions these two men founded, the Calvinist church and the Jesuit order, came to dominate Europe within 30 years. (On Managing Yourself, Drucker, “Managing Oneself,” p. 14)

    While the “obscure German theologian” to which Drucker refers was likely Berthold der Schwarze, a German monk and alchemist about whom we know very little, the other two sources, Calvin and Ignatius, are well-documented. They utilized processes of self-examination and reflection on the outcomes of actions that are very similar to Drucker’s “feedback analysis.”

    To summarize Drucker’s insight, feedback analysis is a process of reflection on our actions over a long period of time. What we are trying to determine are our greatest and most valuable strengths (not just the things we most enjoy doing) and our greatest vulnerabilities and weaknesses. We gain knowledge of this sort by observing the consequences or outcomes of our actions. Feedback analysis also helps us discover how we learn best (Drucker provides a very helpful discussion of this process), how well we work with other people, what are our most deeply held values, and what kind of environment is most conducive to doing our best work.

    According to Drucker, again, we can only really gain this sort of perspective on ourself over a long period of time by taking note of the outcomes and consequences of our actions, and not just our intentions (for example, by keeping a running journal that allows us to objectify and honestly assess the results of our own actions). From Drucker’s perspective, it is particularly crucial to engage in feedback analysis today because each of us has become our own “chief executive officer” and, I might add, our own “head of personnel development.” As the editors of Harvard Business Review put it, commenting on Drucker’s thesis: “it’s up to you to keep yourself engaged and productive during a work life that may span some 50 years” (On Managing Yourself, “Idea in Brief,” p. 15).

    For John Calvin, we are liberated to engage in self-examination because “Christ is the mirror of our election.” Or, as Calvin says in another context, “Christ is the mirror of our sanctification,” in whom “all parts of our salvation are complete.” In other words, because our salvation rests in the free grace of God, we can be vigorous in our self-reflection. Calvin writes, “But if we have been chosen in him (Christ), we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, tr., Philadelphia:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1960, III.xxiv. 5. p. 970)

    For Ignatius of Loyola, we can reflect honestly on our strengths and weaknesses, and seek to understand how God wants to make use of us in this world, because God loves us without condition and uses all of life to draw us more deeply into his love. There is no better summary of the Ignatian call to self-examination than the translation of Ignatius’ “A Vision of Life – Principle and Foundation,” by David Fleming, SJ (“Ignatius’ Three-Part Vision,” Ignatian Spirituality, accessed May 22, 2014, www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/ignatius-three-part-vision/) which my spiritual director, Father Paul Scaglione, shared with me during Lent this year. Ignatius writes:

    God who loves us creates us and wants to share life with us forever. Our love response takes shape in our praise and honor and service of the God of our life. All things in this world are also created because of God’s love and they become a context of gifts, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily. … Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.

    Drucker’s feedback analysis, as complex as it may be, can also be conceptualized quite simply as a kind of “mirror test.” He asks, “What kind of person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning?” This question can be asked freely, even joyfully, when we are conscious of the grace of the God who loves us without condition and who calls us to live into the fullness of the humanity revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
    Go comment!
  • Faculty Bedside Tables

    by Michael Jinkins | May 20, 2014
    Stack of BooksLast year, we had a great time finding out what was on the bedside reading tables of our faculty. The variety and range of books was really fantastic. So we thought we’d do it again.

    Carol J. Cook, Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, tells us that there are four books right now on her nightstand. The first is by Wesley Ariarajah, Your God, My God, Our God: Rethinking Christian Theology for Religious Plurality (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches Publications, 2012). Wesley, a former Deputy General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, recently served as Louisville Seminary’s Henry Luce III Visiting Professor of Interfaith Studies and presented the Caldwell Lectures at our annual Festival of Theology. Carol is also reading Will Johnson’s Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000); Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (New York: HarperCollins, 2013). Incidentally, I highly recommend Patchett’s book myself. It is one of the most wonderful collections of non-fiction essays I’ve ever read.

    Professor of New Testament Studies Marty Soards, interestingly, is reading The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), as well as The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Juan Mascaró (New York: Penguin, 1962); The Koran, translated by N. J. Dawood (New York: Penguin, 1999), and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, translated by D. C. Lau (New York: Penguin, 1974). Marty is also reading Joseph M. Williams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (New York: Pearson Education, 2007).

    Brad Wigger, our Second Presbyterian Church Professor of Christian Education, mentions three books, all of which came to him as gifts - two from friends and one from his son, David. On Reading The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Penguin, 2014) by Susan Shillinglaw and The Thread That Runs So True (New York: Touchstone, 1949) by Jesse Stuart are from friends; and, the book from David is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

    Amy Plantinga Pauw, Henry Mobley Jr. Professor of Doctrinal Theology, is reading Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013); and Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2014). She is also reading the book which won the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Religion, T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012).

    Frances S. Adeney, our William A. Benfield Jr. Professor of Evangelism and Global Missions, is also reading Luhrman’s When God Talks Back, as well as Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013) by Catherine A. Brekus and Susan Fisher Sterling’s Women Artists: National Museum of Women in the Arts (New York: Abbeville Press, 2010). Frances mentioned that she was a founding member of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and recently had an opportunity to personally visit the museum in Washington, D.C. She reports that it is wonderful.

    Tyler Mayfield, Assistant Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, writes: “Having returned recently from Israel and Palestine, I am reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013) and Mitri Raheb’s Faith in the Face of Empire (New York: Orbis Books, 2014). Each of these excellent authors offer their unique and timely perspective on the current conflict. I am also revisiting Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Harmony, 1999) as I continue to think about the thorny theological issue of violence. Finally, upon recommendation from Carol Cook, I’m reading Jaco Hamman’s Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul for Ministry (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007).”

    Chris Elwood, Professor of Historical Theology, like Brad, is reading On Reading The Grapes of Wrath; he is also reading Masha Gessen's Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (New York: Penguin, 2014); Gregory Orr's Poetry as Survival (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2002); Mario Vargas Llosa's The Dream of the Celt (New York: Picador, 2013); and C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

    Cliff Kirpatrick, Henry Luce III Visiting Professor of Ecumenical Studies and Global Ministries, is reading The Invention of Wings (London: Viking Books, 2014) by Sue Monk Kidd; The Great Equal Society: Confucianism, China, and the 21st Century (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company, 2013) by Young-oak Kim; and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012) by David McCullough, three “very different, but fascinating books” Cliff says.

    Matthew Collins, Director of the Ernest Miller White Library and Associate Professor of Bibliography and Research, mentions two new books, Max Barry's Lexicon: A Novel (New York: Penguin, 2013); and Clive Thompson's Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (New York: Penguin, 2013).

    Johanna Bos, the Dora Pierce Professor of Bible & Professor of Old Testament, mentions that she recently finished Chris Pavone’s, The Accident (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2014). She says that Pavone also wrote The Expats (New York: Broadway Books, 2013). Before that, she read Megan Abbot’s Dare Me (New York: Reagan Author Books, 2012), “a book I could not put down but found claustrophobic as it forces one to spend the entire time inside the mind of a cheerleading-obsessed teenager,” said Johanna. She also recently enjoyed Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs (New York: Random House, 2014), which she found to be “a quietly intelligent novel.” She says Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me (New York: Random House, 2007) “was an unexpected pleasure” and Cathleen Schine’s Fin & Lady (New York: Picador, 2013), “an anticipated one.” She “devoured” Frances Fyfield’s The Art of Drowning (London: Hachette UK, 2012), Cold to the Touch (London: Paragon, 2010) and The Nature of the Beast (New York: Time Warner, 2002), and is soon to read Laura Lippman’s After I’m Gone (New York: William Morrow, 2014), Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), and Tessa Hadley’s The London Train (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). She is also planning to read Jan De Hartog’s memoir, A View of the Ocean (New York: Pantheon, 2007), and notes that recently while in Texas doing a series of lectures, she met people who had known De Hartog after his emigration to Texas. Johanna says that De Hartog also wrote “a history of the Quakers in novel form entitled The Peaceable Kingdom (New York: Scribner, 1972) and a stirring pacifist novel called The Captain (London: H. Hamilton, 1967).”

    Dean of the Seminary and Professor of New Testament Susan Garrett is a dedicated reader. Ministry and Money: A Practical Guide for Pastors (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), by Janet T. Jamieson and Philip D. Jamieson and Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy [Revised and expanded edition (Hoboken, N.J.: Jossey-Bass, 2007)] by William Bergquist and Kenneth Pawlak are both on her night stand, as well as the superb book by Gerardo Marti, Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2012). Gerardo, a Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology Department at Davidson College, served as our Greenhoe Lecturer at this year’s Festival of Theology and has just been named to the Board of Directors of the Louisville Institute. In addition to these three books, Dean Garrett has added another, which I also enjoyed immensely, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (New York: Pantheon, 2010)  by Rebecca Goldstein.

    My night stand? I’ve already mentioned the Ann Patchett non-fiction collection, but it bears repeating that this is a great book. I also just finished James McBride’s amazing novel about John Brown and his abolitionist followers, The Good Lord Bird (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013). I am also reading Melissa Fay Greene, Praying for Sheetrock (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Books, 1991), which was a runner-up several years ago for the National Book Award; Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern’s No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi (New York: New York Review of Books, 2013); and Michael Lewis, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014). As soon as one of these is finished, the next book I’ll begin is Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).
    Go comment!
  • Political Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | May 13, 2014
    Political LeadershipI paused long over the title to this week’s blog. Surely there are those who will think the phrase “political leadership” is an oxymoron that ranks beside “military intelligence,” “jumbo shrimp” or “airline food” for sheer foolishness. I’ll stand by it though, and not just as a possibility. Political leadership speaks of the ability to read and respond to the public in a way that helps them move forward together. It is an essential aspect of democracy, despite how badly democracy gets used and abused in its name. At some level, political leadership (at its best) expresses the capacity to act strategically.

    A really good political leader understands in his or her bones the wisdom of boxer Mike Tyson’s words: “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” That’s why Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College in London, takes these words from Tyson as the epigraph for his magisterial new volume on the history of strategy, Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013). This is a brilliant book, and well worth the time to study closely. Freedman takes a term that is used far too loosely in our society (strategy) and turns it every which way but loose. He helps us to see that strategy is necessary because conflict is essential to human society.

    Political leadership might be defined as the capacity to move people forward to deal with the challenges facing their society. It requires, as Freedman writes, “some recognition of the distinctive attributes of individuals who are potential opponents or allies, and sufficient empathy with these individuals’ situations to make it possible to influence their behavior.” Freedman adds that the “most effective strategies,” while they may make use of all sorts of motives and means, “benefit … from the ability to forge coalitions.” (Freedman, 9.) But those who would forge coalitions must be able to deal with often extraordinary adversities and sometimes adversaries, as well as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and misfortune. Again: “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.”

    While the theoretical approach to studying strategy is valuable, it is considerably less interesting than the personal approach for the same reason that it is more interesting to watch a film of Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Frazier than it is to read about the history of pugilism. Although Freedman makes great use of historical anecdotes, even at their best, they don’t resonate like a good personal story told by an honest storyteller. I’ve come across two such storytellers recently. The first is well known to anyone who has had his or her television on in the past few months; the second is less familiar.

    Robert Gates served as secretary of defense in the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. This alone is remarkable. His memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), makes great – and surprising – reading. It is especially surprising if all you know about this book is what you have seen on television. That’s because our media (left, right and whatever else) apparently “reads” (and the quotation marks have seldom proven as well-earned as in this case) a book to find something to stoke controversy rather than to add to the body of human wisdom. Go figure. If, however, you are reading in order to understand how people of integrity attempt to thread the needles of political and self-interest while trying to do some good on behalf of the country, this is a good resource.

    The realism is bracing, as when Gates writes: “I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities.” His insights into the Ukraine and Vladimir Putin are also fascinating, in light of recent developments there. I came away from the book mostly impressed by a set of values that to some will appear almost idealistic. Here is a person who really believes that a life invested in the service of one’s country matters, even against all the odds. He clearly did not enjoy being secretary of defense. He hated the partisanship, the self-obsessed Beltway world, the game-of-thrones wannabes, the bureaucracies that consume innovation, and the decision-making processes that virtually guarantee poorly-made decisions. Gates, however, rose to the challenge when asked by a succession of presidents, as he defined it, of “winning the fights that mattered while sustaining and even strengthening relationships … reducing the number of enemies and maximizing the number of allies.” As Gates moves from one personal recollection to another anecdote, one sees again and again the wisdom that Freedman describes more academically and that Tyson relates more pugnaciously.

    The next resource I shall recommend on political leadership is the shortest and the least familiar, Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Harvard University Press, 2013). Ignatieff, a Canadian writer, teacher and former politician, has had a distinguished scholarly career. He holds a joint professorial appointment at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. I became interested in his work in the late 1990s when he wrote a superb study of Sir Isaiah Berlin, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Vintage, 2000).

    Ignatieff’s own political story began “one night in October 2004,” when he was visited by what he and his wife called, “The Men in Black.” These were three distinguished political insiders from Canada who persuaded Ignatieff to return home to run for Parliament with the hope of eventually becoming leader of the Liberal Party, which had long ruled the roost in Canada, but had recently lost its fervor and its way. Though Ignatieff had taught political leadership for a generation, he had never personally led anything more complex than a graduate seminar. His lessons in politics were to be brutally learned when he entered the parliamentary race and the campaign for leadership of the Liberal Party.

    There’s a great line in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” about those who lose at dice departing sadly from the game, but sadly wiser for their loss (“Purgatory, Canto VI”). Ignatieff now knows the inferno of politics personally, and he is a wiser scholar and a wiser person for it. He complains of the deliberate and “tendentious political misreading” of his own past words by people bent only on using his words for their own political gain. He struggles with how our highest ideals and best intentions, as well as our pride and ambition, will make us act in ways that run counter to our own real and long-term interests, often to the great cost of those closest to us. Further, he reflects on the fickleness of fortune and how he never really understood Machiavelli until he entered the public realm and how political zealots lack any sense of humor or irony.

    All of this is to be expected of a truthful person who will not spare himself to tell the truth about his experience. He also tells us why democracy matters and why political leadership is not just a silly oxymoron: “The best thing about democracy is – or should be – that you have to earn everything, one vote at a time.” (Ignatieff, 13.) The really gifted and good politician has the ability to gather up the compulsions and interests of a people and to make more of them than they appear to be, something better of them for the society as a whole even than the sum of their parts. Real politics is locally rooted, because it is rooted in the needs of people who live in real cities, towns and villages. Writing of the people who came to hear him speak in local Rotary and Lions Clubs, in Legion halls and restaurants, he notes “an air of quiet decency about them and a polite skepticism that you were there to overcome. They were the delegates, and they had the power.” (Ignatieff, 55.) This is the genius of politics that we cannot afford to lose.

    Political leadership, of course, can become as mendacious and sordid a subject as any we can imagine. But it can become mendacious and sordid – it can even become an oxymoron of the silliest order – because its potential for good is so great. St. Augustine understood something of this long ago when he observed the potentiality for evil. The greatest evils are always perversions of the highest goods, Augustine knew. But that shouldn’t prevent us from working for the highest goods, should it?
    Go comment!
  • Banned Books

    by Michael Jinkins | May 05, 2014
    Banned BooksThe author of Ecclesiastes famously wrote, "of the making of many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). The banning of books appears to be endless, too.
    A recent case is especially interesting. On March 5, 2014, Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, wrote an Op-Ed essay, “Banned in Bangalore” for The New York Times. Her essay focused on the banning of her new book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, in India. The book was withdrawn from publication by Doniger’s publisher, Penguin Books, India, (and the court instructed the publisher to pulp stocks of it in warehouses) after an Indian school teacher brought a lawsuit against the author and publisher claiming that the book violated India's blasphemy law, which, Doniger states, "makes it a crime to offend the sensibilities of a religious person." (Wendy Doniger, "Banned in Bangalore" The New York Times, March 5, 2014).

    The subjectivity of such a law seems ludicrous to members of a religiously pluralist society. I doubt if it is even possible for anyone to make a religious statement, or a scientific statement for that matter, that would not violate this law. Of course, the banning of this book has only contributed to its record sales, even in India. Indeed, as it turned out, not a single book was destroyed because so little was warehoused. Bookstores sold out almost immediately after the verdict was announced, and there's simply no way for the court to effectively staunch the supply of electronic books. Her book, like other banned books through the years, has gotten a "banned book sales bump."

    Doniger spends most of her Op-Ed essay reflecting on the positive message of her book and its value in recovering various Hindu traditions, which have been marginalized and forgotten. Today, I would like for us to reflect for a few moments on book banning itself. To reflect on this subject, I'll tell you a personal story.

    Some people are "joiners." Though the percentage of those people has decreased in recent years (as evidenced by Robert Putnam’s now classic sociological study, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, 2001), there are still folks who join with other people in civic clubs and congregations to worship or do good or just have fun. I'm something of a "joiner," but I'm even more of a "grouper." Not the fish, but the kind of person who enjoys forming groups that I think other people might enjoy joining.

    One group among several I have formed over the years was a "Banned Book Club." Originally this group was formed in response to a Texas school district, which had just banned Maya Angelou's book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). But, after reading Angelou's book, we went on to study the subject of book banning in some depth, and to read some more fascinating banned books including Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire (1976) (which is still one of the best books I've ever read on the problem of morality and incommensurable value systems) and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934). (That was a really memorable conversation!)

    I came away from that experience with a deep opposition to censorship. Censorship is a backhanded compliment to the power of ideas, but it is still a slap in the face. It is one form of violence that both the left and the right indulge in with equal ferocity. Ray Bradbury, in probably the most powerful challenge to book banning ever penned, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), reminds us that the banning of books is neither an exclusively conservative nor liberal sin; it is an enduring expression of "the terrible tyranny of the majority." And it is seldom indulged in without shrouding its violence in the robes of morality and justice.

    Librarians are among the staunchest champions of free speech in our country. They routinely oppose the banning of books and the ideas they contain. Partly, I am sure that is because librarians know the trajectory of history and the way in which ideas once banned sometimes win the day. I also suspect it is because they know that freedom of thought and freedom of speech not only go hand-in-hand, but are the indispensable fundamentals of a good and great society.

    Not long ago a delightful soul in Little Rock, Arkansas, gave me an old Mallard Fillmore cartoon that fractured the famous George Santayana quote as follows: "Those who cannot remember the past are a highly sought-after voting bloc."

    So, this week I encourage the readers of this blog to remember one of the greatest lessons of history, even if it cuts into our attractiveness as a potential voting bloc.

    Banning ideas (even ideas with which we strongly disagree) undermines a good and great society. I encourage you to go to your local library or bookstore (virtual or brick-and-mortar) and pick out a banned book or two or three to read. I suggest you choose more than one book so you can read something banned for opposing ideological reasons. I know Banned Books Week doesn't come around until next fall, but there's no time like the present to celebrate freedom. As for me, I intend to order a copy of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History.
    Go comment!
  • Two Simple Reasons to Give

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 29, 2014
    Reasons to GiveMy daughter, Jessica, who sometimes just calls to share a joke with me, gave me a great cartoon from The New Yorker magazine a few years ago. I keep it on my desk. Moses stands on the mountainside holding the Ten Commandments up so the crowds below can see them. In the audience there’s a guy with his hand up, asking the question, “What’s the takeaway on all this?”

    Often, when I speak to people about Louisville Seminary’s work and how much we need their support, I explain why we are doing away with tuition by the fall term of 2015 and why we are eliminating housing costs for students by 2021. Our scholarships, I explain, will make it possible for us to recruit the students with the greatest promise for ministry and will allow our graduates to enter ministry with no Seminary debt. This will free our graduates to build new ministries, to take risks, to become more entrepreneurial, to serve wherever God calls them, even in those places where the pay will be far from guaranteed (and the pay in ministry is never great).

    I also tell the story of how our educational program, in addition to providing great biblical, theological, ethical and historical training, also teaches our students to be bridge-builders in this deeply divided world. I tell this story because it doesn’t matter one whit if an education comes to you cost-free unless that education is priceless. The theological education our students receive is not only great in every traditional category, it is also the most relevant to the needs of our church and society.

    Even as I deliver this message, frequently I feel like there’s a guy inside me with his hand up asking the question, “What’s the takeaway on all this?” Is there a purpose beyond the goods that we seek for our students and even our church’s future? Is there a greater end, an imperative rationale that compels us to act? I am asking people to invest, and to invest significantly, in our Covenant for the Future strategic plan. I’m not asking us to reach in our pockets for spare change, but to change our giving plans and even our wills to support this work.

    What’s the takeaway on all this?

    I have realized that there are really two simple but crucial reasons we should give and give generously. One has to do with the mission of God’s people in the world; the other concerns a strange but fundamental theological fact about who we are.

    The first simple reason we should give specifically to theological education is because we need well-prepared leaders to help us be the people we are called by God to be.

    I think of the young pastor with whom I was talking on the phone a few months back. When I asked him what he had done that day, he said, “Oh, the usual pastor stuff.” When pressed, I found out that, in the course of his daily rounds among the people in his urban-suburban neighborhood, he discovered that a worker at the local program that provides care to poor children and families had, herself, become homeless. It all occurred through a chain of errors, none of which were her fault. But the sort of mess that would be an annoyance and a nuisance to most of us literally put her struggling family on the street. By the time it came to this young pastor’s desk, it was a mess indeed.

    A clerical mistake at her bank, which they promised to clear up as soon as possible, caused her to overdraw her account, which made her rent check turn to rubber. Within a few days, and because of delays by the bank in getting the matter cleared up, she was evicted from her apartment. In fact, the eviction was improperly and illegally conducted. But she had no clout, and before she knew it, she and her children were in a local motel desperately piecing together rent each day. That’s when our young pastor found out what was going on. She asked for a day’s rent at the motel.

    The young pastor I spoke with spent a good chunk of that day contacting a banker friend (and member of his congregation) who helped sort out the mess that started everything. He found another landlord who was willing to show mercy, and mobilized some church members who helped the family to move into a new apartment and made sure they had supper on the table. Not only was this woman back at work the next day at the homeless shelter, not only was her family saved from homelessness too, but some of God’s people also had the opportunity to participate in Christ’s redemptive ministry in this world because of this pastor’s work.

    “Oh, the usual pastor stuff.” We could literally multiply that story a hundred or a thousand times over, every single day.
    There is a frightened child right now sitting with her hospital chaplain waiting for chemotherapy to begin.

    There is a woman who has suffered years of neglect and abuse, with trembling hand reaching out to open the door to a refuge that will take her in and protect her in the name of Christ.

    There is a couple struggling mightily to hold together their family against all sorts of odds, economic and emotional, pouring their hearts out to a pastor or pastoral counselor.

    There is a cup of hot soup and a warm bed awaiting a homeless person at the end of a long day on cruel city streets in a world that works overtime to tell him that he is not really human anymore.

    There’s a small group of friends who have gathered together to pledge to one another and to God that they will stay sober one more day.

    There is the life of God - the reign of God - going on all around us. This life, this reign, needs the best leadership and the broadest participation possible. Louisville Seminary is here to make sure those leaders are well-prepared to participate in and lead in God’s work throughout the world. That’s the first simple reason to give, and to give to theological education in particular. But there’s another reason why we should all give.

    Giving goes to the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God.

    As I said earlier, I get the privilege of asking people to give and give generously. As a Seminary president, it is just about the most rewarding part of my job. That may sound odd to a lot of folks, but it is true. The reason is simple. I get to spend time with people who have discovered the joy of giving.

    Among the varieties of people I have encountered, three groups stand out: takers, keepers and givers. The takers might be characterized by the fellow Michael Lewis mentions in his new book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) about the darker side of Wall Street. The fellow says, “I’m not happy just to sit in first class. I’m only happy if everyone else I know is sitting in economy.” That’s a taker. Grasping, claiming, acquiring, when having has nothing to do with needing, but is only the outward manifestation of a sick soul. This group is the unhappiest I’ve ever met.

    There are also the keepers. Now, true to my Scottish heritage, I’m pretty conservative when it comes to money. There are, in fact, members of my family who will remain nameless who see me as “tight.” But keepers take sensible conservatism to the limit. They hold on to what they’ve got as though, in the words of songwriter Don Henley, hearses came with luggage racks. They have forgotten that what they have was given to them on loan from God. At most, we are temporary stewards of what we have. While the takers live in fear that someone else might get more than they will get, the keepers live in fear that they will lose what they possess, until their possessions possess them. They aren’t a happy group either.

    But I’ve also met givers. These are the happiest people I have ever come across, and I’ve often wondered why.

    Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent essay for The New York Times, links philanthropy and charitable giving, to “what psychologists call ‘self-efficacy,’ one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.” Giving, Brooks says, has a “transcendental benefit to donors and recipients alike.” Giving, he says, “creates meaning."1

    I think Brooks is right, but for a deeper reason.

    In his profound and beautiful meditations on the spiritual meaning of The Apostles’ Creed, the late theologian and priest, Hans Urs von Balthasar, writes movingly of the opening passage in the Creed, I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Balthasar writes: “Herein lies the most unfathomable aspect of the Mystery of God: that what is absolutely primal is no statically self-contained and comprehensible reality, but one that exists solely in dispensing itself: a flowing wellspring with no holding-trough beneath it."2

    God does not create because he is driven by need, by insecurities or by self-interests. God does not create from a relentless desire to take or keep. God creates from boundless love, love that finds its expression and joy in giving itself away.

    The core of our humanity, the deep secret of our human identity, the mystery at the heart of all we are is that we are created in God’s image and are never truly ourselves, never truly at rest, and never truly joyful until we participate in God’s love which gives itself away. We were made for this. We were created to live this life of God, the Giving Giver. That’s why givers are the happiest people I’ve ever met. They have found themselves in God. They live in the full flow of God’s love.

    I regularly invite people to give. I often invite them to give to Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and to other theological schools too, because I believe there are few better investments for the sake of this world that God loves. In the Presbyterian community, it is almost entirely through the endowments of our theological seminaries alone that the education of our church’s ministers is funded. Theological schools, overwhelmingly, pay for the education of our own students. When you give to a theological school, you make possible the preparation of ministers, pastors, counselors, chaplains, social workers, teachers and other members of the helping professions. You are investing through them in all the ministries that they will lead throughout the days of their lives. You are really helping to create ministries, multiplying your gift, well beyond your field of vision for generations to come.

    I also invite people to give to their churches and to other charities, too. I invite them to participate as broadly and as deeply as they possibly can in the culture of giving. Why? Because when we do, our lives find their truest meaning. When we give, we find ourselves resonating with the life of the God in whose image we are created. When we give, we discover a happiness and joy that endures.

    1Arthur C. Brooks, “Why Fund-Raising Is Fun,” The New York Times (March 29, 2014).
    2Hans Urs von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, David Kipp, tr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990), 30.
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  • George and Jean Edwards: A Marriage and Ministry for Peace

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 24, 2014
    BY RHONDA MAWHOOD LEE (MDiv '05)
    Associate Rector
    St. Philip's Episcopal Church
    Durham, NC

    Editor's note: for the next several weeks, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!

    Today's blog post was guest-written by Rhonda Mawhood Lee, Episcopal priest and author of Through With Kings and Armies: the Marriage of George and Jean Edwards (Cascade Books, 2012).

    George and Jean EdwardsLouisville Seminary’s class of 1967 chose Professor George Riley Edwards as the preacher for their graduation day worship service. George was a dynamic speaker, but his sermon was even more dramatic than anticipated. As he stood up, but before he could speak, fourteen laymen in the congregation rose to protest this pacifist and civil rights activist being given the pulpit. Reading from a prepared statement, the protestors declared that both George’s theology and his politics were incompatible with “his offices as gospel minister and professor.”

    The seminary community included many who had their own disagreements with George, but they did not leave their colleague to face his accusers alone. Beginning with President Albert C. Winn, the whole congregation stood and turned in their seats to face the fourteen. When the protestors had finished reading their statement, Winn told them, “You have been heard!” They left, and the preacher was free to offer his message for the day.

    Among the congregation, none had partnered, prayed and argued with George more than his wife, Jean. They had met as teenagers at a Southern Presbyterian Church camp in the 1930s, then lost touch after the United States entered the Second World War. As a pacifist, George renounced the ministerial draft deferment that would have spared him wartime duty. One of only three conscientious objectors in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), he spent three years in alternative service, and another eighteen months after the war rebuilding bombed housing in Italy. Jean’s war years were more personally devastating: she married a soldier, who was killed in battle on their first wedding anniversary.

    When George and Jean met again at a church conference after the war, the two old friends quickly realized they had more in common than ever before. Jean remembered having fallen “madly in love” with George as a teenager, but her decision to marry him was rooted in their shared desire to follow Jesus Christ by witnessing against war. As Jean later remembered, “I knew we would never, ever argue about pacifism.”

    That commitment was the foundation of George and Jean’s marriage for 63 years, and Louisville Seminary was the community where their life together played out. George studied there in the late 1940s, while Jean served as a faculty secretary. After a few years at Duke University, they returned to Louisville in the mid-1950s for George to teach New Testament and Christian ethics. In an era of strident anti-Communism, when anyone who questioned Cold War belligerence faced suspicion, George’s colleagues affirmed his loyalty to both church and state. They might not agree with George’s actions, such as his solo demonstration in downtown Louisville for a negotiated end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. They might argue in the seminary cafeteria about whether or not the Holy Spirit speaks through the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly (George doubted it, and wasn’t shy about sharing his views). But Louisville Seminary was a community that respected Christian conscience and believers’ obligation to heed it.

    George and Jean’s life together, and their witness against war, entered a new phase after their three children grew up and left home in the 1970s. In 1975, they founded the Louisville Fellowship of Reconciliation, a local chapter of the nation’s oldest and largest pacifist organization. That joint venture made the most of each spouse’s gifts: George’s gift for polemic and deep knowledge of Scripture; Jean’s ability to explain complex political and theological matters in terms anyone could understand; and their shared willingness to offer their home, time and money to the campaign against war. 

    That campaign led them in the early 1980s to take a radical step: withholding the portion of their federal income taxes earmarked for the military. Their logic was simple: if the Selective Service system recognizes conscientious objection to war, why shouldn’t the tax code? George and Jean, and their fellow war tax resisters, never profited from this campaign, as the IRS simply seized the money owed, along with penalties. War tax resistance led George away from full-time association with the seminary he loved. He retired as soon as possible, to save the seminary any embarrassment that might come from his civil disobedience. 

    Nevertheless, George and Jean remained as inseparable from Louisville Seminary as they were from each other. When George died at the age of 90 in 2010, Caldwell Chapel was filled to capacity, with more mourners standing on its steps and spilling into the quadrangle. Jean and her children shared their memories with the seminary community as it celebrated one of its own with tears and laughter, remembering the joy and the exasperation that had come with working and worshipping with George.

    Jean remains tenaciously faithful, working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and serving her church, Central Presbyterian in downtown Louisville. Her continued witness against war is sustained by the memory of the man whom she has loved “madly” since she was a teenager, and with whom she shared an even deeper love for the Prince of Peace.
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  • God is in the Clouds

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 22, 2014
    God is in the CloudsThe fields of central Texas range over softly rolling topography. Crops of wheat, sorghum and cotton take their turns maturing under skies of blue that blaze white hot from May to late September. My daily walks as a young pastor took me past fields that stretched to a horizon bounded to the west, north and south only by the curvature of the earth and to the East by “the Mountain,” a hulking mesquite-covered plateau notorious for harboring rattlesnakes. If the scenery did not stop your heart, the occasional flock of blackbirds would as they exploded from a field on your approach. Midday often found me standing flatfooted, watching birds break into the sky, turn and turn again, like a cloud alive with black wings until they settled in a distant field, or dipped to follow a tractor furrowing the black earth. There were moments when the only sound was a driving Texas wind, dry and hot, when the air was charged with the aromas of snuff and wildflowers and the reign of God seemed to embrace creation right down to the roots of the blanched grass at my feet. In the midst of the land, a collection of houses and buildings rose like stubble in a gleaned field, and in the midst of it all an old church tower, white as bleached bones, marked the gathering place of the congregation I served as pastor.

    I was not a stranger to the country, having grown up on an East Texas farm. But I was a stranger to the world of vast family farms that made up my parish, a world largely vanished now. I had lived in larger towns and in cities for more than ten years as a student and in my first pastoral position. Here, I had to become reacquainted with the agricultural calendar, the rhythms of the worked earth, of tilling, planting, cultivating, harvesting, laying fallow and tilling again.

    The first time I visited the small town of Itasca, Texas, I was struck by how far it was from any metropolitan area. It could not even claim the distinction of being in the middle of nowhere. It was just on the periphery of nowhere. Most travelers knew Itasca only because there was a Dairy Queen and a state-maintained rest stop (now gone) on the interstate where you would turn to go into town. Few turned. Most Presbyterians knew Itasca simply because of the Presbyterian Children’s Home nearby. Frankly, I worried about the remoteness of the parish. I wondered if my family and I would fit in, if we would get bored with the slower pace of life, if we would find the kinds of friends there we had known and loved in the city. My concerns on these scores were quickly put to rest. When we eventually left Itasca, after almost five years as their pastor, we experienced a grief that took years to get over. We had become part of the community, the people and the land.

    “Someday you’re going to look back on this time as the best of your life,” a judicatory official said to me as we walked along the sidewalk in Itasca. He had made the trip from Dallas to visit with me about some Presbytery committee work, and I had taken him to Rotary (it was Thursday, and I never missed the Rotary Club if I was in town). It was also the week before Christmas, and we had sung Christmas carols accompanied by an ancient upright piano played by the wife of the Baptist preacher. The sustaining pedal was broken, so every carol sounded like a polka, even “Silent Night, Holy Night.” My colleague winked at me as we walked along the sidewalk to my car. “Someday you’re going to look back on this as the best time of your life.” Oddly enough, there have been few times in my life that I don’t look back on as the best time of my life, including last week, or yesterday. Usually I feel like “this moment, right now” is the best time ever in my life. But I have, in fact, looked back on this first solo pastorate as particularly wonderful, and I have often wondered why it was so good.

    I think there are basically two reasons, and they are related to two things I learned then. First, I discovered in that first solo pastorate that the great voices of the church’s past, including its distant past, are a living cloud of witnesses, that they are our exact contemporaries (to adapt a phrase from Sǿren Kierkegaard), that they have something to tell us and something to teach us that we would be infinitely poorer if we did not know. Second, I realized that the people with whom I served, the members of the congregation I knew and loved and cared for, were also among the great cloud of witnesses. I learned that sainthood is a living category, that one does not have to die to be canonized.

    These two discoveries transformed my ministry right at the beginning and made me understand that our salvation is a matter of our long-term transformation, and that this transformation occurs in real, concrete communities of faith. We are shaped as pastors by the congregations we shape. We change them (we hope, for the better); and often they transform us redemptively.

    I think my learning these two things was somehow connected with the geography, the place, we inhabited together. Somehow I was able to focus on the sacrament of human community because distractions were subdued. I do not mean to idealize or sentimentalize or romanticize the country parson’s life. To do so would diminish its sacred quality. The people I served were not paper cutouts. These were real people, often leading difficult lives. People suffered irreparable losses in that community. There were divorces, bankruptcies, illnesses, injuries, deaths. There were betrayals small and large. All of humanity, its good and bad, is concentrated in a village. We knew each other well – sometimes too well. However, there was integrity to the life, wholeness of earth, sky and community that made our churchly life come into focus. The ancient formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church there is no salvation”) took on new meaning for me as a statement of the most common and obvious sense: we are called into wholeness by God, and we become all God created us to be only in communion with others. This may not be what the church fathers meant by this statement, but I came to believe it is the doctrine’s truest meaning. God calls us from disintegration into a community that is grounded in the very being of God’s own communal being. Father, Son, and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer: these halting attempts to speak of God’s own plurality in union, name the relationship that God is, in the image of which we were created. We were made to be together (this is the character of the God in whose likeness we were made), and without this togetherness we can’t become who we were created to be.

    I learned these lessons, the first about the contemporary nature of past saints and the second about the sanctity of my contemporaries, simply by paying attention in the particular setting in which we lived as a congregation, by allowing the classical witnesses to Christian faith to become my conversation partners and by privileging the wisdom of those with whom I broke bread. Of all the things I learned as a young pastor, these are the lessons that remain.

    Clouds of witnesses surround us like mists rising early before the day settles in. Clouds of witnesses break from fields of stubble like black birds on the wing. And God is in the clouds.

    Editor's note: This blog is based on “Ministry and Clouds of Witnesses,” a chapter that Michael Jinkins contributed to a book edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr., From Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral Beginnings, Michael L. Lindvall, foreword (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 78-89. Used with permission.
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  • Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 14, 2014
    Okay, you can be honest with me.

    Was there a point this winter, well, actually this wintry spring, when you began to suspect that spring was never really going to come? Like the ancient peoples of the world who, we are told by dendrochronologists, waited in vain for 18 years beginning in the spring of 1159 BC for a summer that never arrived! There was for me.

    The day was Tuesday, March 25, when Louisville, Kentucky, against all odds, got yet another snow. Never mind that spring had officially arrived on our calendars the previous week! I awakened that Tuesday morning in March to a dusting of snow on the seminary lawn, and the snow fell sporadically until mid-afternoon. My paleo ancestors would have been sacrificing goats by this point in the hope that enough grilled cabrito would entice the sun to return for real. They were the folks, after all, to whom the Venerable Bede attributed the term Eostre, their goddess of spring, from which we adapted the word, “Easter.”

    Well, spring has well and truly and finally sprung at long, long last. But its dismaying delay has led me to reflect on the wisdom of our Christian church in usurping and baptizing the earlier pagan celebration as our faith celebrates the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    The Feast of the Resurrection of Christ, our oldest and highest and most joyous Christian festival, celebrates the victory of God over the powers of evil and death. As Lesslie Newbigin once noted, “Easter does not mark the reversal of a defeat which God suffered on the cross, it proclaims God’s stamp of approval on a life that culminates in the cross” (Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, 127). Or as Wayne Meeks said, “God had overruled Pilate’s action by raising the crucified messiah from the dead” (Meeks, Christ is the Question, Westminster John Knox, 2005, 77). The theological point of our celebration is rooted in an event that springs from human history. We have also celebrated this festival with trappings gloriously syncretistic and rooted in nature, with Easter eggs and baskets of flowers reminiscent of pagans relieved that life is flowing again with the sapling sap.

    It is not wrong, I believe, nor is it theologically superficial, to rejoice at spring’s late arrival with full-throated Christian rejoicing. Nor is it wrong to discern in the flowering dogwoods nature’s anthem to the risen Christ.

    One of my favorite poets, Louise Glück, a non-Christian who is devoted to the ancient mythologies of Greece and Rome, has written a poem that I cannot read without sensing the pulse of Easter faith, “The Wild Iris.” I invite you to read it in full, though I will only quote from it selectively here. The poem begins:

    At the end of my suffering
    there was a door.

    Hear me out: that which you call death
    I remember.

    Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
    Then nothing. The weak sun
    flickered over the dry surface. …

    You who do not remember
    passage from the other world
    I tell you I could speak again: whatever
    returns from oblivion returns
    to find a voice:

    from the center of my life came
    a great fountain, deep blue
    shadows on azure seawater.

    -Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris,” from Wild Iris (Ecco Press, 1992).

    That which God the Creator has wrought in and through Jesus Christ has been accomplished for all the created world, which, as Saint Paul tells us, “… groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Romans 8:22). This week, as we rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of the resurrection of the dead in Christ Jesus, we rejoice with the warmth of the sun upon our faces, a people and a land emerged at long last from a long, cold winter. It is only natural to rejoice – and super-natural, too.
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  • Remembering C. Ellis Nelson

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 10, 2014
    BY MICHAEL JINKINS
    President and Professor of Theology
    Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

    Editor's note: for the next several weeks, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!

    C. Ellis Nelson, who was the sixth president of Louisville Seminary from 1974 to 1981, died June 9, 2011. Today’s Louisville Seminary 160-themed blog post is a reflection on Nelson’s life written by Michael Jinkins, current Louisville Seminary president who was a close friend and former colleague of Nelson at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1993 to 2010. This essay was originally published shortly after Nelson’s death.

    C. Ellis NelsonC. Ellis Nelson wanted to fly. His hero as a child was Charles Lindbergh. In fact, he not only wanted to fly, he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. He came of college age, however, in the depths of the depression. The depression hit the oil fields of Southeast Texas, especially hard around Beaumont. Money was short for college, even in families that valued education. So, at the age of sixteen, Ellis entered the local junior college.

    During his first years in college, and later at Texas A&M University, Ellis continued to study engineering and physics. He developed a lifelong passion for figuring things out, and a lifelong skepticism about data. As he said in an essay in 1983: "I have found that many claims of certainty about human conduct based on numbers become somewhat shaky when the method of obtaining the data is examined critically."1 It was while Ellis was a student at Texas A&M that his vocational goals changed from science to ministry.

    Ellis was born into a Swedish Lutheran family. His mother was the child of immigrants; his father was an immigrant. After the young couple married, they moved to Beaumont, where the most convenient church was a Presbyterian congregation with a good Christian education program and an excellent pastor. His family was there whenever the doors were open. This congregation, during Ellis’ formative years, saw six of its young people go into ministry, all of whom remained in ministry throughout their careers. After sensing a call to ordained ministry and with the encouragement of the pastors of his home congregation in Beaumont and of the church he attended in College Station, Ellis decided to attend Austin College, a small Presbyterian liberal arts college in Sherman, Texas.

    These biographical details are crucial to understanding Ellis Nelson and his life’s work. As he later observed, his scholarship attempted to account for the ways God works through human communities to shape our faith and to form us as faithful persons. Ellis’ classic study, Where Faith Begins (1967), as Ellis later said, was “a justification, from the standpoint of the Bible and of social science, of the idea that the Christian faith is lived by a congregation.” He explained:

    A congregation is the normal and natural way for faith and belief to be communicated. This basic idea is simple and profound. It means that the interaction of the people in the congregation is curriculum of the most meaningful kind. … Persons who associate together because of their beliefs also provide an ‘expectation’ of each other; they support each other and in innumerable ways provide the kind of human hope and love which reinforce beliefs about God, life, death, and moral values. … So I have no argument with religious educators who want to define education in precise terms or who specialize in teaching methods. I only want to say we are to love God with the heart, soul, and strength as well as with the mind, and the elements which relate to the affections come through, and are made meaningful in, a community of believers.2

    After earning his Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, his Master of Arts degree in educational psychology and sociology from the University of Texas and a Doctorate from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary (New York), Ellis went on to teach Christian education at Austin Seminary and at Union Seminary. At Union, he also briefly served as academic dean before becoming president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1974. It was after Ellis began teaching Christian education that, he says, he acknowledged that Christian education had become his vocation.

    His personal reflections on vocation are among the most enduring aspects of his legacy. "To be accountable for one's life is to go beyond one's responsibility," Ellis wrote. "It means that one is under demand to live in a certain way and to accomplish certain purposes."3 Perhaps it was this insight at the core of his theology of vocation that illuminates the rhythm Ellis found between teaching, research, writing and leadership. It was a rhythm that made him one of the most scholarly presidents in our church’s history, and that elevated him to the position of dean of Christian education and elder statesman of our church for decades after his retirement.

    Baby Brains

    David Stitt, the president with whom Ellis served in the 1950s at Austin Seminary, once said that whenever he needed advice as president, there were two people on his staff he always consulted: James I. McCord, the academic dean of the seminary who went on to serve as president of Princeton Seminary (whom Stitt described as “the greatest political mind in the Presbyterian Church”) and Ellis Nelson, then a junior professor on the faculty (whom Stitt simply called “a genius”). Perhaps it takes a genius to come up with a book on moral development entitled Don’t Let Your Conscience be Your Guide (1978), which was not only a refutation of Jiminy Cricket (yes, that Jiminy Cricket), but also a genuinely fresh take on a part of our moral equipment that most people take for granted.4 Perhaps it takes a genius, too, to articulate his leadership doctrine of “disjointed incrementalism,” as he did in his all-but-forgotten classic, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (1975), an approach to leadership that eschews grand sweeping gestures and utopian schemes in favor of making first one, then another, incremental change opportunistically wherever possible as situations allow, so that gradually the institution can move forward on a variety of fronts.5 The genius shines through in these, and in the books for which Ellis will be remembered for generations, Where Faith Begins, How Faith Matures (1989), Congregations: Their Power to Form and Transform (1988) and Helping Teenagers Grow Morally: A Guide for Adults (1992).

    What does not necessarily shine through on the page was the thing that every friend of Ellis Nelson remembers most, the way his brilliance sparkled with an irrepressible wit and good humor. “Ellis Nelson is the youngest mind on our faculty,” I recall my old friend, the late Stanley Robertson Hall, saying. At that time, Ellis was still a relatively young 82. Those who watched Ellis (then in his late eighties) work through all (and I mean ALL) the latest research on the psychological and neurological development of infants in preparation for a series of lectures stood awestruck. For months on end, Ellis regularly climbed the stairs to his office in the seminary library to study “baby brains,” as he called his project.

    Recently, I reminisced about Ellis with Johanna Bos, one of my senior colleagues on our Louisville Seminary faculty and the only faculty member called to this faculty during Ellis’ presidency. Johanna remarked on his extraordinary sense of humor. His wit was as quick as lightening, but his humor always had something of the child about it, sometimes utterly innocent, sometimes devilishly mischievous.

    I witnessed that humor during a visit with Ellis and Nancy. We were sitting in the living room of his and Nancy’s little apartment in the Methodist Home in Georgetown, Texas. The conversation had been fairly somber. He was giving me an update on his latest visit to the doctors when the phone rang. It was an old friend from Dallas. The conversation, from my end, unfolded like one of those old Bob Newhart comedy routines. “So you have cancer, too. Uh huh. Your doctor gives you a year? My doctor only gives me six months. What’s the name of your doctor?”

    Ellis often said that the key to his success was Nancy Gribble Nelson. On that score he was not joking. They were a team. They took care of each other. They also took care of the church, several seminaries, their family, friends and many students. My wife, Debbie, and I still remember with the deepest gratitude that it was Ellis and Nancy who invited us to dinner first when we moved to Austin in 1993. That was typical of Ellis and Nancy.

    Ellis taught and mentored more generations than most of us will ever know. He taught us how to believe more generously and to live more faithfully. He taught us how to learn and how to teach and how to lead. At the end, he also taught us how to die. Maybe he didn’t become an aeronautical engineer, but he did achieve his childhood dream. Ellis soared.



    1This quote and much of the biographical information contained in this essay are from Ellis’ chapter, “Toward Accountable Selfhood,” in Marlene Mayr (editor), Modern Masters of Religious Education (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1983), 160-173.
    2Nelson, “Toward Accountable Selfhood,” 165.
    3Nelson, Ibid., 172-173.
    4Nelson, Don’t Let Your Conscience be Your Guide (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).
    5Nelson, Using Evaluation in Theological Education (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975), 63.
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  • 'Why is this night different from all other nights?'

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 08, 2014
    SzykA family sits at table together: a domestic scene, a common scene. Their clothing appears almost contemporary. They might be sitting around a table anywhere, though as we discover they are quite deliberately placed in a particular setting. Most of the faces look directly at us, the viewers, or the readers, their eyes weary - and wary. The elder of the family sits at the head of the table, a child at his right hand. The family shares the Passover meal, participating in the ancient story of the Exodus. The Seder meal, including unleavened bread and bitter herbs, has provided an opportunity for Jewish families immemorial to remember and relive the journey from slavery and experience anew the deliverance of God as a contemporary event.

    “Why is this night different from all other nights?” a child asks of the elder.

    Other questions follow. Why do we eat matzah (unleavened bread)? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we dip twice? Why do we recline at the table?

    The questions remind us of that hasty departure from Egypt centuries ago. But they do so in such a way that this family, the family pictured before us, feels its intimate connection to those who were enslaved and who were delivered in ages past.

    Herein lies the genius of the Seder meal, the genius of the Haggadah (the ritual text for the Passover Seder). Herein also lies the genius of artist Arthur Szyk (pronounced “Shick”), an artist who studied in Paris but returned to his native Poland in 1913 and who produced an illuminated manuscript which would eventually be published in England in 1940 as The Szyk Haggadah. An exhibition, which runs through June 29 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, places The Szyk Haggadah in its historical context, both as an act of devotion and protest, and this is why the clothing of The Family at the Seder (1936) are almost contemporary. Szyk’s Haggadah, you see, illuminates the text of the Seder to remind us of the history of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt to oppression and state-sponsored extermination under Nazism.

    In one scene, we see Baby Moses surrounded by figures that could have stepped right out of a biblical painting - officials from the court of Pharaoh peering at an infant in a tiny ark of rushes. On a single page, we find The Ten Plagues illustrated in tiny panels, rich in detail and color, but clearly in the imagined context of ancient Egypt. In other panels, we step into a Jewish household in Poland in the 1930s, symbols richly evoking contemporary continuity with ancient threats.

    Szyk was politically active, and there is throughout his work a message of protest which demands to be taken seriously. But there is something in addition to protest. Not only does The Szyk Haggadah name the tyrant du jour breathing out curses and doing his worst against the Jewish people, it also connects the experience of European Jews to the eternal promises of God. Szyk makes this connection explicit with meticulous care using brushstrokes of watercolor and gouache and unerring exactitude of line, in one moment with a comic turn, at another moment with chilling echoes.

    There is no way to communicate adequately in words what Arthur Szyk articulates in his illuminated Haggadah, but with words I will try to communicate something of the haunting message of just one panel, The Family at the Seder, to which I have already alluded. In other Szyk panels, one is struck by a cobalt blue as heartrendingly beautiful, as luxuriously fanciful, as one sees in the Chagall windows at the Chicago Institute of Art, but not in this panel. Here, the tones are muted as befits the subject. These people are dining in haste, under the threat of the sword. Exodus awaits. Dishes are laid out before them with care. The menorah stands in the foreground. All the elements of the painting speak of balance and continuity. However, all of these elements exist only to frame the faces, many of which look right at you, while others look beyond the field of the painting to the side, and the small boy by the elder looks down. The faces are haunting. The eyes are the eyes of hunted prey. They hold you transfixed with pathos. A flash of anger. Worried gazes. Anxiety. If ever a painter has captured a Psalm of Lament, it is Szyk: “How long, O Lord? Will you forsake us forever?”

    The Seder brings us heart-to-heart with the liturgy of the family at table: “We were slaves.” In other words, “We’ve been here before. This is familiar territory for us. And familiar territory for God.”

    One of the most striking of the pages from The Szyk Haggadah, at least from a Christian perspective, shows a Passover Table at which sit the great Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph together with Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Tarfon. Every seminary student knows of the historical importance of Rabbi Akiva, whose scholarship provided the basis of the Mishna, and who was put to death by the Romans because of his part in the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Emperor Hadrian (AD 131-135). Szyk deliberately echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498) in this panel. In Szyk’s version, it is Rabbi Akiva who sits where Jesus did for The Last Supper. The echo is startling, of course, but it rings true. The rabbis are surrounded by their “friends” while darkness falls outside. They will die under the boot of Rome, and the echo for Szyk’s primary audience would not be lost - a family participating in the Seder meal while another dark empire threatens.

    Perhaps at no time of the year is it more important for Christians to remember that the last supper of Jesus, which is the basis for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, is at its heart the celebration of the Passover. Whenever we gather to “Lift up our Hearts,” we are professing faith in the God whose promises endure, even as we confess that these promises were reiterated “the night before Jesus was arrested.” The backdrop to these enduring promises is the terrible threat that rises and falls, from one age to another. Szyk’s artistry reminds us why this night is different from all others, and why we cannot afford to forget. “Do this in remembrance.”

    Editor's note: Arthur Szyk and the Art of the Haggadah is showing through June 29, 2014, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, California. The Museum Store has for purchase a nice large-format edition of The Szyk Haggadah by Arthur Szyk, edited by Byron L. Sherwin and Irvin Ungar (New York, New York: Abrams, A Historicana Book, 2011).
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  • Unsafe Places: A Lenten Meditation

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 01, 2014
    unsafe places“You don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud,” writes Rowan Williams in his new book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014). “If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.”

    So Williams asks, “Where might you expect to find the baptized?” And his answer: “In the neighborhood of chaos … Christians will be found in the neighborhood of Jesus – but Jesus is found in the neighborhood of human confusion and suffering, defenselessly alongside those in need.” (Williams, 4-6.)

    Recently I wrote a Lenten blog on the subject of “Finding Jesus,” and it only made sense to follow that up with a few reflections on “Finding Christians.” It seems to me that our search for followers of Jesus starts exactly where the last blog ended, with the short prayer by Søren Kierkegaard: “O Lord Jesus Christ … save us from the error of wishing to admire you instead of being willing to follow you and to resemble you.” (Horton Davies, ed. The Communion of Saints: Prayers of the Famous, Eerdmans, 1990, 33.)

    Here is where we transition from preaching to meddling.

    In 1915, a young man fresh from Eden Seminary and Yale Divinity School became pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Michigan. The young fellow was, as Martin Marty later described him, “the small-town member of a provincial church body finding his way in the jostling metropolis of Detroit, cutting his path beyond parochialism into ecumenical and interfaith relations.” (Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Martin Marty, foreword, Harper & Row, 1980 edition, viii.)

    True enough. But what really stands out most in his development as a young pastor was the tension he felt between an intellectually rigorous theology abstracted from human society and the call to follow Jesus in the midst of the world’s great needs. Beginning in 1915 and throughout his years as the pastor of this small, but growing, church in Detroit, in the years before he emerged as the most important ethical theologian in North America, Reinhold Niebuhr tried to answer the question, “Where are Christians to be found?”

    The diary that he kept as a young pastor records his efforts to answer this question. One entry from 1926 reads like a variation on Kierkegaard’s prayer: “How much easier it is to adore an ideal character than to emulate it.” His comments, I blush to say, were in reaction to a sermon he had just heard in a Presbyterian Church he attended one evening. “The minister,” Niebuhr writes, “had a sermon which might best be described as a fulsome eulogy of Jesus Christ. … He just piled up adjectives. … But the whole thing left me completely cold. The superiority of Jesus was simply dogmatically asserted and never adequately analyzed. There was not a thing in the sermon that would give the people a clue to the distinctive genius of Jesus or that would help them to use the resources of his life for the solution to their own problems.” (Niebuhr, 114-115.)

    A year or so later, Niebuhr continues in this vein: “We are in the dangerous position of being committed to the cross in principle but escaping it in practice … [I]f a gospel is preached without opposition it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross.” (Niebuhr, 139-140.)

    When Rowan Williams asks, “Where might you expect to find the baptized?” he is asking where we might expect to find followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Williams, who left the halls of academe to serve the Anglican church, first as a bishop and then as archbishop, and who bore the scars of trying to lead and hold together a church bent of division, writes as one who has known dark nights of the soul. “The baptized person is not only in the middle of human suffering and muddle,” he writes, “but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That surely is one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian.” (Williams, 7.) But, he continues, this also means that “the path of the baptized person is a dangerous one. Perhaps baptism really ought to have some health warnings attached to it: ‘If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.’ To be baptized into Jesus is not to be in what the world thinks of as a safe place. Jesus’ first disciples discovered that in the Gospels, and his disciples have gone on discovering it ever since.” (Williams, 9.)

    The prayer that Mother Teresa of Calcutta prayed each day reminds us where we will find the follower of Jesus, and so I leave you with an excerpt from her daily prayer:

    Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick, and whils’t nursing them minister to you. Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize you and say, ‘Jesu, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you. …  And, O God, while you are Jesus my patient, deign also to be to me a patient Jesus, bearing with my faults, looking only to my intention, which is to love and serve you in the person of each of your sick. Lord, increase my faith, bless my effort and work, now and for evermore. AMEN. (Horton Davies, ed. The Communion of Saints: Prayers of the Famous, Eerdmans, 1990, 74).
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  • Changing Times

    by Chris Wooton | Mar 28, 2014
    BY JOHANNA W.H. VAN WIJK-BOS
    Dora Pierce Professor of Bible
    Professor of Old Testament
    Faculty Liaison, Women's Center
    Louisville Seminary

    Editor's note: for the next several months, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive sporadic blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!

    This blog post was guest-written by Johanna W.H.van Wijk-Bos, Louisville Seminary's Dora Pierce Professor of Bible, professor of Old Testament and faculty liaison to the Women's Center at Louisville Seminary. Dr. Bos is a senior member of Louisville Seminary's faculty and teaches Hebrew Bible, Hebrew language, and electives in liberation theology. She has become widely known as a feminist biblical scholar and theologian with an emphasis on the participation of women in the Bible and the life of faith. Read more about Dr. Bos.

    The Times They Were A-Changing1

    While it is truism that all times are times of change, the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century marked a period of turbulent change that stands out in the cultural and political history of the United States. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the second wave of Feminism affected deeply the way in which concerns about race and gender played out in different systems and ideologies, including those of universities and college campuses. As Bob Dylan sang it in his 1964 song, you better start swimmin’ / or you’ll sink like a stone / for the times they are a-changin'.

    Rattling the Walls

    1975 Louisville Seminary Women's Caucus
    The 1975 Women's Caucus meetings includes (clockwise from left) Cheryl Duncan, Mary Edwards, Ann Hickey, Deborah Block, Mary Gene Boteler, Tina Robb, Linda Chase, Marie Cross, and two students who could not be identified.

    The walls of Louisville Seminary were rattled in the early sixties with the graduation of its first female student. The first woman to enter seminary in 1957, Judy O’Bannon, later the wife of Indiana Governor Frank O’Bannon and a powerful presence in her own right, had left after a year because she found that “the seminary had difficulty adjusting to her presence on campus.” (Many Lamps, One Light - Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary: A 150th Anniversary History, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: p. 123)

    Dora Emma Pierce became the first woman graduate in 1961. After her, a few other women followed, but it took more than a decade for the trickle to become a stream. When I received my appointment to teach as assistant professor of Old Testament at Louisville Seminary in 1977, the entering class counted 18 women, amounting to 40 percent of that year’s admissions. Before that date, there was a small but vocal group of women students, constituted as a Women’s Caucus, who requested from the faculty and Seminary President C. Ellis Nelson to appoint a woman as a full-time faculty member. This demand resulted in my appointment, and I will not reveal to what extent the seminary had “difficulty adjusting to my presence.”

    Women’s Caucus lasted well into the next decade and was still instrumental in securing two more women to the faculty in the early eighties: Nancy Ramsay and Kathryn Johnson, until this part of the seminary too became a stream in the late eighties and nineties. Our current Women’s Center rests on the foundation of the Caucus and the group FALPTS (Feminists at LPTS), which was established in the eighties to accommodate the presence of women who joined the Feminist cause.

     

    You Better Start Swimmin’

    In my personal and professional life, the women students and Women’s Caucus of Louisville Seminary became a galvanizing and energizing force, urging me to reconsider masculine language and imagery for the Deity, and opening a door to investigate my theological and political commitments. The women students in the early years of my appointment formed the support network I needed as a woman serving for some years on an all-male faculty.

    The seminary in those days was smaller in terms of faculty and staff. Our campus did not yet extend to Gardencourt and the adjacent property. All of the classrooms and offices were in what is now Nelson Hall, which contained also the Office of the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Louisville.

    We were in many ways a more modest enterprise albeit with a taste for theologies that were on the cutting edge. When a student noted the absence of Liberation Theology in our curricular offerings, I asked our dean, Grayson Tucker, whether he would allow me to give this subject a try, and I taught the subject for many years. Liberation Theology as it began in Latin America, with its own expression in, for example, U.S. Black Liberation Theology and Asian People’s Theology, had a consistent high enrollment.

    “Theology … rises only at sundown,” declared Gustavo Guttierrez. (Essential Writings, Orbis Books, 1996) We were swimming in a sea of creative theological ideas that created new political allegiances. For me, these theologies, with their influence on such Feminist theologians in the United States as Rosemary Radford Ruether, became the intellectual framework within which I shaped my own feminist ideas and commitments.

    Goodbye to an Old Road

    Racially, our campus was to a large degree white, with the addition of a relatively high percentage of international students, especially from Korea, in the eighties. Students who did not belong to the heterosexual norm were usually deeply closeted and came out to only a few of their classmates or instructors they felt were safe. Both of those situations have changed. Our student body as well as our faculty is more diverse in terms of race as well as gender, and for that we are glad and say goodbye to the “old road” we were on for all too long.

    Louisville Seminary turns 160 this year. For those who want to read more about the first 150 years, I refer them to our alum Rick Nutt’s Many Lamps, One Light – Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary a 150th Anniversary History. It has pictures! Including one of a young(er) version of the writer of this entry.


    1The subheadings all contain references to Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin'.

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  • Faith and Business

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 24, 2014
    Faith and BusinessThe church has a knack for depreciating the vocations of the laity. Well, perhaps not all vocations of the laity. The church routinely blesses vocations like the helping professions and education, especially if they are in the not-for-profit realm. But the church is ambivalent, at best, when it comes to blessing the vocations of those folks whose business is, well, business. I find this troubling, since the overwhelming majority of Christians I know are working in the business world just making a living.

    The problem the church has with business has as much to do with an ignorance of economics as a flawed theology of vocation. When pastors and theologians begin talking about economic matters, I often cringe, not only because of their lack of knowledge in the fields of financial and economic matters, but because of the thinness of the theological reflections. Usually such conversations reflect little more than the individual’s biases dressed up in theological language to dress down someone else’s interests.

    As a theologian, I have found it enormously helpful to avail myself of good economic writing by people who know the field. There’s no better periodical in this regard than The Economist. It is the one magazine I read every week. The Wall Street Journal and the business section of The New York Times can help us see not only the trees, but also the forests of financial issues. In the past couple of years, friends also have funneled some useful books my way. I will mention just a few.

    In a bookstore in Oban, Scotland (of all places!), Brent Slay, a business leader from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of Louisville Seminary’s trustees, recommended to me a must-read book on economics: Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (Penguin, 2010). This is a thoroughly readable “debunker’s guide” to a variety of economic subjects such as the free market and the connection between education and economic development. Chang is a professor at the University of Cambridge and, even if you don’t agree with all of his arguments, you will find your thinking stimulated by him. He starts by saying, “There is no such thing as a free market” and never lets up for a moment until he reaches his startling conclusion. (I don’t want to spoil it for you).

    John C. Knapp’s book, How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it), published in 2011 by Eerdmans, helps outline the problem and provides what could be the basis for a valuable church school course: “On being a Christian in business.” Knapp’s book reminded me of a text I required for years in a seminary course on Stewardship and Church Finance, Peter Block’s excellent Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest (Berrett-Koehler, 1993/1996). Interestingly Block’s book on stewardship is not a “religious” book at all, but a so-called “secular” book from and for the field of leadership and management. Of course, the division between “sacred” and “secular” is at the root of many of the problems the church historically has had with thinking theologically about business. Christians of every stripe (from Evangelical to Roman Catholic to Mainline Protestant) need resources to help them understand their work in terms of their faith. But as Edward Dayton observed: “Few churches appreciate their business people as windows on the world, and fewer still provide business people with opportunities to discuss in depth the integration of business and Christian values” (Knapp, 26).

    Finally, I have to mention Peter Brown’s magisterial study, though it is a very different kind of resource from those just mentioned: Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton University Press, 2012). And, “yes, Virginia,” this is an academic book and a very hefty one at that! But what a resource! It puts to rest simplistic arguments from history about “the way the church has always viewed money.” It complicates matters in the best way possible, by introducing us to the staggering variety of perspectives within the history of our faith. It reminds us of the bedeviling “unintended consequences” of virtually every idealistic scheme devised to short-circuit the complexities of being human and living in human society. And it utterly defeats the kinds of arguments we have all heard at one time or another in Sunday schools and sermons that would lead us to devalue the vocations not only of “they who go down to the sea in ships to ply their trade upon the great waters” (Psalm 107:23), but also those who muddle off to their offices and shops each day to do the same. The church should remember that those who go about the business of business have the opportunity to do what the Psalmist tells us the merchant seamen of the ancient world did: “These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep” (Psalm 107:24).

    Our theology of vocation, it seems to me, must take account of God’s calling every Christian “through the waters of baptism” to live as followers of Jesus in every aspect of our lives, including making a living by making and selling goods. “The first order of business is to build a group of people who, under the influence of the institution, grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous,” wrote Robert Greenleaf in his Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Paulist Press, 1977); this comprehensive flourishing of employees’ lives includes, I believe, making a living. That always means more than just making money, but it never means less than that. And the first order of a good Christian theology of vocation should be to bless the variety of ways God calls us to be faithful wherever we find ourselves, rather than to judge as somehow less Christian the labors of businesspeople.
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  • Forgotten Sister

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 18, 2014

    Jane Franklin: Forgotten SisterJill Lepore’s mother always wanted her to write a book about Jane Franklin. Lepore, who teaches American History at Harvard University and writes for The New Yorker, explained in an essay published last summer that she finally did write the book, though too late for her mother to read. And it is an excellent and revealing read. (Jill Lepore, “The Prodigal Daughter,” The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2013, pp. 34-40)

    Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf, 2013) tells the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane (or Jenny), perhaps the one person in life, and certainly the person in his own family, to whom Franklin was closest. To Jane, her brother was her “Second Self.” But their story is a story of contrasts.

    He, the internationally famous Dr. Franklin: scientist, statesman, “founding father,” diplomat, philosopher and bon vivant. John Adams, Franklin’s fellow diplomat to France, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, rather waspishly wrote of Franklin: “His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as to plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him a friend to human kind.”

    She, a woman virtually unknown to the pages of history, except as the sister of a famous man, who spent her entire life caring for her family: a woman of sharp intellect and considerable wit who, one suspects, had much to say and almost no one to listen.

    Working from a modest collection of written materials, Lepore tells Jane Franklin Mecom’s story. In doing so, she reminds the reader of the scores of volumes of blank pages of books never written “by” other women like Jane Franklin, and the incalculable loss they represent to human history and human wisdom.

    What little we do have from Jane Franklin’s pen makes us wish for so much more. A tiny book constructed of paper “made from rags, soaked and pulped and strained and dried.” A few letters, so little in print in comparison to the voluminous writings of her renowned brother, Ben. This woman who had little access to literature – beyond a very few sermons and extremely dry theological texts – read what she could find and wrote poignantly from her own experience, an experience of life that centered on child-bearing, child-rearing, and, given the tragic realities of her time, grieving. As a contemporary of Jane Franklin, Jane Colman writes beautifully and movingly:

    “Thrice in my Womb I’ve found the pleasing Strife,
    In the first Struggles of my Infant’s Life …

    “In Travail-Pains my Nerves are wreck’d,
    My Eye-balls start, my Heart-strings almost crack’d …

    “But O how soon by Heaven I’m call’d to mourn
    While from my Womb a lifeless Babe is torn?”

    Jane was married at fifteen (the legal age for marriage in Massachusetts at that time was sixteen, Lepore tells us). By the time she gave birth to her last child, her twelfth, she was thirty-nine. And through those years, she had experienced personally the terrible reality of what we so clinically refer to as “infant mortality,” but which she would call simply death. And death visited often.

    “Do the right thing with Spirit,” Jane Franklin once wrote. And reading this remarkable book of her ages, one can hardly help but be amazed at the courage that kept her laboring at the wheelhouse of duty, trying valiantly to “do the right thing with Spirit,” feeding and nurturing her family, even as her husband (who apparently lost his mind before he lost his life) leaves her alone in the world. We do not even know for certain where she is buried. Such is the notoriety of obscurity. And such the fate of millions.

    Toward the end of the book, Lepore reflects on “the insufficiency of history” through the lens provided by Jane and Benjamin Franklin’s lives. She notes the observations of Charles Brockden Brown who, in an essay, “Historical Characters Are False Representations of Nature,” [Literary Magazine, V.29 (February 1806), pp. 113-117], argued that historians blind their readers “to the pathos of small lives.”

    Indeed, they do far more damage than that, according to Brown. He writes: “The human character appears diminutive, when compared to those we met with in history, yet am I persuaded that domestic sorrows are not less poignant, and many of our associates are characters not inferior to the elaborate delineations which so much interest in the deceptive page of history.” Historians, he believes, deceive us into thinking that the characters that strut across their pages are somehow superior to the people who lived in obscurity. “If it were possible,” he continues, “to read the histories of those who are doomed to have no historian, and to glance into domestic journals as well as into national archives we should then perceive the unjust prodigality of our sympathy to those few names, which eloquence has adorned with all the seduction of her graces.”

    Thus we know so much about Ben, and so little about Jane. She wrote so little. But what little she did write shimmers with life. And so, we are sure, did her life. And so do so many lives of whom we will never read.

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  • Finding Jesus: A Lenten Meditation

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 10, 2014

    Thinking Out Loud ImageThe film version of Winston Groom’s 1986 novel Forrest Gump yielded many great quotes, but my favorite comes from a conversation between Gump and Lieutenant Daniel Taylor when the two meet in New York after returning from Vietnam.

    Lieutenant Dan: “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”
    Forrest Gump: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

    Looking for Jesus can be a fraught and complicated occupation. I have a good friend, a pastor, who told me recently that when she started her ministry in the congregation she now serves she was told, “We don’t use the ‘J word’ here.” She said that she tried and tried to figure out what obscenity started with the letter J. She racked her brain, but couldn’t come up with it. Finally, she gave up and asked, “What’s the ‘J word’?” An incredulous church member told her, “Well, ‘Jesus,’ of course.”

    Flannery O’Connor, in the preface to the second edition of her comic novel, Wise Blood, famously talked about the challenge of finding Jesus. She articulates this challenge by reflecting on the experience of Hazel Motes, the central character in her novel. Motes is an atheist evangelist (and I mean, an old-fashioned southern evangelist whose message is caustic atheism) who is God-obsessed and Christ-haunted.

    O’Connor writes: “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to do so.” (Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952/62).

    That ragged figure, of course, is Jesus. Hazel runs as fast as he can away from Jesus, only to run straight into his arms.

    Where do we find Jesus? Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked this question throughout his life. I am particularly fascinated with two of his responses, the first of which occurred in a series of lectures he gave in 1933. They were originally published in English translation in London under the academic-sounding title of Christology, but the title of the American edition picks up on the theme that runs through them, Christ the Center. Bonhoeffer’s version of the question, “Where do we find Jesus?” is “Where does Jesus stand?” His answer is so compelling, and I will share it with you in full:

    “He stands pro me. He stands in my place, where I should stand and cannot. He stands on the boundary of my existence, beyond my existence, but still for me. This expresses the fact that I am separated from the ‘I’ that I should be by a boundary which I am unable to cross. This boundary lies between me and myself, between the old ‘I’ and the new ‘I’. I am judged in my encounter with this boundary. At this place I cannot stand alone. Here Christ stands, in the center, between me and myself, between the old existence and the new. So Christ is at the same time my own boundary and my rediscovered center, the center lying both between ‘I’ and ‘I’ and between ‘I’ and God. The boundary can only be known as a boundary from beyond the boundary. In Christ [humanity] knows it and thus at the same time finds his new center.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, John Bowden, tr., Harper & Row, 1966).

    Bonhoeffer was pursuing the question of where we find Jesus right up to the end of his life. This comes through with special force in two passages from his Letters and Papers from Prison, both in the notes he made for the book he never got to write, in a section he intended to title, “The Real Meaning of Christian Faith” and in a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge on the 16th of July, 1944, from Tegel Prison. Again, I will quote the passages at length where Bonhoeffer begins with a sentence fragment indicating our “finding” or “meeting” Jesus:

    “Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others.’ His ‘being there for others’ is the experience of transcendence.’ …  Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, and resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation.” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Bethge, ed. Macmillan, 1972, 381).

    Where do we find Jesus? Bonhoeffer continues to ask. Where does Jesus stand? He stands with the God who is pushed to the margins and beyond. As he writes to his friend: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” (360).

    The Jesus who is found standing pro me (for me) is the same Jesus who calls me to find myself in standing for others. The Jesus who is found on the cross, calls us beyond ourselves to that spiritual reality many describe as “self-transcendence,” by “being for the other” as he is for others.

    But, of course, the paradox of finding Jesus is that we are the ones being sought, not God. This represents the irony of the term so often applied to those who are curious about faith, but often unaligned to a religion, “seekers.” The real “seeker” is not me, but God. The real “seeker” is what O’Connor referred to as that “ragged figure” of Jesus who moves “from tree to tree” in the back of our minds, and at the margins of our lives, and at the boundaries of human existence and society, pushed out of the world and onto a cross so that he might stand at the center of our lives.

    Lent is a good time to remember Søren Kierkegaard’s prayer that finds Jesus front and center:

    O Lord Jesus Christ … save us from the error of wishing to admire you instead of being willing to follow you and to resemble you. AMEN.

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  • The Consolation of Philosophy

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 04, 2014

    Epictetus has been my astringent companion for more than fifteen years. And a bracing friend he is.

    EpictetusThe purest spirit among all the Stoic philosophers, Epictetus tells the truth as he sees it - and always without any varnish. This former slave (his name means "Acquired"), a Greek living under the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, Epictetus taught on the streets in the common language of Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, during the very time (c.A.D. 54-68) when our fledgling Christian movement was beginning.

    My own little hardbound volumes of his discourses, in the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press) have traveled with me from sea to shining sea. Dog-eared, read, marked, learned, inwardly-digested, endlessly indexed and cross-indexed and loved to death, these volumes have seen me through many sad and perplexing hours, through times of self-doubt and self-pity, as well as times of joy. They represent an ultimate consolation of philosophy, reminding me again and again what it means to be a human, why wisdom matters, and how we ought to live.

    Epictetus is one of the great pagans of faith, not Christian, but long beloved by Christian theologians, saints and philosophers through the ages, because of his sacred wisdom. He gives us one of the finest descriptions of the concept explored and used so fruitfully by John Calvin, the idea of adiaphora (matters of indifference or inconsequential matters), the idea that some things just aren't essential and shouldn't be fought over. But he gives us more, much more. He describes for us a way of being that remains unshaken by life's inevitable ups and downs.

    What do you have control over in this world? Epictetus asks. Perhaps very little, really. Storms and plagues may wipe out what you possess and take the health and compromise the safety of those you love. Tyrants can take your physical freedom, even your life. You may not have control over external circumstances. But you do have control over your personal understanding of and response to what happens to you. In this, at least, you are free. Only one thing is under your control: "the proper use of impressions," or our interpretation of that which happens. But that is enough. 

    Epictetus says that philosophy does not profess to secure for us any external circumstances. Each person's life is the subject matter of the art of living. And this art of living is mastered when we are able to take whatever life throws at us with equanimity and grace. The achievement of this quality of wisdom will not come overnight, he reminds us, but "nothing great comes into being all at once." And when at last we have learned the art of living, we will become immune even to the threat of death by the most terrible tyrant.

    We will greet calamities and cruelties to ourselves with the same grace as when we meet good fortune, knowing that "difficulties reveal what we are," and nothing can make us miserable unless we allow it to do so.

    "If all this is true," Epictetus says, "and we are not silly nor merely playing a part when we say, 'Man's good and man's evil lies in moral choice, and all other things are nothing to us,’ why are we still distressed and afraid?"

    Is it possible for a person of genuine wisdom, then, to express sorrow and pain? Yes, of course, Epictetus says. Even the wise person is only human. "And I am not saying that it is not permissible to groan, only do not groan in the center of your being." You may groan, in other words, but do not despair. Even death has no more power over us than to deprive us of life. One can kill me, Epictetus says, but the killer does not have the power to "hurt" me. 

    The goal of philosophy, according to Epictetus, is to educate and form a person who is able to "lift up your neck at last like a person escaped from bondage, be bold to look towards God and pray, 'Use me henceforward for whatever Thou wilt; I am of one mind with Thee; I am Thine; I crave exemption from nothing that seems good in Thy sight; where Thou wilt, lead me; in what raiment Thou wilt, clothe me. Wouldst Thou have me to hold office, or remain in private life; to remain here or go into exile; to be poor or be rich? I will defend all these Thy acts before humanity; I will show what the true nature of each thing is.'"

    Perhaps only a person who had spent a good part of his life a slave in chains could conceive so perfectly of a philosophy which is basically a Declaration of Independence from all external circumstances. Epictetus tells us that no one can take away our freedom, even if he places us in the darkest dungeon; no one can triumph over us, even if they take our lives. No one has the power to make us miserable, no matter what they do to us. Freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose; nor is joy dependent upon the vagaries of circumstances. Freedom is a state of mind which can be cultivated with discipline. And joy is available to everyone who knows how to be free.

    Go comment!
  • Frank Hill Caldwell - Senatorial, Dignified Eloquence

    by Chris Wooton | Feb 28, 2014
    Editor's note: for the next several months, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive sporadic blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us!


    This blog post was guest-written by W.G. "Bill" McAtee. For twenty-six years, Bill McAtee was an executive for Transylvania Presbytery in Lexington, retiring in 1997. A Distinguished Alum of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (BD ’59; ThM ’65), he served 14 years as a trustee of the institution and also taught as an adjunct faculty member. He also has served as an instructor at McCormick Presbyterian Seminary and Lexington Theological Seminary.

    Fannie and Frank CaldwellDr. Frank Hill Caldwell’s long tenure as president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (1936-1964) spanned turbulent years of the middle decades of the twentieth century. He entered office in the wake of internal controversy created during the previous administration; weathered the Great Depression and the 1937 Flood; survived the carnage of World War II, the Cold War détente and the advent of the civil rights movement. He shaped the Seminary as few presidents have.

    Under his stewardship, Dr. Caldwell:
    • Created the “League of Support” among friends of the Seminary to increase endowment and contributions;
    • Guided the Seminary’s serious consideration to relocate, if necessary, as part of the proposed plan to consolidate Presbyterian seminaries due to lingering financial hardships of the Depression;
    • Delegated responsibilities for an effective development program that “brought in committed business, advertising and public relations laypeople to work for the Seminary;”
    • Recruited a new generation of full-time faulty with earned doctorates;
    • Presided over post-war student enrollment that “strained the Seminary’s faculty, income and facilities to accommodate them;”
    • Welcomed the first African-American and woman enrollees opening the way to a more diverse student body;
    • Provided administrative leadership to strengthen the library so that it “became a stronger and more modern resource for theological education;”
    • Lead the faculty in revamping the curriculum that reflected “acceptance of a moderate historical-critical understanding of Scripture;”
    • Instituted new teaching methodologies, including a model field education program, preparing students to live out the Seminary’s motto of “preaching the ancient gospel to the problems of a modern world;” and
    • Increased the “close and warm relations” with its Presbyterian constituents.
    The lasting effect on all he encountered during these times, only they can enumerate.

    Dr. Caldwell’s influence on me was very personal. The Caldwell-McAtee relation began long before I was born. My Daddy and Frank, multigenerational Mississippians, were seminary cohorts at Louisville Seminary in the 1920s. My sister, Jane, and the Caldwell’s daughter, Anne Starling, were students together in Southwestern at Memphis in the late 1940s.

    When I needed to be enrolled in a seminary in order to get my draft board deferment as a candidate for the ministry in 1952, Caldwell simply wrote a letter to the board saying, “He’s enrolled.” In my years at seminary in the late 1950s, I had the misfortune of not having a single homiletics class Dr. Caldwell taught. I did get a glimpse of his brilliance in convocations and chapel services. The bulk of his time involved relocating the Seminary - his crowning glory.

    He taught me by example. He invited me into his office for random conversations late in the afternoon when business was done and he was enjoying one of his fine cigars. He offered pastoral condolences to me when my Daddy died during my middler year.

    Dr. Caldwell’s influence stretched far beyond the Seminary as elder statesman in Presbyterian circles, both North and South. He was elected General Assembly moderator of PCUS in 1966 and served as co-chair of the Joint Reunion Committee along with Harrison Ray Anderson. He made a powerful and pivotal speech on behalf of sending the union presbytery proposal to presbyteries at the 1969 PCUS General Assembly. In 1983, he made the motion to adjourn sine die at the final PCUS General Assembly in Atlanta at the reunion of the Presbyterian denominations.

    He was always “Dr. Caldwell,” sometimes “Dr. Frank,” and on occasion it was “Chief” as he was known by many of his students; to close friends and family, simply “Frank.” But he was only part of the deal; Fannie Wells was the other part. Together they created a whole new relational world, a new extended family filled with new meaning for hundreds students, faculty, trustees and supporters of Louisville Seminary.

    I summed up the impact they had and the essence of who they were in my eulogy at Miss Fannie’s memorial service in Caldwell Chapel on April 18, 2008.

    “It was in this world where Dr. and Mrs. Caldwell presided during four decades. Some are ‘kin’ to this world by blood and the accident of birth or marriage; others of us are ‘related’ to it by affinity and volitional choice, all of which in part shaped the persons we are, past, present and future. We became Seminary Family in this place called Louisville.

    “All that being said, it is hard to remember one without the other - Miss Fannie and Dr. Frank. Together they were host and hostess to their world wherever they were and whoever was in it:
    • She was adjective and adverb to his noun and verb;
    • She was Jeannette to his Nelson, lyrical sweet mystery of life;
    • She was Ginger to his Fred, tripping the light fantastic;
    • She was Gracie to his George, joyous exuberant laughter.”
    A multitude of thanks, Dr. Frank and Miss Fannie, for inviting us into your world!
    [1] Rick Nutt, Many Lamps, One Light: Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary: A 150th Anniversary History. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002). pp. 111-161.
    Go comment!
  • Durable Ideas

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 25, 2014

    Thinking Out Loud IMage "Durable Ideas" 022514Few scholarly papers have ever gotten off to a less promising start than Isaiah Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which was published originally in 1951 in the second volume of Oxford Slavonic Papers. But this modest paper, with the less than tantalizing subtitle, “An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History,” became “the little essay that could,” finding its way into all sorts of anthologies and reading lists.

    As Berlin’s essay made its way in the world, its core idea also eventually made its way into the mainstream of contemporary culture. The idea is drawn from the ancient Greek poet, Archilochus, who wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin himself uses this idea to critically reflect on Tolstoy, ultimately seeing this great Russian writer as a fox who wished he was a hedgehog. Because of Berlin’s employment of this idea, it has gained such currency in popular culture to merit a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine.

    Why? What is there about this idea and some other ideas that make them so durable?

    Recently I informally surveyed the stock of ideas that informs the way I look at the world with this question in mind. I think there are at least five qualities which durable ideas possess. And I think these qualities apply whether the ideas originally emerged in the sciences or in the humanities. For example, durable ideas have these same characteristics whether the idea was first intended to illuminate research into quantum gravity, as in the case of (Stephen) “Hawking’s Principle of Paradox” [M. Jinkins, The Church Faces Death (Oxford University Press, 1999),64-67] or in the study of semiotics, as we see in Rebecca Chopp’s theological use of the concept of “open signs” [Rebecca S. Chopp, The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (Crossroad, 1992)].

    Durable ideas are: (1) vivid and clear; (2) adaptable; (3) they have the power to reorient our thinking; (4) they are generative; and (5) heuristic.

    1. Durable ideas are vivid and clear ideas. I would almost say that durable ideas are simple, but that probably isn’t accurate. Some durable ideas are quite complex. But a durable idea is always graspable by an attentive and alert person. Take, for example, arguably the most durable idea that emerged from Jim Collins’ Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001): get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. Anyone who has ever been a part of an organization knows what this means and (I suspect) knows implicitly how important it was. The idea is vivid (it is also visual, though not all durable ideas are). The idea is clear (and therefore memorable).
    2. The adaptability of durable ideas is probably their prime characteristic. Once the basic concept of the difference between the fox and hedgehog is understood, it can be immediately employed in any number of different social contexts and applied as an analytical tool for any number of subjects. It can be used in the most “pop” of settings (such as the oft repeated question, “Are you a fox or a hedgehog?” that substitutes as astrology for some philosophically-inclined folks) or in highly technical scholarly studies, such as Philip E. Tetlock’s brilliant study, Expert Political Judgment (Princeton University Press, 2005).
    3. Although Alfred North Whitehead condemned all taxonomies as the death of learning, and durable ideas often share something of the quality of the categorical thinking that is the essence of a taxonomy; nevertheless, a really durable idea has the power to reorient our thinking, even to shock us out of our usual way of seeing things. In this sense, a durable idea need not be an idea with which we agree. It may be more of an itch than a scratch. For example, while Reinhold Niebuhr’s idea of “moral man and immoral society” has been the flash point of arguments, and people both strongly agree and strongly disagree with Niebuhr’s framing of the question of individual and public morality, the idea’s durability lies more in its power to frame the questions than with any particular aspect of his argument.
    4. Which points directly to the fourth characteristic of durable ideas, their generative quality. A durable idea evokes, even provokes, conversation, sometimes heated, but often interesting. “Theology,” Kathryn Tanner once wrote, “is something human beings produce.” Thus she builds on a deeply Christian principle that has found articulation throughout the ages. She contributed, in her study, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Fortress Press, 1997), to a fascinating and important conversation that emerged from the earliest church and has resurfaced through the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation and through nineteenth- and twentieth-century theologians like Karl Barth (including the essays he wrote under the title, The Word of God and Theology shortly after the First World War) to the present day. Some ideas are durable because they relate so well to persistent concerns.
    5. But perhaps the most important characteristic of a durable idea is its heuristic quality. A durable idea becomes a tool for us to use to investigate a subject and to understand it better and more deeply. In the world of congregational leadership, for example, Edwin Friedman’s family systems theory brings into currency a constellation of durable ideas: “self-differentiation,” “over-functioning,” and “non-anxious presence” among them. Since the publication of Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (Guilford Press, 1985), a generation or two of organizational leaders have found the concepts in this book profoundly helpful in exploring and understanding better the institutions they lead. And this is true despite the fact that a variety of extremely perceptive critics have found all sorts of problems in Friedman’s work, from its tendency to bless autocracy to its monistic understanding of truth.

    Durable ideas endure because we find them interesting and useful. Among them there are big ideas and relatively small ones. I wonder which ideas you have found most durable and why.

    Go comment!
  • New Blood

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2014
    "Newcomers," writes Jessicah Krey Duckworth, “are angels unawares... Newcomers are the people we least expect to bear the image of Jesus." In her fascinating book, Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) she explains how some congregations not only have discovered from the newcomers among them things about God they never previously knew, but experienced renewal.

    There are a number of insights for evangelism and congregational redevelopment in this study. Many have long suspected that the reason at least some congregations do not grow is because they do not really want new members and the new perspectives these new members bring. But Duckworth, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a former professor at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, and now a program officer for the Lilly Endowment, Inc., focuses our attention on Christian education and nurture within a congregation. Examining the "ministry of welcoming newcomers as an educator" she explores how it is that newcomers "learn to live as disciples." And she discovers what a congregation learns about discipleship through the participation in its life of these new members.

    "A newcomer's presence within a congregation," she writes, "reminds the congregation that there are people who do not yet belong. This reminder is most unsettling because the majority of established members experience their congregation as a promising context where they are nurtured in faith, hope, and love. Established members assume that newcomers experience this promise as naturally as they do." The very presence of newcomers, she explains, unsettles the congregation, raising questions about what it means to belong, about who really does belong and what must one do (think, feel, believe) in order really to belong. Long settled questions re-emerge. "Newcomers sit in the pew perhaps, but they are not yet committed to be 'my people,' and more, the congregation is not yet committed to welcoming them as 'my people.' The newcomer's question, 'Who are my people?' reverberates within the life of the people under the cross, creating an unsettling tension between question and promise."

    It is typical for congregations to offer multi-week classes for new members. Sometimes these "new member classes" function, at least in part, to resolve the tension as quickly as possible, assimilating the newcomers into the congregational ethos. But such classes may have the unfortunate, unintended consequence of short-circuiting a creative moment in the congregation's life (to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) "to meet the Christ who is already present" in the life of the newcomer, even as the newcomer is discovering the Christ who is embodied in this particular community. A crucial, irreplaceable moment of mutual growth can be lost here. But this need not be the case.

    Duckworth invites us to do the essentially theological work of engaging the questions of "Who we are" in Jesus Christ which are raised by the presence of the newcomer. And she reminds us that we can only do this theological work by attending honestly to the question of "who" these newcomers are. This means that our rush to generalities, "We welcome everyone, no matter who they are," can serve as a way to avoid getting to know this newcomer, and can undercut the opportunity the community has to grow in Christ, and can undercut this opportunity just as surely as a community that demands as a condition of inclusion that a newcomer conform to the community's ethos.

    There is a tension between promise and question which offers enormous opportunities for growth. However: "This tension between promise and question exists only when newcomer questions are engaged within the church. Tension is created when the congregation asks the newcomer, 'Who are you?' and then listens deeply to the response." And this tension, we must remember, is a creative tension that has the power to transform our communities of faith.

    Duckworth's study reminds us that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit remains the most unsettling set of teachings in the life of the church. The Love who is none other than God meets us in and through others in the community. When we pray, "Come, Holy Spirit," we are praying for fire. And fire warms because fire burns. We do ourselves, and we do the church, and ultimately we do God a disservice when we misread the Book of Acts and the New Testament's epistles in such a way that we filter out the unsettling, earth-shaking disruption of God's presence in and through those who heard the unprecedented gospel message but who heard it with very different ears. We grow in Christ through our encounter with those in whom God is at work, but at work in ways previously unknown to us.

    New blood is as essential to the life of congregations as it is to every other human endeavor. God speaks through newcomers, inviting us to be strangers no more, but reminding us that our task is not simply to make others over in our own image.

    Jessicah Duckworth says it best, drawing on an extended metaphor she introduces at the beginning of her book: "Rather than protecting God's promises for ourselves or protecting 'our' church castles from the waves of newcomer questions, I invite congregations to encourage newcomers in asking the questions that established members also ask. When established members engage the questions alongside newcomers, all are encouraged to articulate the promise of divine kinship and figure out together what faithfulness and belonging look like."

     

    Go comment!
  • New Blood

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 17, 2014
    "Newcomers," writes Jessicah Krey Duckworth, “are angels unawares... Newcomers are the people we least expect to bear the image of Jesus." In her fascinating book, Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) she explains how some congregations not only have discovered from the newcomers among them things about God they never previously knew, but experienced renewal.

    There are a number of insights for evangelism and congregational redevelopment in this study. Many have long suspected that the reason at least some congregations do not grow is because they do not really want new members and the new perspectives these new members bring. But Duckworth, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a former professor at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, and now a program officer for the Lilly Endowment, Inc., focuses our attention on Christian education and nurture within a congregation. Examining the "ministry of welcoming newcomers as an educator" she explores how it is that newcomers "learn to live as disciples." And she discovers what a congregation learns about discipleship through the participation in its life of these new members.

    "A newcomer's presence within a congregation," she writes, "reminds the congregation that there are people who do not yet belong. This reminder is most unsettling because the majority of established members experience their congregation as a promising context where they are nurtured in faith, hope, and love. Established members assume that newcomers experience this promise as naturally as they do." The very presence of newcomers, she explains, unsettles the congregation, raising questions about what it means to belong, about who really does belong and what must one do (think, feel, believe) in order really to belong. Long settled questions re-emerge. "Newcomers sit in the pew perhaps, but they are not yet committed to be 'my people,' and more, the congregation is not yet committed to welcoming them as 'my people.' The newcomer's question, 'Who are my people?' reverberates within the life of the people under the cross, creating an unsettling tension between question and promise."

    It is typical for congregations to offer multi-week classes for new members. Sometimes these "new member classes" function, at least in part, to resolve the tension as quickly as possible, assimilating the newcomers into the congregational ethos. But such classes may have the unfortunate, unintended consequence of short-circuiting a creative moment in the congregation's life (to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) "to meet the Christ who is already present" in the life of the newcomer, even as the newcomer is discovering the Christ who is embodied in this particular community. A crucial, irreplaceable moment of mutual growth can be lost here. But this need not be the case.

    Duckworth invites us to do the essentially theological work of engaging the questions of "Who we are" in Jesus Christ which are raised by the presence of the newcomer. And she reminds us that we can only do this theological work by attending honestly to the question of "who" these newcomers are. This means that our rush to generalities, "We welcome everyone, no matter who they are," can serve as a way to avoid getting to know this newcomer, and can undercut the opportunity the community has to grow in Christ, and can undercut this opportunity just as surely as a community that demands as a condition of inclusion that a newcomer conform to the community's ethos.

    There is a tension between promise and question which offers enormous opportunities for growth. However: "This tension between promise and question exists only when newcomer questions are engaged within the church. Tension is created when the congregation asks the newcomer, 'Who are you?' and then listens deeply to the response." And this tension, we must remember, is a creative tension that has the power to transform our communities of faith.

    Duckworth's study reminds us that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit remains the most unsettling set of teachings in the life of the church. The Love who is none other than God meets us in and through others in the community. When we pray, "Come, Holy Spirit," we are praying for fire. And fire warms because fire burns. We do ourselves, and we do the church, and ultimately we do God a disservice when we misread the Book of Acts and the New Testament's epistles in such a way that we filter out the unsettling, earth-shaking disruption of God's presence in and through those who heard the unprecedented gospel message but who heard it with very different ears. We grow in Christ through our encounter with those in whom God is at work, but at work in ways previously unknown to us.

    New blood is as essential to the life of congregations as it is to every other human endeavor. God speaks through newcomers, inviting us to be strangers no more, but reminding us that our task is not simply to make others over in our own image.

    Jessicah Duckworth says it best, drawing on an extended metaphor she introduces at the beginning of her book: "Rather than protecting God's promises for ourselves or protecting 'our' church castles from the waves of newcomer questions, I invite congregations to encourage newcomers in asking the questions that established members also ask. When established members engage the questions alongside newcomers, all are encouraged to articulate the promise of divine kinship and figure out together what faithfulness and belonging look like."

     

    Go comment!
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