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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Story Continues

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 15, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Stay in God’s grip!

  • The Good News: Community and Food at Louisville Seminary

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 08, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Community or Chaos

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 01, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • On the Repentance of Whiteness

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 25, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Radical Hospitality

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Sources of Spiritual Wisdom

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 11, 2017

    Upcoming Special Series of Blogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Owner's Manual of the Republic

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 04, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • When the World Breathes

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 27, 2017

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

    There are so many memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A Soul Sharpened

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Healing Power of Compassion

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

    That was the big surprise.

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

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

    Isn't that amazing?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Compassion might just be habit forming.

    If I can remember to forget myself.

  • Don't Shoot! I'm On Your Side

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 06, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • For the Time Being

    by Michael Jinkins | May 30, 2017

    For the Time Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And "What IS happening now?"

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

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

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

    Even the quietest life is blessed by such amazing things.

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

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

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

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

  • The Privilege of Being Here

    by Michael Jinkins | May 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Mercy

    by Michael Jinkins | May 16, 2017

    Charge to Louisville Seminary's Graduating Class of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    My charge to you today is deceptively simple:

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


  • Paradox of the Familiar

    by Michael Jinkins | May 09, 2017

    Paradox of the Familiar

    Most of us believe we know his story because we learned the song long long ago as children.

    "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he."

    Often, however, thinking we know a story well can prove to be the enemy of hearing it.

    This might be called the paradox of familiarity. It afflicts all of us sometime.

    Someone stands to read the scripture in church. We think we are listening to it. But, really, what we are hearing, along with the voice of the reader, is a pre-recorded message already in our heads, bearing memories of songs, hymns, sermons on the text, a whole interpretive matrix that mostly just drowns out the passage being read. Because we carry so much of this stuff with us into every hearing of a biblical text, it is very difficult for us to hear it this time, right now; it is very difficult for us to listen to it with our bare attention.

    Every once in a while, however, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we may listen, and perhaps be provoked, comforted, challenged, and surprised by words breaking through as the Word of God – strange words, words we don't remember seeing in this text before, as if we were hearing the text for the very first time. We may indeed be hearing it, the text itself, for the very first time, because we are hearing it relatively free of the assumptions and the accumulated interpretive detritus that has kept us from hearing it before.

    So it was, recently, as someone read Luke 19:1-10, I heard the text. And I was stunned to discover what it meant for Zacchaeus to experience salvation.

    My early upbringing was in a very southern Southern Baptist Church in deep East Texas. Salvation was about going to heaven when you die. If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you'll be saved, you'll belong to Jesus; when you die, you'll go to heaven, not to hell. I don't recall hearing a sermon growing up that didn't include that formula or a variation of it or that wasn't followed by an altar call. I often wonder how there could still be anyone left to be saved in that small church. We had all walked the aisle at least once, some of us had been saved two or three times just to be sure.

    Whether or not this theology of salvation is sufficient isn't my point today. My point is that this formula provided an interpretive structure, a set of assumptions, through which we heard the Bible. Therefore, growing up, when I heard the text about Zacchaeus meeting Jesus, ending with the passage, "Today salvation has come to this house ... ," I assumed I had heard a fancy way of saying that Zacchaeus now believed in Jesus, was saved and would go to heaven.

    Again, this way of thinking about salvation formed an interpretive structure which caused us to hear the Bible through its assumptions. In some sense, we poured whatever biblical text we came across into that structure, not really encountering the text on its own terms. Jesus Christ was made to fit into our system of salvation. He was the key component in that system, it wouldn't work without him, but it was the system of salvation that ruled the day, and shaped our encounter with the biblical text. A particularly vivid example of this approach to the Bible was articulated by the great 19-century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who said that his homiletical method consisted in taking a text anywhere in the Bible and making a beeline straight to the cross. The problem, of course, is that this means violating the integrity of the biblical text itself. Most biblical texts are not about the cross of Jesus.

    Apparently, even though I no longer shared and as a theologian have critiqued the doctrine of salvation on which this particular interpretive structure is based, unconsciously the vestiges of it still affected my hearing of this and other texts like it. But, sitting in worship in Caldwell Chapel, listening to the reading of Luke 19:1-10, the cobwebs that had been spun for more than half a century around this passage suddenly blew away, as though someone had opened a window and a gust of wind had sent them flying. In that moment I heard what the text said: "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendent of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."

    This text actually says something far more interesting than that Zacchaeus became a Christian - which he didn't. And there's no hint here that Zacchaeus or Jesus was even remotely thinking about life after death. In other words, what is said in this passage was striking to me, first, because of what is not said. What is in fact said in the text is even more striking.

    Whatever salvation happened that day, happened right there and then. The character of that salvation was indelibly linked to the identity of Zacchaeus and the nature of his estrangement from his community. If there's a parable that corresponds to the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, it is the parable of the prodigal son (found a few chapters earlier in Luke 15:11-32), because salvation for both the lost tax collector and the lost son consisted in coming to themselves and being welcomed home.

    A prodigal child had gone into the far country and became a wastrel before coming to himself while standing up to his ankles in pig muck. His salvation was waiting for him in the arms of his father. A man who had gone into the far country of becoming a tool of the Roman occupation, a defrauder of his people, the blood-sucker-in-chief came to himself while up to his neck in ill-gotten gain. He came to himself when Jesus invited himself to dinner; he was found when he found he still belonged, that his self-imposed alienation could not break the bonds of God's love.

    The usual crowd grumbled about Jesus eating with sinners, of course, but the fact that Jesus did not recognize the boundary between clean and unclean, insider and outsider, opened the door for Zacchaeus to come to himself, to experience the grace of belonging. Immediately he promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and to recompense anyone he had defrauded by giving them four times in return whatever he had extorted. This was a costly decision, no doubt, because tax collectors made their livings by extortion.

    And Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this house because this man also is a descendant of Abraham." What Zacchaeus did in response to what Jesus did was his salvation. When grace appeared he didn't say he didn't need it. Jesus awakened in him the consciousness of who he was in relation to God and in relation to his people. Jesus called him to be who he was created by God to be. And he responded with everything he had. This is the salvation of Zacchaeus.

    As though to place an exclamation point on my new hearing of the story of Zaccaeus, I recently came across a passage in the new critical translation of Friedrich Schleiermacher's Christian Faith (published by our own Westminster John Knox Press). I have long been sentimentally attached to the previous English translation of Scheiermacher's classic because it was translated early in the twentieth century by H.R. MacIntosh and James S. Stewart, two legendary ministers and theologians who were the first two ministers of the Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I served while studying for my Ph.D. The new translation does what great translations ought to do and has earned pride of place; the new translation not only improves our reading of the original text, it also evokes from a familiar text new subtleties, new turns of meaning in the English.

    As I was reading volume two of the new translation, it felt like Schleiermacher had been standing in the crowd taking notes on the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, and I wondered why I had never noticed this before. In his development of "The Work of Christ,"  Schleiermacher writes: "The Redeemer takes up persons into the strength of his God-consciousness, and this is his redeeming activity." The "strength" into which we are taken up by Christ is, as the footnote explains, "when transmitted to others ... an active enablement." A few pages later, Schleiermacher elaborates: "Christ's activity of taking us up into community with him is thus a creative engendering of the desire-to-take-him-up-into-oneself."*

    Why hadn't I made this connection before? Simple. Because I thought I already knew what Luke was saying. Clearly Schleiermacher was a more attentive listener than I.

    Christ's redeeming activity is identical with his taking us up into his own consciousness, into his own awareness of God, into his own life as Son of God, sharing with us his own trust and dependence and confidence in God. This is the fullness of Christ's redemption of us. This is our salvation. This is eternal life now. And, in story form, this may simply be what Luke's gospel is telling us (although the story tells us even more than this).

    Someone once said that every three years or so we ought to forget everything we knew about the Bible and start over again. That's not really possible, of course, and it might not be desirable. But it would be good if we could be attentive to the Bible so as to hear it afresh, read it anew. If we can do this, imagine the surprises that await us in the book we think we already know.
    *Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, translated by Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L. Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler, edited by Catherine L. Kelsey and Terrence N. Tice (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, a new translation and critical edition, 2016), Vol. 2, pp. 621 and 623.

  • The Evidence of Things Seen

    by Michael Jinkins | May 02, 2017

    The Evidence of Things SeenWhy does the irrational govern people's decision-making more than reason?

    This was one of the topics discussed over dinner recently with my friend Gerardo Marti. Gerardo occupies the L. Richard King Chair of Sociology at Davidson College and is pretty brilliant. Our conversation that evening ranged across topics cultural, political, economic and religious, with a five-minute tutorial on the difference the combination of variations of grains makes in the production of a particular beverage native to Kentucky.

    As a seasoned sociologist, Gerardo knows that reason doesn't govern the decision-making of even those of us who think ourselves highly rational. While recognizing this fact, we kept circling around questions like: "Why are people often determined to act upon their assumptions, rather than to attempt to discern the facts of the matter through disciplined study, even when they know their assumptions are not really reliable?" And "Why do people choose to deny reality when confronted with clear evidence?"

    The conversation reminded me of an essay I read last spring in The Economist. Fortunately, because I am something of a packrat when it comes to past issues of this newspaper, I was able to retrieve it fairly easily. The title of the essay is "Ignorance isn't bliss," and it appeared in the May 28, 2016, issue on the “Buttonwood” feature column (p. 64).

    Here's how it starts:

    "It is not the 'unknown unknowns' that catch people out, but the truths they hold to be self-evident that turn out to be completely wrong. On many issues, the gap between public perceptions and reality is very wide."

    The writer gives several examples.

    When asked by a research group to say what percentage of the population of the United States currently is made up of immigrants, Americans polled answered: 33%. The correct figure is less than half that: 14%.

    One poll conducted in Britain found that citizens of that country believed that 24% of the people living in the United Kingdom are Muslim. The correct figure is: 5%.

    When Britons were asked what areas of expenditure represent the largest portion of the national budget of the U.K., 26% said foreign aid was toward the top. In fact, health services, pensions and education rank toward the top of government spending, while all foreign aid combined totals just 1% of the national budget.

    And asked what percentage of teenage girls get pregnant each year, Americans polled said 24%, while the actual figure is 3%.

    All of which might simply be chalked up to a lack of good information or an inability to think numerically. But, in fact, many people when confronted with reliable data gained through the most careful and unbiased research simply refuse to believe it.

    The author of The Economist essay writes:

    "Reasoned presentation of the facts may not help since the source of the information, whether it is the government or the mainstream media, will always be suspect. Those advocating that Britons vote to leave the European Union in next month's referendum [this essay was written before Brexit was approved by British voters last summer] ... dismiss warnings about the economic impact from the IMF, OECD and Bank of England on the grounds that, 'They would say that, wouldn't they.'"

    Too late the British public learned that it was not the mainstream media or the "establishment" sources of information that distorted the facts to win their case, but the proponents of Brexit who thought they were safe in their exaggerations and in making misleading statements because they never expected to win. And they certainly didn't believe they would have to clean up the mess they helped to make.

    I'm often on Paula Poundstone's side when she questions the source of some ludicrous sounding "finding" of some unnamed and unknown "researchers" quoted on the NPR radio comedy contest, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Paula is always the first to express incredulity about the reliability of the latest study.

    And we all know that political experts (the talking heads, the pundits, the self-appointed and partisan arbiters of public opinion) we often see on the endless cycle of television "news" are accurate in their predictions at roughly the same rate as a blindfolded chimpanzee throwing darts at a stationary target. See: Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment, Princeton University Press, 2005.)

    But there are knowables. There is such a thing as a fact. And, as former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, while we are entitled to our own opinions, we aren't entitled to our own facts.

    So, why do we act as though we are?

    Sometimes the answer may be as simple as a lack of discipline, as when short-term pressures overrule long-term goods. Sometimes it might be greed, as when private interests trump public goods.

    Sometimes the answer may be that we are so embedded in our partial view of the world, our provincialism, or localism, or tribalism that we just can't or won't see the whole. Sometimes it may be fear that keeps us from confronting facts that run against long-cherished myths. And sometimes, while well-meaning, we may be misled by partial information or wishful thinking. Although we hate to admit it, sometimes we may fall victim to a confidence trickster, to someone who pulls the wool right over our eyes.

    Maybe Jack Nicholson's crusty character in the movie, A Few Good Men, was right. Sometimes at least some of us "can't handle the truth." But, if as Jesus is reported to have said, the truth is what will set us free, then maybe we ought to find ways to overcome whatever the opposite of the better angels of our souls are so that we can see the truth when it is standing in front of us. I wonder if that's possible.

  • Making Peace with God

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 25, 2017

    Making Peace with GodI wonder in this moment how many stars are slipping into oblivion. How many are being born.

    The turn, turn, turning of the universe goes on all around us all the time, and among and within us too. To everything there is a season in this ceaseless sea of changes, waves rising from the ocean only to fall back again.

    My thoughts have turned increasingly toward wisdom literature over the past year, as losses and griefs have accumulated.

    I watched my strong, proud, independent and good father reduced to a state he would have seen as "pitiful" (one of his favorite adjectives to describe someone in a condition he would hope never to endure). An uncle as close as a brother died weeks later, and a cousin whose name I share in honor of his father died just a few days later. Shortly after returning to Louisville last August, my wife's best friend died after a long and courageous battle with breast cancer. And we had hardly turned around when Debbie's step-mother, who was in so many ways a mother to her, died suddenly. And these losses last fall, it turned out, were just the beginning. As one year gave way to another, more sorrows followed.

    The expressions of sympathy and care we received as a family were overwhelming and overwhelmingly moving. The prayers and words and visits of friends and colleagues bore us through all of these losses as they have sustained so many other families. I have often tried to comfort others by saying that grief is the price of love, the greater the love the more grief we feel. These words are true, I believe, as true as the sympathy we feel for others. But grief is not only a test, it is a teacher.

    Gently or roughly, with compassion or with a sublime indifference to our suffering, this teacher enters our lives. The lessons we learn are at a far deeper level than our heads. Broken hearts discover more than whole ones when it comes to life's most profound lessons.

    As the Greek dramatist Aeschylus said long ago in Edith Hamilton's glorious translation:

    "Even in our sleep,
             Pain which cannot forget,
    Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
             Until, beyond despite,
             And against our will,
    Comes wisdom,
             Through the awful grace of God."

    Epictetus, another ancient Greek, once described what it is we learn if we embrace, rather than resist, the reality of life with its manifold changes and its terrible losses:

    "True instruction is this: – to learn to wish that each thing should come to pass as it does. And how does it come to pass? As the Disposer has disposed it. Now he has disposed that there should be summer and winter, and plenty and dearth, and vice and virtue, and all such opponents, for the harmony of the whole."

    Epictetus might easily have been a conversation partner to the biblical writer Koheleth, the mysterious author of the book most of us know as Ecclesiastes.

    "There is a time for everything under heaven."

    "The sun sets, the sun also rises."

    "Generations rise. Generations fall."

    Wisdom, we learn, consists in embracing with equanimity and grace all the times we are given, each season of life, because the One who Disposes acts for the harmony of the whole. We who live just now are but "a minuscule speck," Epictetus tells us. We exist momentarily within the vast inconceivable reaches and ages of the universe, a minuscule speck given the gift of understanding, a smattering of energy and matter with the gift of consciousness. However foggy and uncertain and faulty these gifts may be; however partial, flawed, deformed by emotions, distorted by assumptions and driven by passions, these capacities we have in common with God, Epictetus tells us.

    With these gifts we glimpse what we are within the universe, a speck of matter, a spark of energy, a wave on a rising then ebbing tide. Yet, we have come to believe that we are also, as small and as apparently insignificant as we may be, created by God in God's own beloved image and likeness.

    One of my favorite stories of the late Carlyle Marney, that maverick Baptist preacher who owned the Reformed tradition as his own and whose teaching and preaching shaped so many of us Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal ministers, goes like this. He was leading a service at a retirement home, surrounded by a score of aged men and women, among whom were a number of very elderly people who had outlived everyone in their own generation and most of the people they had loved. Marney began his devotional by saying in that deep Southern voice like God's only deeper, "Oh, what a bunch of losers we are."

    And we are. But until we can embrace the losses, the griefs, the deaths, including our own, and know them ultimately to be a blessing and a gift as surely as are the births; until we learn the wisdom of acceptance in the depths of our souls, we will struggle, as Leonard Cohen has sung "like a fish on a hook" to be free.

    According to the wisdom of our faith and the thought of some of humanity's great souls, wisdom, like joy, lies in embracing life as it is, and holding it with gratitude and grace just as we receive it from the hand of God.

    Maybe this is what is meant by "making peace with God."

  • The Cost of Bridges

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 21, 2017

    Bridge iconLouisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is known as a school that builds bridges because we prepare our students to span the gulfs separating people and groups in the name of Jesus Christ.

    In addition to a curriculum steeped in biblical studies, theology and ethics, every student here is taught how to listen generously to others and to speak with a consciousness of how their words may be heard. Our nationally recognized Black Church Studies Program and our Doors 2 Dialogue Program for Interfaith Cooperation develop the capacities in our graduates to listen, learn and work beside persons from a variety of cultural, social, political, racial and religious backgrounds.

    We build bridges.

    There is no worthier cause, especially today when division has become rife in our society.

    Bridges are among the most beautiful creations of humanity, whether made from steel or cast in human flesh and spirits. But bridges cost a lot to build, and not everyone wants to pay for them.

    One of the greatest surprises I have faced as president of Louisville Seminary has been this: it is easier in today's world to raise money to build walls than to build bridges. We see it everywhere. It is hard to turn on the television or radio or computer without hearing insults hurled by one group at another. And so much money today chases after the fear and hatred - wealth only too ready to fuel the forces contributing to an increasingly splintered society.

    Why do walls attract so much funding, while bridges attract relatively little support?

    Maybe some folks take for granted that the social fabric will hold no matter how much stress is placed on it. But leading social historians have warned for years that we cannot afford to take for granted the social compact that holds us together. The compact must be renewed in every generation.

    Maybe they think the bridges will evolve on their own, without a lot of human effort. This has certainly not been my experience.

    Maybe some folks assume that the bridge builders already have lots of institutional support and don't need their financial help. After all, their cause is so good. Most people don't know, however, that a school like our seminary receives less than 1% of its annual budget from our own denomination.

    Maybe some folks just don't realize how crucial their personal investment is for the success of bridge builders in our society. Perhaps they are unaware that 95% of the funding that makes it possible to educate our future church leaders, ministers, counselors and social workers is provided by individuals who share the vision of building bridges in a broken world.

    Please help us make sure we have a future of bridge builders
    in the name of Jesus Christ!

  • This is Your Life

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 18, 2017

    This is your lifeI suppose you'd have to be at least as old as I am to remember the television program, "This is Your Life," in which a person was presented with several surprise guests, people from the person's past who had been important in their lives, often decades earlier. For some reason the phrase "this is your life" came back to me recently as I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Atlanta waiting for the final session of the conference I was attending.

    It is striking how often we seem to think that our life is something that we will get back to or start, once the present thing we're doing is finished. In my case that particular morning, I was keenly aware that in the most recent three-week period I had only been able to be at home and on our campus in Louisville a day-and-a-half, just long enough to empty and re-pack my suitcase, quickly catch up on the work piled up on my desk, meet with senior staff, and attend a couple of conference calls with trustees before heading out again.

    Sitting in the hotel lobby in Atlanta that morning, suddenly, it occurred to me, "this is your life."

    My life does not just consist of the settled relatively routine round of familiar work among the staff and students I so enjoy working with and talking to. My life consists in the moments I wait for a workshop to start, as well as the workshop itself, the time spent waiting in the line to get a hotel room and talking to a desk clerk, the hours spent in planes, in dinners with strangers or long-distance colleagues. Sitting there, it suddenly hit me (although I know I knew this): This is your life! Right here! Right now! Not back home! Not somewhere else when things "settle down" (whatever that might mean)!

    The same is true for all of us.

    So I had a little talk with myself.

    "If you want to locate the meaning in your life," I said to myself, "If you want to locate the vocation, the purpose in your life, you have to discern these values right here. If you want to experience joy, let alone happiness, you can't defer joy and happiness to sometime or somewhere else. This is your life. Don't waste these moments not appreciating them, not paying attention to them. You live here just as much as anywhere because you are alive here now."

    It was a good little talk.

    And as I mulled over what I told myself, I also reflected on a passage in the Gospels I had always taken to be a text mostly about the messianic life - until that moment. Jesus says, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." (Matthew 8:20)

    Surely the passage should primarily be taken to mean that, while even the lowliest of creatures have homes, the messiah does not. If the phrase "son of man" in this context is construed as a messianic title, as it often is in the Gospels, then it means that Jesus the Christ, the Son of Man, has no place of refuge in this world which was created through him and in which he pitched his tent.

    However, there are also references in the Bible in which "son of man" is simply a designation for a human being, one born of flesh and blood. From that perspective, the passage may also speak to the uncertainty, the fundamental insecurity, the groundlessness every human being experiences cast precariously upon the fragile reefs of existence.

    If "this is our life," suspended always between birth and death, always between right and wrong, always between the past and the future, always between here and there, always between history and eternity, then being at home means coming to terms with the reality that life (our life) is indeed what happens to us, not when we've arrived at a destination we identify as "home," or "refuge," but also on the way, and not just when we're "busy making other plans," as John Lennon has said, but when we're waiting for the next meeting to begin or the connecting flight to arrive, or this mound of dirty dishes to get washed, or the kids to be driven from school to dance lessons and soccer practice, or caring for this loved one who struggles sometimes to remember our name, or waiting for the surgeon to invite us into the little family room to hear what he has found.

    This is your life. Right now. Right here.

    We're not waiting for life to happen. It is happening, whether we are paying attention or not.

    But if we do pay attention, I think we'll notice something really important: God has a way of showing up in our lives, wherever we are, even if we're just resting our heads for a few dozy minutes on that weirdly impossible pillow they give you on the plane, suspended somewhere between here and someplace else. Even sitting in the lobby of that hotel an hour before the last session of a conference that keeps me "here," instead of being "there." Even holding the hand of a friend whose life is ebbing away, or waiting for the birth of a new child. We're there already.

    Our refuge, our home, as the Psalmist reminds us, is moveable, because our refuge, our home, is in God, and God is always with us. "This is your life," then, always with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

    Let's not miss our life by mistakenly believing that we're just sitting in life's waiting room.

  • Merton's Road to Gethsemani

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 14, 2017

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

    Road to GethsemaniIt used to be harder to get to Gethsemani Abbey. Geographically, that is. It has never been easy to get there spiritually and vocationally.

    Trains and poor quality roads have been replaced by planes and multi-lane highways, making physical travel much easier. But the spiritual distance between the life secular and the life of the cloistered religious is still long and arduous. Every Cistercian monk (or Trappist as they are also called), including Thomas Merton, walked this path.

    "Contemplation ...," wrote Merton, "demands silence, solitude, poverty, detachment. And the contemplative life is a life which is organized with one end alone in view: to isolate man from the noise and bustle of temporal activity and to establish him in the profound peace of the presence of God," [Thomas Merton, Cistercian Contemplatives: A Guide to Trappist Life (The Monks of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1948) p. 10.]

    Merton's early impressions of the Cistercian order, in fact, had left him cold. The austerity and solitude of the life of the Trappist, he says in The Seven Storey Mountain, "almost reduced me to jelly."

    After his first visit to Gethsemani, however, for a Holy Week retreat in 1941, he wrote: "I felt the deep, deep silence of the night, and of peace, and of holiness enfold me like love, like safety. The embrace of it, the silence! I had entered into a solitude ... that enfolded me, spoke to me, and spoke louder and more eloquently than any voice." [Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 1948) p. 321.]

    Not long ago, in a visit with Father Seamus, the guestmaster at Gethsemani Abbey, I asked him to describe the road one must travel to enter the Cistercian community. Father Seamus found it helpful at a number of points in the conversation to use the language of courtship and marriage to describe the process of discerning the monastic vocation. Those familiar only with the process for ordination in most Protestant denominations will be amazed at the depth of examination and the length of preparation required to become a contemplative monastic.

    "You're forced to go into your head," said Father Seamus, and those helping the inquirer must "analyze his motives," and try to discern if "he is acting selflessly" in seeking a religious vocation.

    You don't become a Trappist to run away from life. It is a sacred vocation. And, as in every calling, one submits to a community of discernment to better understand oneself. In particular, the community seeks to help the potential monk discern what gifts he has which might serve the community. The inquirer may not even know what his gifts are, and it is frequently the case that others in the community discover his giftedness and how these gifts might help the community and the potential monk himself.

    The entire process of becoming a Trappist takes at least five-and-a-half years, though the first step in the process may take as little time or as much as an inquirer wishes, that of the “observer.” At this initial stage, a person makes known his interest in the monastic life and is invited to stay and dine in the guest quarters while praying and working with the monks themselves.

    The observer will not, Father Seamus emphasized, eat and sleep in the cloister. The level of intimacy that attends table fellowship and actually living side-by-side with the monks would be inappropriate for an observer. Father Seamus commented, a bit sheepishly and with his eyebrows raised in shock, that such level of intimacy would be like "going all the way on a first date." The observer will spend a lot of time with the vocation director to try to understand his own motives and to clarify his calling, to discover whether or not this special vocation and its relationship should go further. He may also spend time with the novice master or his assistant, learning more about the monastic life.

    If the observer wishes, in due time, he may subsequently ask to be admitted to the monastery whereupon he becomes a "postulant." The application process for postulants includes an interview with the abbot and an evaluation by a psychiatrist. One cannot be admitted to become a postulant if one has outstanding financial or family obligations.

    Merton famously described the moment when he entered Gethsemani as a postulant in December of 1941, and how when the cloister gate closed behind him he felt as though he had been "enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom" (Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, p. 372). Many who engage in retreats at Gethsemani also speak of the feeling of freedom they experience whenever they walk through the monastery's doors.

    The postulant stage lasts six months, at the end of which one asks to enter the "novitiate." The abbot of the community and the vocation committee of the abbey engage in discernment to determine if the postulant is ready to be admitted as a novice. This is an extremely important stage because it is as a novice that one will take annual vows of obedience, conversion of manners (which includes celibacy and poverty) and stability. One must remain a novice for two years, after which one may take annual vows for a period of three years. At the end of these three years, one must either take solemn vows for life or leave the monastery.

    The concept of a "conversion of manners" is worthy of reflection for those who are not called to a monastery. We often speak of conversion as an event, especially in certain branches of Evangelical Christianity. But a conversion of manners, which is essential to the monastic vows (and one might also consider what this might mean for all Christians) requires an inhabiting of a way of being that is much more gradual. A conversion of manners requires a slow, steady reinforcement in a community of practices of faith that undergird, strengthen and sustain a whole new life.

    The monastic community listens to and observes the novice to discern whether their lives are "singular" - which is not a good thing. To be singular is deliberately to try to get the attention of others, either by affecting outwardly to be especially holy, or to stand apart from the community in some way.

    Even asceticism can be taken too far. A monk may only fast when the community enters into fasts. Otherwise he would have to have special permission from the abbot. Merton mentions the way the monks sing the liturgy in unison, observing that only when you make a mistake do you ever stand out.

    The road from the world to the monastery requires a process of discovering what it means to be a member of a community, what it means to give up striving for individuality, but also what it means to allow your distinctive gifts to emerge in a natural way.

    One can only imagine what a loss it would have been to the world and to Merton himself if his first abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, had not encouraged him to share his gift of written expression. Within the community, within the four walls of the cloister, enclosed in this freedom he was liberated from everything that degraded and distracted him, to employ his gifts. His vows bound him tightly to this particular freedom.

    There were times, especially under his next abbot, Dom James Fox, that the ties that bound him within the community chafed and scarred Merton. There were many occasions when he contemplated leaving Gethsemani. But there was something about the disciplines and the strict vows, the daily engagements and duties, no less than the solitude and silence, that liberated Merton as a writer.

    The paradox of freedom which is manifested as an inner reality, not merely an absence of restraint, is no less profound than the paradox between the momentary experience of conversion and the practices of faithful living which become habitual and distinguish a converted life from mere intentions and words. Both paradoxes are alive in a monastic community, and both are life-giving for all Christians.

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