• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Thinking Out Loud
  • A Hunter Hot on the Heels of the Divine Fox

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 07, 2013

    The transition from seminary to pastoral ministry can be quite a jolt. The steady ebband flow of the academic calendar, the immediate gratification of studying, being examined, receiving a grade, the easy collegiality among fellow students: these are hallmarks of seminary life. While in the parish, one hardly ever knows what will come next. True, there’s the reality of Sunday coming round every seven days. Ready or not, here it comes! But, in between, you never know. And the variety of activities that will call upon your skills on any given day can be unnerving and overwhelming. A good pastor must be as flexible as a yoga instructor, ready to move from a budget conference to a hospital call to a liturgical planning session. And I’m only scratching the surface. Combine that with the fact that you generally don’t know how you’re doing till you mess up and the aching loneliness that many pastors feel. Well, it is a big transition.

    For me, however, the biggest challenge of the transition was discovering what it means for the mystery of the word to become flesh. I’m not just talking about THE Incarnation, although that figures in. I’m really referring to that discovery a young pastor (especially, but not exclusively a young pastor) makes when he or she finally begins to understand the real meaning of words like grace. It is one thing to know the derivation of the English theological term from its Hebrew and Koine Greek roots and its various usages through theological traditions. It is quite another thing to discover in your own bones what it means to receive mercy when you don’t deserve it or what it means to help someone else receive it.

    In this regard, at least, seminary was my grade school and congregational ministry became graduate school. I learned a rich theological vocabulary in seminary, but that vocabulary remained largely theoretical until it came to life in the midst of serving my people as their pastor.

    This week I remembered with gratitude one of my coaches or mentors or (maybe better) guardians in that stage of my theological education. And I remembered him because I learned from the obituary in The Economist that he had died on September 5th at the age of 87, a priest, a theologian (of the pastoral sort) and a food writer: Robert Farrar Capon.  His death reminded me that some of my most important teachers were people I have only known because of their writing. But, they were still vital to my formation. I suspect that is true for all of us.

    I don’t remember now who it was who gave me a copy of Capon’s bookExit 36 (New York, 1975). It was my introduction to Capon, and I read it in 1979. The novel tells the story of two Episcopal priests, one who has committed suicide, the other who is trying to piece together why. They were in neighboring parishes. They knew one another somewhat, as neighboring pastors sometimes do. As the story unwraps we learn that the priest who committed suicide has had an extramarital affair. In the end we learn that it was not this first infidelity, however, that drove him to suicide, but a second infidelity. And he simply could not allow himself to be forgiven for that. I don’t want to say any more. You may want to read the novel.

    The book is a theological mystery. It culminates not so much in a strange twist of plot or a new development of character, though both figure in. The book turns on a theological insight that became so important to me I asked Debbie to calligraphy it and I framed it and for years it hung in my study. The insight is this: “The difference between the saved and the damned is simply that the saved are willing to step out and explore what God remembers, while the damned insist on hanging around inside what God forgets.” As a young pastor, first in a suburban parish next to Dallas, and later in a rural congregation south of Fort Worth, I found this word fleshed out again and again among the people in our communities.

    I was hooked on Capon. But I managed to only read a handful of the twenty-seven books he wrote. My favorite was Hunting the Divine Fox (New York, 1974) a book that inspired me to try, as a teacher and a preacher, to entice people to fall in love with God. According to Capon, the theologian should not attempt to argue others into the faith, but should stoke up enthusiasm for a God who is always surprising. I love the passage where he set out the purpose of that book: “What I am about to give you … is a guided tour of selected spots in the bizarre set of answers that I believe God has given us. Then, perhaps, we may inch our way back to a point at which we will be able to ask better questions.”

    Theology, Capon said, is fun. Well, I already knew that. But what Capon helped me to learn as a young pastor was that living our theology among a people of faith, listening for God among these people, loving them through life’s difficulties even when we found each other un-lovable, holding one another through life’s joys and tragedies, and allowing ourselves to receive forgiveness even when we have done things to each other that were frankly unforgivable on any human scale: this is the greatest theological adventure of all. I just wish I had written Capon while he was alive to say thanks.

    1 Comment
  • The Inclusive Reign of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 01, 2013


    Mrs. Turpin, the protagonist in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” remains one of the most disturbing characters in American fiction. Certain of the divinely sanctioned orders of creation, she stands in her doctor’s office directing long suffering Claud (and by implication everyone else) precisely where he should sit. The short story is told in a manner absolutely determined to shock and offend any sensitive soul who reads it, told as it is in Mrs. Turpin’s voice, her racism, classism being only two of her ugly biases. If there was such an ideological category as “otherism,” Mrs. Turpin would  hold it fondly in her ample bosom. Mrs. Turpin, we are told, believed she “was protected in some special way by Divine Providence.” And nothing could trouble her sense of entitlement (a character trait she possessed long before that word became current).

    Nothing, that is, could trouble her well-ordered worldview until her revelation.  O’Connor describes it: “A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through the field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” In her revelation, all of humanity is marching toward heaven, but the first are last (not just in a Bible story, but really!), and the last are first (whether they deserve it or not, you can almost hear Mrs. Turpin say!), and her whole system of how people should be ordered into classes and races is overturned. To her utter and complete astonishment, she and Claud are mixed in with all the others. Mixed in! And, looking at Claud and her marching along singing, “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” (O’Connor, The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, 508)

    Fred Craddock once preached a sermon about the “dirtiest word in the English language.” He asked the startled congregation again and again, “Do you know what the dirtiest word in the English language is?” Finally, he came out with it: “exclusive.”

    I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Turpin, in O’Connor’s tragic-comic story, would not see herself as in league with dirty words. I even suspect that she would not have seen herself as particularly exclusive. But, of course, it is obvious to the reader that she is. Seldom does any Mrs. Turpin recognize her own exclusivity.

    There are those in our culture – not least in our religious culture – who reject the notion of inclusivity as a fad inspired by political correctness. And it is true that there are also those who wield a battle axe of exclusivity in the name of being inclusive. One of my British colleagues, for example, has told me that the only people that do not fit in a pluralistic society are those who have monistic allegiances. He seems to have missed the irony of his position. And there are those who, for the sake of inclusivity, would demand that everyone conform to their political or theological worldview.

    But there is something deeply theological at stake in the notion of inclusivity. It requires all of us to locate the Mrs. Turpin in us (not in someone else). And it requires the Mrs. Turpin in us to be subject to “revelation.”

    Nobody I know of has written more eloquently of the theology of inclusivity than Catherine Mowry LaCugna. Recently I was re-reading a section of her study, God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), and I would like to share that with you today:

    “The reign of God, not the reign as we might be inclined to design it, is the stuff of Christian life. Like the laborers in the vineyard, or the prodigal son, the reign of God’s making may offend our common sense notions of how much should be given to whom, what is fair labor practice, who should come first. The parables of the kingdom shake us out of our self-deception that the reign of God is our reign. At the same time, when we are the laborer come late, or the wasteful son, these stories are the good news of our salvation.

    “Those who come first in God’s reign do so not because of their own merit, but because of God. To fulfill the providential plan of God foreordained from before all ages, God must overturn and conquer the social, political, economic, racial, sexual stratifications that we ourselves have invented as means of control over others. In Jesus Christ, God heals divisions, reconciles the alienated, gives hope to those who have none, offers forgiveness to the sinner, includes the outcast. In the end God’s love and mercy are altogether inclusive, accepting the repentant master as well as the repentant slave. If anyone were to be ultimately excluded from the reign of God it would be because he or she had set up himself or herself as the final criterion of who should be included in God’s reign. Still, the exclusion of even a single person is contrary to God’s providential plan. In the end only the barriers to eternal and universal communion are excluded from God’s reign: sin, death, and despair.” (God With Us, 388).

    What separates this vision of inclusivity from mere political correctness is as wide a gulf as the distinction between social or political revolution and theological revelation. The object of revolution is almost inevitably the substitution of one ruling class with another, the exclusion of some in favor of others. Revelation blesses all even while it judges all, and it judges us all principally in our failure to bless. Revolution leaves Mrs. Turpin either as an “insider” or an “outsider,” depending on which side wins. Revelation leaves her – well, I’ll let Flannery O’Connor tell us where revelation leaves her:

    “At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.” (509)

    Go comment!
  • Atonement, the Character of God, and Some Controversy Around the New Presbyterian Hymnbook

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 23, 2013

    Some twenty-five years ago a friend took me to lunch to celebrate my getting into the PhD program in theology at Aberdeen University. I'll never forget his saying that he hoped I would do something relevant in theology, not spend years studying some obsolete idea like, you know, the doctrine of the atonement.   

    "What DO you plan to concentrate on, by the way?" he asked me.  

    "The atonement," I answered.  

    He stared at me over his chicken salad sandwich with bemused wonder. I'm sure some other friends would have done the same. The atonement is, after all, a theological doctrine not unlike Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."  

    C. S. Lewis once said that what Christians believe about the atonement really amounts to this: What Jesus Christ did somehow set things right with God and gave us a fresh start. Lewis tended to fall back on the first century formula that originated with the church's first great theologian St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200), a formula that was utilized famously by St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), which is often referred to as the “mirifica commutatio” (the “wonderful exchange”). I will render this as Lewis did in his own very non-gender neutral language just to keep it close to his own formulation: "The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” (This is the opening passage in the chapter of Mere Christianity titled, “The Obstinate Toy Soldiers”). I prefer the way the formula has been revised in recent years, much more inclusively, to read: God became fully human in Christ that in Christ we might become fully human too.  

    Perhaps no one has more elegantly or more fully, described this understanding of the atonement favored by our earliest theologians than Catherine Mowry LaCugna. Her language echoes the Gospel of John and the Epistle to the Colossians, as well as Irenaeus and Athanasius, when she writes: “The Christ who was always with God emptied himself of divinity and took on our humanity… and gathered together all things in himself” (God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, San Francisco, 1991, 26). 

    For St. Athanasius, the atonement is the incarnation. In other words, the atonement is not simply some “thing” among many other things accomplished by Jesus Christ; rather, the atonement is itself God's uniting of Godself with humanity. T. F. Torrance said it like this: “as Saviour Christ embodies the act and fact of our salvation in his own Person” (The Trinitarian Faith, Edinburgh, 1988, p. 156). Of course, Athanasius was the guiding light behind what we now call "The Nicene Creed"; and for seventeen centuries he has stood as the key figure defining orthodox Christianity. 

    The reason the subject of the atonement had become important enough to me that I decided I would dedicate several years of research to it (despite the consternation of friends!) was because of the intimate relationship between the various ways we conceive of the atonement and our understanding of the character of God. Who we believe God to be is closely related to what we conceive of God as doing. Every age has tried to unwrap the mystery of what God did in Christ. Metaphors, models and theories for understanding the atonement have multiplied over these twenty and more centuries of the church's existence: the Incarnational model; the Ransom theory; the Penal Substitutionary model, and its variant Mercantile and other Forensic theories; the Moral Exemplary Model, the Dramatic or Christus Victor Model, and variations on all of these. Theologians and saints from Irenaeus to Anselm, from Athanasius to Calvin, from Augustine and Abelard to Hastings Rashdall and Gustav Aulen have worked the veins of ore in this mine.  

    As Shannon Craigo-Snell and Shawnthea Monroe write, in their book, Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today, “all of these various views have roots in Scripture and are part of Christian liturgical traditions…. All of them are part of the multifaceted tradition we inhabit, and indeed each is deeply connected to the others. This multiplicity and fluidity is a great strength of the Christian tradition” (Living Christianity, 2009, 36).  

    My concern, however, as a theologian was to investigate which models might correspond best to the character of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and which models were most problematic. From time to time, the ways in which we have conceived of the atonement have done enormous damage to our understanding of who God is.

    A good example of this unfortunate dynamic relates to "the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement." In this model, we are told that God's dignity has been offended by human sin. The divine dignity can only be satisfied, according to this theory of the atonement, by the punishment of those who offended God in the first place, i.e., humanity. But because God's dignity is infinite, only an infinite being can satisfy God's anger. “There must be blood,” so to speak. Capital punishment is needed in order to quench God's fury. But for this death to be effective in stemming God's anger, the one dying would have to be divine. Therefore Jesus, innocent of sin and fully divine, came to earth, became human, and offered himself to be killed to satisfy the punishment necessary to repair God's offended dignity. God is enabled by Christ's death to act mercifully toward those human sinners for whom Christ died as a substitute.  

    This model of the atonement draws on biblical themes of sacrifice, of course, but it recasts these biblical themes in the feudal language of medieval kings and overlays them with an understanding of justice derived largely from legal codes as old and as pagan as Ancient Rome. The character of the God who emerges in this model of the atonement is profoundly disturbing - the combination of an abusive parent and an absolute tyrant. And the damage done to a biblical understanding of the God revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth is simply incalculable. Sadly, many Christians are unaware that this model of atonement is only one of many ways to conceive of what God has done in Christ, and that it functions as a lens which, though it bring certain aspects of God’s actions into focus (a perspective of sacrifice is exemplified here) also limits their ability to see the fullness, richness, depth and breadth of what the atonement is and who the God is that acts for us in atonement.  

    There are those today who imply (or outright say) that if you do not hold to a "Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement," then your theology is "squishy liberalism," and your theological sensibilities are shaped by your culture. This contention re-emerged recently in a flap over a hymn omitted from the new Presbyterian hymnbook. (Read Timothy George's July, 2013 essay "No Squishy Love." Then read a response to that article from The Economist, August, 2013, "A Presbyterian Problem: Spoiling the Wrath".) In fact, there's not a single model of the atonement that is not shaped to some degree by culture as well as by the Bible. If you are human, your hearing of and response to God's Word is inevitably shaped to some degree by your culture. But this also includes the culture-shaped "Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement" which contorted certain biblical images to fit its preconceived notions of God, even as it also drew upon and emphasized some important biblical perspectives.  

    One of the most crucial figures for our understanding of the relationship between the atonement and the character of God was John McLeod Campbell. In what some consider to be the greatest study of the atonement since Anselm, Campbell’s magisterial The Nature of the Atonement (1856; a critical edition of which was published by Eerdmans in 1996), he reminds us that Jesus did not become human to make God gracious or merciful toward humanity, but to reveal God's love toward us. God's wrath is never soft-peddled in Campbell's theology; but God’s wrath is seen to be none other than the white, hot love of God turned against anything that would keep us from enjoying God and from becoming all God intended us to become.  

    Campbell was a gentle, thoughtful theologian who suffered enormously for his teachings. Tried for heresy and removed from his pulpit by a church that told him it was unlawful for him even to preach that "God is love" (The Church of Scotland at that time officially taught that God loves only the elect and hates all others), he served the poorest of the poor without official title or salary for the remainder of his days. His understanding of the atonement, resonant with the deep understandings of Irenaeus and Athanasius, and convinced of God filial love for humanity, speaks across the centuries, however, reminding us that sometimes what seems like solid orthodoxy is just mean-spiritedness and self-righteousness dressed up for church; and that sound teachings, even evangelical teachings, need not reflect bloody-mindedness to be true. 

    We will never fully understand the mystery of what God accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. But of this we can be sure: God is love. God's love is shared with all humanity in Christ. And the goal of this love is for our reconciliation and peace. God became fully human in Christ that in Christ we might become fully human too. 

    For further study: As mentioned in the blog, a great place to start would be Shannon and Shawnthea’s Living Christianity. I also devote a full chapter to the various models of the atonement in my Invitation to Theology: A Guide to Study, Conversation & Practice (InterVarsity Press, 2001).   

    3 Comments
  • Why Tenure Matters

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 17, 2013

    The dramatic countryside of Northeastern Scotland along the craggy banks of the Don River, a wild stream that tumbles from the Highlands to the North Sea, may account to some degree for the flinty character of this region's famous son, William Robertson Smith. The warmth of the family hearth in the village of Keig, Aberdeenshire, may account for his sweetness of spirit, even amid the trials he eventually endured. But nothing accounts for his genius.

    A linguistic prodigy, Smith learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as a child. After studying at New College, Edinburgh, Smith traveled to Germany, learning from legendary scholars such as the great Albrecht Ritschl. It was in Germany that Smith became acquainted with the newly emerging approaches to biblical criticism. This was the mid-nineteenth century, and biblical scholarship, especially in Germany, was exploding. Scholars were eagerly tracing out the implications of applying scientific, historical, and literary methods to the study of biblical texts.  

    By the age of twenty-four, Smith was named Professor of Oriental Languages and Old Testament Exegesis at the Free Church Theological College (subsequently known as Christ College) in Aberdeen. Smith's inaugural lecture was on "what history teaches us to seek for in the Bible."  

    Smith's reputation as a scholar and his writing ability attracted the attention of the editors of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. They asked him to write several articles, including one on the Bible, in which he introduced to a British audience the fruits of historical criticism of the biblical text. The Free Church of Scotland, in which Smith was ordained, took considerable exception to Smith's scholarship. The article on the Bible was published in 1875. In 1877, Smith was suspended from teaching. In 1880, he was formally tried for heresy. And in 1881, he was removed from his professorship by the church.  

    Were you or I to read his article on the Bible today we would hardly find its conclusions surprising. What Smith and others were discovering then has become commonplace now. But "The Bible" and other articles such as his respected essay on "Sacrifice" (which represents one of the first ever forays into the field we have come to call "comparative religion," an approach to the study of religions now taught in many seminaries) were revolutionary in Smith's time, and the ideas he explored were considered dangerous to the faith and tranquility of the church.  

    After being dismissed from his teaching post in Aberdeen, Smith was hired by the University of Cambridge where he taught and served as librarian. He also went on to serve as the Editor of The Encyclopedia Britannica. Though his trial for heresy and dismissal from his professorship were traumatic to him and his family, I would argue that these actions were even more costly to the church, which retreated even deeper into pious timidity on one hand and on the other hand a posture of threat against its next generation of scholars (including Marcus Dods and A.B. Bruce).  

    Scholarship sometimes moves us along with little friction, one discovery following upon another to the applause of all concerned. But sometimes scholarship shocks us, turns our assumptions upside down, makes us question cherished beliefs and reorganize our ways of viewing the world - and God. Both scholarly paths can lead to truth. Both can lead to errors. Many the time when people have applauded hoary scholarship that foundered on its own pious clichés. Many the time too when rebels without a clue published their radical ideas which, when the dust finally settled, turned out to be worthless. But scholarship that is fettered has little chance to move anyone forward. And scholarship that is told it must not question its subject because its subject is sacred, ultimately is unlikely to edify.  

    The reason theological schools came in time to value academic tenure was to ensure that the research of our William Robertson Smiths would flourish. Tenure exists to protect academic freedom and to encourage vigorous and adventurous scholarship. It is intended to promote a spirit of exploration and discovery. It is meant to guarantee that scholars and teachers cannot be dismissed just because their research uncovers uncomfortable ideas.  

    By extension, however, there is an assumption in the granting of tenure that it will be used for the advancement of knowledge. Tenure is not a blanket guarantee of life-long employment, but it is a guarantee of due process. This guarantee is intended to protect academic freedom so that scholars can produce their scholarship without being cowed by threats to job security should their scholarship go in a direction that challenges norms. Of course, a scholar need not produce shocking scholarship to deserve tenure. But tenure does assume that the scholar will be productive. 

    Several years ago I dropped by the office of a friend who served on the faculty of a theological school then in the throes of ecclesiastical controversy. Some professors at the school had already paid the ultimate professional price for their scholarship's transgressing the boundaries of a rigidly enforced "orthodoxy."  I had just bought a copy of my friend's newest book. Handing it to him to sign, I asked, "So, tell me about your new book!" He took the book from my hands, signed it, and shrugged as he returned it to me. "It's safe."  

    Tenure exists so you and I will never have to read a "safe" book. We should have this guarantee that any work of original scholarship - whether we believe it gets it wrong or right, whether it leads to a real breakthrough or a dead end - gives you an author's best judgment, unsafe as that may be.  

    That's why tenure matters.

     

    1 Comment
  • The Christian Agnostic: Reading Christian Wiman's "My Bright Abyss"

    by Michael Jinkins | Sep 09, 2013

    I want to take this opportunity to thank our guest bloggers for their excellent essays this summer. Amos, Tasha, Angela, Morgan, Abbi, John, Tyler, Sue, Anne, Abbie and Jenny gave us a lot to think about as they did their "thinking out loud." I know you enjoyed their insights as much as I did. Thank you all for giving me a break from the weekly blog - and for giving our readers a break from me!!! –Michael


    In his anthem to a renegade "pilgrim," 
    Kris Kristofferson described a Job-like figure who lives his whole life, "from the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse," "never knowing if believing is a blessing or a curse, or if the going up is worth the coming down." Author Christian Wiman believes that believing is something of both, and that the going up is worth the coming down, however many ups and downs there may be. In what may be the best book on faith I've read in the last decade, he provides a moving, honest, and deeply personal portrait of why faith matters in today's world.

    Though some reviewers have heralded him as a new C.S. Lewis, he is more like Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O'Connor, or even Thomas Merton than Lewis. The editor of Poetry magazine and a fine poet himself, Wiman's prose is by turns lyrical, cascading in passages as long and deep and turbulent as a mountain stream, and also crisp and biting and starkly clear.

    Wiman, whose own faith journeyed from a childhood in the West Texas buckle of the Bible Belt to a sophisticated literary agnosticism, unexpectedly turned toward what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called "a second naïveté" and a renaissance of personal belief a few years ago in the shadow of a devastating cancer diagnosis. Far from providing easy answers or marshmallow comforts, Wiman describes a mature faith in a God bigger and truer than a bumper sticker slogan. "I can see now how deeply God's absence affected my unconscious life, how under me always there was this long fall that pride and fear and self-love at once protected me from and subjected me to.... For if grace woke me to God's presence in the world and in my heart, it also woke me to his absence. I never truly felt the pain of unbelief until I began to believe." For Wiman, the life of the spirit is intimately connected to the reality and specificity of Jesus Christ, "a shard of glass in the gut," God incarnate "crying I am here, and here in not only what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you could call not-God."

    Wiman plumbs the wretched waters of self-centeredness and self-righteousness and self-absorption, of ambition's seductive shape-shifting and the malignant anxieties that wreck our lives. And he plumbs the depths also of trust and innocence, hope and health. In a time when books of facile spirituality abound and easy dismissals of gods-that-never-were load the shelves of our virtual bookstores to groaning, Wiman has written a book that manages to be faithful in the way St. Augustine of Hippo was faithful but with a contemporary edge. For example, after reminding us of Augustine's comment, "If you think you have understood God, it is not God," Wiman adds, "but contemporary interpretations of that one sentence should be balanced by another famous quotation, this one from Wittgenstein: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.'" This book drove me, again and again into the wilderness of silence where God awaits and healing begins.

    One of the most moving aspects of this book is the way Wiman draws on poetry and literary prose to cut through the onion layers of life and faith. George Herbert, Philip Larkin, Anna Kamienska, Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Craig Arnold are here, as are W.B. Yeats and D. H. Lawrence, as well as poems by Wiman himself, including the haunting "fragment" which opens and closes the book: "My God, my bright abyss/ into which all my longings will not go/ once more I come to the edge of all I know/ and believing nothing believe this."

    A couple of generations ago, the English preacher Leslie Weatherhead wrote a book titled, The Christian Agnostic. Wiman makes a compelling case for a faithful Christian agnosticism, a faith rich in personal devotion to Jesus Christ which also confesses humbly its lack of certainty. Taking the lead from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wiman finds con-fraternity and community with the religionless as well as with members of his own congregation (a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago). Speaking in a voice any contemporary pastor will recognize, Wiman observes that "for some people, and probably for all people some of the time, religion, church, the whole essential but secondary edifice that has grown out of primary spiritual experience - all this is the last place in the world where they are going to find God, who is calling for them in the everyday voices of other people, other sufferings and celebrations, or simply in the cellular soul of what is." Yet, Wiman has found in and among a congregation, and in relationship to a pastor, a source of spiritual renewal, and he has discovered in the "definite beliefs" of Christian faith "steady spots" on which to stand "from which the truth may be glimpsed."

    This book takes its place on a very small bookshelf in my library among books I will return to often for living wisdom. Wiman now stands for me beside Thomas Merton, Julian of NorwichAnnie Dillard, Rumi, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Seldom, if ever, have I written what I am about to say:  I encourage you to buy three copies of this book. Buy one for yourself, because, as the flight attendant says, "Put your own oxygen mask on first." Buy one for your best friend. The reason I know about this book is simply because my best friend sent me a copy of it for summer reading. And buy one for your pastor. She or he will thank you.

    Go comment!
  • Guide for Identifying the Crazies

    by User Not Found | Sep 03, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Amos Disasa, a member of the Louisville Seminary Board of Trustees. Amos and his family live in Columbia, S.C. and are currently busy pastoring Downtown Church, a new Presbyterian (U.S.A.) church that they organized in Columbia's city center.

    When interviewing pastoral candidates to lead a new initiative in church planting, it’s likely that the search committee will ask all the right questions regarding the core skills and gifts a pastor will need to effectively shepherd an established church. However, it has been my experience after serving an established church for five years before embarking on the hazardous but rewarding adventure of church planting two years ago, that the gifts that serve a pastor well in an established congregation, like leading public worship, pastoral care, teaching, and program development, will be virtually useless without a subset of entrepreneurial sensibilities that are easy to spot after the fact but hard to name before. 

    In fact, it is highly likely that without these unique sensibilities present in the church planter, the new church will fail to distinguish itself as worthy of the time, money, and trouble it takes to start a new church from scratch. Absent these tendencies, the more likely outcome is a reincarnation of the same kind of church we excel at sustaining now. 

    If that is the case, why bother? 

    To that end, presented here is a series of questions a search committee interviewing candidates for their church plant might consider in addition to those questions they already know to ask.

    Is your candidate a student of culture? Ask:

    1. What books, magazines, and blogs are you currently reading?
    2. Have you ever tried to learn another language?
    3. Where have you traveled?
    4. Who do you follow on Twitter?

    Why does this matter?

    The delight of discovery is preferred over the comfort of already knowing. Relevancy assumes an ability to interpret culture. Only then can church begin to reinterpret culture.

     Is your candidate vocationally ambidextrous? Ask:

    1. If you weren't a pastor could you make a living doing something else?

    Why does this matter?

    The church staff will be lean at the pre-launch stage. Specificity in job descriptions will come later. Resources must be preserved for work that demands outside professional vendors (i.e. branding or musicians). A pastor that cooks or can serve as the IT department adds necessary value.

     Is your candidate adaptive to change? Ask:

    1. When did life surprise you? How did you respond?
    2. Has your job description ever changed abruptly? What kind of challenges did this present?

    Why does this matter?

    When your church is small, change is frequent and even slight change will be destabilizing. Unforeseen opportunities will appear that don’t coincide with expectations (mission-plan, vision, etc.). Programs, ideas, and relationships will fail spectacularly. Hardheadedness, often confused with long-suffering, makes it difficult to stop doing what isn't working.

     Can your candidate relate to multiple generations? Ask:

    1. Who are your mentors? What have you learned from them? What have they learned from you?
    2. Do their self-references span multiple generations?

    Why does this matter?

    The age of the church’s earliest adopters will be similar to that of the organizing pastor. However, older and younger generations that might not worship at the church can offer valuable resources (money, credibility, childcare workers, musicians, etc.).

     Does your candidate value aesthetics? Ask:

    1. What makes a worship space sacred?
    2. Describe your favorite place to worship.
    3. Also, examine written communications (including emails) for grammar and formatting. Did the candidate value the aesthetics of their work in this regard?

    Why does this matter?

    Everything created by the church, including the configuration of the worship space, will have an aesthetic quality. The cheapest and most subtle way to signal your identity is by making beautiful things that fit the local context. No detail is too small to ignore.

    Is your candidate impatient enough? Ask:

    1. What do you do with your good ideas?
    2. How do you know if they are worth pursuing?

    Why does this matter?

    Inertia is a powerful force and the antidote is movement. Every task/ effort/ idea marked “done” enhances credibility.

     Is your candidate prepared to die? Listen:

    1. How often did you hear them talk about life/ work balance or self-care in your conversations and interviews?
    2. To what degree are they insistent on negotiating the details of their compensation?

    Why does this matter?

    Starting a church will kick your ass and demand sacrifice from your family. There is no work/ life balance in the pre-launch stage. Get over it. You can’t gather enough people to attain critical mass without leveraging every relationship, affiliation, hobby, interest, and conversation you have - even those that belong to your “private” life.

     Are his or her friends in the church already? Ask:

    1.  What do you do when you’re not working?
    2. What have you learned from your friends/ neighbors outside of church that will help you develop a vision for this one?

    Why does this matter?

    Spending too much time with other church people has an adverse effect on one’s ability to relate to normal people. Non-churchy people that don’t know you as their pastor haven’t learned that brown-nosing the pastor is expected. This is good, and builds humility. Simple math: if it takes more than one degree of separation to arrive at a sphere of influence that isn't dominated by churchy people, you lose the cheapest and most effective tool for gathering: word of mouth.

    5 Comments
  • Stacking Stones

    by User Not Found | Aug 27, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Tasha Blackburn, co-pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, Arkansas. Tasha and her husband, Phil, are members of the President's Roundtable.

    Last year I took a call to pastor in the Bible Belt. This meant I was leaving good friends and congregants behind, heading for a culture I did not know, and embarking on an experiment in co-pastoring with my husband. As I drove the car away from our old home and began the full day's drive to our new one, I was petrified. In my hand I held a stone a friend had given me. It had the word "trust" engraved on it. Every mile I drove, with drugged cats in the front seat and antsy children in the back, I pressed my hands around that stone. I squeezed it in my palm, rubbed my fingers across the lettering, and I prayed. For months after the moving day I kept that stone near, in a pocket or my purse, so that my hands could easily grasp it.

    I now live in a region where clusters of bright white crosses reach to the heavens, fifty and sixty feet into the air. I live in a city where traveling preachers regularly lead weekends of prophecy and police officers greet you on the street with, "God bless you ma'am." All of this happens in the public sphere. But, though I am a pastor, charged to share the gospel, I am also, at heart, a Midwestern girl who feels most at home clutching her prayer stone in private. 

    Public faith came to the forefront in a recent Sunday school class. We were discussing the Great Ends of the Church which begin with Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind. Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, in her guide on this first Great End, documents the shift in public sharing. With the rise of modernism, facts became the acceptable topics within the public sphere. Feelings, values, and faith, if they could not be verified, were shuffled to the private sphere and considered an opinion. She writes, "[t]he result is the privatizing of religion, which raises the question of how public one can make one's private opinions. Are we invading the 'private space' of another person when we ask about their faith or tell them about ours?"[1]

    Broad streams of Christianity have ignored this modernist shift. They have continued to view faith as a public matter, demanding public policies and public leadership which will speak to that faith. Other denominations, including my own Presbyterian family, recognize that faith is often a private matter but, in doing so, may concede one of the church's greatest callings: proclamation. Instead we offer the public what we feel is proper: "facts" such as the design of our facilities or the numbers in our youth groups, and we keep quiet about the truth of the gospel.

    If we feel the gospel of Jesus Christ that has been revealed to us is already being proclaimed in the public realm, there is no problem for there is no need for our voices. But if we feel we have a unique and important message to share about the Christian life and salvation then we must dare to go public. Also, the ground has already shifted under our feet. While we concern ourselves with facts, the culture has become more concerned with meaning. When we proclaim our facts rather than our faith we labor under an outdated method and miss a world of people hungry to find meaning. 

    If we feel at all convicted to live out our faith in public, to live out our calling of proclamation, we have to begin somewhere. Perhaps we, the more private, Midwestern-styled Christians, could begin with this: let's get our stones out of our pockets and start stacking them. I refer to the practice of ebenezers in ancient Israel. Described in 1 Samuel 7:12, ebenezers or "stones of help" were stacked high in places where people of faith were certain God had shown up. For the person stacking, the stones showed honor to God. For the people who passed by them, they proclaimed that God had been at work in that place.  

    Can we begin stacking a few stones? Can we publicly point to the places in our lives and in our churches where God has shown up and can we proclaim what that has meant to us? Even the shyest and most Midwestern of us can. And we need to because, if we leave that stone in our pocket rather than stacking it high, those who come along will not know of God's faithfulness and presence in our lives. Without "raising our ebenezers,"[2] the hungry public will not know that God showed up here. 
    ________________________________________________________________________

    [1] Volume one, page nine, of six-volume series on the Great Ends of the Church, Witherspoon Press, 2003 

    [2] From the second verse of the hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," written by Robert Robinson, 1757

     

    Go comment!
  • Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About it.

    by User Not Found | Aug 20, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Angela Morris, head of public services at Louisville Seminary.

    "Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell About it." [1] These were the opening words at a recent worship service I attended at the annual American Theological Library Association conference in Charlotte, N.C. Leighton Ford used this excerpt from a Mary Oliver poem to  preach a thought-provoking sermon entitled “God Is Paying Attention – Are We?” 

    What about it, how often do we really pay attention, to anything? When was the last time you were truly astonished? If we are honest, in today’s hyper-connected world of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we tell about everything. These instant messaging tools encourage us to tell all, with no requirement for "paying attention and/or astonishment."

    Relax, this isn't a Luddite diatribe against technology. After all, I've written a blog entry on a laptop and these words are now posted on the Internet. Rather it is an invitation to consider how often we truly pay attention, why we might want to, and what is gained by the practice. 

    There are many impediments to paying attention in our world that glorifies the art of multi-tasking and offers so many tools for doing it. Our smart phones allow us to not only make and receive calls, but to also check e-mail, search the Internet, listen to music, and be instantly updated – all options that require our attention. They encourage us to view the world through their screen instead of directly. What do we miss by viewing that four inch surface when we walk from one place to another; when we sit amid a group of people and choose to engage with the virtual and not the breathing, thinking, feeling, living child of God sitting next to us?  

    Two years ago Sean Hayden, a fellow in Vanderbilt’s Theology and Practice Program, taught a seminar at Louisville Seminary on Wendell Berry – a rather famous Luddite.  The course required that students take two technology sabbaticals, one of three days, the second a full week. During this sabbatical, we were asked to “briefly give up our addiction to technology. No Internet or computers (other than for school use, and then only  if absolutely necessary), no TV, and no cell phones or similar devices. The primary goal of the exercise was for us to learn a simple lesson about attention—and how it gets ruined.” [2]

    Technology for many of the twelve students in the seminar was a way of life. I've likened their use of technology to being as essential to them as breathing is. Their feedback after surviving those days unplugged was very interesting. The biggest surprise? The realization of how much  time  they spend online. The realization that, “yes, technology does save one time with many tasks, but it often robs one of time by luring one to check out another web page, see what our friends are up to on Facebook, answer the latest e-mail that just came through, or check the latest gossip about our favorite celebrity.”

    What about it? Is technology a tool that you control, or is it perhaps controlling you? I think too many forget that there is an off button. What if, instead of having everything on all the time, you only powered up when you needed to check on something or perform a task? I often remind  my completely wired twenty-three-year-old daughter that she has the power, she only has to exercise it. 

    Think about it – what if you unplug and really pay attention to the person in front of you, the task at hand, or the ever changing vista of the natural world. I predict that you will be astonished and that you won’t be able to keep from telling about it. It’s what happened at a worship service I attended in North Carolina in June.   



                    [1] Excerpt from Mary Oliver poem “Sometimes” section 3 in Red Bird: Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 37.

                    [2] From syllabus for “Southern Religious Humanism: Wendell Berry’s Philosophy of Life,” class taught at Louisville Seminary, Spring, 2012, 1, accessed  July 29, 2013,   http://www.lpts.edu/docs/syllabi/th368-3_sp12.pdf?sfvrsn=0.


    Go comment!
  • Impossible People

    by User Not Found | Aug 13, 2013
    This blog post was guest-written by Dr. F. Morgan Roberts, trustee of Louisville Seminary. 

    George MacDonald’s best known sermons were never delivered. Forced to leave his pulpit because of his controversial message of God’s universal grace, he preached thereafter with his pen, producing 619 pages of Unspoken Sermons. Here’s an undelivered, unspoken sermon of mine that has been aging in my “possible sermon” file.

    It starts with a story about violinist Joshua Bell who was concertizing in Washington, D.C. in 2007. While there, the Washington Post employed Bell for an interesting experiment. Dressed as a musician who was “down on his luck” and begging, Bell leaned against a subway wall and played for forty-five minutes. His underground concert consisted of six glorious but difficult pieces, which he played on his $3.5 million Stradivarius. A hidden camera recorded the audience’s response to this master musician whose concerts can cost $100 per ticket. Of the 1,097 people who walked by, twenty-seven dropped their pocket change into Bell’s box, but walked on without stopping to enjoy the music. How many stopped long enough to listen? Seven!

    Would we recognize the “real item,” the real Jesus if we passed by him when he wasn’t wearing his customary clothing of classical, or even Sunday School art?

    You think you know where I’m going with this one, expecting me to ask if we would recognize Jesus in the rags of the destitute and disadvantaged. But that’s not at all where I’m headed with my Joshua Bell story. In fact, we preachers have sermonized so frequently upon Matthew 25 and Jesus’ promise of his presence among “the least of these” that we expect to find him in the impossible plight of the poor. No, that’s not where I’m going.

    Neither am I referring to those other impossible people, those so deeply dysfunctional that they are shut away in our prisons or psychiatric hospitals for their protection and ours. I have to believe that the God of grace must be working mysteriously within them for their full healing on some other, future shore.

    It’s “my impossible people” who are my problem. I just cannot spot any evidence of the presence of Jesus in the lives of people who seem incapable of thinking of anyone other than themselves. They remind me of the busload of insubstantial, ghostly souls in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce who have been brought up from hell to the borders of heaven to be offered a second chance. Pitifully imprisoned within their self-will, they simply cannot let go of their misery to grasp the joy of self-surrender.

    These impossible people are ever with us, occupying the best places. Some may attain high public office, even stand in our pulpits or teach in our seminaries. Indeed, some of us, in a fit of youthful passion, may even have married one of them! If one of these comes to mind as you read these words, you understand what I mean when I say that there are people in whose lives I simply cannot detect the presence of Jesus. I cannot imagine how they will ever be saved from themselves, especially on Sunday morning when the creed asks me to say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.” Whether my mentor is N.T. Wright or Rudolf Bultmann, those become really impossible words when I recite them with my impossible people in mind… until it occurs to me that I myself may seem to be impossible in someone else’s mind. And it is here that some words of George MacDonald come to my rescue: “I well remember… feeling as a child that I did not care for God to love me if he did not love everybody: the kind of love I needed was the love that all men needed, the love that belonged to their nature as the children of the Father, a love he could not give me except he gave it to all men.”

    So I’m left with the “mission impossible” of living reverently in the wild hope that no person is ever impossible with the God of radical grace who will, somehow, bring all of us home. With Quaker George Fox, I must somehow learn to “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”


    Go comment!
  • Being Green

    by User Not Found | Aug 06, 2013
    This blog post was guest-written by Louisville Seminary student Abbi Long (MDiv '15).

    “It’s not that easy being green. Having to spend each day the color of the leaves, when I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow, or gold or something much more colorful like that. It’s not that easy being green.” –Kermit the Frog

    I think Kermit was onto something when he sang this song on PBS’s Sesame Street. What is it about being green that is so difficult? Why is the word “green” so polarizing in a conversation with friends and coworkers? Just the mention of it within certain circles and people quickly jump onto one bandwagon or another. Truly, being green is no less controversial than many other contemporary issues. I might even dare to say that being green is more controversial because it is based on science, something that Christians have often struggled to embrace.

    Being green used to be too much for me to swallow as well. I recently finished a course in Environmental Ethics with Dr. Scott Williamson. I enrolled in the course to fulfill requirements toward my MDiv. I enrolled because it met at a convenient time, on a convenient day. I had just enough room in my faith to consider how the environment might not only be an issue for science, it might be an issue for the Church.

    As a United Methodist Licensed Local Pastor, I chose the course not only because it was convenient, I selected the course because my denomination strives to focus on issues of social justice. Because the course was in ethics, I knew that I would come face-to-face with why the environment was an issue of social justice that the Church could no longer ignore.

    I have to admit—I am still unable to make the environment the biggest soap box to stand on. What I am able to do now that I have taken this course is make it ONE of the platforms I have in my theology.

    I want to invite you to consider Earth, God’s creation, in the same manner.

    I want to invite you to go on a drive, maybe even a tour of your city.

    Our class went on such a tour. The Passionist Earth and Spirit Center in Louisville, Kentucky gave us a crystal clear perspective on the history of the west side of our city. Unfortunately, many of the people who live on that side of town are unable to pack up and move to a better environment. The speaker really caught my attention when he talked about how in a fair world, we should all feel comfortable trading places with our neighbor. After our tour, I knew that my city was not fair. I knew that I could not trade places with the people living mere feet away from a power plant or busy freeway and still experience the same quality of life.

    Consider with me the reasons why the care of our environment is an issue of social justice. Who is affected most by pollution? What groups of people are impacted by newly constructed freeways? Do the people living near coal power plants have the financial resources to move when they become ill from the effects of pollution?

    Consider with me then how to overcome the challenge of discussing this topic. How can we engage with one another across the chasm of politics to consider the role of the Church in this issue of social justice? How can we invite people of all faiths to participate in discovering solutions to humankind’s misuse of the earth?

    Kermit’s song goes on. He sings, “It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things. And people tend to pass you over, ‘cause you’re not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky. But green’s the color of the spring. And green can be cool and friendly like. And green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain or tall like a tree. When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why, but, why wonder? Why wonder? I’m green. And it’ll do fine. It’s beautiful. And I think it’s what I want to be.”

    And I do want to be green. I want to be green because though it has not yet captivated the Church like a flashy sparkle in the water, being green is big and tall and important to humans everywhere.

    Go comment!
  • A Word about Words

    by User Not Found | Jul 30, 2013
    This blog post was guest-written by Dr. John Kuykendall, who served as interim president of Louisville Seminary from 2003 to 2004.

    It was a fine March morning, with premonitions of springtime in the air.  Maggie, the Border Collie, had dragged me through our mandatory two-mile walk, and I had showered and was facing myself in the mirror for the obligatory confrontation with Barbasol and the Gillette Good News Razor.  Whatever the reason -- a good night’s rest, the beauty of the dawn, the prospects of the day -- the face that confronted me in the mirror was smiling.  The words of the psalmist came to mind:  “This is the day the Lord has made....”

    Simultaneously, my daily transfusion of NPR's Morning Edition was coming from the small radio on the bathroom counter.  The person being interviewed was a bright and knowledgeable official in one of our governmental agencies.  She answered each question directly and with an obvious grasp of the larger issues and circumstances which prompted the inquiry.  Then came her moment of grammatical meltdown.  She was asked who would have oversight of a particular aspect of the project under discussion, and she responded with no little confidence, “Myself (sic!) and other members of [the agency] will be in charge of that.” 

    “Myself!” I shouted.  “Heaven help us!  Am I losing my mind?  Did I really hear that?  On NPR?  From a person who seemed to be both literate and otherwise competent?  How could this happen?” 

    The face in the mirror went from a grin to a grimace.  Something inside me tried to apply the brakes of  wrath, suggesting that I hadn't heard what I knew I had heard, or maybe that it didn't really matter all that much after all.  No big deal, I thought.  Calm down, I said to myself.  It’s probably safe to shave without inflicting permanent harm.  But something else inside me cried havoc, encouraging me to shout libelous accusations at the offender, disparaging her background, her education, and her mental capacity.  I know I shouldn't have said or even thought any of those things; but I did.  I am an unreconstructed bigot when it comes to the misuse of our mother tongue.  I've been thinking that perhaps I should try to make constructive use of my obsession.  So here’s a brief but crucial message, especially to my brothers and sisters who share God’s call to a preaching ministry.  

    Please, please, please: pay attention to the rules of grammar when you speak, lest you be taken for an illiterate fool.  All of us make occasional grammatical or rhetorical errors when we speak; but those who don’t know when they've made those sorts of mistakes may well lack credibility in the minds and hearts of their listeners.  So remember what you learned (or should have learned) in grammar school.  Remember the difference, as in my NPR example, between/among nominative, objective and reflexive pronouns.  “Me and [others]” might have been even more offensive than “Myself and [others] but both are equally wrong.  

    And there are any number of other things to avoid: Remember the need for agreement between subjects and verbs; try to learn the difference between “lie” and “lay” (that battle may be lost!); and try to not split infinitives (Oops.  I meant “try not to split” in case you were wondering!).   And while I’m expressing homiletic peeves:  it would be nice if you can avoid such throw-away words as “awesome” and “cool” in sermons, and  maybe  even such words as “amazing” and “robust,” which are on the fast track from trendy to trite.  

    But I digress.  My point is that every one of us is guilty of grammatical and/or linguistic sins at one time or another, but there is at least one reliable way to begin to absolve yourself:   Find a coach; find a verbal editor; find someone in your regular congregation, classroom, or audience who is knowledgeable  about matters of grammar and vocabulary; find someone who will “speak the truth in love” to you about the things you say, perhaps even someone who would be willing to transcribe your homiletic fluffs onto note cards and pass them to you after each service.  (Probably better not to have a spouse or an offspring serve in that role!)  Choose whomever you will.  Then have the grace and openness to listen to that mentor, and to strive for amendment of your verbal shortcomings and offenses.  It can’t do any harm.  It could do you a world of good.  

    And, by the way:  myself and the other shameless grammarians in your congregation thanks you. 

    Just kidding!

     

    Go comment!
  • Who Offers Bible Study for the Pastor?

    by User Not Found | Jul 23, 2013
    This blog post was guest-written by Tyler Mayfield, assistant professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Louisville Seminary.
    Tyler Mayfield

    This seemingly innocent question was nonchalantly asked recently by one of my DMin students. She had journeyed to the Seminary campus this summer with seven other experienced pastors and chaplains for a one-week intensive course on biblical interpretation. We had been working collaboratively as a class on multiple biblical passages, including some difficult ones such as Matthew 25: 31-46, over the course of several days, and the results were evident: a community of interpreters produces rich and fruitful questions and interpretations that are often difficult to match in the solitude of a pastor’s study. We needed each other’s experiences of the world, the Divine, and the text to enrich our interpretive frameworks, challenge our assumptions, and develop our ponderings. We also needed the freedom to not know, to not have the answer, to struggle with the text. So, the pastor-student wondered aloud for an instant about the feasibility of creating such a life-giving, communal experience among the clergy in her hometown. She wanted more partners, not parishioners, for Bible study.

    As a seminary professor and biblical scholar, I encourage my students to seek out and develop relationships with fellow clergy women and men as they journey beyond seminary into vocational ministry. These groups of clergy, particularly when they include a diversity of traditions, ages, and experiences, can provide immense support to ministers as they create a space for naming hopes and despairs, failures and successes. But, these groups, I think, can also push themselves beyond a monthly therapeutic session over breakfast (as much as that is sometimes needed!). What might happen to these clergy gatherings if they are transformed, at least sometimes, into communities of biblical interpreters? What if my student received her wish and participated regularly in Bible studies for pastors?

    Indeed there are unique advantages to communal practices of interpretation. We are all mostly too comfortable in our experiences and perceptions of the world to stretch naturally toward new readings of sacred texts. We are often too busy protecting our hard-won interpretations. We feel pressure to have practical, straightforward answers for church folks. The is eternally tempting. Yet, reading the Bible as a community begins to chip away at all these tendencies as we become more aware of the complexities of emotions and experiences gathered in the community. Reading in community allows us to nurture, to share, and to listen for the distinctive ways in which our lives intersect with Scripture. Studying the Bible together with other clergy could help us listen better to the Spirit of Wisdom as she blows through the lives of our colleagues as they take up the Bible and voice their understandings. 

    Be forewarned though: reading in community, reading with other clergy, destabilizes traditional models of learning and prevailing power dynamics. Reading is power. It calls forth and honors the many voices present in the gathering. Of course, that type of Bible study just might be exactly what is needed in order to attend to the many voices present in our sacred stories.

    Go comment!
  • Ministry in a Culture of Disengagement

    by User Not Found | Jul 16, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Susan R. Garrett, dean of Louisville Seminary.

    My daughter Kate and I met my friend Angela Cowser in Nashville the other day. We went to a Chinese buffet and then, to extend our visit, walked for an hour around an outdoor track. Neither Kate nor I wore shoes ideal for walking on a cinder-covered surface, but the fellowship was too important for us to care about foot-discomfort.

    Perhaps ironically, at Angela’s initiative the topic that had launched the evening’s discussion was the decline of meaningful conversation. By “meaningful conversation” Angela meant dialogue characterized by mutual attentiveness, openness, and respect. She meant interchanges that move participants incrementally toward a deepened understanding of themselves, one another, and the world. We discussed reasons why people don’t talk as much as they used to, and noted that when conversations do occur they often are superficial and distracted.

    This problem is satirized in a series of hilarious sketches on the “Weekend Update” portion of Saturday Night Live, in which Seth Meyers interviews “The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party.” Played by Cecily Strong, this young woman presents a veneer of knowledge about world events and claims to be thinking about important subjects, like Syria, or orphaned children (see video here). But as the conversation moves along she looks at her phone, pulls items from her purse, greets friends in the audience, jumps randomly from one snippet of current events to the next, and fends off Seth’s responses through sarcasm.

    The SNL character is extreme, but which of us has escaped the social forces that curtail attention spans, discourage depth, and compromise capacity to be present to a given person or moment? It seems that the problem has grown much worse in the last decade, and so one reasonably infers that technology has exacerbated the effect of these social forces. I am not Facebook bashing: technology is not inherently the problem, but who can deny that it has given us new and omnipresent ways to indulge our tendency to disengage?1 Walk into a restaurant and notice how many people, even couples, are texting or checking updates on their smart phones while (or instead of) conversing.

    There are other patterns of social disengagement besides mental absence from conversation, however, and even those who never touch a smart phone may fall into them. At work, church, or school, disengagement may manifest as doing the bare minimum, focusing on what’s in it for me rather than on shared vision and mission, and blaming and complaining at toxic levels. In the civic realm, disengagement manifests as failing to participate in the political process by voting, and caricaturing, judging, or actively sabotaging those with whom one disagrees rather than trying to understand their point of view and work for the common good. In personal lives, patterns include being apathetic, numbing oneself through all manner of addiction, living with low expectations, and being noncommittal in relationships.

    Brené Brown, a social analyst, says that such patterns of behavior are driven by our fear of being vulnerable to critique and shame. She claims that disengagement is an armoring of the self done for protection. 2

    If Brown is even partially correct, then surely the need for the Gospel of freedom from bondage is as acute and widespread as it has ever been. But how can we possibly minister in a world characterized by such disengagement? If people's attention and interest are so compromised, how can we draw them into conversation about God’s will for human lives?  If all are focused on protecting their interests and meeting their own needs, how can we share the message that it is in serving God and God's people through Christ that we find our heart’s desire? Finally, how can we guard ourselves against this tendency we lament in others—this proclivity to fear rejection, resign ourselves to failure, and withdraw?

    I have no quick fixes for these quandaries. Here I want only to share one idea borrowed from a recent book on pedagogy. In Gratitude in Education: A Radical View, 3 education expert Kerry Howells explores how, by consciously practicing gratitude, teachers can instigate a cycle of giving and receiving that counters disengagement. For Howells, practicing gratitude is not the same as counting blessings (an act that can be self-focused). Gratitude practices have as their outcome an effect on the quality of one’s personal presence and on social exchange. Such practices include not only saying thank you, but also focusing our minds on people’s strengths and contributions rather than on what annoys us about them, consciously opening ourselves to change as a result of valid critiques we receive, approaching a meeting with an attitude of thanks for whatever will transpire, and many others. Adopting one or two such practices consistently can make a difference, Howells contends (one of her chapters has the title “Little Practice, Big Effects”). She insists that gratitude is not simply a technique, however: it is a different way of being. Gratitude first alters the teacher, and changes flow out from there.

    How might our embodiment and proclamation of the Gospel be transformed if we strived to practice gratitude both in season and out? Could this be one small but significant way to resist the forces that bind us and prevent our deep engagement with God and one another?

    “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6-7)

     

    NOTES

    1See Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

    2Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage (Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True,. 2012).

    3Kerry Howells, Gratitude in Education: A Radical View (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2012).

    Go comment!
  • The Faithful Church

    by User Not Found | Jul 09, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by the Rev. Anne Vouga (MDiv ‘08). Anne is rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Louisville.

    Sometimes it seems as if all that we clergy want to write and talk about is how to get hold of those precious “nones,” the growing number of people who might still believe in God, yet do not consider themselves members of any religious institution. I have joined in the hand-wringing like everyone else, but a distinct sense of déjà-vu usually calls me up short.

    Way back in 1982, I raised my nose from my theology books and peered out at a foreign religious world that seemed to be collapsing in front of my eyes. I had come to France, full of youthful enthusiasm, to study, and then to serve, the descendants of the courageous Huguenots who had held firm in their faith through centuries of persecution. The Reformed Protestants were still widely recognized and admired in their secular country for their strong moral stance, for their work for justice and peace, for their care of the poor and the outcast… but strangely, their churches seemed to be dying, and icy gusts of hopelessness blew through the chinks in the church windows and swirled constantly around their heads during worship.

    I can still picture those big French Reformed Church buildings, made of stones as stubborn and sturdy as their Huguenot builders, yet now slumped on their foundations and looking inward with vacant eyes. I can picture the empty balconies that framed the proud central pulpit looking down on a dozen or so elderly men and women who were huddled for warmth around a gas stove in the center aisle. The pastor didn’t bother to climb into the pulpit anymore; its tall canopy and high steps were too grand for the small number of worshippers huddled together in their winter coats and practical shoes. Birds made their nests in the balconies, and the paint on the walls was buckling and ripping open the plaster like old wrapping paper. The organ no longer worked, and so the elderly congregation sang the old Goudimel psalms unaccompanied—sad, like an old record that was playing on slow speed. The pastor stood with a smile pasted on his face in the midst of his flock, bravely proclaiming resurrection. At home, though, he spent his time wondering if it would help attendance if they moved the services to Fridays, before the weekends when busy French families found other occupations. And the pastor’s wife spent her time wondering if the government allocations for a fifth child would buy them a new stove for the manse’s drafty kitchen.

    “How do these French pastors do it?” I wondered, remembering the full parking lots of program-sized American parishes back home.  “Social justice and outreach work are nothing without faith and prayer and worship,” I opined. “Where did the French Reformed Church go wrong, to be dying like this? They must be doing something wrong,” I muttered, more and more desperately. Instinctively, in an attempt at self-preservation, I turned away from this dismal and disintegrating world, unwilling to stay on board a sinking ship when life and hope and love beckoned in the sunshine outside the church walls.

    Having run from the struggling French church, here I am back home, a priest in my own country. My priesthood is proof that Jesus has a sense of humor and a never-ending stock of mercy. Thirty years after telling Jesus that a struggling church is not for me, I am the pastor looking up at cracked ceilings and negative budgets, doing the disheartening math of ever-declining attendance and ever-increasing age, wondering if it would help to move the services to Fridays, and serving in an American religious world that is quickly catching up to the one that I abandoned in France.

    We come to church looking for life, do we not? There’s enough death and failure in our lives, already, without finding it at church, too. In church, we want happy music to lift our hearts, clever words to inspire us, sacraments that are filled with the Holy. We want a giving church, not a needy one; a life-giving church, not a dying one… and yet, and yet, we follow a Savior who brings life by dying:

    “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Jesus proclaims.

    I don’t have the answers to our churches’ struggles. But I have learned something that I did not know as a twenty-two-year-old perfectionist. A faithful church will not say to those “nones:” “Give yourselves to us because we are successful.” It will say, “Give yourselves to us so that we can pour ourselves out into the hurting world.” A faithful church is going to ask us to love more than we can love; to hope in the face of hopelessness; and to believe that a Lord who is hanging on a cross will live again.

     

     

     

    3 Comments
  • The Lower Room

    by User Not Found | Jul 01, 2013
    This blog post was guest-written by Abbie Trowbridge, a gifted writer and MAMFT student at Louisville Seminary. Last May, Trowbridge's poem, Requiem, was read on NPR's 'The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor.' Click here for more.

    There is a place on campus where I have found God every time I’ve looked. I’ll admit, I’m a little reticent to reveal the secret, but then again not everyone can get in so it’s probably safe if I share it with you. Of all the places I thought I might find God at Seminary, the chart room was not one of them. Caldwell Chapel? Sure. In a lecture or a practicum placement? Yup. In a moment of friendly fellowship over chicken quarters with capers and wine sauce? Certainly. I did not expect God to frequent a rather nondescript, cramped and musty room in the basement of Nelson Hall. 

    I was first introduced to the chart room shortly after TSE (Transforming Seminary Education) in late August of last year. It seemed like an ordinary-enough room. Among other things, the chart room is where all of the charts for clients in the counseling center are written and kept up-to-date, along with a few old copies of the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), office supplies, a mass of re-recordable DVDs, and a reliable chocolate stash in case of sudden counseling emergencies. I didn’t understand, as the casual observer would probably not understand, that this room is a very special place.

    First and foremost, you should know that the chart room is a place of departure. I’ll never forget standing next to the door, lifting the orange wooden keychain for counseling room two from a set of small hooks before seeing my very first client one day last January. There was a slight tremor in my hand, so I called up one of my standard prayers:

    Hey. It’s me again. As per usual, I’m gonna need some help with this. Could you please let me do good and listen and allow space for the Holy Spirit and all that crap? And most of all please, please help me sit still and not fidget! Uh…Amen.  

    I made it through that first session, clinging to my clipboard for dear life, and the next week the client miraculously returned for more. One by one, the other members of my cohort did the same, and from the looks on our faces and the whiteness of our knuckles you’d think we were jumping out of an airplane or going off to war, not heading into therapy. 

    The chart room is also a place of arrival. It is the safe place where I arrive after particularly uplifting or particularly harrowing client sessions (by the way, harrowing and uplifting can occur simultaneously in therapy). Every time I have needed the listening ear of a friend or the experience of a third-year student, they have somehow materialized and were in that room upon arrival. I have always found someone with whom to share the sharp pain of witness or the joys of small successes there. And when I have needed it, I have found a clam, quiet space to sit and think and be.  

    I have had many meals in the chart room, taken a nap or two, sung show tunes, searched high and low for a piece of gum, and looked up more prescription drug uses than I care to remember. I have emerged into the sometimes-chaos of my clients’ lives trying clumsily to decipher their languages. The payoff: that elusive session when I am at my best and I find the grace within me to sit still in the roar of the others’ grief and not be laid low by it. On the contrary, I find I have the strength to be present with them or offer a glimpse of hope, that previously inaccessible and most valuable of commodities. 

    We may not have a Peter, a John or a James, but we do have an Andrew, a Tonia and a couple of Erins in our lower room. It’s also good to know that one can occasionally find an impromptu dance party, if needed, and an almost constant Internet connection in our little corner of Nelson. For me it’s the most wonderful and transformative space on campus, and in my experience, God and a little grace can almost always be found there.

    Go comment!
  • Moments

    by User Not Found | Jun 25, 2013

    This blog post was guest written by Jenny Schiller, director of clinical training at Louisville Seminary's Counseling Center. 

    I recently attended a prayer service for a man who died unexpectedly during recovery from a surgical procedure. His wife and family had no time to prepare for this sudden loss. They were stunned with how quickly life changed for them all. In listening to the stories told about Joe, there were many things that stood out; his love of UK sports, his love of his wife and her baking, his work ethic, his care for his children and even his restlessness during extended church hymns. There were tearful memories and humorous tales that reflected the personality of this man. In listening, I realized all of the stories spoke about love and commitment; love of family and commitment to his wife, children and grandchildren; love of God and commitment to church, community and friends. Joe’s values included time spent with selfless acts that brought meaning to so many. 

    Leaving the visitation I was struck by how well-lived his life had been. Joe’s moments had shown a clear and honest intention. His time had ended suddenly, earlier than those who loved him would have ever thought, yet all agreed that there were no regrets, no need for extra time to make things right. Things were made right on a daily basis as time unfolded. When the final parting came, Joe was, in fact, ready. He was at peace with his family, his friends and his God. 

    How amazing would it be to live each moment of our lives this way? To never let an unkind word escape our lips, an action we regretted or a missed opportunity.  How clear of conscience we might be, knowing the right thing to do or say in a given circumstance and being able to do or say just that. Our lives might feel very different and very rich. 

    Some days, it seems there isn’t a spare moment. Life is so hurried. Tasks must be accomplished quickly as if time spent unproductively would be a great loss. We have many time-saving conveniences; microwaves, turbo-charged cars, computers and wifi. If our phone rings, we can screen callers, choosing whether to answer, to respond or to ignore. We can follow people on Facebook and have a sense of their lives without spending a real moment in their presence. We can choose to be unavailable by turning off, unplugging and tuning out. 

    I wonder why we never have enough time to be truly present? We multi-task better than any generation before us and yet there is always too much to do. I have checked, and think it’s true, that we have as much time in the day as generations before us. Perhaps we are so caught up in “doing,” in making use of every minute, that we miss the real moments. When my children were young, I often wanted to hit a pause button to extend a special moment, to take in the fullness that was encountered for what never seemed to last long enough. I longed to pause the child asleep with her damp, soft face nestled against my shoulder; the joyful first word read, the nervous excitement of heading off to prom. There are simple moments of sheer beauty in viewing a sunrise, an ocean wave, or a mountaintop worthy of “pause” and there are complex moments of sitting at the bedside of people we love in pain. And while we don’t want them to suffer, we surely don’t want to lose them from our lives. We want just one more chance to hold a moment with them. 

    Every decision we make about our time impacts the world and the people in it. How we spend our moments evidences our values, our faith and what we hold dear. This speaks to our meaning and purpose, our mission in life. In pausing to fully experience the wholeness of life, we find reflections of love and commitment. We take inventory of our lives with greater awareness of where we place “pause.” The challenge is to remain in Joe time, making each moment count in our lives, and in the lives of the people and community who matter most, living in the time of no regrets. 

     

     

     

    Go comment!
  • "Unwinding": the Power and Limitations of Story

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 18, 2013

    In his remarkable new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), George Packer sets out to describe "the vertigo of that unwinding" which has affected virtually every aspect of American life since the 1960s. "You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape - the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition - ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere." Packer, looking back over the past couple of generations, writes in the book's prologue, "The norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts." (3) 

    I rushed to our local bookstore to get a copy of the book, hoping it might illuminate the erosion of trust and confidence in the institutions of our age, a phenomenon which, incidentally, is not limited to the United States. The immediate reason I wanted to read the book was in preparation for a trans-Atlantic consultation in which Debbie and I have been invited to participate later this month at Windsor Castle outside of London. A group of about twenty scholars, institutional leaders and politicians, mostly, but not exclusively, from Britain will discuss and debate the future and well-being of institutions. The consultation is jointly sponsored by St. George's House, Windsor, and The Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton. I hoped that Packer's book might provide fresh insights and analyses which would benefit our discussion.  

    Packer's method for getting at the truth is to tell stories of Americans living through this age along with us. He tells these stories patiently, allowing the details to accumulate in layers. The story of Jeff Connaughton, a Democratic operative, is told alongside the story of Republican leader Newt Gingrich. The story of Tammy Thomas, an African-American woman working hard and often against seemingly insurmountable forces, in Youngstown, Ohio, trying just to keep body and soul and family together, is told next door to the triumphant story of Oprah, a black woman of such world-renown and stature that she needs only a single name to identify her. Writer Raymond Carver, General Colin Powell and financial giant Robert Rubin are profiled beside failed entrepreneurs and working class heroes, idealists and pragmatists.  

    Packer's narratives are thick and rich; and insights and reflections do surface in the midst of the stories.  

    For example, Dean Price, the struggling owner of service stations and fast food restaurants, reflects on the impact of "big box" stores that wipe out small local businesses: "And if you think about it," Price says, "the people that ran the hardware store, the shoe store, the little restaurant that was here, they were the fabric of the community, They were the leaders. They were the Little League baseball coaches, they were the town council members, they were the people everybody looked up to. We lost that." (145) 

    Or, in one aside, Packer himself considers the power of diversity in a flesh and blood community: "Life is richest and most creative," he writes, "where people of different backgrounds could meet face-to-face and exchange ideas." (197) 

    Startling facts emerge from the densely packed stories.  

    For instance, I learned that six surviving members of Sam Walton's family (Mr. Sam was the founder of the Walmart empire) "have as much money as the bottom thirty percent of Americans." (104) And the profiles of places like Silicon Valley and Tampa and Wall Street are fascinating.  

    But, in the final analysis, in the wake of reading this delightful book, the feeling was unavoidable that Packer illustrates a situation without really illuminating it. In some ways, he demonstrates the power of stories to move us emotionally, but there are limitations when it comes to making sense of vast social forces.  

    What Packer does, however, is very important in itself. Recently, as we have read the latest data on the rise of religiously non-affiliated people, and even more recently reading the latest statistics related to the continuing decline among Presbyterians, it is tempting to focus on "what's wrong with Protestantism?" or "What's wrong with MY brand of Protestantism?"  

    Someone recently in a Q&A session in the Midwest, after I had made a presentation on the importance of a thinking faith, asked me: "But isn't this why Presbyterians are declining? Because we value thinking so much?" "No," I responded, "Even unthinking Protestantism is declining."

    But, here's the point that Packer makes eloquently: institutions and social forms and professions and ways of life of all sorts are suffering profound and apparently irremediable losses. A poet might say that we live in a time when the centers no longer hold. The illustration of this fact is powerful.

    What I wish Packer helped with more is analysis, the careful, critical, systematic reflection that might help us understand "why?" and "how can we address the situation?" Ironically, we need more of the theoretical, i.e., the construction of viable models to help us comprehend what it is happening.  

    Some things are clear. Many people seem to have lost confidence in the structures that previously gave meaning to and provided the organizing principles for social life, whether civic, educational or religious, political, legal or moral, and which communicated core values from one generation to another. And, correspondingly, many people seem to have lost trust in the leaders who populated those structures. As recent studies (such as those conducted by Pew) have shown, even the most intimate "institutions" such as the formal, socially sanctioned union of persons in marriage, have steadily suffered erosion. Distrust of larger institutions and of the people who lead them is rife.  

    This is not to say, however, that people are necessarily less caring or responsive today. In fact, we are also witnessing the burgeoning of a variety of forms of loose affiliations of people - both web-based and face-to-face - banding together to make all sorts of differences. These affiliations blossom and wither, appear and disappear quickly, many of the persons who respond overlapping, meeting one and another need or responding to this or that social issue, then dispersing. I suspect we are witnessing even now the writing of the next chapter of human institutional history. It is not all bad news, but there are real losses as Packer chronicles.  

    Tellingly, at the very opening of Packer's book, he says that, "The unwinding" which we are witnessing today "is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two." I think it is crucial to keep this perspective. I also think it is important to look afresh at some of the better sociological and political analyses that have emerged in recent years (I'm thinking for example of Hugh Heclo's brilliant study, "On Thinking Institutionally" (Paradigm, 2008)), to understand more deeply the social experiences Packer illustrates.  

    Illustration is valuable, but illumination leads to action.  

    Editor’s note: this will be Michael’s final post before taking his summer break from Thinking Out Loud. In his absence, we are fortunate to have several guest bloggers who have accepted the invitation to write for the blog. Michael is deeply grateful for these people and for their willingness to share their insights with us during the summer months. Look for posts by students Abbi Long and Abbie Trowbridge, Director of Clinical Training for the Seminary’s Counseling Center Jenny Schiller, Seminary Trustee Morgan Roberts, Dean Sue Garrett, Assistant Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Tyler Mayfield and others!



    3 Comments
  • Practicing the Presence of God

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 11, 2013

    “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” The words are from Jacob, the ancient patriarch. Barbara Brown Taylor quotes them in her most recent book, An Altar in the World (New York: HarperOne, 2009). Barbara, who gave the commencement address to our 2013 graduating class, goes on to say: “People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers” (12-13).

    Theological doctrines usually trail along in the wake of the encounter with God, but we should never forget that the doctrines were not intended to replace the God we encounter or the practice of the presence of this God.

    According to Father Andrew Greeley, “The theological voice wants doctrines, creeds, and moral obligations. I reject none of these. I merely insist that experiences which renew hope are prior to and richer than propositional and ethical religion and provide the raw power for them.” Greeley, who died last week, argued that religion “is the result of two incurable diseases from which humankind suffers – life, from which we die, and hope, which hints that there might be more meaning to life than a termination in death.” Peter Steinfels, in his obituary for Greeley (New York Times, May 30, 2013), comments, “Before religion became creed or catechism… it was poetry: images and stories that defy death with glimpses of hope, and with moments of life-renewing experience that were shared and enacted in communal rituals.”

    As a theologian, I have often reflected on the role of theological doctrine in the Christian life. Not everyone thinks theology is a good or even faithful endeavor.

    For instance, Franz Overbeck, a Church historian and close friend of Friedrich Nietzsche, believed that theology was in fact the death of Christianity. Overbeck preceded Albert Schweitzer by several years in saying that the Christianity of the early church was apocalyptic and eschatological (that is, that Christian faith was about the end of history in Jesus Christ), and that this (what he believed to be) authentic Christianity died out when the last of the original disciples of Christ died without experiencing the second coming of Jesus. Overbeck influenced a number of theologians, not least Karl Barth, (Barth’s Epistle to the Romans figured into last week’s blog).

    While Overbeck makes a persuasive argument (as did Schweitzer after him), I prefer to understand theology as a kind of reflective exercise on our encounter with God.

    Through theology, we are trying to make sense of Who it is we are encountering. Even the most complex of theological doctrines are really responses to religious experience.

     The doctrine of the Trinity, for example: although it is easy to get bogged down on questions of “hypostatic union” and “perichoresis” (and other technical issues raised in the stratosphere of higher Trinitarian research), in fact the doctrine of the Trinity is just trying to make sense of the fact that we believe the one we have encountered in Jesus Christ is none other than the God who created everything out of nothing, who spoke through the lips of ancient Hebrew prophets and promised to redeem the people of Israel. This God, we believe, continues to touch our lives, even after Jesus’ death. Our experience with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit gave rise to doctrines about them, doctrines that try to preserve the mystery of the God whom we have encountered. But, again, the doctrines are not intended to be our primary focus and they certainly should not replace the encounter with God.

    This takes us full circle back to where we started, with Barbara Brown Taylor’s thoughts on “waking up to God.” She reminds us that the stories we learned from the Bible tell us of what it means to meet God in the world. “The House of God,” she writes, “stretches from one corner of the universe to the other. Sea monsters and ostriches live in it, along with people who pray in languages I do not speak, whose names I will never know. I am not in charge of this House, and never will be…. Like Job, I was nowhere when God laid the foundations of the earth. I cannot bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion…. I am a guest here, charged with serving other guests…. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars” (13, 15).

    Theology is an inevitable part of a Christian practice of the presence of God. But it is always secondary, an act of reflection; it is a servant of faith, not its boss. We want to know and understand Who meets us between the lines of the Bible or at the Lord’s Table or in a dawn breaking slowly over a salt marsh. But the God we want to understand is and always will be beyond our kin, or else it is not God we are meeting.

    3 Comments
  • Means of Grace

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 04, 2013

    My spiritual director once said to me that my way of knowing and experiencing God is more apophatic than cataphatic. Though I was slow to see it, he may have a point.

    According to scholars, like Roberta Bondi, the apophatic way of talking about God and of approaching God is characterized, as Roberta Bondi writes, "by looking beyond all created categories of sensation and thought to the God who can in no way be conceptualized." (Richardson, Alan, and John Bowden, ed. Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology. Westminster John Knox Press, 1983, "Apophatic Theology" 32)

    The apophatic way to God should, incidentally, be distinguished from the anaphylactic way, which can make you pass out and requires prompt treatment with an EpiPen. I've tried both the apophatic and the anaphylactic way, and, believe me, the apophatic is better and you regain consciousness faster.)

    The alternative to apophatic theology is cataphatic theology, which as Bondi explains has "as its object the intelligible names of God revealed in Scripture" and "involves contemplation of God as [God] is revealed in relation to the world." According to cataphatic theology, we can gain access to God through processes of revelation: God makes Godself known through creation, through prophets, and ultimately through Jesus of Nazareth.

    Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Reformed theologian of the twentieth century, critiqued both the apophatic and the cataphatic ways of knowing God. Especially in his remarkable The Epistle to the Romans (2nd edition, 1921), Barth spoke of the event of God entering human history in Jesus Christ as a point of intersection, "the crater made at the percussion point of an exploding shell, the void by which the point on the line of intersection makes itself known in the concrete world of history." In other words, history is the horizontal plane which we know through experience, and God intersects history in Jesus Christ on a vertical plane. But, even standing at the point of impact, we must be cautious about what we would say about God. We can describe "the crater," but the crater is always still on the historical plane.

    Barth goes on to speak of the incarnation-the point of intersection between the vertical and the historical plane-and of the crater formed by this intersection as follows: "Insofar as our world is touched by Jesus by the other world, it ceases to be capable of direct observation as history, time, or thing. Jesus has been - 'declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Holy Spirit, through his resurrection, from the dead.' In this declaration and appointment - which are beyond historical definition - lies the true significance of Jesus. Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, is the End of History; and He can be comprehended only as Paradox (Kierkegaard)...." (Barth's Epistle to the Romans, Oxford University Press, 29)

    Some have spoken derisively of Barth's "crisis theology," describing it as a kind of pious agnosticism, but I think we should pay close attention to Barth's critique here. Barth provides a vital corrective to the Protestantism that dominated European theology in his time, and that has never entirely gone away. This sort of theology grows complacent of its concept of revelation, and overly confident in its own ability to scale the heights to conceive of God; it becomes audacious in its claims to speak about and (sometimes) to speak for God. The God this theology describes ends up bearing a striking resemblance to the theologians, preachers and Christians who are doing the talking. In Barth's time, they described a God who endorsed their own politics and national interests and imperialism. The Protestantism Barth opposed at this point in his life could have been characterized as cataphatic. He was right to caution us against the theology that envisioned such a God.

    But Barth also questioned the legitimacy of apophatic theology - often termed the via negativa to God because it speaks of God by saying what God IS NOT (whereas cataphatic theology, attempts to speak of God in terms of a via positiva). According to Barth, there is neither via negativa nor via positiva that reliably paves the way from us to God.

    "Where does that leave us?" we might well ask, as people who want to know God and say something about God.

    Barth's point was that we don't seek God and we can't reach God on our own. God seeks us (the great metaphor for this is God's seeking Adam and Eve who were hiding in the Garden of Eden) and God reaches us (we know God because God draws us to God and provides the means by which we come to God). And God never ceases to surprise us with God's own character (we never can capture God in our conceptions and statements).

    While Barth's critique remains valuable, I know of few practitioners of Christian spirituality who actually mess things up as badly as Barth seems to assume. He may have been tilting at straw mystics in some of his statements about apophatic spirituality. But in his critiques he was really targeting the confident guardians of High Protestant Liberalism at the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the folks who had brought us an Imperialistic Protestantism and eventually a complacent religiosity that did not prevent and may actually have midwifed the birth of Fascism. These are the people who reveled in what Barth called "the No-God of this world, which we have created of ourselves."

    I encourage you to read Barth's Epistle to the Romans. It is a work that defies categorization. It is neither a commentary nor a theological monograph. But, however one identifies its genre, is an act of genius that should not be left solely to the Barthians! One reviewer described it as a bomb thrown into the playground where German scholars were at play - and it just keeps exploding today. Barth never lets us forget that all real knowledge of God is through God. God makes the way to us, and creates the way from us to God. All ways of knowing God are means of grace, first and last. 

    Go comment!
  • Lift Up Your Hearts!

    by Michael Jinkins | May 28, 2013

    The immediate past president of Louisville Seminary's student body, Renee Hudgell, recently provided the devotional for the year's final meeting of the Seminary Council. In addition to serving as student body president, and an exemplary student, Renee also serves as pastor of a United Methodist congregation. She is a very busy person. Last fall I shared with you a devotional she provided to our President's Round Table. This recent devotional was equally insightful, and I asked Renee's permission to share it with you also.

    Renee presented to us the "Ten Paradoxical Commandments" written by Dr. Kent M. Keith. Dr. Keith originally published these "Commandments" in 1968 in a booklet to help student leaders. Here they are:

    1. "People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered. Love them anyway.
    2.  If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
    3.  If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
    4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
    5.  Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
    6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
    7. People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
    8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
    9.  People really need help, but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
    10. Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway."

    As Renee told us, if you Google "Mother Teresa's prayer," you will find that it is based on Dr. Keith's "Paradoxical Commandments." But Mother Teresa adds a line: "In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."

    That last line by Mother Teresa brings to mind a wonderful little book by Henri NouwenMaking All Things New. While the book was intended to be about living a spiritual life, I find his reflections especially applicable to the life of leadership. Nouwen writes:

    "Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be so busy with worldly affairs. He does not try to pull us away from the many events, activities, and people that make up our lives. He does not tell us that what we do is unimportant, valueless, or useless. Nor does he suggest that we should withdraw from our involvements and live quiet, restful lives removed from the struggles of the world.

    "Jesus' response to our worry-filled lives is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the 'many things' to the 'one necessary thing.' It is important for us to realize that Jesus in no way wants us to leave our many-faceted world. Rather, he wants us to live in it, but firmly rooted in the center of all things. Jesus does not speak about a change of activities, a change of contacts, or even a change of pace. He speaks about a change of heart. This change of heart makes everything different, even while everything appears to remain the same. This is the meaning of 'Set your hearts on his kingdom first ... and all these other things will be given you as well.' What counts is where our hearts are. When we worry, we have our hearts in the wrong place. Jesus asks us to move our hearts to the center, where all other things fall into place." [Henri J. M. Nouwen, Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 41-42]

    I don't know about you, but I find these reflections from Dr. Keith, Mother Teresa, and Nouwen encouraging. It is probably completely normal to get bogged down from time to time in the sometimes discouraging detritus of organizational life - everything from the management of the rate of change to the management of perceptions, from attending to funding to the assessment of outcomes, from the challenges of personnel decisions to the support of constituents and stakeholders - and it is really important for this reason to lift up our hearts to remember what is ultimately at stake, to whom we are ultimately accountable, and why ultimately we are doing what we are doing. 

    Go comment!
  • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
  • Louisville, KY 40205 |
  • 800.264.1839 |
  • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
  • Site Map
© Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary