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Thinking Out Loud
  • 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

     

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  • 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.


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  • 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.”


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  • 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.

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  • 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!

     

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  • 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.

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  • 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).

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  • 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.

     

     

     

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  • 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.

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  • 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. 

     

     

     

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  • "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!



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  • 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.

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  • 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. 

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  • 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. 

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  • Ministry: The Stewardship of the Mystery

    by Michael Jinkins | May 21, 2013
    The 159th Commencement of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary was held on Sunday, May 19. The following is President Michael Jinkins' charge to the graduating class of 2013.

     

    I find that I lose my footing whenever I read the fourth-century theologian, St. Cyril of Jerusalem. I read him, in part, just for this purpose, to lose my footing. Cyril transports us to that "foreign country" of the distant past.[i] He takes us into the realm of our own Christian past, which we might assume would feel familiar. But when he speaks of the most ordinary Christian practices, such as baptism, these ordinary Christian practices become strange to us. These practices also, in Cyril's hands, take on a magnitude, a significance they seem to lack in our time. 

    Reading Cyril we find ourselves in a realm that revels in mystery. Describing a baptismal service he tells us how the candidates for baptism, "facing west and with hands stretched out, made a formal renunciation of the devil. Then, turning to the east, they solemnly professed faith in the Trinity and in the One Baptism of Repentance." They disrobed, were anointed with oil, and led to "the sacred pool of Holy Baptism." There they professed their faith again and were immersed three times to symbolize Christ's "three day sojourn in the grave." Then, arising from the water like the risen Christ from his grave, they were clothed in white garments, these neophytes (literally these "newly enlightened" ones), and they processed into the sanctuary where they received Holy Communion for the first time.[ii]

    C. S. Lewis once said, "Holy places are dark places... [and] Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood."[iii] Reading Cyril, we find ourselves tumbling head over heels into a holy world, a world blood-thick with mystery. Reading Cyril I am also reminded of Annie Dillard's wonderful reflections, where she says: "On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? .... The churches are children playing on the floor with a chemistry set, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ... straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets."[iv]

    Joseph Sittler once defined ministry as "the stewardship of the mystery." He wrote: "The principal work of the ordained ministry is reflection: cultivation of one's perception into the depth of the Word so that the witness shall be poignant and strong."[v]

    Today I charge you to be stewards of the mystery. I charge you to be mindful of what happens when we invoke holy things. I charge you to take seriously the sacred mysteries we handle.

    There are two mysteries in particular I charge you to reflect on and to handle with reverence: the mystery of God, and the human mystery, both of which are subject to reductionism in our time, to caricature and desecration. 

    Concerning the human mystery: Do not allow the powers and principalities of this present age to lead you to reduce a person to something less than a human being, created in love in the likeness and image of God. The people among whom you will serve are not consumers, or customers, or giving units. They are not even parishioners. They are human beings, children of God. And each and every one stands uniquely in the presence of a God who loves him or her. You are a steward of this great mystery. 

    Concerning the mystery of God:  We steward this great and fundamental mystery first by recognizing God's holiness, God's wholly otherness; and by recognizing that we are not God. But we also steward this mystery by recognizing that we belong (as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us) body and soul, in life and in death, not to ourselves, but to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ. 

    There will be moments when you will be tempted to use another person for your own ends or to caricature another person's motives to win an argument. There will be moments when you will be tempted to take God for granted by making prayer a convenient zipper to begin or end a gathering, or a platform for you to posture in the presence of those with whom you disagree. 

    I charge you now to redeem those moments in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Every person we meet bears upon herself or himself the indelible stamp of God, and makes a claim upon our respect and love. And every moment in our lives is a gift from the most Holy God, who is always as near to us as our next breath. The steward of the human mystery and the mystery of God reflects on these mysteries and allows them to transform our life together. 

    May the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ be with you in your life and in your ministries;  AMEN.


    [i] Opening line of L. P. Hartley's novel, The Go-Between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953): "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." 

    [ii] F. L. Cross, Introduction to Cyril of Jerusalem's Lectures on the Christian Sacraments (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986), xxv. 

    [iii] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (London: Collins, 1956), 58. 

    [iv] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 40. 

    [v] Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations, ed. Linda-Marie Delloff (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 49.

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  • The End of the Beguine

    by Michael Jinkins | May 14, 2013

    A few weeks ago Marcella Pattyn died. 

    There's no particular reason most of us would have noticed. She did not produce a top-ten pop song or write a best-selling novel, or star in a blockbuster movie. She didn't achieve high political office or make a scientific discovery. She was 92 years old at her death. A quiet, chaste, simple soul, her eyesight profoundly impaired, who lived alone. Very much alone. She was the last surviving member of her religious body, the Beguines, a lay religious movement in which women lived in communities dedicated to prayer, useful service and chastity. The movement seems to have begun and spread almost spontaneously, particularly in the Low Countries of Western Europe, beginning in the twelfth or thirteenth century. 

    This was a women's movement in the Roman Catholic Church; some have said it was the very first. And, yet, the women were not nuns and they did not live in a convent. They were not bound by an order or by vows that governed the whole movement, but each community ordered its own life together. Perhaps most importantly, they did not live under the authority of male clergy. 

    While the last of these facts might not have been out of the question in the early medieval period - for instance in Britain where one even finds women religious figures exercising authority over men and women - it was unheard of in the High Middle Ages in Europe. Consequently, the Beguines were often suspected of all sorts of mischief, for which they suffered cruelly at the hands of many, not least at the hands of their own church. 

    Nevertheless, at one time, as was mentioned in Marcella's obituary in The Economist (yes, The Economist took note of her passing!), a single city such as Ghent "could count its Beguines in thousands" (The Economist, April 27, 2013, 86). Revolutions and reformations and counter-reformations, wars and secularism all took their tolls over the centuries, however, until finally Marcella Pattyn was left alone. 

    I first became aware of the Beguine movement because of the scholarly work of a very dear friend, Dr. Ellen Babinsky, a Church historian and scholar of Christian spirituality. A student of Bernard McGinn at the University of Chicago, Ellen translated and wrote the introduction to the beautiful critical edition of Marguerite Porete's classic theological and mystical study, The Mirror of Simple Souls. Porete was one of the best-known of the medieval Beguines. She was burned at the stake in 1310. In Ellen's introduction to Porete's book, in addition to providing a sense of the devotion, independence, and intra-dependence of this remarkable religious community, she tells the story of Porete's trial and execution. 

    "Marguerite," Ellen writes, "was put to death because she was a symbol of a threat, real or perceived, to the established order intimately connected with the strengthening of royal power." Ellen observes that Porete was even more troublesome than many other Beguines because, rather than staying put in a particular Beguine House or enclosure, she wandered freely around her region, teaching. She also wrote in vernacular French, making her teachings readily accessible. In other words, Marguerite Porete was seen by church and civil authorities not only as heretical, but also as popular. She was potentially beyond the control of the authorities. Her influence could easily get out of hand. (Ellen Babinsky, "Introduction," Marguerite Porete, Mirror of Simple Souls [New York: Paulist Press, 1993], 25-26) 

    Reading this classic of Beguine spirituality today, one may be a bit puzzled as to how it could possibly have been condemned by bishops and theologians, even 800 years ago - but only a bit puzzled. Woven throughout the beautiful piety was a message of spiritual freedom. 

    For example, when Porete encourages Christians to live according to the virtue of Charity, she writes: "Charity obeys no created thing except Love. Charity possesses nothing of her own, and should she possess something she does not say that it belongs to her. Charity abandons her own need and attends to that of others. Charity asks no payment from any creature for some good or pleasure that she has accomplished. Charity has no shame, nor fear, nor anxiety. She is so upright that she cannot bow on account of anything that might happen to her." (Mirror of Simple Souls, Chapter 4, p. 82) Here, and especially in other chapters (such as Chapter 6: "How the Soul, made loving by God, living in the peace of Charity, takes leave of the Virtues") one catches a glimpse of the indomitable spirit that so irritated the religious authorities, especially the Inquisition, as well as the thrill and threat of what some scholars who were contemporaries (e.g., at the University of Paris) saw as antinomianism lurking just beneath the surface of Porete's spiritual thought. And Porete burned. 

    It was common among Beguines to write in the vernacular languages, French and Flemish especially, much to the distress of religious and civil authorities. Porete was not unique among her sisters. The writer of The Economist obit reminds us that the authorities who persecuted the Beguines were inevitably male. The resistance and defiance of the Beguines against such oppression is beautifully expressed in their writings as lamentation, resignation, and consolation. Hadewijch of Antwerp writes: "Men try to dissuade me from everything Love bids me do. They don't understand it, and I can't explain it to them. I must live out what I am." (The Economist, April 27, 2013, 86) 

    And so Marcella Pattyn lived out her life. She was who she was. Staunchly, humbly, persistently, her own person in the grace of God. She found God's grace among this community of women who loved Christ and found in Christ (as the Beguines themselves said) a "bridegroom" and a "lover" worthy of their devotion. As Porete wrote, in praise of Christ (in a passage that must really have driven the Grand Inquisitor mad): 

    "O Lover of gentle nature,

    You are to be much praised:

    Generous, courteous without measure,

    Sum of all goodness,

    You do not will to do anything,

    Lover, without my will.

    And thus I must not hold silence

    About your beauty and goodness.

    Powerful you are for my sake, and wise;

    Such I cannot hide.

    Ah, but to whom will I say it?

    Seraphim know not how to speak of it."

    (Mirror of Simple Souls, Chapter 122: "Here the Soul begins her song") 

    So begin the beguine no more; but such an ending. 

    *Apologies to Cole Porter

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  • Merton, Barth, and Salvation by Grace

    by Michael Jinkins | May 07, 2013

    Coincidences of the calendar are simply amazing. I recall my surprise, many years ago, discovering that C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963. The whole world's attention, of course, was utterly diverted that day from the death of arguably the most popular Christian writer of the time by the tragic assassination of the young American president. A fascinating coincidence of the calendar, but not the only one. 

    To me, an even more striking coincidence was the death on the same day of Karl Barth and Thomas Merton. Barth died in Basel, Switzerland, at the age of 82, at the end of a long and productive life. Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand, at the age of 53, at the height of his creative powers and influence. The date, December 10, 1968, came toward the end of a terrible year for the deaths of the great and the good.

    Rowan Williams, while he was Archbishop of Canterbury, marked the fortieth anniversary of this date with a lecture to the Thomas Merton Society on December 10, 2008. (The lecture, "Not Being Serious:Thomas Merton and Karl Barth," can be read here.

    In Williams' lecture he speculates "about conversations that might be going on in some heavenly waiting room between Merton and Barth. Apparently such very diverse figures: the greatest Protestant thinker of the twentieth century, and one of the most widely publicized and widely-read Catholic writers of the age." Drawing from Merton's book, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" (the working title of which was originally "Barth's Dream") and Merton's journals, Williams provides a remarkably full portrait of Merton's critical appreciation for Barth.

    Merton's "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" opens with the sentence: "Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart." Merton goes on to say that in the dream Barth "was appointed to examine Mozart in theology." Barth, the champion of Protestantism, had always been bothered by the fact that Mozart was resolutely Catholic; Mozart criticized Protestantism as "all in the head" and as utterly uncomprehending of the meaning of the phrase: "The Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world."

    Barth, whose devotion to Mozart is well-known, wanted to understand Mozart's faith and theology in the most sympathetic terms possible.

    Merton writes: "I was deeply moved by Barth's account of this dream and always wanted to write him a letter about it. The dream concerns salvation, and Barth is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology." Recalling that Barth began each day's labors as a theologian by listening to Mozart on his record player, Merton says that Barth was drawn to the "divine and cosmic music" that saves us through that love that meets us not only as "agape" (divine love) but also as "eros" (a very human love). Barth himself says that "it is a child, even a 'divine' child, who speaks in Mozart's music to us." Merton closes this opening passage with an exhortation: "Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation." (Thomas Merton, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" New York: 1965, pp. 3-4)

    I wish Merton had written that letter to Barth and that a rich correspondence might have grown between them. We would all have benefited from these two reflecting on their differences and similarities.

    It is singularly interesting that Barth, toward the end of his life, laughs at how preposterous it would be for him to attempt to gain access to heaven pushing a wheelbarrow loaded down with his "Church Dogmatics." The image of the old theologian sweating, huffing and puffing, toward St. Peter's gate, pushing a load of books is delightful, and reminiscent of Merton's playful exhortation. Despite the brilliance with which Barth argued with his students, or the doggedness with which he quarreled with friends and foes alike, there was a childlike playfulness in Barth too which comes through in asides and letters. He was capable of taking himself lightly, as Williams says (of both Merton and Barth); and perhaps this side of Barth's character, the playful child, was fed as much by the bizarre and wondrous shenanigans of "The Magic Flute" as by the "Great Mass in C-Minor."

    I have often thought that Mozart's "Magic Flute" is his musical equivalent to Anselm's "Proslogian" in which the medieval theologian tries to explain how faith kindles understanding and why he was utterly convinced of God's existence. Mozart invites us into an incredible realm where a beautiful woman, the Queen of the Night, a vision of seeming light embodied in a soaring soprano, turns out to be a mortalthreat to our souls while the stern and foreboding Sarastro, a basso profundo in extremis, is revealed in the end as pure grace and goodness. Only by entering into the mysteries personally and at great risk can one discern the goodness of God in this life, Mozart seems to say. Barth understood this too when he says that "Divine revelation ... is the opening of a door that can only be unlocked from the inside." (Merton, "Conjectures" p. 10)

    Perhaps it is a fancy, but one shared with an Archbishop: what fun it would have been to overhear the conversation on December 10, 1968, between Barth and Merton. But I suspect as much as they enjoyed getting to know each other, they were both looking forward even more to that evening's performance of Mozart's latest opera, one we haven't heard yet. 

     

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  • Divine Comedy

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 30, 2013
    "At the mid-point of the path through life, I found/Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way/Ahead was blotted out." (Dante, "The Divine Comedy," tr. Clive James, New York: Liveright Publishing Co., 2013, 3)

    According to Emmanuel Levinas, a text only really exists when it is translated. If this is true, Dante's "Divine Comedy" surpasses almost every other western text in sheer existential heft.

    I have spread out before me on the dining room table this afternoon my four favorite translations: my all-time favorite by one of my all-time favorite poets, John Ciardi; a translation by mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers; Robert Pinsky's wonderful verse translation of "The Inferno" in a bilingual edition; and the venerable Melville Best Anderson edition which I value almost entirely for the illustrations by William Blake. To these I now add the new translation by  Clive James, literary and cultural critic, novelist, and poet.

    T. S. Eliot once observed: "The majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions; Dante's is one of those which one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life." (T. S. Eliot, "Dante" in "Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot," Frank Kermode, Ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 216.) This certainly appears to have been the case for Clive James who encountered the "Comedy" in Italy in the 1960s with the woman who would eventually become his wife. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, James said that he came finally to translate the poem after a very serious illness at what he knows is the end of his life. Indeed, his hope throughout the translation project, was that he would live to finish it. 

     

    Reviewing James' translation for the New York TimesJoseph Luzzi complains that some of the "more dramatic moments" in the "Inferno" fall flat in this translation. And this will doubtless disappoint many devotees of the poem. For many - and I have to confess it had always been true for me - the "Inferno" is the most stimulating and (dare I say it?) fun part of the poem. But Luzzi's praise is highest of James' translation of "Paradiso," which many readers have found to be something of a snooze. Why is James able to bring it back to life? It is because Clive James gets Dante in a way that many previous translators simply did not. 

     

    Dante was writing a theological poem, and he makes no apologies for this. Yes, as a friend once told me, Dante does seem to be settling some old scores in populating hell with enemies. And, certainly, Dante's "Purgatorio" is rich with tension and poignant regret where the "Inferno" is packed with drama. But "Paradiso," though it may seem dramatically static, is straining to communicate divine beauty, the beauty of holiness, the beauty of God. James, far from being repelled by the theology that underlies and gives meaning to the poem, finds mature wisdom here. And, what is more, he finds divine beauty.

    Whereas in other translations I have resisted the last book of the poem, finding it (as did others) static and boring, I found myself drawn as a moth to a flame as James ascended the higher cantos.

    Listen, for example, to a few lines from Canto 30:

    "She said 'We have come through to the far side/Of Heaven's largest realm, to which you lend/The name of Primum Mobile, and here/We rise into a heaven of pure light -/Of intellectual light, light full of sheer/Pure love, love full of goodness true and right,/Love full of joy, joy so sweet as to shame/All other sweet things else.'"

    Or to a few lines from Canto 32:

    "Let's direct/Our eyes to where the Primal Love resounds/In silent light, so that your intellect/May enter, insofar as it's allowed,/His mighty fire."

    Sweet, pure joy; love full of goodness; light silent and clear; the fire of God's presence: "What is surprising about the poetry of Dante," T. S.  Eliot wrote, "is that it is, in one sense, easy to read. It is a test ... that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." (Eliot, "Dante," 206)

    Dante's is a rarer gift than possessed by most poets, even very fine ones, to communicate what not even he could understand, that which is beyond all comprehension, beyond all human knowledge, beyond even the powers of theological speculation. Through a theological imagination of breathtaking profundity and scope, Dante in the depths of divine light "saw, packed tight/Bound in one book by love, all that is sent/Abroad throughout the universe as leaves/Torn out and scattered: single, separate things." "But," he goes on to say, "here/All things and links that ever were and are/Were fused together so they might appear/To me as one pure light. I know I saw/The universal form of this intact/Complexity, because my joy, the more/I tell it, expands to mark the act/ Of speaking."

    Thank God for so many, and such fine translations. For "Inferno" perhaps Pinsky and Ciardi; and for "Purgatorio," it is Ciardi for sure. But the closer we get to "Paradiso," we have a new traveling companion to help us make sense of the path. James wins heaven by a length. 

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  • Reality Bible

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 23, 2013
    There is general agreement among Christians that the Bible is true, though sorting out what that means precisely could take up several volumes. We sometimes fail to realize, however, that the Bible is also real, a fact that could help us interpret it better.
     

    This thought came to mind with particular force recently while I was listening to a wonderful sermon by the Reverend Glen Bell, senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida. Glen was preaching on the Gospel text, John 12: 1-8, in which Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed the feet of Jesus with a pound of costly perfume. (Click here for audio of the sermon.)

    I have only heard this story a couple of million times. I've exegeted it and read commentaries on it, focused on the parallels between the story as told by John's Gospel and the versions told in Mark 14: 3-9 and Luke 7: 36-50, both of which place the story in very different contexts making it a very different story. The questions raised by the comparisons with these other versions are important in their own right, and potentially very productive. But this particular Sunday I noticed something I had never noticed before because Glen asked us to hear the story in its context in John's Gospel. He signaled this by observing that the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus occurs not long after he had raised Mary's brother Lazarus from the dead.

    What I had not noticed before about this story is the human dimension, the thing that any of us would notice first if this had happened in our neighborhood.

    Mary committed an act of extravagant over-the-top gratitude. She called up the equivalent of Saks Fifth Avenue and asked them to send her their most expensive perfume, perhaps one she had been denying herself her whole life. When Jesus arrived, she washed his feet, tired and dirty from the dusty road. She poured the contents of the whole container over his feet, bathing them in luxurious costly scent. The aroma filled the house.

    When we strip away the various editorial comments, the reflections on Jesus' approaching death (of which she would have had no knowledge) and either the self-righteous posturing of Judas (his holier-than-thou puffery) or the hypocritical criminal misdirection of Judas (if the editor of the Gospel is right about his motives), you have the generosity of a woman toward the man who brought her brother back from death to life. Surely this is a theological point equal in value to any of the rest.

    Judas emerges not only as betrayer of our Lord, but as a jerk as well. He couldn't or wouldn't appreciate the human feelings of gratitude that could lead a woman to empty her bank account in a single act.

    Wherever this story came from originally, and whatever its original context conveyed, in this Gospel, in the flow of this narrative, it stands out for its utter reality, its testimony to a human heart overflowing with thanksgiving. Because of its reality, the story becomes a complementary parable on the par with those equally extravagant stories of God's out-sized grace and mercy (the Prodigal Son story, for example). But here we see a woman demonstrating out-sized gratitude, gratitude on the grandest scale.

    Perhaps after we have allowed the story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet to speak in its own context of the common but extravagant gratitude of a woman whose brother was raised by Jesus from the dead, we are ready then to read the way the parallel story is used in Luke 7:36-50.

    In that story, in the house of Simon the Pharisee, the woman designated only as a sinner, anoints Jesus' feet with "an alabaster vial of perfume." She wiped his feet with her hair and covered them with her tears.

    Simon (in Luke's story) is critical of Jesus because Jesus allowed the sinful woman to touch him. In response to Simon's criticism, Jesus tells the story of two debtors, one who has a small debt forgiven, the other a very large debt. He asks Simon who is more grateful of the forgiveness of his debt, the small-time debtor or the one who owed lots of money. "I suppose the one whom he forgave more," Simon answered. Jesus turned then to compare the gratitude felt by those who realize the extent of God's mercy.

    There is a common thread between the stories: gratitude. Gratitude not of the perfunctory type, but on a scale that inspires a person to do that which some people are bound to judge as insane, inappropriate, or immoral. The women in these stories are gifted with the sort of imagination that allowed them to see what is real. And when they saw it, they acted appropriately. Extravagant grace called forth extravagant gratitude. 

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  • The Prerequisite for Interfaith Dialogue

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 16, 2013

    There is a suspicion in some circles that a person who is open to interfaith dialogue must not be fully convinced of his or her own faith. I suppose there are people who confirm this suspicion, but in my own experience I have found the opposite more often to be true.

    One of the most profoundly enriching experiences of my early ministry revolved around a multi-year conversation sponsored by an interfaith organization in Dallas, Texas, in which a group of rabbis and pastors entered into covenant to plan a community event together. Two years of frank and respectful conversation bore the fruit of a conference for Christians and Jews exploring the life and thought of the incomparable theologian Abraham Heschel. It was appropriate that our interfaith dialogue resulted in an event dedicated to Heschel. He was a towering figure of the twentieth century, respected by persons of many faiths. It was especially appropriate also because it was Heschel who said that the prerequisite to interfaith dialogue is faith.

    Thich Nhat Hanh, another towering figure of the twentieth century, deeply respected by both Thomas Merton and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (Dr. King nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize) writes: "For dialogue to be fruitful, we need to live deeply our own tradition and, at the same time, listen deeply to others. Through the practice of deep looking and deep listening, we become free, able to see the beauty and values in our own and others' traditions." Nhat Hanh, one of the most respected Buddhist thinkers of his generation, makes a claim of enormous significance, writing: "Many years ago, I recognized that by understanding your own tradition better, you also develop increased respect, consideration, and understanding for others." (Thich Nhat Hanh, "Living Buddha, Living Christ," New York: Riverbend/Penguin, 1995/2007, 7)

    The equation can run both ways, however. I have seen Christians, for example, engage their Christian faith more diligently, with greater sensitivity and receptiveness, because they have studied another faith or have listened with care as a practitioner of another faith shared his or her tradition with a spirit of openness. Often what we discover is that our assumptions about the beliefs of others can be quite inaccurate.

    The prerequisite of interfaith dialogue is faith. But the fruit of interfaith dialogue may just be that flourishing of life and community to which we are called by the God of all creation. I have said on many occasions that if we do not get this pluralism thing right, our society is toast. But, let's turn that negative idea around, shall we! Imagine what could happen if we could get pluralism right, if we discovered the love of God that passes all knowledge, the love that makes brothers and sisters of mere ‘fellow-creatures.’

    One of the best examples of the good that can happen when we get pluralism right is the work of Eboo Patel, a winner of Louisville Seminary and University of Louisville's Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization in Chicago which brings young people of various faiths together for acts of justice. Toward the close of his Grawemeyer Award-winning book, Patel writes, "Change happens internally before it takes place in the world.” When we listen to one another, when we hear the witness of the life of God in the lives of others, we are inviting change, the kind of change that can transform a world for the better.

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