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Thinking Out Loud
  • Faith and Politics: Reflecting with William Stringfellow

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 24, 2017

    EDITORIAL NOTE: Last November, Michael mentioned in a special post-election message that he intended to spend considerable time reflecting on our current national and political situation in light of the writings of William Stringfellow, one of the most distinctive Christian voices to emerge in the late twentieth century. Today's blog represents the second to explore aspects of Stringfellow's thought.

    Faith and PoliticsBack in November, I pulled down from the shelf some favorite books by William Stringfellow and started going through them again. I found I had underlined virtually all of the sentences in one of these books. The book, The Politics of Spirituality, was published by Westminster Press in 1984. And I can open it to almost any page and see my underlining and marginalia.

    When I first read this book, I was the pastor of a thriving Presbyterian church in the rich black-dirt agricultural region of central Texas. Most of my days were spent visiting church members, driving down dusty country roads to their farms, ranches, and homes, or traversing the highways to hospitals in major cities like Fort Worth and Dallas to pray at their bedsides. I preached, taught and worked closely with the staff at the nearby Presbyterian Children's Home. And I was active in the governing courts of our church as the moderator of a division of the presbytery responsible for the pastoral care of pastors and other church staff members.

    There were lots of political issues roiling our church and our society at that time. Among the many issues facing the church, no issue loomed larger for congregations in the American Southwest than the "Sanctuary Movement," a movement among Protestant and Roman Catholic churches to provide safe haven for families and individuals fleeing the civil wars and political unrest in Latin America.

    At the height of the controversy, I called John Anderson, then the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. John was a dear friend, trusted mentor, and one of the most generous and understanding golfing partners I've ever known. In that phone conversation, I asked John what response I should make as a pastor to the difficult political questions facing us. I was probably wringing my hands in rookie anxiety, lamenting having to deal with the conflict and controversy. John asked me, "Isn't it wonderful that we belong to a church that embraces the challenges of our time?" It was a rhetorical question. With that wonderful sonorous voice, John proceeded to tell me that this was my opportunity as pastor to help my people wrestle with their faith, to learn the Bible, and to figure out what it means to live as Christians in the world today. Sit beside them, learn with them, teach them, and lead them, he told me. Then he asked another rhetorical question, "Isn't it great to be Presbyterians?" I knew the answer to that one. "Yes, sir."

    So it was that as the controversy raged in newspapers and on television, as debates occupied hours on the floor of our presbytery, I told our congregation that I would like for us to study the issue of "Sanctuary" biblically and from the perspective of Reformed theology. They thought this was a swell idea, and the session (the governing board of the church) led the way by committing to participate.

    What I discovered cut two ways. First, it became clear to us that as Christians we had a responsibility to make sure our framing of any political or social situation is appropriate to our biblical faith. It cannot simply be assumed that because we are Christians our response to a political or public policy issue reflects the teachings of Christ. As we examined the concerns that gave rise to the "Sanctuary Movement," in time, we decided that framing the solution in terms of "the granting of sanctuary" was on somewhat shaky ground, that is, from a biblical perspective. Second, it became clear to us that as Christians our response to other human beings caught up in civil wars and political and military conflicts could not simply be to ignore the problem or to relegate responsibility to "things I will just leave to the politicians." Our faith in Jesus demanded a response consistent with his teachings.

    It was at this point that our study of the Gospels confronted us with a call to action we could not dismiss. Jesus calls us to live as neighbors to others, all others. The neighborhood of Jesus Christ does not respect boundaries of race, religion, gender or the borders of countries, realms and nation states. The question Jesus asks is not the question of the Pharisee trying to find a loophole in the law: "Who is my neighbor?" Rather, the question Jesus compels us to ask is this: "Am I a neighbor?"*

    I don't think I'll ever forget the candor and faithfulness of one of our elders who stayed to talk with me one evening after our Bible study. It was the evening when we realized that the neighborhood of Christ has no boundaries, a fact that might place us on a collision course with civil authorities. Sue Ellen (not her real name) waited for me as I straightened the chairs in the fellowship hall. She wanted to talk on the way to her car. Sue Ellen was the perfect version of the Texas rancher's wife. I don't believe there was anything in her wardrobe that didn't come from Neiman Marcus. I never saw her without pearls. Every year she bought a new Cadillac. She and her husband attended all the soirees at the Petroleum Club, including the annual Tuxedo and Boots Ball. Her big hair was perfectly coiffured, her clothes immaculate, her politics very conservative, and her faith very Calvinistic.

    Sue Ellen asked me, "So, Mike, if I'm understanding what we all agreed on tonight, if someone fleeing danger down in Central America makes it to my door, I'm obliged to be their neighbor. Even if our government defines them in such a way that I'm supposed to call the authorities, I should welcome them in the name of Jesus."

    I said, "I think that's where we find ourselves. We embody the neighborhood of Jesus. And the neighborhood of Jesus isn't limited by national policies or interests."

    "Well, I can't disagree. If that's what God expects of us, then that's our Christian duty." She said this gravely, taking in the consequences. "But, can I ask you something else? Is it okay if I pray that God not bring them to my door?"

    I don't think I have ever loved a member of any church I have ever served more than I loved Sue Ellen at that moment. She refused to ignore the claim of the Gospel, but she hoped and prayed she wouldn't have to drink from that cup. That's real faith, really lived.

    Probably about now you are wondering what the devil does this story have to do with William Stringfellow and The Politics of Spirituality. This: Among the worn pages and underlined paragraphs of this book, which I read while our church was struggling to find a faithful response to these issues confronting us in the 1980s is an underlined paragraph with emphatic stars in the margins of the page and its own entry in my personal index on the blank pages at the end of the book. That paragraph I shall quote at some length:

    "[T]he examples are profuse in the life of Jesus as to the political dimensions of the gospel. Consider Herod's attempt to assassinate the child. Or the healing episodes in which Jesus directly confronts the demonic powers and their effort to wreck creation and ruin human life. And notice how all these specific incidents culminate in that agonizing encounter in the wilderness in which Jesus is tempted by the power of death incarnate as the devil in explicit political terms. ... Jesus in the wilderness was tempted, truly tempted, to become idolatrous of the power of death, thereby rejecting the very Word of God which constituted his being. He transcends and repels the temptations and thus enunciates his Lordship in this world now. That politics is, then, verified in his crucifixion. The politics of the gospel are the politics of the cross." (Stringfellow, The Politics of Spirituality, p. 44)

    How else do we arrive at our own crosses, but through the sweat and tears of our own Gardens of Gethsemani, where we pray that God will let this cup pass us by?

    Sue Ellen weighed the cost of discipleship, determined to obey if called upon, and hoped she wouldn't have to go through with it. She wasn't itching to be a martyr, or, in fact, to draw any attention to her faith. She prayed that she wouldn't have to drink from this cup.

    We also pray this prayer sincerely, yet sincerely knowing that if we have to drain the cup, death can do its worst, but death has no more dominion over us - not in the reign of God, nor in the neighborhood of Jesus Christ. The Spirit who sustained Jesus, sustains us too, in this risen life.

    *This clearly is the point of the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37.

  • Merton and the Power of Love

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 20, 2017

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

    Merton and King"We just don't know what peace and love mean," wrote Thomas Merton in reply to a letter from Jim Forest in 1966. Merton continues: "The only ones who have done anything are Martin Luther King and those who worked so hard at it in the South.... Of course Dorothy [Day] is there to remind us with her unfailing wisdom what it is all about too." Jim Forest, a peace advocate and biographer of Merton, shares this letter from Thomas Merton, as well as several exchanges of correspondence between him and Merton, in his new book, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016, p. 180.)

    What Forest said in his letter, which evoked Merton's response, had to do with the anger then plaguing much of the anti-Vietnam War movement in which Forest was investing his life. After relating the caricaturing and lampooning of their opponents, especially President Lyndon Johnson, which he and others were engaged in, Forest told Merton about a dream he recently had about sitting next to LBJ and talking with him on a public bus and then going for a silent walk with him. "It was a real if troubled human exchange," wrote Forest. When Forest woke up from his dream, he went into his kitchen. There he saw a photo of the president which he had put up on a dartboard. "The photo of Johnson looked like it had been sprayed with bullets. I just made it back to the bed, collapsed and wept. I felt like a murderer. So you see I'm not talking about problems others have but my own problems, my own sin." (Forest, The Root of War, p. 179.)

    Forest was, if not exactly "preaching to the choir," at least confessing to it. This is apparent in Merton's response, "WE just don't know what peace and love mean." It is as though Merton sits down beside Jim Forest, not just to hear his confession, but to weep over a shared, a common sin.

    To understand the meaning of peace and love, Merton plumbs not only the depths of biblical wisdom and Christian theology, he also explores the insight of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a key source for the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr., the one whom Merton lifts up as an exemplar of really understanding peace and justice. In one of Merton's most extraordinary and profound essays, published as the introduction to a collection of Gandhi's writings, Gandhi On Non-Violence [New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007, originally published 1964/65), he uncovers the key to the power of non-violence, the power of love to change human hearts and human society.

    According to Merton, although many protest movements against the views and actions of others originate in a posture of self-righteousness and lead to aggression, even violence, of their own, non-violent action for justice and peace begins in confession, in a recognition of the sinfulness we share, and a longing for God's mercy toward all.

    Forest, weeping on his bed at his own anger and "violence" toward the president, is in the right place to begin to act for peace and justice. The worst place from which to launch a war on war, by contrast, is the high ground of moral certitude and righteous indignation.

    Merton, drawing on Gandhi's wisdom and revealing the genius of Dr. King's vision, calls into question some of the most common human ideas that lead to violence. In particular he critiques the "irreversibility of evil," the idea that sin only moves from evil to evil, that it is unforgivable, and that those who commit evil acts are beyond hope and sympathy. Such ideas are simply unChristian. The moral world is flat. There is no moral high ground. Even in the midst of doing good, we fail. And often believing we have failed to act righteously, we unconsciously have accomplished good. Only God is in a position to judge. And while God allows us to participate in God's work of justice and peacemaking, God never relinquishes the Judge's bench, and we never achieve the role of chief prosecutor. Inevitably, we stand in the dock beside the accused. At any moment, the accused and we may exchange places; we are all guilty, all in need of grace. Fortunately, God is more eager to forgive than to punish.

    Once we realize this, we are prepared to love others into justice, even if they mean to batter us or put us behind bars. Merton writes:

    "The 'fabric' of society is not finished. It is always 'in becoming.' It is on the loom, and it is made up of constantly changing relationships. Non-violence takes into account precisely this dynamic and non-final state of all relationships among [humanity], for non-violence seeks to change relationships that are evil into others that are good, or at least less bad." (Merton, Gandhi, p. 21.)

    The logic of non-violence assumes, then, that we all fall short, and are generally blind to the evil of our actions. The goal of non-violence is not the defeat of those we oppose, but their and our liberation from the vicious circle of hatred and violence. As Merton writes, "To punish and destroy the oppressor is merely to initiate a new cycle of violence and oppression. The only real liberation is that which liberates both the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time." (Merton, Gandhi, p. 22.) Thus, the non-violent advocate for peace and justice sees herself as one who stands in need of forgiveness just as much as her opponents, as much even as those who engage in oppression and violence. The non-violent advocate seeks to understand and to make clear the truth about immoral and oppressive social systems; she non-violently refuses to cooperate with these systems (as much as is possible), in the hope that her opponents, and even the oppressors, will see and understand and disown the injustice which is unveiled often brutally in and through her act of non-violent non-cooperation.

    Such an advocate embodies the prayer of hope that the sinner will not be destroyed, but that he will turn and live. But, of course, such advocacy is not oriented primarily toward achieving a particular short-term goal, but in expressing a mode of being in the world that is true and faithful, whatever the immediate practical results may be.

    Gandhi's concept of non-violence and the truth-seeking for which Gandhi coined the term satyagraha, according to Merton, "is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved." Merton adds, "When satyagraha was seen only as a useful technique for attaining a pragmatic end, political independence, it remained almost meaningless. As soon as the short-term end was achieved, satyagraha was discarded. No inner peace achieved, no inner unity, only the same divisions, the conflicts and the scandals that were ripping the rest of the world to pieces." (Merton, Gandhi, pp. 10-11.)

    In his new preface to Merton's book, Gandhi On Non-Violence, Mark Kurlansky quotes Gandhi at length:

    "Whether mankind will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work, just as the law of gravitation will work whether we accept it or not. And just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the laws of nature, even so a man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work great wonders." (Kurlansky in Merton, Gandhi, xiii.)

    "Greater love has no one," said Christ, "than to lay down his life for his friends." If that is the "greatest love," however, how inconceivably great must be the love to lay down one's life so that one's enemies might be transformed into friends?

  • The Fallen

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 17, 2017

    Editor's note: Last November, Michael mentioned in a special post-election message that he intended to spend considerable time reflecting on our current national and political situation in light of the writings of William Stringfellow, one of the most distinctive Christian voices to emerge in the late twentieth century. Stringfellow was a thinker singled out by the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth as "the most conscientious and thoughtful" mind he encountered when visiting the United States almost fifty years ago. Today's blog represents the first to explore aspects of Stringfellow's thought.

    The Fallen"Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issue of ethics - and the elementary topic of politics - is how to live humanly during the Fall. Any viable ethic - which is to say, any ethics worthy of human attention and practice, any ethics which manifest and verify hope - is both individual and social. It must deal with human decision and action in relation to the other creatures, notably the principalities and powers in the very midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, decadence of the Fall." [William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco: Word Press, 1973), p. 55.]

    Among the many insights of the late William Stringfellow, arguably the most important for our moment in American history is this: Contemporary Christians do not take seriously the significance, pervasiveness and extent of the Fall.

    One might equally argue, of course, that contemporary Christians do not take seriously enough the significance, pervasiveness and extent of God's original grace either. Thinking theologically is just not a regular practice for many Christians these days. We often hear the common refrain from pastors and church members alike that they have a very difficult time connecting the biblical and theological ideas and concepts they learn in seminary and church with their everyday lives and the events going on in the world. This is precisely where William Stringfellow helps us most.

    Like C.S. Lewis before him, Stringfellow was a "lay theologian." He was not a minister, pastor or professional theologian. He was an attorney and an Episcopal lay person. And, perhaps because of this, he was especially good at breathing new life into tired theological concepts, such as the Fall.

    Specifically, Stringfellow helps us to see more clearly that we live in an age in which it is not unusual at all to undervalue the deep theological significance of the manner in which God's good creation is so compromised by and implicated in the Fall that almost every attempt to speak of sin conveys also a trivialization both of sin and divine mercy. He understood (and helps us to understand) the Fall as a present theological reality and not merely as a quasi-historical or mythological notion.

    When we think of sin, we tend to think first of the things we do or leave undone as individuals. Almost everyone has their favorite list of such sins, mostly acts that other people tend to do. In the pietistic tradition in which I was reared the typical sins were drinking, smoking and dancing. Sometimes we think of sins as the things that we all do which reveal lapses in judgment or expressions of selfishness. Probably the first sins we tend to think of when the topic comes up are sexual in nature, although one might argue that economic and social sins are really more popular in our culture.

    Christians historically have come up with lists of "cardinal Sins" in contrast to the "cardinal Virtues." And there is no doubt that individual acts of wickedness merit repentance, restitution and reconciliation. However, as Stringfellow observed:

    "Human wickedness in this sense is so peripheral in the biblical version of the Fall that the pietistic interpretation that it represents the heart of the matter must be accounted gravely misleading. The biblical description of the Fall concerns the alienation of the whole of Creation from God, and, thus, the rupture and profound disorientation of all relationships within the whole of Creation." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, p. 76.)

    To put this idea in slightly different terms, the Fall points toward the pervasive condition of Sin affecting, tainting and undercutting God's creative and gracious purposes throughout creation in distinction from those acts we call sins. To speak of the Fall is to speak of the fundamental out-of-jointedness, the essential distortion of reality and illusory nature of existence that stands in opposition to God. From a biblical perspective, as Stringfellow himself puts it, the Fall signifies "the brokenness of relationships among human beings and the other creatures, and the rest of Creation, and the spoiled or confused identity of each human being within herself or himself and each principality within itself." Certainly we can speak of individual acts of wickedness "within the scope of the Fall, but only as an incidental matter within the time or history or era which the Fall designates, in which death apparently holds and exercises moral dominion over the whole of Creation." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, pp. 76-77.)

    Stringfellow's principal insight into the nature of the Fall goes beyond even his appreciation for the corporate nature of sin. He also recognizes the inclusion of what the Bible calls "principalities and powers" in the Fall, understanding that all such institutions and ideologies are themselves "creatures"; that is, "principalities and powers" are aspects of God's good Creation. But as fallen creatures, along with all other fallen creatures, "principalities and powers" share in the moral confusion and the dominion of death from which all Creation yearns for deliverance.

    All of this may feel rather abstract or theoretical, so let's bring the ideas home. The Fall so perverts our understanding that we live our lives as though brutality and naked force, the threat of suffering and death, and the cursedness of existence seem stronger than the love, the power of mercy and kindness and simple goodness, and the truth and beauty of holiness revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth.

    The Fall is manifest in that illusion that gives rise to what we might call "practical cynicism," the sort of cynicism which claims that while Christianity teaches fine moral ideals, it lacks the power to deal with so-called political realities. Such cynicism is illusory because it fails to perceive that Jesus was crucified in the real world by a coalition of political, military, moral and religious powers and principalities, and that it was God alone who raised him from the dead.

    According to the Gospels, the cross is the most likely if not inevitable end for those who follow Jesus in the era of the Fall. But those who live leaning into the cross, live toward life instead of death, as Stringfellow claims in another of his books. [Stringfellow, Instead of Death: New and Expanded Edition (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1976).]

    If it is true that survival and reproduction are the driving forces of all life, from a biological perspective, it is also true, from a political perspective, that survival and the extension of influence (the political equivalent of reproduction) are the driving forces of institutions and ideologies. Even as a creature may sacrifice kindness for the sake of survival, a principality can subvert almost any virtue and utilize the threat of death to insure its continuance and success. And the power of a principality, the ideologies that serve it, the institutions that embody its values, the efficiency and effectiveness with which it promulgates and instills in others its interests seek to intimidate and overwhelm resistance based upon what are often (and mistakenly) termed the "softer values" of love and mercy.

    The fallen principalities and powers masquerade their ruthless self-interest under the guise of higher ideals. Thus a tribe's self-serving drive to survive, including the most vicious brutality toward those outside the tribe, can be transmuted into a seemingly higher value by masking mere tribalism as patriotism. This is, at least in part, why jingoistic Nationalism and Imperialism remain so durable while religious faith has proven so easily co-opted.

    And yet ... And yet ... in the midst of the Fall, there are glimmers of transcendent grace breaking through, moments of eternal significance revealed here and now, when God raises up people convinced that love and mercy, goodness, humility and justice are more powerful than the threat of suffering and the dominion of death.

    •    Mohandas Gandhi stands against an imperial power, although he is armed only with a stubborn peace that will not participate in institutional racism and hatred, nor will he retaliate.

    •    Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands against the fascism, the idolatry of racial purity, and the military force of Nazism (in his own nation and among his own people), although he is armed only with a tenacious discipleship that transcends national boundaries and demands love for strangers and enemies.

    •    Martin Luther King, Jr. marches against the powers that demoralize men, women and children and segregate them on the basis of racial and ethnic biases, the forces that impoverish the many for the enrichment of the few, that mislead the population into believing that violence can ever produce lasting peace.

    These three persons, and many more, have understood what Stingfellow knew: "There comes a moment when words must either become incarnated or the words, even if literally true, are rendered false." (Stringfellow, An Ethic, p. 21.)

    Whatever we will do we must do in the shadow of the Fall.

    Our moral vision will never be whole.

    Our intentions and motives inevitably will be mixed.

    Our complicity in Sin cannot be erased.

    We can, however, entrust ourselves to the God whose vision and will are true, and whose mercy is everlasting.

    Fallen we are, but also forgiven. And forgiven, we shall act to embody God's love in the face of the Fall and for the sake of Creation. However dismal and dismayed we may be at any particular moment, we need to remember that joy and hope are theological virtues, gifts of God.

    Gandhi once observed that while evil may seem for a moment to dominate, the long trajectory of history is toward the good. And, if we may return to a specifically Christian theological perspective, the perspective articulated so eloquently by William Stringfellow, while we must live in a fallen Creation, we may nonetheless live with the confidence that all that is belongs to God and all that ever shall be serves God's redemptive ends.

  • Post-Christmas Questions

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 10, 2017

    Post-Christmas QuestionsWhy are Christmas stories such as Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, so popular while American culture seems so often to contradict their messages?

    We are horrified by the prospect of a vulgar, self-serving and brutal Pottersville and are repelled by the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge saying that the struggling poor and sick should die and decrease the surplus population. Yet, a sizable proportion of the American population support the policies that advance the very agendas they seem to loathe when they see them dramatized.

    Are the Christmas stories merely sentimental, idealistic and naive? This seems to be the cynical take on things. The cynic will tell us that a single human life can't prevent a town from going bad; a person can't really be changed, converted or transformed from selfish to selfless.

    Or do these Christmas stories exemplify goodness?

    A Presbyterian pastor I knew and respected greatly, the late David Pittenger, once called into question the criticism someone had of "do-gooders." David asked, "Would you as a Christian prefer ‘do-badders?’”

    David was as sophisticated an ethical thinker as you'll meet. He understood how ideology and high idealism can get in the way of making wise decisions. He was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, and a proponent of the ethics of “Christian Realism.” But he was also aware that if our practical decisions do not reflect the substance of our faith, we aren't really acting as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Bible has a name for us when our actions don’t match our values: hypocrites.

    Christmas is in the rear-view mirror again. Capra and Dickens are safely put away for another year. But I just can't quite forget the question that haunted my holidays: Why don't we live up to the stories we tell?

  • Merton's Resolution

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 06, 2017

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

    Merton's resolution

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

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

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

    We might call this “Thomas Merton’s Resolution.”

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

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

    In one of his most famous works, Thoughts in Solitude, Merton confesses:

    "I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. … And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing."3

    The humility of Merton's prayer, including its renunciation of his own ability even to know when and whether God is leading him at any particular moment, speaks to the core of faith, one's trust in God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Immigration Denied: An "Epiphany" (That Might Have Been)

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 03, 2017

    Immigration DeniedScene: A ramshackle, squalid little government office on the northeastern Egyptian border. The desert sands whip into dusty spirals forming drifts against the edges of the tiny building at the border crossing. The peeling paint on the cinder block walls looks like it once was more grey than beige, but is now neither. A minor immigration official sits at a metal desk with stacks of papers before him. An oscillating fan on the filing cabinet in the corner blows the warm air and a fine powder of sandy dust from one side of the office to the other and back again. In his hands the disheveled official holds a single thin sheet of paper, an application for permission to enter Egypt. Before him sits a man and a woman. The woman holds in her arms a small child.

    Official: I can't quite make out your handwriting. What is your name, please?

    Man: I am Joseph Ben Jacob from the village of Nazareth. I am of the House of David.

    Official: Do you have some form of identification?

    Man: Yes. (The man rustles about in a small bag until he retrieves a government issued ID.) We just came from Bethlehem. We registered there in the census. Here are my papers.

    Official: Hmmm. And the woman?

    Man: Mary, my betrothed. Oops, I mean my wife. We are only recently married.

    (The man hands the official more papers.)

    Official: So, you ARE married now? (The official looks over the tops of his glasses at the baby squirming in the woman's arms.)

    Man: Yes. Yes. Married now.

    Official: Uh huh. Is this your son or hers?

    Man: Excuse me?

    Official: Are you the father of this child?

    Man: (blushing) Well, that's complicated.

    Official: (looking the man in the eyes) I assure you it isn't. Either you are or you aren't the father.

    Man: Let's just say I am. I am the father.

    (The official looks doubtful, but moves on with his questions.)

    Official: What level of education do you have?

    Man: Yeshiva. I was taught by our village rabbi.

    Official: Does the woman work outside the home?

    Man: Not currently, but she hopes to … (The man trails off, his words too soft to hear.)

    Official: Well, we can't make bricks with hope can we. How about you? What marketable skills do you have?

    Man: I am a carpenter.

    Official: Not much employment here in Egypt for carpenters. I can tell you that. Our economy is largely agricultural, although we do have lively markets for trade. But most of our buildings are made of stone or brick. Hmmm. (He seems to be studying the papers, but there's a vacant look in his eyes. At last he looks up from the papers and speaks to the man.) Still, sometimes there are carpenters needed to produce wooden frames for construction and molds for bricks, and so forth. It's not impossible that your craft would appear on the list of professions approved for resident aliens. But we won't have you taking jobs away from honest hardworking Egyptians, that I can tell you right now.

    Man: But work isn't really the point. Not now, anyway.

    Official: (Looking into the man's eyes, then down again at the application form, then into his eyes again.) Well then … Oh, I see. It says here on your application that you aren't seeking to immigrate for economic reasons. You're seeking political asylum? Is that right?

    Man: Yes. Yes. We were warned by three wise men that King Herod seeks to take the life of our child. We are fleeing here to Egypt to protect our child from the king. For now, we have enough money to tide us over until things improve back home.

    Official: "Three wise men." (The official smiles crookedly.) And where, may I ask, did you meet these "wise" men in your country. I confess I've never met anyone wise from Galilee.

    Man: They came from principalities in the east. They visited us in Bethlehem after Mary gave birth. They came to the manger where the child lay and presented us with gifts of great value. The Ruler of all Creation, who sees all and knows all, provided the gifts of the magi that the child might escape the tyrant King.

    Official: So, you plan to sell these gifts and live on the proceeds?

    Man: That's right.

    (The official refers to a thick book. Thumbing through it, he frowns and rubs his chin.)

    Official: I've got to tell you, your story sounds kinda far-fetched. (The official studies the thick book, thumbing from page to page slowly.) Why did these "wise men" think your king wanted to kill the child?

    Man: Because they knew our son would grow up to be the savior and the messiah. His name shall be called Wonderful, counselor; he will be the Prince of Peace, the Lion of Judah; generations yet unborn will rise up and call him Blessed.

    Official: Well, we're all pretty proud of our kids. These are mine here (the official says pointing at a photo of three small children playing in a sandbox). And I'm sure the fellas, excuse me, "the three wise men" who visited you thought that your little guy there was as cute as a button. But ... (he shuts the big book, and looks at the couple) ...  But here's the long and short of it. Egypt is currently under a bilateral treaty with Judea, Galilee, Peraea, Samaria, and Idumaea, the regions under the control of your King Herod. Our ruler, "the Master of All Egypt, Lord of the Two Kingdoms, High Priest of all Temples, May he live forever!" and your King Herod, "May he etc. etc." had a summit last year. So, at least for now, we do not recognize any sort of political oppression to exist in your country. You don't have any political oppression in Herod's region. And you can't legally flee from or seek political refuge from oppression that doesn't exist. Officially that is. Officially, you are now a security risk to Egypt. You may be terrorists for all we know.

    Man: But if we return, our child will be killed.

    Official: Off the record, I'm sympathetic. Sure. I just read yesterday that soldiers had rounded up little boys in your country and killed them. Terrible. I can't believe what the world is coming to. And I don't know what's going on where you are from, and I don't really doubt your story (except that whole "wise man" thing), but my hands are tied. (Then slowly the official adds), "Hold the phone! I've got an idea. Let's take a look at that guest worker process for you folks. You're a carpenter, right?

    (Turning his creaking swivel chair around to his computer. He begins tapping on the keyboard. The man exchanges a hopeful look with his wife, who smiles weakly.)

    Official: You know, there may just be an opening there. Let's look and see if you've got an option. (He taps and taps again the keyboard of the ancient computer on his desk.) First, of course, I'll need to take a quick look at our homeland security files on my computer, to see if your name comes up on a watch list. Forgive me, but this will take a few moments. This computer dates back to the Patriarch Joseph.

    (The official looks up suddenly from his computer keyboard and laughs.)

    Official: Hey, how about that? And you're Hebrew too! Funny.

    (It's Joseph who smiles weakly now, then looks down at his feet waiting for the official to work his way through the files.)

    Official: (Reading along, nodding, then sitting utterly still … finally he whistles low and long.) Oh boy, here we go. Joseph, Joe, you've been holding out on me, friend.

    (There's a long pause as the official reads silently from the electronic security dossier, his head shaking back and forth all the while.)

    Man: I assure you, sir, I have never been involved in anything that would make me an undesirable immigrant.

    Official: It's not you, Joe, it's your wife.

    (Turning finally to face Mary, the official begins to question her.)

    Official: Ma'am, is it true that you have written political statements that call for the overthrow of the legitimate ruling authority in your country?

    Woman: No. I've never been political.

    Official: I want to give you a chance to rephrase your answer.

    Woman: There's no need.

    Official: Then, do you deny ever saying that God has chosen you as the vessel through whom his arm will strike down the proud; that rulers on their thrones will be overthrown; the poor and hungry will be well-fed while the powerful and rich will be sent away empty?

    Woman: That was a prayer, my prayer, in response to God's gracious act of allowing me miraculously to bear this child.

    Official: Well, apparently, someone heard your prayer and published it in your synagogue's weekly blog, and it has gone viral. Anarchists and revolutionaries all over the place are rallying to your words. You appear to be suspected of sedition back home.

    (The official shakes his head.) This is out of my hands, folks. Sorry. Even if there are jobs available, we aren't about to take in security risks.

    (At this point the official takes out a large rubber stamp, presses it onto an ink pad, and brings it down hard on the application paper: "IMMIGRATION DENIED" appears in red across the page.)

    (The man, Joseph, slowly stands. Gently, with powerful calloused hands, he takes the child from the woman. As she rises and they turn to leave the office, the official behind the desk speaks again.)

    Official: Listen. It's not that I'm unsympathetic. I'm a working stiff just like you. This is off the record, but I heard from a buddy in the foreign office that they are taking immigrants to the east, India I think. Maybe their standards aren't so high. Or maybe they don't have treaties with your king. You might get in there on a temporary worker's permit, if you aren't too choosy what you'll be doing. I'd advise you not to mention the whole thing with the king, though. Religion is bad enough, but nobody likes to get involved in politics.

  • With What Words Shall We Praise?

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 27, 2016

    What Words Shall We PraiseThroughout Advent Season, we shared readings from classic and contemporary sources. Today, in the midst of Christmastide itself, our reading is from one of the most respected and beloved saints of the ancient church, St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African bishop and doctor of the church who lived from 354-430 AD.

    "And now, with what words shall we praise the love of God?

    “What thanks shall we give?

    “He so loved us that for our sakes he, through whom time was made, was made in time; and he, older by eternity than the world itself, was younger in age than many of his servants in the world; he who made man, was made man; he was given existence by a mother whom he brought into existence; he was carried in the hands which he formed; he nursed at breasts which he filled; he cried like a baby in the manger in speechless infancy - this Word without which human eloquence is speechless."

    From St. Augustine: Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1952), p. 93.

  • Send Us an Angel: A Reading for Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 23, 2016

    This Advent our blogs all point toward the promise of incarnation. Each is a reading from a well-known Christian writer.

    Send us an angelThe Iona Community has become one of the most significant ecumenical and interfaith centers for justice and peace in the world. Two generations ago, however, it was just the dream of a single person, the Very Reverend George MacLeod.
    George MacLeod was a gifted and complex person. A decorated hero of the First World War, he became a dedicated pacifist; the descendant of a distinguished family that produced five moderators of the Church of Scotland, he was a life peer (Lord MacLeod of Fuinary) and bona fide representative of the British establishment. He was also a dedicated socialist; a leader in one of the Kirk's most successful evangelism efforts following World War II, he became the Kirk's most persistent seeker of justice. MacLeod and a faithful band of craftsmen and students rebuilt the ruined Abbey of Iona and brought the Iona Community into existence. He was a brilliant preacher, a popular writer (whose classic Only One Way Left remains a prophetic and lyrical call to the gospel) and a theologically astute liturgist.
    Our reading today is an excerpt from "Send Us an Angel," a prayer offered by MacLeod and reprinted in The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory: Iona Prayers by Rev. George MacLeod [(Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1985), pp. 22-23.]
    "Lord God: some of us are a little like the Shepherds;
    just carrying on with our jobs ... despite the
    turbulence in the world scene.
    Give us a message ... send us an angel
    that will start us seeking a new way of life.
    "Lord God: others of us are like the Wise Men from the east;
    we can see the need of some power to come
    and to give us direction:
    but we don't know in which direction to go.
    Give us the wisdom to see that it is not in physical power
    that our salvation lies,
    but in love and humility.
    "Lord God: a few of us are like Herod;
    we don't want a new power to enter the world,
    in case it might threaten our own power.
    Give us the humility to be ready
    for a quite new form of power:
    to fit the dangerous age in which we live: ...
    "We ask You to make us expectant, ...
    We ask You to make us seekers,
    rather than know-it-alls.
    "We ask You for grace
    so that we are ready to receive. ...
    We ask You for faith ...
    really to believe;
    that, in this dark day of our land, we can accept the gift of Christmas:
    and bring our wealth as a land to serve the Christ;
    to bring our incense to worship Him:
    and our myrrh, the symbol of burial,
    to be ready to die for Him.
    "Thus we shall be able
    to receive the gift of love and light and life,
    when Christmas Day shall dawn."


  • A Rumor Going Around: A Reading for Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 20, 2016

    This Advent our blogs all point toward the promise of incarnation. Each is a reading from a well-known Christian writer.

    Rumor Going AroundThose of us who have read (and re-read) C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, know that Lewis had a lot to say about the incarnation. Remember the land where it was always winter and never Christmas? At least until Aslan came. But Lewis wrote a great deal more about the miracle of incarnation and its implications for us. Today's reading is from Lewis's publication, Mere Christianity, which began as a few series of war time radio talks on Christian beliefs, behaviors and the doctrine of the Trinity. We will draw from two talks, "Making and Begetting" and "Good Infection." The reading has been edited for length and more inclusive language. Brackets mark the words I changed (sons to children, men to people) or added for clarity sake.

    "Now the point in Christianity which gives us the greatest shock is the statement that by attaching ourselves to Christ, we can 'become [children] of God.' One asks 'Aren't we [children] of God already? Surely the fatherhood of God is one of the main Christian ideas?' Well, in a certain sense, no doubt we are [children] of God already. I mean, God has brought us into existence and loves us and looks after us, and in that way is like a father. But when the Bible talks about our 'becoming' [children] of God, obviously it must mean something different. And that brings us up against the very center of Theology.

    "One of the creeds says that Christ is the Son of God 'begotten, not created'; and it adds 'begotten by his Father before all worlds.' ... We are thinking about something that happened before Nature was created at all, before time began. 'Before all worlds' Christ is begotten, not created. ...

    "We don't use the words Begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make. ... Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God: just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God, just as what man makes is not man. That is why [people] are not [children] of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind. They are more like statues or pictures of God. ...

    "And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor's shop. We are the statues and there is a rumor going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life. ...

    "We are not begotten by God, we are only made by him; in our natural state we are not [children] of God [in the sense that Christ is], only (so to speak) statues. ... Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have his way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be [children] of God [in the fullest sense]. We shall love the Father as he does and the Holy Spirit will arise in us. ... Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else." [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001), pp. 156-159, & 177.]

  • God's Big Idea: A Reading for Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 13, 2016

    This Advent our blogs all point toward the promise of incarnation. Each is a reading from a well-known Christian writer.

    God's Big IdeaOne of my favorite writers, and one of my favorite people, is Barbara Brown Taylor. This week's Advent reading is drawn from a Christmas reflection by Barbara*, which has deservedly gotten a lot of play. I found it on the website of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas. In that context, Bishop Gary Lillibridge shared it with his staff during the Eucharist.

    We pick up the reflection at the point where Barbara has been recounting the various ways God has tried to communicate the message of love with fallen humanity.

    "[God did everything he could to get their attention.] He shouted to them from the sidelines, using every means he could think of, including floods, famines, manna, and messengers. He ... got inside peoples' dreams, and if that did not work, he woke them up in the middle of the night with his whispering. No matter what he tried, however, he came up against the barriers of flesh and blood. They were made of it and God was not, which made translation difficult. God would say, 'Please stop before you destroy yourselves!' but all they could hear was thunder. God would say, 'I love you as much now as the day I made you,' but all they could hear was a loon calling across the water.

    "[There was one] exception to this sad state of affairs: [babies]. While their parents were all but deaf to God's messages, babies didn't have any trouble hearing God at all. They were all the time laughing at God's jokes or crying with God when he cried, which went right over their parents' heads. 'Colic,' the grown-ups would say, or 'Isn't she cute? She's laughing at the dust mites in the sunlight.' Only she wasn't, of course. She was laughing because God had just told her it was cleaning day in heaven, and that what she saw were fallen stars the angels were shaking from their feather dusters.

    “[Not only did babies hear and understand God, they had other advantages.] Babies did not go to war. Babies never made speeches or littered or refused to play with each other because they belonged to different political parties. Babies were crazy about God and they hung on his every word. [Perhaps best of all, they] depended on other people for everything necessary to their lives so a phrase like 'self-made babies' would have made them laugh until their [little] bellies hurt. While no one asked babies' opinions about anything that mattered (which was too bad because it would have been a smart thing to do), almost everyone seemed to love them, and that gave God an idea. If God was a baby, they would all love him! Why not create himself as one of these delightful creatures?


    "It was a daring plan, and once the angels saw that God was dead set on it, they broke into applause. ... While they were still clapping, God turned around and left the cabinet chamber, shedding his robes as he went. The angels watched as his midnight blue mantle fell to the floor, so that all the stars on it collapsed in a heap. Then a strange thing happened. Where the robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture speckled with sheep and - right in the middle of them - a bunch of shepherds, sitting around a campfire drinking wine out of a skin. It was hard to say who was more startled, the shepherds or the angels, but as the shepherds looked up at them, the angels pushed their senior archangel to the edge of the hole. Looking down at the human beings who were all trying to hide behind each other (poor things, no wings), the angel said in as gentle a voice as he could muster, 'Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.' And away up the hill from the direction of town, came the sound of a newborn baby's cry."

    *Text from Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Daring Plan,” in Bread of Angels (Plymouth, UK: Cowley Publications, 1997) used with permission.

  • The Gospel as Fairy Tale: A Reading for Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 06, 2016

    This Advent our blogs all point toward the promise of incarnation. Each is a reading from a well-known Christian writer.

    Gospel as Fairy TaleTo start us off is one of the most beloved Presbyterian writers, Frederick Buechner, whose Lyman Beecher Lectures were published in 1977 to wide acclaim. For many pastors of my generation, Buechner's lectures, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, his non-fiction books like Wishful Thinking and his novels such as Godric, ignited our creative spirits and liberated us to preach more interesting and imaginative sermons.

    Our first Advent reading is from Buechner's lecture, "The Gospel as Fairy Tale."* It reminds us of the paradoxical nature of the gospel, the fantastic irony at the heart of the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

    "When Jesus is asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, he reaches into the crowd and pulls out a child with a cheek full of bubble gum and eyes full of whatever a child's eyes are full of and says unless you become like that, don't bother to ask.

    "And as for the king of the kingdom himself, whoever would recognize him? He has no form or comeliness. His clothes are what he picked up at a rummage sale. He hasn't shaved for weeks. He smells of mortality. We have romanticized his raggedness so long that we can catch echoes only of the way it must have scandalized his time in the horrified question of the Baptist's disciples, 'Are you he who is to come?' (Matt. 11:13); in Pilate's 'Are you the king of the Jews?' (Matt. 27:11) you with the pants that don't fit and a split lip; in the black comedy of the sign they nailed over his head where the joke was written in three languages so nobody would miss the laugh.

    "But the whole point of the fairy tale of the Gospel is, of course, that he is the king in spite of everything. The frog turns out to be the prince, the ugly duckling the swan, the little gray man who asks for bread the great magician with the power of life and death in his hands, and though the little tin soldier falls into the flames, his love turns out to be fireproof. There is no less danger and darkness in the Gospel than there is in the Brothers Grimm, but beyond and above all there is the joy of it, this tale of a light breaking into the world that not even the darkness can overcome.

    "That is the Gospel, this meeting of darkness and light and the final victory of light. That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, the one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still." [Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 89-90.]

    *Editor’s note: Text from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale used with permission by Frederick Buechner Literary Assets, LLC.

  • Thomas Merton and the Cure for "Rhinoceritis"

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 02, 2016

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

    Rhinoceritis"Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Jesus of Nazareth, St. Matthew's Gospel 11:28.)

    On one of my first visits to Gethsemani Abbey some years ago, during the Friday evening talk for those on retreat, the guestmaster went through a list of things we might "do" while at the abbey. He finished by saying, "Or you can just sit and pray and meditate in the silence. We've always got lots of that around here."

    Indeed they do. In fact, I've never been anywhere that has a more abundant supply of silence and solitude. As it says on the signs posted all around, "Silence Spoken Here."

    There are birds calling. You may hear the occasional fox in the hills or the lowing of cattle in their fields. From time to time you're bound to notice the sound of a truck or a tractor rumbling along the farm road. Far away, you may hear a plane cutting through the clouds, though that's rare. Each season has its own sounds at the abbey, from summer's insects clicking to the mute cloak of winter snow. But when it comes to the human sounds of chatter and rush, these are mercifully absent. I suppose I had never noticed how loud our modern world of hustle and bustle sounds until being in a place that just doesn't value it.

    So much of what we do in the world has nothing to do with simple human labor. Almost all that we do is activity predicated on self-advancement, self-promotion, even the production of a self which others will admire or at least not successfully attack. Merton referred to such activity, not as labor, but as "unnatural, frantic, anxious work." He spoke of it as the kind of work that is "done under the pressure of greed or fear" or some other "inordinate passion," adding that such work "cannot properly be dedicated to God." [Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 2007), p. 19.]

    Even our talk often has more to do with compulsions, anxieties and greed than with either communication or the promotion of community. Chatter multiplies meaninglessly, reinforcing false selves, stoking fires of envy, anger, power, lust or other forms of violence, mistaking conspiracy for community, confusing a malignant spirit of gossip for real compassion and concern.

    In solitude, we notice. In silence, we hear. Without the din of distractions, without the controversies blaring from television and radio and the self-promotion around whatever metaphorical "water coolers" we gather, we are able to see and hear and recognize what's going on. In and around the abbey, the piles and drifts of silence, the sanctuaries, hallways and gardens heaped with stillness have a way of inviting and encouraging "being" over doing, "reflecting" over reacting, cultivating among us a habit of humanity rather than the headlong pursuit of ephemeral goals that are anything but "proper ends of our humanity."

    Thomas Merton understood what it means to inhabit a stillness and solitude that allow us to notice and to name the relentless mindless charge of distracted humanity. Commenting on a play by Eugene Ionesco, Merton named a spiritual malady many of us will recognize in ourselves: "Rhinoceritis."

    In Merton's essay, "Rain and the Rhinoceros," he quotes Ionesco:

    "'In all the cities of the world, it is the same,' says Ionesco, 'The universal and modern man is the man in a rush (i.e., the rhinoceros), a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots....' Rhinoceritis, he adds, is the sickness that lies in wait 'for those who have lost the sense and the taste for solitude'." [Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), p. 21.]

    There is no easy, painless cure for Rhinoceritis. Apparently, we almost have to die of the disease before we seek healing. It is significant, I think, although ironic, that in contemporary society, it is sometimes the arts and philosophy, rather than religious faith that offer a cure from this illness. For example, the epigraph which Merton selected for his book Raids on the Unspeakable, in which this essay appears, is by a philosopher who was also a playwright, Gabriel Marcel, who wrote:

    "Today the first and perhaps the only duty of the philosopher is to defend man against himself; to defend man against that extraordinary temptation toward inhumanity to which - almost without being aware of it - so many human beings today have yielded."

    As much as I hate to say it, if one were merely to listen to many of the most popular spokespersons for Christianity these days, one would be led to believe that Rhinoceritis is not a disease at all, but a Christian virtue. We tend to bless and baptize the frenzied busy-ness of our age, to praise it even while we complain about its negative effects.

    We rush from goal to goal, without the benefit of peripheral vision, without evaluating whether the goals of our lives are worth what we sacrifice to attain them. Our worship, where sacrifices should be assessed and properly made, offers little or no help. Congregants find, not so much a place of solitude and silence, reflection, prayer and meditation in Christian worship, as a loud weekly pep rally between quarters of that boisterous sweaty contest we call contemporary life. Such worship sadly provides just another form of distraction to prevent us from being quiet so we might hear the still small scratching of God at the window of our souls. Our liturgical cheerleaders select texts and songs that provoke effort, that tell the rhino to run faster. How odd and unnecessary, and ultimately deadly.

    Except, of course, it isn't odd, is it?

    Christians are, after all, not distinguished by our wisdom, our strength or righteousness, but merely by knowing we are sinners forgiven by God. And sinners are subject to every disease of the soul, including Rhinoceritis.

    Perhaps the most powerful line I've ever read in all of Merton's oeuvre appears in the essay on Rhinoceritis. Merton writes:

    "Because we live in a womb of collective illusion, our freedom remains abortive. Our capacities for joy, peace, and truth are never liberated. They can never be used. We are prisoners of a process, a dialectic of false promises and real deceptions ending in futility." (Merton, Raids, p. 17).

    So, in the memorable words of Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof: "As the Good Book says, Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed. In other words, send us the cure, we've got the sickness already."

    But what is the cure?

    In a variety of his writings, Merton describes a quality of life and spirit that represents the very opposite of Rhinoceritis, and he points the way toward a cure from the disease.

    Merton's exquisite little introduction to selected sayings of the Desert Fathers, for instance, describes a "purity of heart" that is "a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs, an intuitive grasp of one's inner reality as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ." This purity of heart requires slowing down, being alone, listening through the silence for the voice of God, being willing for God to speak to us about who we really are, and waiting for God's grace to comfort our broken hearts when we hear the truth. The fruit of this purity of heart is "rest," not merely "rest of the body," but rest that is a kind of "sanity and poise." Such "rest" has "lost all preoccupation with a false or limited 'self'." [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960), p. 8.]

    In Merton's version of the writings of Chuang Tzu, he speaks of the wise person who has found rest in the eternal place; there he is hidden "in his own unfathomable secret." "His nature sinks to its root in the One. His vitality, his power hide in the Tao." Merton, himself, unwraps these cryptic poetic words from Chuang Tzu with moving eloquence: he explains that Chuang Tzu's whole teaching "is characteristic of a mentality ... a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity, the ambition, the push and the self-importance which one must display in order to get along in society." [Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York: New Directions, 1965/1997), pp. 105-106 and 11.] The way of the Rhinoceros, in other words, is the polar opposite of the eternal Way.

    But I think it is again in Rain and the Rhinoceros where we get a feeling for how we can cultivate in ourselves this rest and sanity, this poise and equanimity, the hiddenness that liberates us merely to be. It is awaiting us in a particular kind of solitude, it is there for us already in a particular form of silence. As Merton tells us in the opening of the essay, in his long, lyrical reflection on the rain, in a passage that, it seems to me, could have been written by Wendell Berry. Merton writes:

    "I came up here [to his hermitage] from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows. ... Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen." (Merton, Raids, pp.9-10.)

    What voices, within and without, drive those afflicted by Rhinoceritis to charge on and on? What messages speak, threaten, cajole, ridicule, excite and make anxious the poor creatures who run headlong in attack or flee in terror from every hint of threat? Armored and horned and harried, the creatures react. However fearsome, they know no rest.

    It need not be so. But rhinos don't learn to slow down, it seems, until they stop altogether and are quiet.

  • Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 3

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 29, 2016

    “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16)

    Church's Relevance 3Recently the Church of England published its "eight social media commandments," a set of guidelines to influence parish priests and other church leaders to re-direct their energies and efforts, to become more digitally savvy, to tweet, blog, use "Slack" to facilitate discussions, create stop-motion videos, and employ apps to make their churches more relevant to the digital generation. The church's parish leaders are told that the church simply must embrace the digital revolution or risk irrelevance and extinction. (John Bingham, “The Gif of God: The Church of England issues eight social media commandments," The Daily Telegraph, August 3, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/03/the-gif-of-god-church-of-england-issues-eight-social-media-comma/.)

    While I appreciate the many uses for the digital tools that are multiplying around us, to communicate better and more broadly, to learn more about the world around us, and to keep in touch with one another, I find the assessment of the Daily Telegraph article both superficial and ultimately self-defeating. Surely, the people of our world deserve a better response from us. And, surely, we have something better to offer.

    A few years ago, I began going to Gethsemane Abbey regularly and frequently for silent retreats. It has become increasingly more difficult to book a retreat in the past couple of years because so many people want to go to the abbey. Protestants, Catholics, all sorts and conditions of human beings are making their way to this Cistercian abbey near Bardstown, Kentucky, where there is no Wi-Fi, no television nor radio, and where drinking the coffee, until quite recently, was an act of penance. The services and daily prayer are utterly lacking in any sense of performance. And many of the people who retreat there have never heard of Gethsemane's most renowned monk, Thomas Merton.

    All we do there is pray, read, meditate, and try to silence the voices inside our heads to match the silence outside. We are attentive to God, to the quiet presence of others, and to all the stuff deep inside of us from which a world of noisy distractions ordinarily keeps us from dealing. As that stuff inevitably rises up, one makes one’s way to the chapel to be reminded of God's forgiveness, or to the garden to walk silently the Stations of the Cross, or out into the stillness of the Kentucky hills to gain some perspective.

    The Psalms are applied like healing balm to tired and broken souls all throughout the day. The Eucharist is present daily to nourish. The Gospel is evoked again and again. And the silence, solitude and reality of a community of fellow pilgrims support us in our journey inward and journey outward. Gradually, during the years of disciplined prayer, contemplation, mindfulness training and meditation as well as regular extended silent retreats in the context of a permanent Christian community that practices hospitality, I have come to feel like a prodigal who has too long fed on the swine's scraps while a feast awaited me in my Father's house.

    William James, the philosopher and psychologist, in reflecting on what standards we might use to evaluate the relative truthfulness of a religious faith, articulated a perspective that has become more and more convincing to me the older I have gotten. The authenticity of a faith, according to James, should be judged by the character and quality of the lives of those who practice it. "By their fruits ye shall know them," writes James, "not by their roots." If a faith is good and true, we will know it by the results it achieves in the lives of its adherents. (William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, Modern Library edition, 1994, p. 24.)

    In other words, "Who" we are, the character of our humanity lived out in practice, is the ultimate litmus test for the truthfulness of our faith.

    But what if we fail actually to embody or convey a faith in the God revealed in Christ in our manic attempts to appeal to a culture?

    This certainly is possible. Then all we do as a church is replicate among ourselves more and more of the same culture that surrounds us on every side: a culture of consumption that is eating us up; a culture of fame that damns the quiet good in its rush to recognize the most visible and vulgar; a culture that celebrates violence and vengeance, and equates kindness with weakness; a culture obsessed with the trivial and the superficial; a culture impatient with anything intellectually profound, and mocks prudence and virtue and wisdom.

    It is possible that the church could, maybe without realizing the gravity of what it is doing, exchange the gospel that seeks to restore to us our full humanity for some life-depleting message that only manages to keep step with the culture in which we live. And, if that happens, sadly our fruit will tell.

    Sometimes what our culture most needs is not what it demands. We need to have confidence enough in the Gospel not to give up on it just because others don't "get it."

    Whether or not this Gospel is what they demand, it is the source of life abundant. The God to whom we are called to be relevant has so much to offer us and everyone else in our contemporary culture, if we have the courage to follow.

  • Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 2

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 22, 2016

    “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (II Timothy 4:3)

    Churchs Relevance part 2Since the cultural dominance of mainline Protestant Christianity began to decline (1959, if you were wondering, at the same time that participation in every other voluntary association requiring considerable investment of time and energy in local chapters began to drop off), we have focused more and more attention on gaining and retaining market share by concentrating on the changing interests and desires of various audiences we hope to attract.

    Notice, I'm not saying we focused our ministry even on the needs of people. Our concern has been market share. We may mask our intentions by strategically sprinkling in theological terms like “evangelism” and “ministry,” but we know we're still talking about marketing however we may pretend otherwise. This has led us to a most peculiar place in which our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and confidence as a community of faith, has been steadily replaced by fear, anxiety and a compulsion to please every potential audience in the hope that by "becoming all things to all people" we might save ourselves from the indignity of irrelevance.

    Thus, Eugene Peterson issued in 1987 his broadside to fellow ministers. (Eugene was then the longtime pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland.) What Eugene had to say, however, shouldn't just be heard as a critique of pastors. Indeed, many of the people who most appreciated his words, and who resisted most courageously the problems he attacks, have been pastors. We should hear his comments as a theological critique of us all.

    "American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. ... The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper's concerns - how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money. Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping: religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. 'A walloping great congregation is fine, and fun,' says Martin Thornton, 'but what most communities really need is a couple of saints. The tragedy is that they may well be there in embryo, waiting to be discovered, waiting for sound training, waiting to be emancipated from the cult of the mediocre'." [Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), pp. 1-2.]

    In order to become the place that trains saints and emancipates them from mediocrity, we need to recover an insight Dietrich Bonhoeffer once shared with his students in a class he taught on Christology. “Who” questions have priority over questions of “how.”

    What do I mean by this?

    In Bonhoeffer's lectures, published in the United States under the title, Christ, the Center, he warns his students not to get caught up in the questions that have bedeviled and distracted theologians for centuries like, "How is it possible for Christ to be both divine and human?" Or "How can God be one and three persons?" Rather, said Bonhoeffer, focus your entire attention on the actual, living, personal encounter with Jesus Christ. When we meet Christ, hearing a sermon or a testimony of someone's experience of grace or reading the Bible or worshiping and praying, inevitably Jesus Christ is asking us the same question he asked his followers long ago, "Who do you say that I am?"

    All of the "how" questions are subordinate to getting that question of "who" right.

    To whom is the church relevant?
    To the changing fads and fancies of our culture? If that is our answer, we will chase after them until we have worn ourselves out with worry, anxiety and self-parody. And we will not be fulfilling our vocation toward the people surrounding us either, but will just be giving them more of the culture of which they are already familiar.

    To whom is the church relevant?
    To the God who in Jesus Christ calls us to that abundant life which God shares with us through the power of the Holy Spirit?

    It could be that the greatest gift the church has to offer people in today's culture runs precisely against the grain of what this culture demands, because the thing this culture demands is spiritually, emotionally and physically killing its people. What I am about to suggest would turn relevance on its ear, but it might just be the key to following the God revealed in Jesus Christ in our time and place.

    In a recent article published by New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan shares his insights about what happened to him as a thoroughly connected citizen in the digital world. The teaser for this article says, "An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you too." But this teaser barely scratches the surface of Sullivan's essay, and it may be the most important essay any pastor or church leader reads this year.

    Just to give you some background, Andrew Sullivan owned a profitable and extremely trendy company that trafficked in news and information. He and his team collected information from a wide variety of sources and sent it out with witty, pertinent commentary throughout the day.

    I'll let him describe what he did:

    "For a decade and a half, I'd been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I'd cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I'd spend weeks manically grabbing every scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long." (Andrew Sullivan, "I Used to Be a Human Being," New York Magazine, September 18, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2016. http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html.)

    He was the king of relevance, in other words, a master of multitasking. Even when he was sitting alone with his laptop, his brain was full of voices, full of noise, a cacophony of data and ideas and arguments. He was everywhere at once in his mind, and seldom conscious of his actual existence at any particular moment. He was the very embodiment of what many people believe the church must be more like if it is to be relevant to natives of the digital age.

    Sullivan, this early adopter of all things digital, writes: "If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out."

    What few vacations he took became occasions to sleep. His dreams were versions of his working days. His friendships atrophied and dropped away. Finally, after four successive infections, his doctor warned him that he was literally killing himself. "And so I decided," writes Sullivan, "after fifteen years, to live in reality."

    What follows in this fascinating article is the story of Sullivan's journey back to being a human being. He began to live again. He re-developed friendships and found community. His path led through the spiritual practices of mindfulness meditation, learning to live in this world the life we are given without judgment, moment by moment paying attention to that life with gratitude. He discovered that he had been surrounded by noise, distracted by clatter, so that he didn't have to deal with his humanity, with the inevitable regrets, guilt, unresolved grief, the detritus of relationships lost, all that makes up the human soul and consciousness. He began the hard work of knowing himself again, and learning to be attentive to those around him. He gave up relevance for the sake of his humanity and his spiritual/emotional/physical wholeness. As he writes, I can't help but see the image of the return of the prodigal, who "came to himself" dining among the pigs.

    Emerging from his brokenness, Sullivan addresses us, the church. He writes:

    "If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary." (Sullivan, "I Used to Be a Human Being," New York Magazine).

    Sullivan’s appeal to the church deserves to be marked, read and inwardly digested by every leader of the church today.

  • Thomas Merton as "Exact Contemporary"

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 18, 2016

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

    Exact Contemporary

    Only a few monks living today at Gethsemani Abbey personally knew Thomas Merton, or “Father Louis Merton” as he was known there. The others know Merton as most of us know Merton, through his books.

    The complex, contradictory, deeply faithful, profoundly thoughtful, sometimes restless, but always very human person who was Merton is remembered with gratitude by those who learned from him when he was novice master, or when they prayed the liturgy with him, or when they talked with him face-to-face. But what of the rest of us who only know Merton as text? And, knowing Merton through his books, what do we know?

    On one hand, we might say that knowing Merton as text means we only know what he wanted us to know. When a writer sits down before a blank page of paper, he or she has complete control. The writer can write whatever he or she wishes. The writer can hide some things and disclose others at will. I recall an art teacher with whom I was working a couple of years ago who said to me as I stood before a blank canvas: "Remember, right now, you are the creator. This canvas can say whatever you want." So, one might assume that readers will only know what writers want them to know.

    On the other hand, careful readers are aware that writers often disclose far more than they intend. The page has a way of capturing aspects of the consciousness and personality that the writer didn't mean to put down. We are seldom aware of all we are saying. Thus, a psychoanalyst will hear in our words clues to what is going on with us that we haven't yet realized ourselves. And a literary critic will observe in a text what a careless reader won't notice. The indelible imprint of an author is upon whatever he or she writes, and that imprint includes the unintended.

    Writers appear in the pages they write. Their living breath can be felt in the vowels, their heartbeat through the consonants. Their false selves and true, their mixed motives, their restlessness and trustfulness are revealed, whether they intended this or not. In other words, there's more of Merton’s flesh and blood on the printed page than we might first have assumed.

    That raises another question, and it is a question with theological significance: Is there a disadvantage to not knowing Merton in the flesh?

    Obviously, there is. How often I have found myself wanting to enjoy the fullness of that sense of humor that comes through here and there, especially in Merton's letters. Listening to stories about Merton told by people like the late Will D. Campbell, I have wished I could have enjoyed a conversation with Merton. And there are questions, so many questions, I would like to have asked him, the answers to which are only hinted at in his books. How often I have wished I could say, "When you wrote this, what did you mean?"

    There's a strange combination of disclosure and hiddenness that I sometimes think could be erased if only I could have talked with him. However, I also have to admit that knowing people in the flesh, even knowing them very well, does not remove the mystery of the dynamic between disclosure and hiddenness. I've known my wife for something approaching forty-five years, forty-one of which we've been married, and she remains a mystery to me. Just because sometimes we can finish each other’s sentences doesn't mean that there aren't aspects of one another that make up volumes we will never comprehend. But we do have the advantage of enjoying and experiencing one another in our full, delightful and maddening immediacy. And that is a real advantage.

    There's something that is not gained, then, in knowing Merton only as text, especially at a personal level. But when it comes to knowing Merton as our teacher, there's something else we shouldn't forget. And this is where the theological significance is strongest.

    Søren Kierkegaard responded to the idea that the disciples of Jesus had an advantage over the rest of us because they knew Jesus in the flesh. History accords the apostles, and other disciples like Mary Magdalene, a special status because they knew Jesus personally. Paul claims a different kind of authority because of his revelation from the risen Christ. But there's no doubt that we often look, almost romantically, at those who walked and talked with Jesus as having the advantage of an access to him which we are denied because of our lack of physical and historical proximity to him.

    Not so, claims Kierkegaard. Jesus Christ remains our exact contemporary still meeting us directly. From a theological perspective, we know that the Spirit of God makes the words of the text come alive in our hearing, so that through the power of the Spirit the Word of God, Christ himself, speaks directly to us, claiming us, calling us to follow. In some ways, the original disciples actually experienced a disadvantage of historical proximity from which we do not suffer.

    That brings us back to Merton and his texts. God uses saints to make saints of us. The Holy Spirit speaks the Word of God through a variety of texts. This is distinctively true of the biblical texts, but there are others. Some of these other texts are apparently especially useful.

    Thomas à Kempis, an obscure monk in a Dutch monastery whom relatively few people in the world knew personally, and Lady Julian of Norwich, an anchoress living in a coastal city of medieval England, have been published for centuries, translated into scores of languages, and continue to be read today by thousands. C.S. Lewis, one of his friends once quipped, has written more books after his death than were published before; he has become a spiritual companion perhaps to more Christians than any writer in history.

    Thomas Merton's writings are ubiquitous, springing up on the nightstands of Catholic priests and Protestant pastors, devoted Christians, curious seekers, and intrigued agnostics. And the Spirit of God uses his words, again and again, to speak to hearts and minds that would never have sat down with a Cistercian monk. Through his books, and through the gentle power of the Spirit of God, Merton becomes our "exact contemporary" again and again. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24). And just look at the fruit produced by our brother, Thomas.

  • Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 1

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 15, 2016

    Church's Relevance P 1"Paul, an apostle -- sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead -- and the brothers with me,

    “To the churches of Galatia:

    "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

    "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel -- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.

    "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ."
      (Galatians 1:1-10)

    One of the questions I hear most often these days is this one: "How can we make the church more relevant?" It is a question that comes up a lot. And I think it deserves careful thought. In fact, I've been thinking for some weeks about this, and how I might respond that would be helpful. A few days ago, I realized that to begin to respond to this question, we need to explore some more basic questions. And to do that, we have to do some theological thinking.

    I don't know where you are on this, but theological thinking is not always welcome in today's church.

    Several years ago, I was a speaker in a conference honoring John Calvin. After one of the speakers had finished her address, the man sitting next to me (someone I know well and like a great deal) whispered to his wife, "That was too theological!"

    Now, you might be thinking what I thought at that moment. If you come to a conference on John Calvin you should expect it to be theological from soup to nuts. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was simply resisting a particular kind of language that has become strange in even some of the best corners of the church, so strange that we sometimes get embarrassed when that language is used. It's sort of like the fellow who wrote me in response to a blog a few years ago complaining that my use of the two classical terms differentiating the kinds of spirituality in the history of the Christian church (apophatic and kataphatic) was a sign of what's wrong with the Presbyterian Church today. (I'm going to confess to you that I really don't think vocabulary is the issue that keeps most people from coming to church.)

    If I might try to demystify the word “theology,” however, I would say that theology is a disciplined, constructive and analytical thinking about our faith in God and the God in whom we place our faith. And when we turn our theological (disciplined, constructive, analytical) thinking to the question of the church's relevance, we find some really helpful lessons ready and waiting for application. These lessons date all the way back to the early church and the writing of the New Testament, but were refined and clarified by one of the greatest theologians of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas.

    To cut to the chase, Aquinas taught that the most reliable way to make statements about God is by speaking analogically, describing that which is beyond human comprehension (God) by speaking of everyday things. This is what we do when we speak of God as Father and Son.

    Here's the trick - and this is the point that will help us think theologically about relevance.

    The primary reference point in a meaningful and reliable theological analogy isn't with the everyday thing. When, for example, we speak of God the Father or God the Son, we aren't saying that the human males we know who are fathers and sons define what God is. The primary reference point for the analogy is the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Through the incarnation (birth, life, death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, we discover what it means to say that God is Father and God is Son. In other words, we don't take a human father or a human son, multiply his characteristics by infinity, try to sift out the sin and frailty, and think we've come up with God the Father or God the Son. Instead, by faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we reflect on what Jesus Christ reveals to us about the character of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Another way to say this is the way the great sixteenth-century church reformer Martin Luther said it. If you want to know what God is like, run to the stable in Bethlehem, or stand at the foot of the cross. That's where we discover what “Fatherhood” and “Sonship” mean.

    So, here's where the lesson of analogy helps us understand relevance. What's the primary point of reference in the question of the church's relevance? To what or to whom are we, as a people of God, called to be relevant?

    One of my favorite television shows is "Yes, Minister" and its sequel "Yes, Prime Minister." It is an example of brilliantly written British humor from the BBC. In one episode, the prime minister is asked to present the name of a new bishop to the queen. He's not exactly a churchgoer, so he has to get a primer on the Church of England from the permanent secretary to the cabinet, Sir Humphrey.

    Sir Humphrey explains to the prime minister that relevance has become the dominant issue for many leading clergy in the Church of England. The Prime Minister is confused. He asks, "Relevance? To God?" "No," says Sir Humphrey, "in sociological terms." To illustrate, he describes a recently built church that had, in its attempt to meet the interests of its community, built a gymnasium and a variety of places for all sorts of activities but somehow forgot to build a sanctuary where worship might take place.

    Here's where the church's anxiety and insecurity can prove so disastrous in our very "me-centered" and "self-obsessed" culture: many people assume that the primary point of reference when it comes to relevance is the culture with its changing tastes, its fickle likes and dislikes, its sometimes trivial and superficial interests, and its often self-destructive desires and obsessions. Relevance of this sort has a very short shelf life. What appears most desirable today is obsolete tomorrow. What seems to be a meaningful trend fades into a fad in the twinkling of an eye. And the church which makes its surrounding culture its primary reference point for relevance must either spin like a hamster on its wheel perpetually chasing "the next big thing" or risk falling out of favor with the coolest people who will remind them that if they don't keep up, they'll become foolishly irrelevant. Unfortunately, of course, it is possible to stay up with the fad of the moment and still look silly.

    Our primary point of reference as church is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We are called (and I know this is going to sound weird) to be relevant to God. It is sort of like the conundrum of service. If a pastor wants to serve her people well, her first thought is not about pleasing the people, but pleasing God. If we hope to have anything of value to say and do for the people around us, we cannot focus on making ourselves relevant to them.

    I'm going to say something fairly categorical now, and I hope I'm not out of line. But I think one reason many churches have become so anxious is that they have become utterly preoccupied with trying to become appealing to the ever-shifting tastes of popular culture, often wringing their hands that they just don't seem to be attracting massive audiences. Meanwhile, they may have forgotten that their mission is the mission of God. We are in real danger of trivializing ourselves into extinction in a relentless quest to be cool, or cute, or attractive to the lowest common denominator. Meanwhile, we forget that our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and our confidence are not grounded in how successful we are in pleasing our culture or chasing after its every whim. Our freedom to be a people of God, our joy and our confidence rest in the good news of Jesus Christ, the power of his grace, forgiveness, mercy, goodness, justice and love.

    Christians have, as the old hymn says, "A Story to Tell to the Nations." That story isn't reducible to a bumper sticker. Despite the fact that it is the good news of the gospel, it will not be heard and accepted as good news by everyone who hears it. For some, it will sound like bad news, especially if they just can't let go of hatred or vengeance, self-righteousness or self-loathing. Nor will the gospel attract everyone, especially if we preach it intelligently and thoughtfully. We need to get over this. We need to be faithful to God's calling of us to follow Jesus and leave the ultimate results and the future of God's church in God's hands.

  • Alien-Nation

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 11, 2016

    Alien-Nation"My concern is to understand America biblically."

    So began William Stringfellow's An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco: Word Press, 1973). It was a revolutionary biblical and theological inquiry into American politics in the Vietnam era. That book as much as any other in those days shaped my theological imagination. There were other writers who meant a great deal to me, of course, Thomas Merton, to whom Stringfellow's book was dedicated; Karl Barth, who said of Stringfellow when they met on Barth's American lecture tour, that Stringfellow's "was the most conscientious and thoughtful mind" he encountered in America; and others. But the stamp left by Stringfellow was unique and enduring.

    As I have searched in recent days for "something unfoolish to say" (to borrow a phrase from Kris Kristofferson), I have returned again and again to Stringfellow.

    He writes:

    "The effort is to comprehend the nation, to grasp what is happening right now to the nation and to consider the destiny of the nation within the scope and style of the ethics and the ethical metaphors distinctive to the biblical witness in history." (Stringfellow, Ethic for Christians)

    Over the next weeks and months, I shall reflect seriously on where we find ourselves today as Christians in America. My intention is to reflect theologically and biblically, very slowly and deliberately, before I "think out loud" so as not to allow my speech simply to be reactive, driven by anxiety. And I would like to signal to you, that in the new year, as part of our regular Tuesday blogs, I shall introduce a new theme, related closely to Stringfellow's thought. Again, turning to his words, in the preface to An Ethic for Christians:

    "The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics - to understand America biblically - not the other way around, not ... to construe the Bible Americanly."

    Until then....

  • Christian Citizenship

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 08, 2016

    Christian CitizenshipIn one of his lesser known books, theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr summarized a central quandary of Christian citizenship. Niebuhr wrote:

    "Genuine piety sets up an authority for the individual conscience which prevents the state or the community from becoming an idolatrous end of human existence. Religious faith makes a rigorous affirmation, 'We must obey God, rather than men,' in opposition to every tyranny. But, unfortunately, piety develops its own idolatries by claiming a too simple allegiance between the divine will and human ends." [Reinhold Niebuhr,Pious and Secular America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p. 6.]

    Every congregation that has ever argued over whether or not to have an American flag in the sanctuary has wrestled with the problem which Niebuhr outlines. Every young person who has struggled to square Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount with military service - whatever their ultimate decision - has had to find a way through this labyrinth of faith and obligation.

    The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us that we are claimed body and soul, in life and in death, by our faithful savior Jesus Christ. This fact, according to Heidelberg, is our "only comfort." But there has never been a time in history when Christians did not live subject also to earthly powers and principalities. And these powers and principalities, we are told in the Bible, are also God's creation, intended for good, for justice, for order and peace, yet subject to the fall as are all other aspects of creation.

    We have witnessed occasions when religious faith became handmaiden to and apologist for a state's wickedness, oppression, violence, and even mass murder. We wish we could say that Christianity has proven immune to such historical maladies, but it is simply not the case.

    We have also seen times when religious faith has served as a courageous motivation to resist tyranny, dictatorship, imperialism, enslavement, and genocide. We wish we could say that, in such times, the faithful were honored by their fellow citizens as true patriots, but neither is this the case.

    Tom Currie once observed, "The truth of the matter is that the idea of God can be made to serve any number of abhorrent causes and none so easily or so well as the ones we value." [Thomas White Currie III, Ambushed by Grace: The Virtues of Useless Faith (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1993), p. 21.] It is almost always true that our highest values (and this includes our love of country), when perverted, can cause the greatest suffering, even as it is true that the highest goods, when distorted, become the lowest sins. So it is that good people, people of faith, can find themselves, and sometimes with the very best of motives, giving their souls to some false deity that promises more than it can deliver, or rendering unto Caesar those things that belong to God. In few places are these perils greater than in the political realm, because the potential there for good is so great.

    Fortunately, the moments in history when dire circumstances force the faithful to choose radically between Christ and Caesar are not routine. But the possibility is always there.

  • Thomas Merton's Restless Heart

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 04, 2016

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

    Restless HeartThomas Merton wrote one of the most influential spiritual autobiographies in Christian history. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote the original. Though I am sure that Merton would be the first to say that Augustine's Confessions towers above his own The Seven Storey Mountain, there are many similarities between the two.

    Both autobiographies were written for spiritual purposes. They are spiritual memoirs. They are not written in the vein of a modern "celebrity tell-all," a meticulously footnoted critical appraisal of a national leader, or a ghost-written self-advertisement. Both Confessions and The Seven Storey Mountain were written with searing honesty, to help other pilgrims find their way to God. Both were written by extraordinarily erudite, philosophically subtle and eloquent authors. Both display a humility that is profoundly moving. And both exhibit an aesthetic sensibility and love of beauty that shines through even the most densely reasoned theological points.

    Merton and Augustine were larger than life. They sought after spiritual satisfaction, but had reveled in carnal pleasures before their surrender to God. Augustine famously prayed, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." And Merton's exploits with alcohol and women, especially while a student at Clare College, Cambridge, are well known. Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two was that which drove them or drew them toward the divine: a relentless restlessness.

    Augustine gave this drive its classic formulation in the prayer with which he begins his Confessions:

    “‘You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised' (Ps. 47:2): 'great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable' (Ps. 146:5). Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being 'bearing his mortality with him' (2 Cor. 4:10), carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you 'resist the proud' (1 Pet. 5:5). Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." [Augustine, St. Augustine’s Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 3.]

    In “Book V” of Confessions, Augustine continues praying, reflecting on the nature of this restlessness, and the way in which it alienates one from oneself:

    "The closed heart does not shut out your eye, and your hand is not kept away by the hardness of humanity, but you melt that when you wish ... and there is 'none who can hide from your heat' (Ps. 18:7). ... So from weariness our soul rises toward you, first supporting itself on the created order and then passing on to you yourself who wonderfully made it (Ps. 71:18; 135:4). With you is restored strength and true courage. ... Let them turn, and at once you are there in their heart - in the heart of those who make confession to you and throw themselves upon you and weep on your breast after traveling many rough paths. ... Where was I when I was seeking for you? You were there before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less you." (Augustine, Confessions, 72-73.)

    "Our heart is restless until it rests in you." Merton's Seven Storey Mountain reads like a commentary on this passage from Augustine. On page after page of Merton's autobiography we find a young man confessing, "I could not even find myself, much less you."

    "There is a paradox," Merton writes of himself, "that lies in the very heart of human existence. It must be apprehended before any lasting happiness is possible in the soul of man. The paradox is this: man's nature by itself, can do little or nothing to settle his most important problems." [Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: HBJ, 1948/1976) p. 169.]

    Paul Tillich had said as much when he said that humanity is the question to which God alone is the answer. Both Merton and Augustine courageously probe a psychology of the spirit using themselves and their own lives as exhibit A, inquiring into the human creature's inability to know itself, to recognize what it is and what it was made for, until the light of God's grace blinds the creature into a new kind of sight. "In thy light we shall see light."

    The various plots of the sinner's recovery are familiar to us all. One is based on the parable of the prodigal. The child wandered into a far country and squandered his inheritance foolishly and winds up dining with swine only to come to himself by grace. And, by grace, seeing himself anew and remembering his father's house where he was intended to feast, no longer is he a stranger in a strange land but again a child at home. Another common plot is the even more ancient one, the journey from one place to another to the unknown but promised land. Abraham and Jacob as well as Moses and Joshua are all originals for this story of the soul. And still another plot is the story of sickness and healing, near-death and health-restored, or death and new life. The plots of sickness and healing abound throughout the Bible, but especially in the gospels. All of these plots require that we pass through "dark nights of the soul," periods of disorientation, times of great discomfort and apparently God-forsakenness which (to our surprise) turn out to be occasions for overwhelming grace. In the dark night we come to rest in the God beyond all our conceptions.

    Restlessness, movement of the heart, changes of mind, conversions of manners, are often involved in the life of faith because spiritual transformation requires displacement of the most profound sort. God places us in darkness and blinds us in light, sends us out into solitude and draws us into deep silence so we will pay attention.

    "What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God's likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of that freedom is nothing else but the exercise of disinterested love - the love of God for his own sake, because he is God. The beginning of love is truth, and before he will give us his love, God must cleanse our souls of the lies that are in them." (Merton, Mountain, p. 372.)

    Here is the promised healing, the journey's end, and the prodigal's true home appearing on the horizon at last.

    At the close of Augustine's Confessions, we come upon his comments on Sabbath. Here we find his most beautiful reflections on rest. He writes:

    "The seventh day has no evening and has no ending. You sanctified it to abide everlastingly. Even as we are promised a rest that never ends in God, in the end God will rest in us and through us, even as God works through us now.” (Augustine, Confessions, 304.)

    I have often wondered at the astonishing literary productivity of both Augustine and Merton. Their pens never rested, even if their hearts did. But perhaps they had discovered the secret of running and not fainting, because it was no longer their restlessness that made them run.

  • Twilights and Dawns of Gods

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 01, 2016

    TwilightsOnce upon a time long long ago, something happened that nobody expected. The world stopped working properly. It was the summer of 1159 BC. Well, it would have been summer, except summer never really came. The priests went through all the usual rituals. The great stones all stood waiting, lined up with the stars like always, ready for the sun to grace the people with its warmth. The invocations were spoken by the shamans. But the summer sun refused to brighten the skies or ripen the grains and other crops. And, stunted, they withered. Summer never came. And the same thing happened for eighteen years, virtually a full human generation.

    This story was not handed down in ancient texts, but lay encoded in tree rings long preserved in an Irish peat bog until unlocked by dendrochronologists like Professor Michael Baillie of Queen's University, Belfast. Reflecting on an environmental catastrophe of biblical proportions, he says: "Imagine what eighteen years of failed harvests would do to any civilization. It would pretty much wipe out any agricultural group." Carmel McCaffrey (a lecturer on Irish history and language at Johns Hopkins University) and Leo Eaton (a film producer) observe that this environmental crisis precipitated upheaval in every known society.

    "The date suggested for the fall of Homeric Troy, the collapse of Mycenae, and the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages is close to 1159 BC. In the same period the Hittite Empire of Anatolia ended in rebellion and economic chaos while the Babylonian poems, inscribed on clay tablets, speak of abandonment by the gods. Egypt was almost overrun by an invasion of sea peoples, nations were on the move, and in distant China terrible events heralded the fall of the mighty Shang dynasty. All these events took place in the mid-twelfth century." [McCaffrey and Eaton, In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic a Times to the Coming of the English (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), 38-41.]

    A variety of explanations have been advanced to explain what happened (volcanic eruptions, for example, which flooded the atmosphere with ashy clouds shutting out the sun), but I would like to reflect on one small slice of the social effects. During this period of stress, according to the scholars who looked primarily at Irish history, the society became much more militaristic and much more religious. Indeed, a warrior aristocracy arose in Ireland in this period, and religious practices to appease "the gods of the underworld" seem to have intensified. In an interview McCaffrey and Eaton conducted with Richard Warner, curator of antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Warner explained that, as in other times of social stress when people become more warlike and religious, the Irish in the twelfth century BC began to build huge fortifications defending their scarce resources, and they attempted to satisfy those gods who lived in bodies of water and who were believed to be the source of the catastrophic weather. (McCaffrey and Eaton, Ancient Ireland, 42-43.)

    Place your mental page marker here for just a moment, if you will.

    If you have ever traversed ancient landscapes in Europe, Africa or Asia, surely one of the most remarkable experiences is viewing the religious remains of vastly different ages cheek-by-jowl. There's one particular valley  (of which I've written in another context) in Britain where Stone Age religious sites dating from sometime after the last Ice Age stand near structures built hundreds, even thousands, of years later. There have been people living and worshiping in that landscape for thousands of years, perhaps even longer. The monuments they left have been used and lost, adapted for new uses and adapted in the name of a variety of gods, by a people who have lived there over the millennia. Indeed, in the case of the valley I'm thinking of, the best vantage point to see the sweep of the valley is in the burial ground beside the modern church (dating from just after the Reformation) which stands on the site of prior Christian churches dating back to a preaching cross erected long before St. Augustine "brought" Christianity to Britain. People have lived and worshiped in that particular place for nearly 10,000 years through several different religions.

    "What is your point?" you may well be asking.

    Perspective, historical perspective, is hard to come by among a people whose vision is limited by their lifetime much less by those who are unconcerned about anything that happened last year. Yet, historical perspective is one of the most valuable assets for anyone hoping to combat the enervating, crippling anxiety of our age. God is up to grand things on a grand scale, "mighty acts," as the great A.B. Rhodes said. And God does not get smaller the more we know. Indeed, the opposite is true. The more we know, the bigger God and God's world and God's universe become. Feeling small can be a big gift, especially when it comes to gaining a true sense of proportion regarding our worries about the church these days.

    There’s something else we may learn from what happened in 1159 BC. Fear makes a poor tutor. What we tend to learn from fear is often counter-productive, at best, and may be profoundly destructive. It is worth remembering that when a society disintegrates (whatever the cause), when trust in others is lost and confidence in institutional structures erodes, the results are seldom good. At such times in history, almost inevitably, violence increases as social ties unravel. People may get more religious in such times; that doesn’t mean they get better or more peaceful.

    Maybe it makes a lot more sense to invest ourselves in the rebuilding of trust and of institutional structures in stressful times, rather than to participate in distrust and cynicism.

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