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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Wind of the Spirit

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 14, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Cheryl Goodman-Morris.


    The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

    As I write this, the wind outside my sunroom window is swirling through the trees, bending them back powerfully, like a captivating dance partner. They toss and dip in response to the expert lead, all tango and tangle. I love the wind when it’s like this. It’s thrilling, a little out of control. I have a front row seat.

    Nobody knows where the wind comes from, and nobody knows where it’s going, but everybody definitely knows when it’s there. It’s alive. Stand in it, sail in it, and you are, too. Wind at your back, it’s full steam ahead. You’re confident, you can do anything.

    Until it dies. And you can’t. What then?

    Some years ago the sails of our churches were filled with the wind of the spirit. The pews in our mainline denominations were full to overflowing, programs were robust, and volunteers were rampant. Heady stuff. Then demographics shifted; the culture changed. And those who loved the church, both leadership and lay, secretly and not so secretly wondered the same thing, "Are we dead in the water?"

    We blamed ourselves, we got busy, we tried to fix things. We formed committees, we dreamed up programs, we crunched numbers. Somehow, we felt it was completely on our shoulders to make it right. But there was always that fear, lurking in the back of our minds, “What if we can't do it? What if we are dead in the water?" It's hard to re-create the wind.

    Author Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, speaks of a similar fear successful artists often experience when they sit down with a blank piece of paper or canvas to create their next great masterpiece. The burden to repeat their past successes can be terrifying, paralyzing. Gilbert proposes that artists feel this pressure because somehow, in the last 400 years, they’ve gotten the idea that genius comes from them instead of from beyond them. The Renaissance and the birth of rational humanistic thought had put human beings at the center of the universe. [1]

    But in classical times, the Greeks and Romans felt that the creative spirit, the “genius” came to them from someplace else—some divine, unknowable place. This understanding protected classical people from both hubris and defeat. While artists still had to roll up their sleeves and do the work, ultimately their outside genius was behind their success or failure, so the genius was the one who was either brilliant or lacking.

    All that changed with the Renaissance. For the first time in history, a person was referred to as being a genius, not “having a genius”. The pressure was now on the individual alone.

    With this intellectual shift, Ms. Gilbert feels that we humans missed the mark in understanding the relationship between the act of creation and the divine.

    I think she’s on to something. We often try to restore the church to her former glory by working hard to muster up our past genius, recasting and recycling approaches that worked once but no longer do. We forget all about the realm of the Spirit. We are left exhausted and disheartened.

    What if the process of creating a fresh church could come to us in a radical, completely unorthodox new way? What if we remembered to let the Spirit find us instead of us trying to manufacture it? Ruth Stone, the poet, writes that as a girl, she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape like a thunderous train of air, shaking the earth beneath her feet. She would run like crazy to get to the house and a piece of paper. Grabbing a pencil, she would catch the poem by the tail just as it passed through her body, writing as fast as she could to get it down. She knew if she didn’t, it would move beyond her and find somebody else who was ready to receive it, and there it would be born. [2]

    What if catching a new vision of what the church could be was like that? What if we could just show up with open hands and open hearts, roll our sleeves up, and say, "We're ready, God, whenever you are. We’ll do our part, but we also need for you to do yours. Let the wind of your spirit blow where it will. We're ready to sail."


    [1] Ted Talk. “Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius.” http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html Posted February, 2009.

    [2] Ibid.

    Cheryl Goodman-Morris is Pastor of Worship, Arts, and Education at Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley, California, and Artistic Director of the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory. She is an LPTS graduate.

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  • What Are We Supposed to Do?

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 07, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Cheri Harper.

     
    I love this time of year because amid the heat and humidity of late summer, we also get to experience the burst of energy and change as new students move to campus, returning students come back from their summer activities, and everyone gears up for a new academic year. Although this “back to school” buzz may seem limited to students, the truth is that all of us, young and old, experience tremendous change in the course of our lives.

    This continual movement is most noticeable during seminal events like graduation, a job change, loss of a loved one, or the birth of a loved one, but it’s also a constant presence in the background of our lives. Likewise, our spiritual growth comes in fits and starts – say at a baptism, confirmation, or particular conference or a meaningful Sunday school class – but it also happens as a constant presence. While all this change can be exciting and energizing, it can also be extremely anxiety-inducing, leaving us to question where God is leading and to worry whether we’re on the right path. It’s easy to wonder why God doesn’t just take us by the hand and lead us where we’re supposed to go.

    The good news is that we’re not the first ones to ask for help. I appreciate the crowd in John 6:23-33 because I think they were hoping Jesus would provide a divine roadmap through the chaos. Through their question, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they were essentially asking, “What are we supposed to do, God?” I imagine the people thought that Jesus, this miracle man with messiah-like tendencies, could certainly offer some inside tips.

    So Jesus very helpfully gave them a heavenly GPS, right?

    No, he did not. Instead, Jesus gave a very compact answer. Jesus said that God’s work was to believe in the One whom God had sent. A little later, Paul would have said, the work that God desires from us is faith.

    Faith? That’s it? Yes and no.

    Yes, God desires us to believe, but no, that’s not it. When we truly believe, our actions faithfully flow from us. For the crowds at Capernaum, believing that Jesus of Nazareth was the bread of life was a radical form of faith. Following Jesus meant risking relationships and becoming outsiders to most facets of society. Today we have much in common with the first followers of Jesus. We do not live in an entirely Christian society anymore and heeding Jesus’ words to have faith is no longer a simple matter of fitting in. We’re called to be radical believers (and doers) too.

    These are worrying times we’re living in. Not only do we deal with the regular changes of life but now we seem to get a constant barrage of unsettling news of economic decline, climate change, wars abroad and political deadlock at home. It’s no wonder we find comfort when someone says, “God has a plan for your life.” The question is what kind of plan is it? Is it a roadmap that details every curve, bump and corner? Or is it a grander plan?

    Fortunately, Jesus’ words to the crowd and to us are simple. We are offered an amazing gift of grace by faith. We have been freed from sin and released in love to go and do what flows naturally from our beliefs. We are not shackled by anger, greed, cynicism, recklessness and fear and we don’t need a specific roadmap to worry over. Instead, we have been unbound to go do what is required of us; to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

    While change swirls and anxiety looms, our temptation is to look for a straightforward and assuring path and to simply ask God, “What are we supposed to do?”

    But, perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Perhaps the question should be, “Who are we supposed to be?”

    Cheri Harper received her M.Div. degree from Louisville Seminary and serves as Director of Recruitment & Admissions.

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  • Are We All One in Jesus Christ?

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 31, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Terry C. Muck.

    As we move inexorably toward another polarizing presidential election, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the effects of such polarization. We are a divided country, filled with cultures at war with other cultures and within themselves. Not just Republicans and Democrats, but rich-poor, urban-rural, black-white, progressives-conservatives, and many more. What is the endgame of such chronic conflict?

    There was a time when we could make the case that conflict, especially conflict of ideas, was a good and necessary thing. We do not agree on everything. Talking about our disagreements produces better effects than letting them fester into hate. So conflict, managed conflict, helps create societies that function well.

    I believe there is still truth in such an argument, but am also becoming increasingly convinced that something is going on today that makes it moot. The public and private conflicts we see happening today do not eventuate in agreements, or even agreements to disagree, but in commitments to more conflict. Conflict has ceased being a means to an end, and has become an end in itself. We fight one another not to achieve peace or freedom or unity or other laudable ends. We fight one another in the expectation that we will keep on fighting.

    What kind of a culture does this chronic conflict create? Aside from the obvious answer that it will lead to more of the same, what does chronic conflict lead toward for people who see what is going on and want to stop it? Are we doomed to participate, or is there a way out?

    We have always had conflicts of one sort or another, of course, and we have always had “ways out.” I grew up in the sixties and my generation opted out by living on the streets of San Francisco, or forming utopian communities, or starting house churches—all in the name of dropping out of institutions we saw as part of the problem.

    In other eras, people dropped out of unjust economic systems by becoming “free-riders” or by creating “black markets” for proscribed goods or cheaper prices. In order to avoid restrictive political parties, the idea of a “third party” is often tried (and usually found wanting). Usually these efforts fail in themselves, but create the conditions that bring about reform in the unjust political, economic, or social structures they seek to replace.

    What is worrying about our current divisions, however, is a pervasive sense of hopelessness that such reforms have any chance of working—that our divisions can be overcome, or at least coped with, and that our larger society can be made productive again. One of the downsides of globalization and computers is that “dropping out” of society and working in the margins is almost impossible. With “big brother” watching there is almost no place to run, no place to hide. Hopeless.

    Hopelessness usually breeds fantasies, and we have our share of those. Jimmy Buffet sings of pirates and Willie Nelson sings of cowboys, idealizing cultures that have dropped out and are free. Survivalists take to the woods and try to live off the grid: The system cannot be fixed; let’s wait until it fails, and then rise from the ashes. Instead of putting our money under the mattress, we stash it in off-shore back accounts. These are indeed fantasies and either do not get enacted or fail entirely.

    What to do? I am convinced that the church has an important role to play in helping us through this particular dark night. The church realizes that this is not ultimately a problem of politics or economics or social concern, even though it usually takes those forms. At root it is a spiritual problem, exacerbated by our theological tendency to ignore the ultimately transcendent nature of our faith, or as the apostle Paul put it, “this world is not our home.” We tend to domesticate the remnant of transcendence that we still cling to, reducing our problems to material ones (politics, economics) or psychological ones (rooted in alienation or anomie).

    "We are all one in Christ Jesus” may sound hopelessly pietistic, perhaps even escapist, but until we embrace the idea (or are embraced by it), all our other efforts will fail miserably. With it, however, we have the anchor that makes our efforts at political reform and social change, realistic and worth doing. It is the only story we have to tell. We are the only ones telling it.

    Terry C. Muck is Interim Executive Director of the Louisville Institute

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  • Telling Ourselves the Truth

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 24, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Lewis Brogdon.

    This past February I devoted three weeks to preaching about racial indifference, resentment, and hatred among African American Christians. Turning my attention to the African American church was a different way to approach the issue of racism because African Americans have suffered and continue to suffer the devastating effects of racism linked to centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. One would think if any group of Christians needs to think through both the systemic and attitudinal effects of racism, it would be European American Christians. While I agree that it is essential to continue to challenge white Christians to address racism’s effects, it should not preclude leaders in black churches from examining the effects of racism on blacks or from challenging racial prejudice among black Christians directed toward non-blacks. To my surprise, some of my African American pastoral colleagues were surprised at what I was doing. I was surprised because I believe the gospel challenges both whites and blacks to account for their respective contributions to the racial hostility and alienation that continues to divide us. So this got me thinking about the importance of telling ourselves the truth and what it may mean for the future of the church.

    I believe that we humans have the potential to domesticate religion, to take the teeth out of it so that it doesn’t challenge us (or worse yet use the teeth only to bite others). Therefore, one of the chief tasks of preaching is to draw on the transcendent power of God to challenge the ways we attempt to domesticate the gospel in our congregations. Paul announced to the Romans that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God, a power, I believe, that resists our tendency to domesticate it for our own purposes and to justify our behaviors. The power of God that we encounter in the gospel continually calls us to self-examination and critique, enabling us to escape a faith completely domesticated by the confines of our respective social, historical, and even racial contexts. The gospel gives us the power to not only tell others the truth, but more importantly, to tell ourselves the truth. And since Sunday morning at 11 a.m. continues to be the most segregated hour of the week, preachers must have the courage to tell people the truth, and to correct the congregation when beliefs, values, and behaviors contrary to the gospel manifest themselves.

    During this sermon series I was mindful of the origins of the Black Church. When enslaved Africans were introduced to Christianity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there were a high number of pro-slavery churches, churches that were closed enclaves giving their full endorsement to one of the most evil institutions in human history— American chattel slavery. There were two types of pro-slavery churches: churches that believed that slavery was wrong yet did nothing to challenge it, and churches that did not believe slavery was wrong and used the Bible to defend it. White Christians allowed blacks to suffer countless acts of violence and to be economically exploited by a system that benefited them. They participated in the acts of violence themselves and encouraged racial hatred toward blacks. This went on for over a century. Think about this: in many, though not all, of these congregations, there was little going on that critiqued and challenged their participation in evil. Because of this, African Americans had to leave many of these denominations and churches to start churches with a gospel center where all persons were viewed as children of God. Just think—they had to leave churches to be the church.

    This history provides a sober reminder of how congregations can become closed enclaves where evil festers and grows. If this can happen to Christian congregations in times past, I believe it can happen today. It is incumbent upon leaders in both predominantly-white and predominantly-black churches to guard against congregational cultures that are closed off to self-challenge. In the end, I hope people won’t have to leave our churches because we lack the courage to tell ourselves the truth.

    Lewis Brogdon is Assistant Professor of Black Church Studies and Director of the Black Church Studies Program at Louisville Seminary.

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  • Notes from Elsewhere

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 17, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Heather Thiessen.

                                 

    My 13-year-old daughter left for Washington, DC, at 5:15 a.m. on June 9. The scene in the school gym was a curious combination of joy and tension. The 7th and 8th graders from our small-town Indiana school clustered in small groups comparing notes about what they were taking and expecting, while parents negotiated the complex demands of communicating love, encouragement, last-minute advice and not too much anxiety, without crossing the subtle line between acceptably and unacceptably embarrassing their children.

    I didn't understand at first why this particular school trip had my stomach in such a tight knot. Presbyterian summer camp lasts longer - and there's no cell phone contact. As I watched the 13- and 14-year-olds board the bus, visibly engrossed in their own web of relationships and experiences, I realized she was about to have a big, profound, maybe even life-changing experience, completely apart from us. Unlike school - which is in a familiar building, just down the street by comparison with the nation's capitol - this experience can only be imagined as remote. Unlike her sports - which I don't play, but do watch - this experience can only remain invisible to me. However much or little of it I get to share will come only through the medium of conversation, and maybe some photos.

    I've always known and respected that my daughter and I are two separate people. But this event was yet another awakening to the nature and the fragility of human connection, which we humans so easily and repeatedly take for granted. Because what became clearer to me than ever, at 5:15 a.m. on June 9, is that she has been having big, profound, maybe even life-changing experiences completely apart from us all along. I simply fail to notice, much of the time, how much of our understanding of one another depends on communication, and how often I substitute my own ready assumptions for that arduous process. I forget that my daughter's experience of what I, too, have seen and heard, may not be - indeed, almost certainly is not - identical to mine. I forget to check out my chronic premise that I know how things are for her because I know how they are or were for me.

    This particular human forgetfulness seems to be widespread. It makes it easy for us to believe we understand what someone else is going through because we have experienced a life event that goes by the same name, or once visited the place they have been living, or have ourselves used the very same words to describe something. It makes it hard for us to recognize our need to listen more deeply, beyond our seemingly common language, for the invisible, unimagined differences in experience that are the stuff of our diversity. As the CEO of the company where I worked many years ago used to say, "the greatest barrier to communication is the illusion that it has occurred" -- and that illusion dies hard.

    I know this lesson is not new. It is the same one the Women's Center at LPTS repeatedly teaches, in connection with the profound and subtle significance of humanity's gendered diversity. Women's human experience differs from men's; the understanding needed for love and justice requires care-ful communication. I thought I already knew that by heart. But the challenge that lesson poses, of putting into practice the insight that another person is really an other person, rather than myself at arm's length, I clearly have yet to master.

    This most recent reminder of the diligence demanded by a practice of respectful and attentive otherness has deepened the already deep fascination and perplexity of incarnational theology for me. As Christians, we know we live in a world marked by God's own practice of participation, of "sharing our human experience." But as we are reminded in exegesis classes, the particular experiential world of first century Palestine is every bit as much unlike our own as it is shared. Nor would any other world be any less particular. Incarnation would never eliminate, but could only heighten, the need to share conversation in order to bridge the gulf between one particular and another. And yet nothing besides incarnation could hope to share that conversation, which depends on common reference points in the material world, like perception, emotion, thought, relationship, history. The difference born of particularity becomes one of the elements of the profound understanding of one another that we call communion.

    Whether I will ever be able to communicate this to my daughter remains to be seen.

    Heather Thiessen is a graduate of Louisville Seminary and part-time Director of the Women's Center at LPTS.

    Photo illustration created using the Face Transformer at Face of the Future at St. Andrew's University: http://morph.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk/fof/index.html

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  • God Is a Hoarder

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 11, 2012
    This blog post was guest-written by Shannon Craigo-Snell.

    God is a hoarder. The creator of the universe has a lot in common with the elderly couple down the street who have to navigate between teetering stacks of old magazines and cracked dishware as they walk from room to room.

    Bear with me.

    Christians turn to metaphor in order to describe God. This is both a theological and an historical truth. Theologically, God is beyond our comprehension. The magnificence of God and the limits of human language conspire to make a precise description of the divine impossible. Human sinfulness compounds the problem, since we are apt to picture God in our own image. Metaphor is the best we can manage. Metaphors say something about God, without claiming to say everything. They offer small glimpses of who God is. Historically, Christians have used many different metaphors for God. This multiplicity allows us to glimpse various aspects of the Holy, and it reminds us that no single metaphor can capture the fullness of God. Over the centuries, Christians have developed a broad storehouse of images for God, beginning with the rich array of metaphors in the Hebrew Bible. God is a rock and a fortress (Ps. 31:1-3), as well as a bird who shelters us under Her wing (Ps. 36:7). God is a warrior on the field of battle (Ex. 15:3) and a potter at His wheel (Is. 29:16). God is sun (Ps. 84:11) and shade (Ps. 121:5) and a still small voice (1Kg 19:12). Theology, then, is a work of metaphor, continuing the long tradition of garnering images that help us know something of God.

    I stand in this tradition when I claim that God is a hoarder. My intent here is not to make light of the devastating effects of hoarding. Rather, my metaphor draws on research into the cognitive causes of hoarding. At least one recent study suggests that hoarders suffer from a failure of categorization.[i]

    We start learning to sort things into categories from a very young age. Children learn to sort by shape, size, and color. School children have to identify “which of these things is not like the other.” Skillful categorization is important for adult life and for managing a home. If I discover there are twenty coffee cups in the cupboard, I can say that these are all the same—all in the same category—and therefore I do not need so many. Out go the extra cups.

    Hoarders are perfectly capable of sorting by shape, size, and color. However, to the degree that things are “personally relevant” to them, hoarders do not categorize as easily as the rest of us.[ii] Instead of seeing twenty cups in the cupboard, a hoarder might see a cup with a beautiful pattern, one that was purchased on a trip, a cup in a gorgeous color… This one has a broken handle, but I rarely hold a cup by the handle anyway. This one is cracked, but it would be a great pencil holder. I have to hold on to these.

    Perhaps God suffers from a failure of categorization where we are concerned. Perhaps God considers creation to be “personally relevant,” and so God does not lump us into groups where we can be sorted according to utility or value. God does not see one group when She looks at humanity, or men, or women, or rich people, or poor people, or any kind of people at all. Instead, God sees each one of us in the context of our personal relevance to God, each one of us in our beautiful and broken specificity, and God holds on to us all.[iii]

    Shannon Craigo-Snell joined the Louisville Seminary faculty in 2011 as a constructive theologian who is committed to bringing theology alive in the context of the global church.


    [i] Jeffrey P. Wincze, Gail Steketee, and Randy O. Frost, “Categorization in compulsive hoarding,” Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(1), 63-72.

    [ii] Ibid.

    [iii] For more on metaphor in Theology, see Sallie McFaque, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975). For more on hoarding, see Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

    Photo: http://buzzfarmers.com

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  • Is Good Mentoring Hard to Find?

    by Michael Jinkins | Jul 03, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by Bridgett Green.

    Good mentoring relationships are important gifts for growing professionals. Although one usually associates mentors with the beginning of a journey, mentors are great for any stage of one’s vocational development whether one is at the beginning, middle, or senior aspect of a career or vocational journey.

    Beginning as a church professional in the mission offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I encountered one of the most formative mentoring relationships of my career with Mary Elva Smith. Before retiring, Mary Elva served as the director of Women’s Ministries. Previously, she worked as a Christian educator, presbytery executive, and spiritual director. As director of Women’s Ministries, she supervised my  work. Yet, Mary Elva was more than a
    supervisor; she was a mentor. I am one of many clergy and lay leaders, non-profit directors, and justice advocates around the country whom she has mentored through the years.

    Mary Elva was a mentor who provided a space for dialogue, honesty, and creative risk-taking. In this space, she promoted an understanding that young is not simply synonymous with inexperience; rather, young connects the present and the future. Now, as a young mentor myself, I find that reflecting on the qualities of good mentoring provides an opportunity to think out loud on the traits that I want to cultivate so that good mentoring isn’t so hard to find.

    Dialogue

    Dialogue forges the mentoring relationship. My best experiences of dialogue with Mary Elva occurred when we talked through a situation to explore its components and dynamics in order to find a course of action or to discover a learning moment. Although Mary Elva offered great advice, she usually refrained from active advisement in order to be a more active listener. By this, she conveyed that many answers lay within me. In this process, she taught trust in one’s gut, reliance on the Spirit to lead, and recognition of resources in less than obvious places.

    Space for Honesty

    A space for honest and constructive conversation allows a person to ask difficult questions, to challenge one’s own assumptions, and to evaluate a situation with guidance. Sometimes, that space includes a mutual agreement for respectful disagreement. As Women’s Ministries provided leadership development and ministry opportunities with women, our work at that time included education about and advocacy against institutional sexism, racism, and other injustices that permeated church policies and perceptions on church leadership, particularly women’s leadership. Mary Elva and I shared in difficult conversations that reflected our generational and racialized differences. Yet even in the milieu of professional hierarchy in the workplace, Mary Elva facilitated a space where, without penalty, honest dialogue fostered knowledge of one another and understanding of the systems in which we live.

    Creative Risks

    A good mentor-relationship provides opportunity for creative risk-taking. Mary Elva would say to people, “I’ve used your name in vain today.” In regard to me, that usually meant she suggested me for participation in committees, leadership roles, projects, or promotions. Rarely was I an expert or highly experienced contributor to a process. However, she knew that I would learn. If I made mistakes, she knew that I would recover and others would help me. She also knew that I would only get experience by being involved in decision-making with experts, learning from them, and giving them chances to learn from my experiences.

    When Mary Elva retired, I continued to work with expanded responsibilities in our newly formed ministry area. Her mentoring gave me resources to continue to grow as one of many contributing young leaders in the PC (U.S.A.). Isn’t that what good mentoring is supposed to be? Good mentoring facilitates empowerment, resources, and education so that one may soar even when one’s mentor is absent. Instead of a relationship of codependence, and at worst indebtedness, it’s a relationship of interdependence that leads to independence and confidence. Even as some look to me as a mentor, I continue relationships with my mentors and forge new ones.

    Dialogue, honesty, and risk-taking are rewarding and challenging components of good mentoring. Which qualities would you add so that good mentoring isn’t so hard to find?

    Bridgett A. Green is a teaching elder in the PC (U.S.A) who is pursuing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Vanderbilt University as a fellow in the Program of Theology and Practice. For ten years, she has served the church through various forms of young adult ministry. She also serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of Louisville Seminary.

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  • Finding a Bright Spot and Hope

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 25, 2012

    This blog post was written by Pam Kidd.

    I am a physician and a trustee of a Christian theological school. I have other identities as Christian, wife, mother, grandmother, but it is the combination of physician and trustee of a Christian seminary that seems to draw the most curiosity.

    One of the blessings of living as long as I have is the opportunity to look back and see positive change over many years. I am old enough to have been the only female in my medical school class and 28 years later see my daughter graduate from medical school in a class with 50% women. I have experienced the effect that an influx of different perspectives has had on the way medicine is practiced and the contributions women have made. There are still moments in the middle of a hospital conference when I realize half of the physicians participating in the discussion of patient care are women, and I remember the days when I was the only female in the room. I have experienced the reality of one of my favorite quotes that I have always attributed to Jackie Robinson: “It’s a better game when everyone gets to play”. The change I have witnessed gives me hope.

    Yet, as far my profession has come (and there is still a way to go), we are all reminded daily of the injustices, the prejudices, the unevenness of opportunities, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the growing frustration of those who are unable to find work. With so many problems to address, the media seems to be predominated by rancorous, rude proclamations with no apparent intent of dialogue or attempt to cooperatively find solutions. Where to find hope that we will ever be able to talk with each other and make progress?

    About a year ago I was introduced by Dr. Jeff Trent, a scientist and CEO of a biotech enterprise, to Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, entertainingly written by Chip and Dan Heath. Six months later one my fellow trustees recommended the same book to Louisville Seminary’s Strategic Plan Task Force. The Heath brothers suggest looking for the “bright spot”, the person or idea that is making an organization or effort work. In the chatter and less than friendly rhetoric that seems to surround us in today’s world, I think we are all looking for those places that are making a difference or trying to make positive changes, looking for the “bright spots”. I have found a bright spot in Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    Many of my friends and colleagues assume that a faith institution might actually be part of the problem rather than an answer to rigid positions preventing true dialogue. Louisville Seminary recently adopted a new strategic plan led by President Michael Jinkins. The portion of the plan that got the most attention (and is indeed worth the attention) is the “Covenant Plan,” working toward the day when all graduates will leave the Seminary with no debt for their Seminary education and be free to follow wherever God calls them to serve. However, an important part of the strategic plan builds on the already existing “Doors to Dialogue” and Black Church Studies Programs. The students, and future leaders, are being exposed and immersed in dialogue with people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and faith expressions. In the words of Professor Susan Garrett, the Academic Dean at the Seminary, they are being encouraged to practice “generous listening”. More than tolerance, a true respect for difference is being fostered, and an appreciation for what can be learned from each is being lived.

    So there you have the answer to the question why trustee of a seminary. I have had the privilege of seeing hope realized (or at least significant change realized) and now I support a bright spot that gives me hope for the future. Louisville Seminary is making a difference for not only the church but for those parts of our world that its graduates will touch. I believe we are all looking for those places that foster change and hope for the future. I am very grateful to have found a bright spot in Louisville Seminary.

    Pam Kidd is a physician and Chair of the Board of Trustees of Louisville Seminary.

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  • God went to the very edges of the page

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 12, 2012

    The title of this week’s blog comes from a fascinating – and disturbing – novel by Jim Crace, Quarantine, which won the Whitbread Awardseveral years ago as Novel of the Year. The book is a literary exploration of the wilderness temptation (the quarantine) of Jesus. The passage I am quoting comes amid an extended fictional reflection by Jesus on the way God speaks through scripture, not only in the literal script, in each word, but in the spaces between the words and at the edges of the pages. God goes to the very edge of the page, we are told. But, in the next paragraph, as Jesus sits in a cave and the light of day passes away, he looks at the stars of the night sky and sees spaces there where God is also present. God goes beyond the edges of the page.[i]

    This summer I will again be concentrating on pages yet unwritten as I begin work on a new book. Crace’s comments, placed in the mouth of Jesus, represent both a comfort and a challenge. They represent a comfort because, as a writer, it is good to know that there is nowhere the vocation of writing can take you that is beyond God. They represent a challenge, however, because the vocation of writing requires a kind of reverse incarnation, making the flesh (and other aspects of creation) become word. The God whom we encounter through words and sacred nights invites and resists our attempts to speak of divine things. Nowhere, perhaps, does the gap between creation and the divine loom more apparent than at the point where we attempt to speak of God.

    While I engage in this vocation of writing this summer, I have again asked some friends and colleagues if they would be willing to think out loud for us in this space. They have generously agreed to do so. They are current and former faculty members, trustees, and seminary graduates. Some overlap categories. As a group, they represent a variety of perspectives on Christian faith. I know you will enjoy hearing from them. As I introduce our guest bloggers, I also wish to extend to them my sincere thanks.

    As I pack up my laptop computer, I want to thank you for your hospitality in welcoming “Thinking Out Loud” into your lives. Thank you for thinking along with me. Thank you especially for your thoughtful responses from week to week. I look forward to being with you again in September.

     [i]Jim Crace, Quarantine (London: Penguin, 1998), 135.

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  • Seeking the Right Questions

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 09, 2012

    This blog post was guest-written by W. Eugene March.


    An article in the May 28, 2012 Newsweek – “The Mystery of the Multiverse” by Brian Greene -- claimed my attention for two reasons. First, it was about the place I live (Earth), and second, it was about cosmology which in my opinion has to do in some way with God.

    The article explores what we know to have happened. We have moved from what was once a “simple explanation” of our world based on a literal reading of the Bible, a view that placed earth at the center of all that was, to a view of a multiverse containing billions of galaxies that requires a different theory of physics and sophisticated mathematical calculations for its demonstration. I did not understand much of the mathematics or physics that Greene discussed, but the suggestion that there is more than one universe, namely that there is a multiverse that contains numerous universes, does something of the same thing for theology as it has done for those who study cosmology. As Green puts it, “The multiverse doesn’t change the scientific method or lower explanatory standards. But it does ask us to reevaluate whether we’ve mistakenly posed the wrong questions” (p.24).

    Any one who has paid the least attention to the current situation in Europe and North America knows that “religion” here is on the skids. In the most recent census taken in the United States that decline is amply documented. Many of us were already well aware of it on the basis of the shrinking numbers in our congregations and synagogues, but two other “findings” were not so well recognized.

    First, the census brought home the fact that there is a growing diversity to be found among the “religious” that was totally absent here a century ago. The educated, to be sure, were aware of a multiplicity of religions around the world, but the adherents of those other traditions were out there, over there, somewhere, but not here, not in our towns or workplaces or neighborhoods. They didn’t “exist” in any meaningful way to most of those who attended church or synagogue. Of course, that is no longer the case either because a new Toyota plant just became part of the “neighborhood” or because of television and all the other social media so readily available to even the youngest among us.

    The other startling statistic for many was that the group labeled “other” (meaning “no religious affiliation”) on the census form has shown a remarkable increase since the previous survey. More and more people – especially among university-trained younger adults – no longer feel a need or desire to affiliate with any form of organized religious tradition.

    I have heard a number of “responses” concerning this reality. Some assure us that these people “will come back” to religion when they have children or face crises of one sort or another. Some assure us that the survey was flawed. Still others point to the rapid growth of the Mormons – the only organized group that has had a significant increase in adherents -- as demonstration of something or other, but it is unclear what. But I keep wondering if these “answers” do not reflect that we are still asking the wrong questions.

    For those of us in the “traditional churches” it seems to me that we need to wrestle again with what it might mean to be “the salt of the earth” and not “the rulers of this world.” We need to listen to what other people – Christian and non-Christian – are saying to us about how our “exclusive” social mores put the lie to all our high-sounding claims of desiring to love our neighbors. We need to reread the Bible to recognize how we as the “privileged” have interpreted a revolutionary text to render it harmlessly to our advantage. In other words, we need to be asking a different set of questions than we have previously entertained. Our “answers” simply do not address the “questions” of our day.

    Rather than expounding on old “answers,” we need to be seeking – honestly and diligently -- to determine the right questions to be asking with, as some might say, “everything on the table.”

    W. Eugene March is A.B. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Seminary. During his tenure he also served as Director of Continuing Education, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program, Assistant to the President, and Dean of the Seminary. Dr. March also taught Old Testament at Austin Seminary for 18 years.

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  • Labels

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 05, 2012

    One of the best ways to dismiss the ideas of others, without ever having to think about them, is to label them as quickly as they are uttered.

    C. S. Lewis, in his classic satire of demonic possession, "The Screwtape Letters," has the experienced older devil, Screwtape, advise the junior tempter, Wormwood, to convince his human victim to "value an opinion for some quality other than truth." Conversely he can teach the tempted to disregard ideas on similar grounds.

    Thus a potentially life-nourishing bit of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas can be ignored because it is "old fashioned." Or a person can be persuaded that a serious study of philosophy or history is an "elitist" preoccupation. Or the habit of drawing on the insights of the best thinkers of all time can be passed off as "pretentious."

    Some roads to hell may be paved with good intentions, but others are made smooth by a flippant bigotry that avoids truth by stereotyping.

    I was reminded of the effectiveness of this ploy last weekend while watching on television one of the innumerable staged media smack-downs that pass for serious political commentary. One hired partisan hack stepped on the lines of another paid political consultant eliciting more heat than light for fifteen minutes. The two contestants spent the bulk of their time trying to stick labels on each other like two clowns in a "post-it note" circus, convinced that if they could make a label stick, their job was done.

    I wish I could say that we deal with ideas better in the church or in the academy or in life in general, but too much of the time we don't. Post-modernists dis modernists, evangelicals spurn liberals, and everyone pours contempt on fundamentalists. And vice versa, of course.

    This is why I was so encouraged recently when one of the recipients of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary's 2012 Distinguished Alum Award, Dr. David Kaylor, said what he did in his acceptance address. Dr. Kaylor, the James Sprunt Professor of Religion, emeritus, and former chair of the Religion Department at Davidson College, in North Carolina, expressed his gratitude for the three qualities he received as a student at Louisville Seminary (class of 1958).

    Dr. Kaylor, remembering his professors, said: "They challenged me to be a true conservative - to honor the tradition in which we stand, to use that tradition to minister to our time, to engage in dialogue with that tradition, to examine it in light of Scripture under the guidance of God's Spirit, to conserve what is good so that the tradition provides a foundation for our ministry and not a weight holding us back."

    "My professors also taught me to be a true liberal - to be liberated myself and to be a liberating force for others; to live the words of the Apostle Paul: 'For liberation you have been liberated," working to remove those things in ourselves and in our culture that enslave and hold captive any of God's children."

    "Most of all, they challenged me to be a true radical - to get to the root of things, to get to the heart of the Gospel, to understand root causes of things in our world that lead to injustice, disharmony and war; to know the essence of peace and the things that make for peace and not be so distracted by peripheral things that we miss what is essential for the coming of God's reign."

    Perhaps we ought to take a page from Dr. Kaylor's book. While resisting the urge to dismiss the views of others by slapping a label on them, we might also re-invest with greater significance the labels with which we describe ourselves. The qualities that make for a rich, faithful and nourishing life are, after all, far too complex to be reduced to a single label - or, so say the conservative, liberal, radicals.

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  • The Joyful Ministry of the Cross

    by Michael Jinkins | May 29, 2012

    Charge to the Graduating Class of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

    Father Alexander Schmemann, the late dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary, an Eastern Orthodox school in New York, once said: "I think God can forgive everything except a lack of joy." Dean Schmemann’s distinctive understanding of “joy” becomes apparent in light of a passage from the Orthodox liturgy, which reminds us that it is "through the cross" that "joy came into the world." Tom Currie, in his book The Joy of Ministry, observes, reflecting on this passage, that the counterintuitive but liberating news of the Gospel is that on the cross, Christ declares that the whole “grim”enterprise of human self-justification is "finished."[i]


    Today, I want to welcome you to the joyful ministry of Jesus Christ. And as I do so, I want to reiterate a few things you already know, because you are masters of divinity and masters of marriage and family therapy. It says so right on that piece of paper you hold in your hands.


    You have been called by God into this joyful ministry. This calling is three-fold, as you know: first, God called; second, you responded; and third, the church confirms. Theologians have long recognized this three-fold pattern.


    Typically, we focus on stages two and three of the pattern: your response, and the church’s confirmation. Most often when we share our testimonies about our call to ministry—be it a ministry of word and sacrament, of counseling, of teaching, or of some other kind of service—we focus on our individual experiences, our journeys of faith that led to our response. This is natural and normal, and those of you who are under care of judicatories have related your stories of call again and again. Our official denominational bodies often emphasize the church's rolein calling: its authority and responsibility through ordered groups to offer confirmation of God’s calling of particular persons to ministry.


    Less often do we focus on the primary, fundamental truth that it is God and God alone who calls us. But this really is the case. And, the fact that it is God who has sought us out is the source of the joy we find in ministry, the joy of the ministry of the cross.


    We could speak abstractly and impersonally of the events that have led each of us to the present moment: speaking in terms of fate and destiny, for example, or in terms of history being thrust upon us apart from any choice we make. But, as Christians, we prefer to speak of providence, and to speak of it as an intensely personal doctrine describing the intentionality and will of God, for each and every one of us as individuals and for all of us together.


    We affirm that God places us in this moment, this time, this place—and does so for a reason. Moreover, the providence that led us to this moment has a face, the human face of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Christ calls us from the cross. Christ calls us through the waters of baptism in which we are buried with him so also to rise with him. Allow me to illustrate these theological points with a story.


    A few years ago, I sat in the study of a person whom God had called to a particular ministry. He looked bone tired, utterly world-weary. It was a day like so many others as the nation spiraled toward the brink of financial collapse. He shook his head and confessed how deeply saddened he was, how broken-hearted really, that the dreams of greatness he had held for his ministry, all the great things he was going to accomplish, now seemed dead in the water. He confessed that day-after-day he wished he had never been called to that ministry. "We don't get to choose our own moment, do we?" he asked, sadly shaking his head. Life is thrust upon us. History is thrust upon us. This is what he was saying.


    This colleague labored on for months under the burden of feeling trapped by fate, trapped in his ministry. But one day we were talking again, and I noticed that something in his bearing and his tone of voice had changed. I asked him what it was.


    He said that for months he had felt trapped. He had been angry and resentful, both at the people with whom he served and at God. The ministry he was engaged in was simply not the ministry he would have chosen if he could have foreseen what was going to happen. Then one day, quite suddenly, it occurred to him that this ministry was the ministry for which Godhad chosen him. Everything in his past had led him to be prepared for this particular task, hard as it was. He realized that this ministry was God's purpose for him. He decided the time had come to accept this ministry as his own. When he did that, he said that the life-depleting toil in which he had felt trapped was transformed into a spiritual discipline which he had affirmed by his own choice.


    His story reminded me of an old saying, that God can save some of us only by making preachers of us. That could and should be expanded to include the whole range of vocations into which God calls us: pastors, counselors, denominational officials, professors, teachers, mayors. The list could go on and on. God saves us by calling us. Vocation is the principal means of God's grace and providence in our lives.


    My charge to you graduates of Louisville Seminary today is this: Yield to God's calling of you to be and to go and to do whatever God wills; yield to the joy of ministry revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. You did not choose your moment in history, the where or the when in which you have been placed. But now that it has been given to you, embrace God's moment; I urge you, embrace God's calling, because by answering God's call you will find joy and you will lead your people into the way of joy.



    [i]Thomas W. Currie, III, The Joy of Ministry, Thomas W. Currie, III (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 4, 6.

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  • Paying the Piper

    by Michael Jinkins | May 15, 2012

    Several journalists, scholars, and politicians have been looking at the proportion of Americans behind bars, how we got here, and what we might do about it.

    Martha Teichner presented a story on this subject on CBS Sunday Morning, titled "The Cost of a Nation of Incarceration (April 22, 2012)." The facts are staggering. In the United States 2.4 million people are currently behind bars. That's approximately equal to the population of Chicago, or about half a million more than the population of metropolitan Houston, in jail. While the crime rate has actually dropped by 40% over the past twenty years, our rate of incarceration has increased to the point that we now have 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. As Fareed Zakaria points out in his CNN report, "Incarceration Nation” (March 30, 2012), this is the highest incarceration rate in the world. Zakaria found that when we count all of the persons in our country who are currently under correctional supervision (prisons, jails, parole, etc.), the number balloons to 7.1 million people. In fact, as Michael Jacobson of the VERA Institute of Justice explained to Teichner, although the United States has 5% of the world's total population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners.

    So let's get to the costs—first the financial. According to Jacobson, it costs on average $47,421 per inmate per year. And in some states (such as Washington, Connecticut, and New York), it costs more: between $50,000 and $60,000. The total spent by United States taxpayers to support this system of incarceration is $63.4 billion, according to Teichner. The cost of incarceration is causing politicians to cross the red/blue divide, as Democrats like Jim Webb of Virginia and Republicans like Orrin Hatch of Utah seek to find a more just and financially sustainable solution.

    An even more startling aspect of the incarceration issue relates to race and the devastating cost of incarceration to communities of color. Teichner interviewed Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a professor at New York University, who said that many of the people in prison are there because of drug-related crimes, such as drug possession. But, while African-Americans and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, three out of every four people in prison for drug possession are black. We prosecute persons of color differently. The social cost of this fact is as staggering as the financial cost. One out of every three black men today between the ages of 18 and 35 is in jail or in prison or on parole.

    As noted earlier, it costs between $47,000 and $60,000 per year per inmate, and state budgets for corrections have exploded by 900% since 1980. The amount of money states spend on prisons is now, according to Zakaria, six times what they spend on higher education. He zeroes in on California as an example. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons while spending $5.7 billion on higher education. California built, he says, one college campus while building 21 prisons.

    Is there a solution to this dilemma? Yes, there is, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for Education, for her book, The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (New York: Teacher's College Press, 2010). And the solution is related fundamentally to the competition many see between the dollars available to incarceration versus those available to education.

    Dr. Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, invites us to do the math and to count the mounting costs for neglecting the funding of the education of children, especially the children in our society with the greatest needs and the least social support for success. As she observes:

    States that would not spend $10,000 a year to ensure education for young children of color spend over $30,000 a year to keep them in jail. The strong relationship between under-education, unemployment, and incarceration creates a vicious cycle, as lack of adequate investment in education increases the need for prisons, which now compete with the funding available for education.

    The spiraling costs of incarceration ironically are eating into the potential funding for the best viable option to solve the problem—education, says Darling-Hammond.

    From a purely pragmatic perspective, it seems clear that we need to focus on putting our funding where it can do the most good, by educating people to compete better in the global economy. This means becoming number one in education again rather than in incarceration. From a perspective of faith, to invest in the education of all our children for rich and fruitful lives is a matter that goes well beyond fairness, well beyond justice; it is a matter of good stewardship of God's creation.

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  • An Inescapable Call

    by Michael Jinkins | May 15, 2012

    During Women’s History Month, I am pleased to offer weekly “special edition” posts, which are generating engaging responses from readers of Thinking Out Loud.Louis Weeks, who served on the Seminary faculty for almost a quarter century, from 1970 to 1994, and as dean for 11 years of that time, remembered many of the women who were "pioneers" from those years —Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, the first female member of the faculty, Jane Krauss-Jackson(MDiv ’74); Deborah Block (MDiv ’77), Ann Reed Held (MDiv ’78), and Mary Gene Boteler (MDiv ’78) among them —women who "kept their cool in the midst of many challenges and contributed mightily to the opening of all the doors to the women who followed them.” He also recalled how important it was that Johanna Bos, who joined the faculty in 1976, quickly led the charge for a Women's Center that has served as a safe place for women and men to explore the implications of women's liberation and leadership in the church. Today, Mary Gene Boteler, an ordained pastor for 34 years, shares with us her insight on being called to ministry.

    An Inescapable Call

    by Mary Gene Boteler

    In a recent editorial in The Christian Century, John Buchanan expresses his “lifelong aversion to declaring that God had called him to be a minister.” He explains that he studied theology as a way of pursing his questions about God and sort of bumped into pastoral ministry.

    I do not share Buchanan’s dislike for the language of call, because nothing gets closer to my experience. Even though the language may seem dated and open to misinterpretation (one reason Buchanan has avoided it), I use it unapologetically. I am a minister because God called me to ministry. On some level, I always knew it, even before I could claim it and certainly before the church could claim it.

    Like most pastors, there have been days (okay, weeks) when I have dreamed of doing something else. Something with free weekends and paid holidays. My truth is this: God called me to ministry and, in the words of Jeremiah—words that have always felt like they mirrored what was going on inside of me—“If I say, ‘I will not mention God, or speak any more in God’s name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer 20:9)

    I absolutely understand Jeremiah’s sense of compulsion. And, perhaps, that is one of the most surprising aspects of my call—the inability to escape it. I have known others, in other professions, who have felt a call equally as compelling. One who comes to mind is a local organic farmer whom members of the congregation support by buying shares of his potential crop. He speaks about his work with a vocational passion that matches anything I have heard on the floor of presbytery.

    Along with the inescapability of this call to pastoral ministry, however, and of equal surprise, is the sustaining goodness and grace of God that has accompanied me in ministry. Several years ago a male colleague commented that if he had to do it all over again he might have chosen a different path than ministry, because ministry is “just so hard.” I asked him, “Did you expect it to be otherwise.” He quickly and quietly admitted,“Yes.”

    To paraphrase the beginning of a Scott Peck book: Because women ministers expect pastoral ministry to be difficult, it makes it less difficult. My ministry has been a compilation of successes and failures, of joys and disappointments. Like other women colleagues, I carry scars from the actions of good people who, nevertheless, could not embrace the call of women. Those scars are not what define my ministry.

    As I look back over the last thirty-four years since my ordination, I am profoundly aware that those years have been shaped and defined by a presence and a grace that has sustained me at every turn. That is all that God promised at the beginning of the journey—and deep within me is a grateful voice that often reminds me, “It is enough—and you have been enough.” Thanks be to God!

     

     

     

     

     

    The Rev. Mary Gene Boteler (MDiv ’78) is pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri, where she has served since 2006.

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  • Agnosis in the Service of Faith

    by Michael Jinkins | May 08, 2012

    I’ve always had a soft spot for a particular kind of agnosticism. Not the sort of militant disbelief that demeans those who do not share its doubts, but the sort of humble uncertainty that says, “I don’t know. I doubt it. But maybe.” Perhaps such agnostics are not too far from the kingdom of heaven, if Doubting Thomas is any gauge.

    Several years ago, I recall A. N. Wilson’s remarkable study, God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization, a historical and philosophical examination of doubt in Victorian England. Wilson, an Anglican, had previously written biographies of Tolstoy and C. S. Lewis. Indeed, it was while he was writing his biography of Lewis that Wilson soured on Christian faith. Ironically, it was while writing his massive study on unbelief in nineteenth-century England that Wilson returned to Christian faith, not least because of his engagement with the generous theological views of American writer William James.[i]

    Wilson took the title for his book on disbelief from a poem by Thomas Hardy, one of the most compelling agnostics of all time. Hardy’s poem, “God’s Funeral,”is a bleak portrait of religious faith unveiled as pure projection. God, according to Hardy, is nothing more than humanity projected and enlarged onto a screen of eternal dimensions.[ii]Yet, even Hardy wrote a poem of poignant, aching, longing, entitled “The Oxen,”which recounts the legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve, in honor of the birth of Jesus, all the barnyard animals kneel in prayer.

    Recently, the spirit of Hardy was resurrected in Julian Barnes’ remarkable essay on God and death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which opens with the words: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”[iii] In contrast to the militancy of the late Christopher Hitchens and other rancorous voices of unbelief, Barnes reflects sensitively and honestly on the boundaries of life and knowledge. In one anecdote, Barnes tells of his impatience with an atheist friend who summarily and unfairly dismissed persons of faith. At another point in his book, Barnes approvingly quotes Jules Renard, a French agnostic and anti-cleric, whom some wrongly believed was an atheist. To which Renard replied:

    “You tell me I am an atheist, because we do not each of us seek God in the same way. Or rather, you believe that you’ve found [God]. Congratulations. I am still searching for [God]. And I’ll carry on searching for the next ten or twenty years, if [God] grants me life. I fear not finding [God], but I’ll carry on searching all the same. [God] may be grateful for my attempt. And perhaps [God] will have pity on your smug confidence and your lazy, simple-minded faith.”[vi]

    Ouch!!!

    It is easy to dismiss the militant atheist whose narrow-mindedness resembles nothing so much as a religious fundamentalist. But what of the contribution of the generous agnostic whose respect for truth won’t allow easy answers—answers that absolve us of responsibility to keep searching for better questions? It may be that such agnostics actually aid faith. Again, Barnes quotes Renard: “Irony does not dry up the grass. It just burns off the weeds.”[v]

    Barnes, the generous agnostic, reminds believers and non-believers alike that when it comes to theological truths, our preferences are ultimately unimportant – a fact that we in the American Church seem to have a particularly hard time comprehending. To illustrate this point, Barnes reports a conversation between Edmund Wilson and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer, the writer of fantastical stories grounded in Jewish life, apparently told Wilson, the critic, that he believed in some form of life after death. Wilson responded that he didn’t want to survive death, “thank you very much.” To which Singer replied: “If survival has been arranged, you will have no choice in the matter.” To which Barnes responds: “The fury of the resurrected atheist: that would be something worth seeing.”[vi]


    [i] A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization (London: John Murray, 1999).

    [ii] Ibid., 1-2.
    [iii] Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (New York: Vintage, 2008), 3.
    [iv] Ibid., 188.

    [v] Ibid., 50.

    [vi] Ibid., 64-65.

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  • The Meaning of Pentecost

    by Michael Jinkins | May 07, 2012

    The miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of hearing. It still is.

    Several months ago a report about current linguistic research caught my attention. The report began by asking the question: "Where in the world is the largest number of different languages spoken?"

    Conventional wisdom, even among experienced linguists, the report went on to say would probably offer New Guinea as the answer. The island offers more than 800 distinct languages "scattered around its isolated, jungle-covered valleys." However, there is another place in the world that now surpasses the remote island when it comes to diverse languages. "The five boroughs of New York City," according to recent linguistic studies, “are reckoned to be home to speakers of around 800 languages, many of them close to extinction." (The Economist, Sept. 10, 2011, p. 93)

    The world in all its startling and sometimes indecipherable diversity is no longer on the other side of the globe. The world, the whole wide world, is on our doorstep. This makes some people nervous and unhappy. Some people see the world of difference as a threat to their way of seeing the world, a threat to their own culture, their faith. Consequently, they sometimes try to bar admission to their society. Reacting with a fortress mentality, they may try to erect walls and dig motes to keep difference out. Not only is this reaction ill-conceived and counter-productive for all sorts of economic and social reasons, it runs exactly opposite the expansive message of the Gospel. In fact, I would propose that a fortress mentality is not an option for those of us who follow Jesus of Nazareth.

    When the church was born, it emerged in a world almost as diverse as our own. The story of the church's birth is set amid a cacophony of different tongues, people chattering away in Aramaic, in Latin, Greek, and in tongues most of us only encounter when we draw the short straw and are asked to read the second chapter of Acts on Pentecost Sunday. People from language groups scattered throughout the ancient world were together on the day the church was born, "Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene," as well as "visitors from Rome," Cretans and Arabs. There were people present whose language the Romans derisively called "barbarian," because to Roman ears it sounded like a repeated, "bar-bar-bar." They were all chattering at once. And, we are told: "when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language" (Acts 2:6).

    This was the miracle of Pentecost. And it gave rise to the question: "How is it that we can each hear them in our own language?" Pentecost was a miracle of hearing, of comprehension, of listening.

    That should give us pause in these days when so many people strain to shout their views at others, but seldom strive to listen. The church's birth is swaddled in listening to people who speak differently. And as any linguist will tell you, to speak a different language means to experience the world differently. A language marks the boundary between different cultures, different ways of understanding the world around us. Christian faith crossed these boundaries not by force of argument, but through the generous act of hearing, listening, entering into the ways others conceive of the world we all inhabit.

    And when the church did utter its first words at its birth, they were words that bore witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ God has come into the world to seek out sinners, to forgive us, to redeem us. The church, at its birth, did not attempt to force others into rigid agreement. And the church certainly did not attempt to build walls and construct motes to keep out those who are different (that reaction came a little later, though the gospel broke through those barriers and even gentiles were admitted to the faith). At its birth, the church entered the language worlds of those around us so that it might articulate the good news of Jesus Christ in terms that could be heard and understood.

    The miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of hearing. It still is.

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  • Where are our Roman roads?

    by Michael Jinkins | May 01, 2012

    One reason why the gospel spread so quickly across the ancient world was because of the Roman road system. Indeed, as Wayne Meeks observed, the missionary expansion of the early church follows precisely the network of Roman roads from Palestine across Asia Minor to Greece and on to Rome.[i]Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Monty Python crew (See The Life of Brian) agree that paved roads were among the most extraordinary contributions of the Romans.

    The Roman roads took three forms: simple roads of leveled earth; earthen roads with a gravel surface; and paved roads on a multi-layered foundation. The last of the three types of roads, the via munita, represented a technological marvel: generously proportioned roads, paved with stone and concrete (a Roman invention), which drained well. These roads carried troops, travelers, and merchants straight (and I mean straight) across hills and valleys and rivers (with the aid of some of the most elegant bridges ever constructed), from the southern and easternmost ends of the Empire to Hadrian's Wall at the northwestern extremities of Roman influence.

    The earliest Christians used this vast, technologically advanced road system to carry the gospel across the empire. You can lay out the towns and cities named in the New Testament all along the road system.

    Lately, I've been wondering where our Roman roads are. Where are the technological equivalents to these ancient roads—roads that we can use to bring the gospel to today's people? What are the social equivalents to these roads for bringing people together, or the cultural equivalents for crossing the boundaries that keep us apart? Where are our Roman roads?

    Pondering this question, I remembered an episode from my own past. When I was a teenager, I listened to a lot of radio. Most young people of my generation did. Rock music and rhythm and blues, mostly. Wolfman Jack brought Percy Sledge, Booker T and the MGs, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, and others into my room night after night. This was one well-traveled Roman road! By the time I was in high school, we even had a pretty decent radio station in town.

    It occurred to me one day that if someone could produce very short and catchy "messages" for that local rock radio station, the gospel might get a hearing among young people who just happened to be tuned in. I visited the station manager. He needed public service announcements, and he offered his station's recording facilities for me to produce them. Religious announcements would be just fine, he said, as long as they were positive and non-sectarian. So I wrote a couple of dozen simple messages, most based on core teachings of Jesus. I got a fellow with a great “radio voice” to read the announcements. We pulled together some appropriate intro music, retained an engineer, and produced public service announcements that were simple gospel messages. They ran for ages. Cost: $0.00.

    A few years later when I was in college, I was asked to help produce a new radio ministry under the auspices of our university's student association. A group of us (mostly music nerds) took a "radio ministry" that no one on campus listened to and turned it into a program that college students tuned in and talked about. Eventually, it expanded from the funky little AM station to an excellent FM station. It was wonderful to see how the gifts of friends, their love of God and music, and their lively personalities and sense of humor blended together to meet a real need in the community.

    Now here's my point. In those experiences, the Roman Road that ran past our front door was the radio.

    Today, when I hear frequent conversations about what we should do to communicate the gospel in this society, I keep thinking about the phenomenal spread of the gospel in the early church, in a society that was every bit as diverse, pluralistic, and secular as ours. The "latest technological advance" of that time, the technology that brought people together, was the Roman road.

    There are people today who are exploring the Roman roads of our time. There is a group of recent seminary graduates in Brooklyn, for instance, who have started a fellowship on their own. They are savvy about social media. And their fellowship is growing, even without the official blessing of their judicatory. There are young people starting up gospel chatrooms, Bible studies in apartments and coffee shops. Some new ministries are organically related to existing congregations, but there are also others that are not. It seems to me that one of the things we most need is to identify, recruit, and support the kind of people who are good at noticing and taking advantage of the Roman roads in our culture. We could also find ways to walk with them and learn from them.

    "Where cross the crowded ways of life," to borrow a phrase from a hymn, there is an opportunity for the gospel to be heard, for people to know and be known, for gifts and talents to be employed and needs to be met. Let's commit, then, for the sake of the gospel, to find the on-ramp to today's Roman roads.


    [i]Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 16-18.

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  • A Favorite Book

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 24, 2012

    I count many books among my favorites, and no doubt some of them are your favorites too. But one of the books on my list has been unknown to everyone I have ever asked.

    I came across this book in the late nineties at a bookstore at Gatwick Airport in London. It was written by Theodore Zeldin, a senior fellow of St. Anthony's College, Oxford. The title is An Intimate History of Humanity. The library would probably put it in the social or cultural history section.

    So far, I realize, I've said nothing to make you want to rush out to buy this book. Nor will you necessarily be motivated when I tell you it represents brilliant research by a scholar, who has been listed by a French publisher as one of the one hundred most important thinkers in the world today. What might pique your interest is the fact that Zeldin draws the case studies that prompt his forays into history and philosophy from the experiences of ordinary contemporary French women. But the reason I bought and love the book—and the reason I think you'll find it irresistible—is the unique way Zeldin articulates the various quandaries of human existence.

    Each chapter responds to a different quandary. Here's a sampling of the chapter titles (and there are twenty-five chapters in all):

    • "How humans have repeatedly lost hope, and how new encounters, and a new pair of spectacles, revive them."

    • "How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations."

    • "How people searching for their roots are only beginning to look far and deep enough."

    • "How some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness."

    • "Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex."

    • "How respect has become more desirable than power."

    • "How people have freed themselves from fear by finding new fears."

    • "Why toleration has never been enough."

    Reading this book is like having a series of meals with the most interesting conversationalist you've ever met. The turns of phrase, whether original to the author or derived from persons in his case studies, are breathtaking. Again, a sampling:

    • "Love is an unfinished revolution."

    • "To be put into a category is to be put into a coffin."

    • "A mood is more infectious than an idea."

    • "Without diversity of opinion the discovery of truth is impossible."

    • "Toleration is not the modern medicine it is made out to be, but an old folk remedy, with only short-term effects."

    There isn't a single unified theme to the book—except perhaps human existence in all its amazing variety. Zeldin moves from one subject to another with the ease of a polymath, yet with no hint of arrogance.

    One of my favorite sections of the book reflects on moral philosophy. Zeldin's grasp of the subject is astonishing. "The most popular moral philosophies of the world, which give advice on how to live, are of six kinds, but since each believes it alone has the right answer, there has never been an equivalent of a tourist office to give visitors to life on earth a full selection of these possibilities." He then attempts to provide visitors to planet earth an overview of the six varieties of moral advice they are likely to receive here. Martians and Vulcans alike may rejoice.

    The profundity as well as erudition of this book also bears mentioning. In a chapter on toleration, Zeldin profiles a gentle, open-minded woman who works hard to be in meaningful relationships with persons of different nationalities and backgrounds. Patiently, as he allows her story to unfold, he reflects on the superficiality of tolerance and the difficulty for even a very gentle, well-meaning person to live in relationship with significant differences. He describes toleration as “the reluctant acceptance of a burden, putting up with what one cannot avoid.” In contrast to toleration, Zeldin speaks passionately for a deep respect for difference, a respect that cannot be sustained merely because we fear the unpleasant alternatives to getting along, but that must emerge from what he calls the “doctrine of maybe,”a generous openness to possibilities that are beyond the experience of any one person or culture.

    “Truth,” he writes, is “many-sided.” Thus, Zeldin demonstrates the difference between toleration (a kind of grudging forbearance that assumes that I am right, but that I will tolerate you and your ideas wrong as they are) and pluralism (the assumption that the truth about reality is so large, so complex, that none of us can possibly discover or express it on our own, thus we need one another in order to understand the world around us).

    This chapter on toleration is just one among many profound explorations of subjects at the heart of human experience. As when eating potato chips, once I start sampling passages and insights from the book I find it hard to stop. But individual passages, wise and sometimes witty as they are, only scratch the surface of what this remarkable writer discovers in and through the lives of the women with whom we become acquainted in his study. If you have read this book, please let me know. If you haven't yet, you might look for it.

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  • Free Finally

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 17, 2012

    Long before Rudolf Bultmann preached about the existential power of the Easter message, slaves in the American south lived it. Like the earliest Christians, driven to the catacombs, these enslaved men, women, and children lived in hope that earthly chains could not hold them forever, that no earthly tyrant could finally enthrall a people created by God for freedom. They heard the story of Moses liberating the people of Israel as a clear and direct promise. And they held to the hope of Jesus whom even a grave could not imprison forever. Slave owners in many places were, in fact, so concerned about the liberating power of the gospel that unsupervised Christian worship for slaves was forbidden.

    Without a doubt, the secret midnight prayer meeting was the most daring practice of enslaved persons in the South, according to Sydney Nathans, Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University. He elaborates: “Forbidden to meet for unsupervised ‘prayer & singing & reading the Bible,’ they arranged their gatherings ‘with the greatest care & secrecy’ in ‘some lone hut, where one or two are stationed outside . . . to warn them if their voices rise too loud.’”

    In his superb new book, To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker (Harvard University Press, 2012), Nathans invites us to understand something of the experience of enslaved African Americans in the nineteenth century through the prism of the life of one particular woman, Mary Walker. In her youth, Mary refused to attend the secret worship services on account of her fear regarding the fate of those slaves who were caught in the underground services and who suffered imprisonment and the lash. Yet, she later found the courage to escape slavery; make a new life first in Philadelphia, then in Cambridge, Massachusetts; gather her previously enslaved children together in safety after the Civil War; and, at long last, find peace and redemption in her faith.

    In those secret gatherings, the elders had sung the lines, “Our bondage it shall end . . . Jesus shall break the chain . . .”,from a hymn slave-owners found “especially obnoxious.” As she continued to avoid the worship services a gulf formed between Mary and her mother. When, however, in August 1848, Mary escaped while on a trip to Philadelphia with the family that enslaved her, perhaps without realizing it she set herself on a torturous journey that closed the gap between her mother and herself. It was a journey that would lead Mary to her own spiritual awakening and the spiritual rebirth of the white family that offered her protection from the authorities, who were seeking to return her to slavery, along with assistance in securing the freedom of her family still in chains.

    The story that Nathans tells is searingly honest. The sometimes subtle racism and condescension of even Mary's champions (abolitionists and emancipationists included) is on display, along with the venality, bigotry, and manifest cruelty of the powers that justified slavery and subverted human rights to economic and social privilege. But, because the story is told with such honesty, one gains a real sense of perspective, not only on a pivotal historical period, but on the human condition.

    Because To Free a Familymakes no pretensions to a faith perspective, the story of Mary Walker's own faith struggle is all the more compelling. She struggled with the guilt and shame of leaving her children in bondage when she escaped slavery. No amount of rational reflection could assuage this guilt, a fact with which any parent can identify. Her guilt as well as her love motivated her to redeem her children. Her fear over what would become of her daughter, approaching puberty, drove her to scrape together whatever she could earn to commission one failed attempt at negotiation and escape after another.

    When, in 1855, after a long illness and years of separation from her enslaved family, Mary was baptized, she "at last experienced the rapture felt by her mother at secret midnight prayer meetings in slavery, where they had sung, "Jesus shall break the chain . . . And they shall part no more, who have loved, who have loved."

    The story of Mary Walker's journey takes us from the depths of bondage on a North Carolina plantation to the lofty social circles of New England, from the cruel caprices and breath-taking rationalization of slave-owners to the well-meaning, but sometimes doomed, idealistic schemes of white social reformers in the wake of the Civil War. Through Mary's eyes we see a country struggling to come to terms with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the unredeemed "promissory note" of American freedom. We also see through Mary's eyes the personal and spiritual dimensions and the familial cost of slavery and its aftermath.

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  • Good Question

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 16, 2012

    When John Calvin agreed to return to Geneva after his first failed attempt to lead its church, he returned with a requirement that the church teach the catechism he had written to its youth and children. Obviously, Calvin understood the importance of a good youth program. But there's something more here that we might have missed. This Reformer who was willing to sweep away anything he believed to be unsound steadfastly retained and resuscitated an educational method that can be traced in various forms back to Socrates: the venerable Q&A.

    When we read through the Geneva Catechism, we are immediately struck by three things: (1) the sophistication of the answers placed in the mouths of young people and children; (2) the conversational tone sustained throughout as though the minister (or author, in Calvin's case) is engaged as a peer with a twelve year old; and (3) the confidence reflected by the questions asked. The first two points are worthy of reflection, but today I want to focus on the third point, the particular kind of confidence reflected by the questions of the catechism—a confidence in the truth of the gospel and the claims of the Christian faith upon our lives.

    In one of Flannery O'Connor's last-published short stories, entitled "The Enduring Chill,"[1] we meet a young man who has returned home to die (or so he believes). He is arrogant, pretentious, intellectually proud, and impatient. He decides he wants to see a priest, but not just any priest. He pictures in his mind the dramatic interest of his end-of-life conversations with a well-educated priest, a person of culture as well as religion.

    To his irritation, the instead of an urbane, worldly, sophisticated, and slightly cynical Jesuit (the priest of his imagining), the priest who actually arrives at his bedside introduces himself as follows: "I'm Fahther Finn—from Purrgatory." And, instead of responding to the "dying" young man's questions about the literary merits of James Joyce, or the significance of myths behind the world's religions, the priest insists on asking the questions: "Now. Do you say your morning and night prayers? . . . You don't eh? Well you will never learn to be good unless you pray regularly. You cannot love Jesus unless you speak to Him. Do you have trouble with purity? . . . We all do but you must pray to the Holy Ghost for it. Mind, heart and body. Nothing is overcome without prayer. Pray with your family. Do you pray with your family?"

    By this point the proud young intellectual is almost fit to be tied. He isn’t having the kind of conversation he has imagined. And at the suggestion that he should pray with his family he shouts, "God forbid . . . My mother doesn't have time to pray and my sister is an atheist."

    The simple priest responds, "A shame! . . . Then you must pray for them."

    The conversation only becomes more tense from here on out as the young man attempts again to steer toward the comfortable shores of the arts, saying, "The artist prays by creating," to which the old priest responds, "Not enough! . . . If you do not pray daily, you are neglecting your immortal soul. Do you know your catechism?"

    Here the young man feels on firm ground. He doesn’t need a catechism. He is an intellectual, an artist, free to experience the world and form his own opinions of it. "Certainly not!"

    The priest moves on relentlessly, not justifying, not explaining, just walking through the catechism.

    "Who made you?"

    "Different people believe different things about that," the young man replies.

    "God made you," the priest says. "Who is God?"

    "God is an idea created by man," the young man answers.

    The old priest knows better. "God is a spirit infinitely perfect," sighs the priest. "Why did God make you?"

    The young man starts to deny the premise, but the priest cuts him off. "God made you to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next."

    Exasperated, the priest at last says, "If you don't apply yourself to the catechism how do you expect to know how to save your immortal soul?"

    "Listen," says the young man, "I'm not Roman."

    "A poor excuse for not saying your prayers," the old priest says.

    "I'm dying," says the young man.

    "But you're not dead yet," says the old priest.

    After a turn in the conversation, in which the priest instructs the young man on how to receive the Holy Spirit, the old priest leaves. The last thing the young man hears the priest say, however, is a comment to his mother: "He's a good lad at heart but very ignorant."

    What strikes me most in this wonderful, sad, and funny story is the confidence of the priest. He knows that the questions received in the catechism—fashionable or not—are the real questions at the very heart of life. The old priest standing beside the young man's sick bed, tenaciously asking questions the young man brushes aside, reminds us of what faith looks like and the contribution it can make to knowledge. Questions like some of the great questions in the catechism remind us that sometimes going deeper means asking tried and very true questions, whatever the preoccupations and distractions of contemporary culture may say about what matters most.

    A member of a congregation I served told me the story of her niece who, in her first philosophy course in college, reflexively responded to the professor's (perhaps rhetorical) question, "What is God?"

    She answered immediately, "God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."

    The answer amazed the professor who asked, "Where in the world did you come up with that? That's brilliant!" To which she responded, "The Westminster Shorter Catechism." A recovery of confidence for the church might begin when we remember that the cloud of witnesses is on our side, and they are not silent.


    [1] The story is found in a collection of stories by Flannery O’Connor published posthumously: Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1965).

    Image source: Cover of the Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1815) as translated by the Rev. Elijah Waterman, http://openlibrary.org/

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