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Thinking Out Loud
  • Intellectual Empathy

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 28, 2012

     

    Our old professor would enter the classroom like a phantom from another age. His black master’s gown billowed behind him as he came through the door, the North Atlantic wind whipping across the quadrangle of King’s College and into our drafty ground-floor classroom. Halfway through his lecture, what with his frenzied scribblings on the ancient rotating chalkboard, his gown would be covered in a dusting to compete with the snow on the lawn. But what I remember most distinctly from that course was not its picturesque quality but Professor James Torrance’s embodiment of intellectual empathy,

    Professor Torrance had a way of taking us deep into the context that gave rise to a philosopher’s thought, of exploring the inspirations and motivations behind it. It didn’t matter whether he agreed with the thinker’s arguments or not; his aim was to help us to glimpse the unique genius of that philosopher’s insights. After such lectures, we would dash off to the university library to read everything we could find about the perspective in question, having glimpsed (if only momentarily) its inner logic and beauty.

    Isaiah Berlin argued that genuine intellectual empathy requires creativity and commitment—a commitment and a willingness to imagine others’ ideas from within. One has to come alongside another person. One has to be willing to say, “I may not share your perspective—in fact, I may disagree with you entirely!—but we share a common humanity and so I want to understand what you think.”

    This capacity for intellectual empathy is essential to those who wish to live generously and with integrity in a pluralistic society. Perhaps it is even more essential today than in times past, given the social and cultural forces that presently foster division and encourage peremptory dismissal of opposing views—not to mention our enhanced capacities to destroy one another. Practicing intellectual empathy is a kind of spiritual discipline, because it necessitates that we put aside our belief that the lens through which we view the world is the only right one (see Rom 12:3). In intellectual empathy we do not sacrifice critical thinking, but before we move in to offer critique we first hear others thoughtfully and try to imagine what it would be like to share their convictions. It was just that kind of intellectual empathy that I saw lived out in Professor Torrance’s classroom. He would wait until we were thoroughly entranced with whatever perspective we were studying before he would enter into his careful, critical analysis. Never once, moreover, did he exhibit the least bit of rancor or partisanship. His task was always to seek and to find the truth.

    My thoughts returned to these lessons learned from Professor Torrance as I was reading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In one passage Burke takes issue with a sermon by Dr. Richard Price, an eminent dissenting minister of the time, who on November 4, 1789, preached a sermon in London praising the French Revolution. Burke, deeply suspicious of political and social revolution, contended that “we ought to suspend judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided.” Congratulations should not be offered too soon, until it could be seen whether discipline, order, religion, and property could be properly managed—otherwise our congratulations “may be soon turned into complaints.” Burke’s response to Price gave rise, almost immediately, to a further response by Thomas Paine. Paine’s “The Rights of Man” was influential to our American democracy in its infancy (as his earlier “Common Sense” had proven influential in our own revolution against Britain).

    I find myself wishing that educators today would spend more time helping us see the deep connections among the countervailing arguments that have given rise to our cherished convictions. Here we have such a good example: Price’s sermon provoking Burke’s Reflections and giving rise to Paine’s tract. In some sense becoming educated—and this is certainly true of becoming theologically educated—is a matter of taking our own place in the vast, centuries-spanning conversation about what it means to be human. It is a conversation that began long before we entered the room and will continue long after we have exited. How might the debates that polarize our churches and our society today be different if students were practiced in such intellectual empathy?

    Teaching methods have changed. Chalkboards and chalk dust have given way to other media, and classrooms are a great deal more interactive. But what my old professor modeled years ago remains true today: to be educated is not simply to know some things; rather, it is to cultivate a posture of humility and respect toward those others who have tried (with more or less success) to understand the things that we also are trying to comprehend.

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  • An Apocalypse of Hope

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 21, 2012

    A few weeks ago, board chairs and presidents of Presbyterian seminaries gathered in New York City for our annual meeting. As is our custom we began our daily sessions with a prayer and devotional. This year, we were in for a very special treat: the leader of our Saturday morning devotional was Dr. James Forbes, former pastor of the Riverside Church in New York and one of the greatest preachers of our time.

    There were so many memorable aspects of Dr. Forbes's devotional. First, there was the way he redefined the very term "devotional" into a moment of pure proclamation. Second, there was the lesson he taught us about passion and rhetoric. He filled a small room at Auburn Theological Seminary and shared with a small group the level of energy we ordinarily associate with a cathedral stuffed to the rafters. Third, there was the way he used the familiar parable of the prodigal son as a lesson about the humanizing power of employment, the redemptive power of work.

    But for me, the most memorable aspect of his devotional was in an aside. (Isn't it interesting how often God's Word breaks through when the preacher says something that isn’t on the main point? It reminds me of the old Scottish theologian's remark that the Word of God lies between the lines of the Bible.) Dr. Forbes, just as an aside, mentioned how much he loves and how often he returns to read James Washington's collection of the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope. Dr. Forbes directed our attention particularly to the address Dr. King delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. It was his famous sermon, "I See the Promised Land" (aka “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top”).

    While Dr. Forbes mainly drew our attention to the redemptive power of work, his comments about Washington's collection opened a floodgate of associations for me. This wonderful book has served as a text book in classes I have taught for years on "power and change," a subject about which Dr. King had a subtle and profoundly theological understanding. In his essay, “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” Dr. King places the civil rights struggle in theological context in a way that invites persons of all races and ethnicities into a common undertaking for the sake of God's reign. In lesser known pieces, like "An Experiment in Love" (1958), "My Trip to the Land of Gandhi" (1959), "Suffering and Faith" (1960), and "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience" (1961), Dr. King invites us to understand the spiritual and intellectual, as well as the philosophical and theological, potential of what he described as "the only road to freedom."

    James Washington titled this collection of the essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope. And that is appropriate. But reading them today, in light of all that has been accomplished but also in light of all that remains to be done in order to free persons of every race and ethnicity from the godless fetters of oppression, to open the doors of opportunity to full employment and the dignity that goes with meaningful work, to ensure that justice rolls down like a rushing stream and love finds a way to triumph over hatred and violence, I cannot but think of this "testimony" in different terms, in "apocalyptic" terms. Among doomsday prophets both religious and secular it has become fashionable to envision dire scenarios of famine and warfare, hatred and violence in the streets of our cities. But Dr. King's writings show us "a more excellent way," by recasting a biblical promise of an apocalypse—literally a “revelation”—of hope.

    I know the cynics would have a field day with a phrase like "an apocalypse of hope"—so addicted has our culture become to the rhetoric of despair. But Dr. King, like Gandhi before him, knew from bitter experience that "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" ultimately leaves the whole world toothless and blind. Dr. King knew that Jesus of Nazareth has given us an alternative, and he showed us what can be accomplished when we are willing not just to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ but to embody that gospel, to employ love as a social force, to let God use us as agents of liberation working to transform the social realities and the hearts of humanity.

    Dr. King looked into the future that we now inhabit. Despite the challenges he foresaw and in the face of monumental opposition, he etched the future with words that ring with apocalyptic hope: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

    Can he get an Amen?

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  • Lessons from a Sandbar

    by User Not Found | Feb 07, 2012

    The gospels don’t have much nice to say about sand. The most familiar reference in the Bible warns us not to build our houses on the stuff. Good advice. I’ve spent some time reflecting on sand, sand dunes, and sand bars while meandering along a beach near our summer retreat, and I’ve noticed a few things which, frankly, I had not noticed before.

    Sandbars are a landform right out of the pages of Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher who famously observed that we cannot step into the same stream twice. From one tide to the next, sand bars are always changing, shifting. Walking among them your feet actually feel the change happening right between your toes, the water swirling little clouds of sand in the sparkling salt water. If you were to map the sandbars on a beach one day, the next day you’d almost have to start from scratch with a new map.

    For example, I encountered two huge tidal pools the size of good-sized ponds at the beach near our place. They were so large, it was impossible to walk down the beach at low tide without crossing several small rivulets. For over a week, the larger of the two pools supported several schools of fish and supplied cranes and other sea birds with three square meals a day. A week later, an especially high tide opened up a stream again to the ocean, and one of the pools drained completely away.

    I came across a group of kayakers who had been reliably navigating some of the larger streams among the bars the week before. To their surprise, however, the streams they had taken for granted had become so shallow, they spent more time portaging than paddling. Eventually, they gave up and put out to sea.

    It occurred to me that there are some really valuable lessons hidden among the changing sand bars. The most obvious lesson is that everything really is changing all the time. Among the sand bars, this is obvious. You can’t ignore it. The mountains, plains, even the continents are always on the move, too. But their rate of change is so slow that you don’t see it, unless you check the fossil record. The change among the sand bars is something you can’t ignore, and it is a great place to think about life, in general, and the church, in particular.

    Well, actually, you can ignore change among the sand bars. But, if you do, you could drown, as a group of tourists did about ten years ago. They weren’t watching the changing of the tides as they frolicked on a sand bar that had formed way out in the Atlantic. When high tide came rushing in (as it can do!), they found themselves cut off from the shore and pulled out to sea on a rip tide.

    Another lesson occurred to me as I was walking in the shallow water off one of those sand bars farther out. You really need to learn the difference between the dorsal fins of sharks and dolphins. This is a lesson of some urgency when you are waist deep in the water. If it is a dolphin, you’re heart will sing with joy. There are few more graceful, beautiful creatures on God’s earth than a dolphin, and they will come right up to you in the wild. If it is a shark, well, you may want to be elsewhere. There’s also a lesson here about unnecessary anxiety. There are times when I suspect that lots of people are just too frightened to go into the water because they have convinced themselves that every dorsal fin they see is a shark. You will miss some beautiful, awesome sights if you let ignorance and anxiety keep you out of the water.

    Two other very quick lessons from the sand bars: Not everything that is pretty is safe. Anyone who has ever tangled with a Portuguese Man of War or gotten a barb from a Sting Ray knows this lesson, and both of these lovely creatures are abundant in the streams that cut through the sand bars. Debbie and I saw a fellow yell out to his buddies, “Hey, watch this!” as he grabbed the tail of a Sting Ray. I wonder how often in life the spurting of blood has followed those fateful words. We suspected that a liberal quantity of beer was related to this particular close encounter of the painful kind.

    And, the final lesson: If you know where to go, just as the tide is shifting, you can walk along the top of a sand bar that is still slightly covered with surf. And it looks exactly like you are walking on water.

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  • Faith and Political Rhetoric

    by User Not Found | Jan 31, 2012

    For some time now, a sort of economic and political rhetoric has grown up around the country. This rhetoric belongs exclusively neither to the Republican nor to the Democratic Party, and, indeed, has “liberal,” “conservative,” and “libertarian” supporters. Its variants are many. The premises of this view might be summarized as follows:

    · Individuals have priority over community, and the only right that ultimately counts for anything is the right of the individual not to be constrained by the needs or interests of others.

    · Altruism is suspect because the only thing we can vouch for with anything approaching certainty is the purity of self-interest and the will to survive.

    · The single great power we can trust is the power of the economic free market to reward industry and provide the greatest good.

    · The middle way, moderation, negotiation, and compromise are evils because morality has no shades of gray.

    In recent years, we have all likely heard various applications of this rhetoric (and perhaps seen it on the silver screen, in the 2011 film Atlas Shrugged, based on the novel by atheist and ideologue Ayn Rand). We have heard this world view articulated by representatives of different political parties. Both liberals and conservatives have been among those who have exalted the “individual” to the point that the “individual” of whom they speak bears little to no real relationship to actual persons in community (the only sort of people who actually do exist!). Some politicians have run for office arguing that if persons do not have the means to afford health insurance society should, essentially, let them die. Others, building on the premise that welfare in certain circumstances unintentionally undermines personal responsibility and industry, go on to argue that, therefore, all social altruism and all programs to help the poor are confidence tricks. Such unyielding positions are correlated with one of the most disconcerting developments in contemporary politics: the rise of politicians who refuse to work together with other elected representatives for the common good if working together means listening, negotiating, and compromising.

    Among those who have critiqued this political rhetoric, there have been responsible commentators on both the left and the right. As Carl T. Bogus observes in his fascinating (and, at points, disturbing) new book, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011), one of the most vocal critics of one version of the premises bulleted above was Whittaker Chambers. Another was William F. Buckley Jr. While both Chambers and Buckley were vigorously argumentative and conservative, they recognized in the rampant individualism, self-centered rejection of altruism, absolute faith in the power of the marketplace, and arrogance, represented in the premises listed above, as a fundamental danger to society as a whole. They were particularly concerned about the undermining of altruism — that empathy for others which is an expression of generosity of spirit and a commitment to mutuality, and that serves as the basis for the social capital that binds us together as a society.[1] M. Stanton Evans, a colleague of Chambers and Buckley, weighed in on the explicitly anti-Christian message of Ayn Rand’s version of these premises, appealing to Christian faith as a belief system "predicated on something more than mere survival."[2]

    These conservative criticisms of the set of economic and political premises I have enumerated could be seconded by critics in the ideological middle and on the left, of course.[3] But perhaps the most trenchant criticism I have ever heard comes from an old personal friend of vaguely libertarian stripe. One day, he and I were having a discussion about altruism, specifically about whether it is right or socially constructive to give to someone in need (a panhandler, for example), or whether one might be simply enabling that person to remain dependent. He shook his head and said that while he could make some really good arguments against helping someone else in need, nevertheless he knew he had to do it.

    "Why," I asked.

    "Jesus told me to," he said.

    This is where I ended up, too.

    The interchange reminded me of something Garrison Keillor said about the Lutheran minister in Lake Wobegon. When the pastor was doing carpentry in his garage and he hit his thumb with a hammer, he was, said Keillor, somewhat limited by his vocation with regard to his vocabulary. So it also happens whenever we as Christians are confronted with the needs of others — needs that call us beyond our self-interests, needs that place on us burdens binding us one to another and obstructing our allegiance to various political premises that might otherwise appeal to us. Our vocation as Christians qualifies our responses. If we don’t like that fact, well, I guess that’s something we will just have to take up with the author of the Sermon on the Mount.

     

    [1] Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 198-221.

    [2] Ibid., 217.

    [3] See, for example, Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, ed. Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 43-48, 56-65; Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Basic Books, 1993); and Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).


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  • World Changers

    by User Not Found | Jan 24, 2012

    Last week, I heard two riveting addresses on the future of the church and theological education, the first by Barbara Wheeler, Director of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, the second by Dan Aleshire, Executive Director of The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Together they painted a portrait of unprecedented societal changes that have major implications for the future of the church — societal, demographic, and cultural shifts that leave the church in a less privileged position; financial shifts that make it more and more difficult to provide the kind of theological education we know improves the work of ministry; and shifts in the culture that make it easier for persons to church-hop, placing enormous pressure on pastors and congregants to appeal to the interests and needs of people who, years ago, they could have assumed would come to church with little prompting at all because going to church was just something people did.

    But throughout the portrait they painted, amid the news that tends to deflate us, there were opportunities scattered everywhere.

    For example, predominantly Euro-American denominations like Presbyterianism and Methodism (both of which originated in the British Isles) often throw up their hands when they look at the graying of their congregations, fearing the implication that in two decades or so the church will have shrunk by half (if not more). But there is an extraordinary opportunity for the transformation of these very churches by persons around the globe who have been called to follow Jesus Christ and are members even now of Presbyterian Churches and the Methodist Churches and others. These Christians (often from the Global South) have much to teach us if we are willing to learn and are willing to join with them. But there has to be a true partnership, in which we really do listen and join with them. This means relinquishing our assumption that we have the right to determine how they must change in order to join with us, and finding ways to collaborate on our shared commitment to spreading the good news of the Gospel and to working for justice, peace, and reconciliation wherever there is war or strife, as expressions of God’s reconciling love.

    And this is only the tip of the iceberg of one opportunity. Just one! There are so many other places where our mainline denominations can expand partnerships and reach across lines that divide us, even within denominations: lines of race, and of economic inequality, to give just two examples.

    Now, more than ever, I believe "Job #1" for us — as people who love the Church of Jesus Christ and who are called to follow Christ in witness and service — is to seek out for ministerial leadership the kind of people who see the opportunities amid the apparently dismal news, the people who want to grow new churches and revitalize established ones, who respect all persons and are willing to learn from them. We need to seek them out, provide a theological education that supports them in ministry, and send them out in a position to take risks, fail, and succeed for the sake of the gospel (which is why at Louisville Seminary we intend to make seminary debt a thing of the past).

    But as we recruit this kind of risk-taking, self-starting leader, we must be aware that the sort of people who make great leaders are sometimes least compliant to rigid institutional norms and standards. They are not typically identified as teachers' pets. They may take more mentoring and coaching (not least in theological field education internships), and they are unlikely to take to old-fashioned “sage-on-the-stage” classroom instruction. But, they will endure in ministry when others have decided to pack up and go home, because they have a tremendous capacity to live with risks and failure. They are more likely to keep trying new things till they find that breakthrough.

    This is good news for the future of the church. It may be that just as in the time of Saint Paul the Spirit of God took advantage of the Roman roads (which the Romans built for military purposes) to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire; and just as the Spirit of God, in the time of Luther and Calvin, used the newly invented moveable print press and the changing alliances in Europe as nation-states emerged to fire the Reformation; so today, the Spirit of God is working amid the startling shifts of society, culture, and demography to create new hearings for the liberating power of the gospel.

    The challenges we face are huge today. But the opportunities are just as great.

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  • Spirits that Encourage

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 17, 2012

    They say that you learn something new every day. I don’t know if that is true, but I remember the day last fall when I learned something genuinely new to me.

    I was reading Barbara Dianne Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2008), which has been selected as the recipient of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. What I learned may surprise you, too.

    According to Dr. Savage, it is really something of a miracle that “religious belief, religious institutions, and religious people came to be seen as so essential” to the civil rights movement. She says the fact that Black religion did play a central role in the movement “remains the central paradox in African American political history.”

    Perhaps this should not surprise us, however.

    Dr. Savage reminds us of the debate that at one time raged over the role of religion in the struggle for civil rights. Some African American leaders, for example the great W. E. B. Du Bois, expressed disdain for the practiced faith (popular religion) of many Black Christians, a fact that Cornel West has also noted.[i] Savage observes that "Du Bois had explored the question of black elite disillusionment with traditional black religion and the resulting political implications in his 1928 novel, Dark Princess."[ii] However, as she also observes, Du Bois, Carter Woodson, and Benjamin Mays “diverged on many points, but believed in the centrality of churches to the institutional structure of African American communities and to the political fortunes of the race." Nevertheless, "for them, black churches were too emotional in worship style and too focused on heaven and not enough on earth. Churches were too small, too many, and too independent of any centralized authority, including any control over their growth and direction."[iii] Thus, Savage writes: "The search for an institutional base for black political and social advancement seemed to run into a dead end at the church door."[iv]

    And yet, by the mid-twentieth century civil rights leader John Lewis would describe the civil rights movement as a "religious phenomenon." Lewis wrote of the civil rights movement in which he then participated: "It was church-based, church-sanctioned; most of its members and its activities flowed through and out of the black church, in small towns and rural communities as well as urban areas. The church, in a very real way, was the major gateway for the movement. It was the point of access in almost every community."[v]

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in many ways, serves as a critical and constructive bridge, as James M. Washington writes in the introduction to A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., which he edited: "Although he often criticized black Christians for their complacency, King never disowned either the black church movement or his own early faith commitments. He deepened their intellectual grounding, but he never belittled the faith of the people or their powerful spirituality. In fact, he tells story after story of how black people of faith, such as Mother Pollard, emboldened and inspired him to press forward."[vi]

    The story of how the situation changed so dramatically—of how, over the course of two generations, Black churches came to play a central role in the civil rights movement—provides the original power of Savage’s must-read book. She is careful to differentiate among the variety of responses from Black churches, resisting the temptation to speak simplistically of "the Black church." She also reveals the role African American women played in and through Black churches, supporting the civil rights movement and calling forth better leadership in the congregations in which they served. As Savage demonstrates, the often unsung heroes of the civil rights movement were these African American women congregants. She writes: "While formal leadership roles often went to black men, black women also maintained a great deal of authority and clout in community and political work and in the family." Black women were the "'spine’ of the civil rights movement."[vii]

    With clarity and force, Dr. Savage tells a story that all our churches and, indeed, our whole country need to hear, reminding us that we still walk shoulder to shoulder with spirits that encourage us to act for justice across our society.

    The Grawemeyer Award in Religion is presented jointly by Louisville Seminary and the University of Louisville. It will be presented to Dr. Barbara D. Savage on April 11, 2012, and she will present a free public lecture on her award-winning book. Dr. Savage is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the first African American woman to be honored with this award. www.grawemeyer.org


     

     

    [i] A point Dr. West made in a lecture he presented to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Philadelphia not long after the publication of his groundbreaking book, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993). See also David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New York: Henry Holt, 1993) and, of course, Du Bois’ classic study, The Souls of Black Folk (originally published in 1903; New York: Penguin Books edition, 1989).

    [ii] Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2008), 63.

    [iii] Ibid., 65.

    [iv] Ibid., 67.

    [v] Ibid., 262.

    [vi] James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), xi. See also Noel Leo Erskine, King Among the Theologians (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 1-10.

    [vii] Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us, 254.

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  • Secularism and Pluralism

    by User Not Found | Jan 10, 2012

    I greeted the recent publication of Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor's essay, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience,[1] with considerable enthusiasm, because we need the best and most serious minds of our time wrestling with the most crucial issue of our time: how to manage moral and religious diversity. We must marshal the elements of understanding and persuasion to bring along those who disagree with one another, and build or reinforce the institutional and social structures that represent a morally sustainable social compact—one that allows us to differ with respect while holding responsible those who underscore their contempt for difference with violence.

    These tasks will require our best thoughts and our best efforts.

    I find much to applaud in Maclure and Taylor's essay, including their contention that "respect for the moral equality of individuals and the protection of freedom of conscience and of religion constitute the two major aims of secularism today." I agree that these are indeed the goals we ought to pursue, because if we do not manage to protect these freedoms of individual conviction and expression, society will disintegrate. But I must critique Maclure and Taylor for their account of “the ethos or ethic of citizenship” most likely to support social cooperation in diverse societies—an account that is so atomizing and so focused on the individual that it undercuts the solution it offers.

    They begin with John Rawls’ idea that pluralism is necessitated by "the limits of reason" (in other words, it is necessary because in our finitude we are prevented from knowing the “ultimate meaning of existence”). They next assume that we come individually to choose our structures of meaning and purpose from a kind of smorgasbord of possibilities. But two of these assumptions can set us on a path to treating one another's differences of conviction and conscience as mere matters of individual taste and preference. If we get to that place, then we will be unable to make the intuitive leap of empathy that says, "While I do not see the world as you do, I can understand how one can be fully human and faithful and see the world in that way."

    I believe that there is a more constructive starting point. First, it may be that the reason we are confronted with so many ways of accounting for ultimate meaning is not because of our finitude or ignorance, but because there really are a variety of ways to be faithfully and fully human.

    By way of illustration, we might note the variety of theological ends and ways of being faithful embraced in the Old and New Testaments—variety that it actually takes effort to ignore. Consider the four Gospels: the compilers of the New Testament titled each of them "According to…,” reflecting the evangelists’ distinct perspectives on the church’s story of Jesus. It must have taken a Herculean effort on the part of Tatian, a second century theologian, to produce the first harmony of those Gospels: so many details had to be suppressed or ignored! The pluralism that is at the very heart of our biblical faith reflects the breath-taking variety in God’s world.

    The second issue of my critique is that the authors of this important essay somehow do not notice that as humans we do not disinterestedly choose from among a range of axiological options, but are formed in and through communities that that believe certain things in certain ways and value particular things and ideas in particular ways. It is from within that formation and in relationship with the persons among whom we are formed that we make all our choices regarding beliefs and values. For example, I was "converted" to Christianity as a child because I was formed in a Christian community that conceptualized the basic problems of existence and meaning in a way that required sin and forgiveness to take center stage.

    If we construe our differences as merely matters of individual taste and preference, we trivialize the religious and moral questions that unite and separate us. We also cut ourselves off from the basic social unit of understanding and persuasion, which is not the individual exercising choice among isolated reasoned options in a graduate seminar on moral topics, but the person in community, where moral choices are made in several dimensions at once, all of which are fraught with social, personal, familial, political, cultural, and religious significance.

    The difference is crucial.

    We must learn to speak from within our different cultural and religious communities—the very communities that divide us— if we are to learn and to be heard. The great challenge of our time is to live and flourish together though we are different in important respects, but similar in ways that are just as important. To succeed at this critical endeavor, we must acknowledge how the groups and communities that shape us value certain ends and not others. We will not convince one another of our mutual rights to live and practice our faith (or our right to claim no faith at all) as long as we regard one another merely as atomistic ideological or religious consumers.

    By respecting the human necessity to seek meaning in and through communities, including communities of faith (diverse as they are) we have the opportunity to make real progress at living together in peace. By knowing one another through our communities of faith and other complex meaning-shaping groups we will come to see that which we have most truly in common: our human existence as ones created in the image of the God whose very being is in Communion.

     


    [1] Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Translated from French by Jane Marie Todd.

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  • Scoundrels

    by User Not Found | Jan 03, 2012

    Among several books in my bedside stack this year were two about reputed scoundrels: Aaron Burr and Sir Francis Walsingham.

    I had long suspected that there was more to their stories than we get from popular depictions.

    In the popular mind, Aaron Burr is the bad boy of the founders. He killed Alexander Hamilton, after all, in a duel on the banks of Weehawken, New Jersey. If your only encounter with Burr is through Ron Chernow’s excellent and magisterial biography of Alexander Hamilton (as mine had largely been), you are not likely to have a very high opinion of him. But, even after reading Chernow’s book, I had this nagging feeling that there was more to Burr than I was being told. After all, Hamilton was no Boy Scout either.

    How could the man described so negatively by Chernow (and many other historians) have been so respected at one point as to have tied with Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, an election which was eventually decided by Congress in favor of Jefferson? [1] Burr is buried in the old Princeton Cemetery at the foot of his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, the greatest theologian in American history, and near his father, Aaron Burr Sr., a revered president of Princeton. Burr was a devoted Enlightenment philosophical thinker, a critical reader of Rousseau, and a careful student of Mary Wollstonecraft. He was deeply committed to the liberation and political enfranchisement of women in a time when such ideas were considered bizarre, educating his beloved daughter with the same care reserved only for male children of that time. After reading Jeremy Bentham’s philosophical writings (in a French translation), Burr became a champion of the most humane aspects of Utilitarianism and a close friend of Bentham. And while he was vilified by political opponents as a debauched rake, an unscrupulous liar, and a traitor (and by some of Hamilton’s colleagues as a cunning assassin), he was also admired by others as the most reliable of friends, a person of unyielding integrity.

    All of this I discovered in a fascinating book, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg (Penguin, 2007). Isenberg, a professor of nineteenth-century American history at the University of Tulsa, refuses to airbrush Burr’s faults (and there were many), but she also provides the political and historical context for understanding perhaps the most complex of all the founders of the new republic. Her insights, especially her understanding of how the popular press of the time was enlisted by partisan politicians to use innuendo and hints of guilt by association to destroy the reputation of a potentially important political opponent, are more relevant today than ever.

    My second scoundrel takes us further back in history to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. If your only acquaintance with Sir Francis Walsingham is from Geoffrey Rush’s superb portrayal of him in the Hollywood film, “Elizabeth” (as mine was!), then I want to encourage you to look deeper into this scoundrel too.

    In his book, Her Majesty’s Spymaster (Viking, 2005), Stephen Budiansky introduces us to a person who is just as ruthless as the person Rush portrayed in film. There’s no denying that. But, in addition to the Machiavellian servant of a Renaissance queen, a master of spycraft and espionage, we discover a person of deep faith, a person who had to negotiate his way between conflicting loyalties.

    From the opening pages of the book, I was struck by the fact that Walsingham, a committed Protestant, was the English ambassador to France during the infamous Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre of Huguenots (i.e., French Calvinists) in 1572. In fact, Walsingham’s residence was just across the Seine from Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, not far from the area of the city where the massacre began. Walsingham personally is credited with saving many people who otherwise would have been slain. His reports from the scene helped alert people outside of France to the slaughter and helped set the record straight, so that the propaganda of the French rulers would not have the last word.

    Were Burr and Walsingham really scoundrels? Yes, probably by almost any standard. But, reading their stories in fuller detail, we are able to see that they were complex people, motivated by many different, complicated, often competing factors. Their faults were real faults and large faults. But so were their virtues.

    After reading their stories, my thoughts returned to a comment Luke Timothy Johnson made when he received the Grawemeyer Award in Religion at Louisville Seminary last year. He was reflecting on why he would rather dine with a particular major theologian, with whom he disagrees deeply, rather than with another religious figure, with whom he would probably agree on most doctrinal issues. I reflected on whether I would like to dine with either Burr or Walsingham. Yes, I decided, I would. I’d like Burr to choose the wine, however, and I wouldn’t let Walsingham have access to the food before we ate it. There are stories about poison, you see.

    ___________________________

    [1] See also American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011) by David O. Stewart, also author of The Summer of 1787 and Impeached.

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  • "Behold"

    by User Not Found | Dec 22, 2011

    Louisville Seminary is pleased to share the following link to a special Christmas message from President Michael Jinkins. May the miracle of Christmas shine ever-more brightly in a world where we truly see Christ through one another.

    Behold

    By Michael Jinkins

    Lilly Endowment Inc.
    Christmas Luncheon, Indianapolis, Indiana
    December 22, 2011

    Text: Luke 2:1-20

    Traffic was bad that morning as my car crept into town on the expressway during that misnomered period of the day we call “rush hour.” It was a few days before Christmas. I was listening to NPR on the car radio. For some reason, someone was reading this passage of scripture:

    “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

    You know how your mind can catch on a word? It’s like how a hangnail can snag if you trail your hand across satin. My mind snagged on that word, “behold.” It occurred to me how peculiar, how out of place in the course of my day, that word is. We don’t ordinarily use it. I don’t walk into the copy room at the Seminary and say, “Behold, this paper upon which is written words needs to be photocopied!”

    “Behold” signals something contrary to ordinary.

    Hearing that word, stuck amidst my fellow commuters on the freeway that December morning, for just a moment something was kindled in me, a longing was evoked, rich with memories of smells and sounds of churches and forests; something was awakened. I longed to hear the word again, “Behold,” because something in it associated with things over which we have no control, things we need that we cannot do for ourselves.

    It was as though, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, my car was commandeered for serendipitous purposes. The Holy intruded on my commute. I remembered how C. S. Lewis described being “surprised by joy,” surprised by that “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” “Anyone who has experienced it,” Lewis says, “will want it again."[i]

    I remember still the lump in my throat that morning, the feeling of having been brushed against by someone else, something other, the Word of God, perhaps, or the Angel of the Lord, because, you see, only angels get up in the morning saying things like “Behold” or “Fear not” or “I bring you good tidings of great joy” or “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will” – we don’t.

    “Behold,” something is going on here that could change your way of seeing and hearing and knowing God and experiencing the world we take for granted. “Behold.”

    “Behold,” something is going on that will claim you in a whole new way, something so unprecedented that it won’t allow you to remain a disinterested bystander. This will demand that you belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to yourself, but to God. “Behold.”

    “Behold what?”

    Something you never dared to dream, something only prophets hoped for on your behalf, has happened, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

    “And they came with haste and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”

    You are invited to download the entire Christmas message
    at the following link: Behold

     


    [i] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (London: Collins, Fontana edition, 1959), 20.

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  • Away in a Manger

    by User Not Found | Dec 20, 2011

    We have all seen the rapt wonder in the eyes
     of children on a Christmas morning as their gaze dances across the lights, the tinsel, and the gifts under the tree. But the real marvel is not the wonder in their eyes on Christmas morning, is it? It is the wonder in their eyes just any old day when they see a dog or a cat they have seen and petted and talked to a dozen times before, and seeing this family pet, they look upon it as though for the first time and see as if it were the strangest and most wondrous creature ever to emerge from the pages of mythology. We have observed the same experience when a child’s gaze falls on a perfectly ordinary twig in the yard. Picking it up, they toddle toward you, holding the twig, bringing it to you. They place it in your hand as though to say, “Look what I have discovered. It’s a miracle, a tiny, bark-encrusted miracle. Have you ever seen anything so amazing?”

    The wonder is that children find wonder in everything, absolutely everything. Children are enchanting because their world is enchanted.

    Scholars have long noted the “disenchantment” of the world around us. Some have chalked it up to the Enlightenment, to modernity, or post-modernity, or post-post-modernity. There is surely some truth in all their theories, though I am inclined to chalk up our “disenchantment” of the world to a tendency that humanity has had for a long, long time, the tendency not to notice.

    Surely, our tendency not to notice could be tied to the assumptions we have carried around since the dawn of the age of science, assumptions that strain-out whole categories of experience from our observations, reducing the most amazing displays of the world around us to dry calculations. And, certainly, the fact that we have become acquainted with the rule of secondary causation has had some effect on our tendency to attribute everything that happens to God. But I suspect that some of the disenchantment of our world is simply because, as someone has said, as we grow older we grow calluses on our souls. Our touch grows less sensitive. We stop noticing just how utterly astonishing the world is.

    I suspect that one reason, long after we achieve adulthood, we find ourselves drawn to tales of wonder—whether in the form of complex cinematic worlds peopled with science-fiction avatars or in the myths, fairy tales, and stories from C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and J.R.R. Tolkien we read to our children, our grandchildren, nieces, and nephews—is because we hunger to notice the world again in all its enchantment.

    Of all the amazing scenes of the Christmas story, the one that never fails to amaze me is that of the shepherds who found their way to the manger, and who noticed something miraculous there. Having grown up on a farm, I can say with some authority that most farmers and ranchers are pretty unsentimental people, not given to flights of fancy. They don’t go searching for elves under cabbage leaves, or wherever elves are supposed to dwell. Shepherds lived with both feet planted on the ground. But that didn’t stop them from finding enchantment in a manger.

    Undoubtedly lots of other people passed by the vicinity of the barn where Jesus was born and never noticed what the Creator of the Universe was up to inside. But, thanks to the intercession of angels, a group of shepherds noticed that God had become flesh and blood, and was curled-up next to a young woman, his mother, on a bale of hay. They noticed—and wonder attended.

    Especially at Christmas, I love to watch the old film, “Harvey,” starring Jimmy Stewart. It is not a “Christmas movie.” It is a sort of comedy of errors, really, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Chase. Even more, it is a comedy of attentiveness, reminding us of presences unnoticed, of a world wrought with wonders through which we pass yawning.

    One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs when Dr. Chumley, the head of a psychiatric hospital, speaks with Elwood P. Dodd, our young hero (played by Jimmy Stewart) who is in the process of being committed to Dr. Chumley’s asylum because he sees Harvey, a pooka, a six foot tall rabbit. Dr. Chumley’s problem—and the reason he is speaking to Elwood in this scene—is that he has begun to see Harvey too. Dr. Chumley, whose scientific world has unexpectedly crashed on the rocks of Celtic mythology in the person of Harvey, asks Elwood to tell him all about Harvey. As Elwood talks, the doctor grows even more enraptured. Elwood could talk for hours about Harvey, about how they met at the corner of 18th Street and Fairfax, about how Harvey and he have made new friends, and how Harvey has overcome “not only time and space, but any objections.” Finally, the Doctor leaps from his chair and says: “Fly specks! Fly specks! I’ve been spending my life among fly specks while miracles have been leaning on lampposts at 18th and Fairfax.”

    Miracles indeed are leaning on lampposts at the corner of 18th and Fairfax, and on countless other street corners. The miracle that lies “away in a manger,” the child “asleep in the hay,” reminds us this is true.

    The glory of God is that God is among us whether we notice God or not. And the Christmas story is a neon-lighted, tinsel-bright sign pointing out this fact that is always a fact whether we acknowledge it or not. The Christmas story invites us to be amazed like children enchanted by crystal Christmas balls, twinkling lights, the gifts wrapped in foil paper, and the freckles on the hands of the person by whom the gifts were wrapped. God is not a million miles away, so the story of Christmas reminds us. God is present with us. Enchantment follows when we notice again.

    Merry Christmas

    ________________________

    About the Artwork

    Whatever It Takes, Get to the Manger

    by naïf/Vallarta artist Manuel Lepe (1936-1981)

    The artwork is a gift from Louisville Seminary alum Rev. David Sharp (MDiv ’66), who commissioned this piece in 1979 to encourage within all of us childlike anticipation of Christ’s coming during the season of Advent. Sharp has bequeathed his collection of religious art—more than 50 paintings and sculptures—to Louisville Seminary in gratitude for his LPTS education and to theologically inspire others. His gift represents his personal testimony of faith and a legacy of his calling as an effective interpreter of the Gospel.

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  • “What’s in there, anything worth my time?”

    by User Not Found | Dec 13, 2011

    Seminary Dean David Hester and I were recently talking about the kinds of Christian education that really make a difference in people’s lives.

    We discussed the value of people learning to read and interpret scripture for themselves—the skill, incidentally, that was the powerhouse behind the Protestant Reformation.

    We also discussed the value of people learning to reflect theologically on their own lives, and noted that some of the greatest theology ever written came from persons we offhandedly call “lay people,” including the incomparable C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and William Stringfellow.

    Our conversation then turned to a related subject: how hard it is to find really great curriculum these days and how we have all become complicit (intentionally or unintentionally) in the trivializing of the Christian faith. There’s no way we would tolerate an equivalent trivialization of medicine, law, or finance—we still treat those fields as serious matters. And yet we endure and even encourage a dumbing-down in our church’s efforts to teach the faith.

    My conversation with the dean reminded me of a sermon by the great Baptist preacher and intellectual Carlyle Marney. The title of the sermon, which was first preached in 1958, is “The Recovery of Center,” and the opening paragraph reads:

    He was halfway up the broad entrance-stairs to Marshall Field Museum and had stopped; hands on hips, socks drooping over shoetops, shirt-front bulging, campaign buttons on his lapels. With pens and pencils dripping from his pocket to declare his responsible status, he stood there. Arrogant in his ignorance, I remember him because he was calling to a friend, “What’s in there, anything worth my time?”

    Is there anything in a grand museum worthy of this arrogant and self-important fellow’s time?

    Today, there are people standing outside the church wondering if there is anything in there worth their time. But is the problem their arrogance? Or is it our failure, as preachers and teachers, to believe in the power of the Gospel and proclaim it boldly, in all its fullness and mystery? Too often, the gospel’s unwitting worst enemy is not the outsider who spurns it, but the insider who simply can’t or won't take it seriously.

    I wonder why we tend to trivialize the Christian faith. There may be several reasons.

    1. Perhaps it is familiarity that breeds a grudging contempt for the gospel among us. Maybe we just take for granted the wonder and power of the Christian message, convincing ourselves the gospel must be trivialized in order to appear relevant.

    2. Perhaps is it our own arrogance that leads us to trivialize the faith. We are convinced that we are wiser and more powerful than the gospel, that we can’t seriously entrust the world’s problems to God. We seem to be convinced that if only we can get the organizational structure right, introduce the right program, hire the right consultant, we can fix everything.

    3. Or perhaps our drive to reduce and contain the gospel (which is another version of trivializing) is actually a consequence of our fear of the gospel’s magnitude and mystery. Deep inside, where we don’t like to look, maybe we know that anything that has the power to raise us from the dead also has the power to bury our fondest aspirations. Our trivializing of the gospel may be a backhanded expression of our reverence for a God we know we can’t control.

    “What’s in there?” Marney asked in his sermon. He hypothetically samples some responses:

    ‘A tie with our sacred past,’ says the ancestor worshiper, whether Shintoist or D.A.R. ‘A mighty fine preserver of the status quo is in there,’ says the social conservative who fears all changes. ‘The Church is a harmless and mildly beneficent cathartic,’ says a psychologist; ‘a convenient January and April charity,’ says the economic opportunist…. With even more dreadful seriousness, but just as shallowly: some say the Church is a great institution, and will preserve the American Way…. To others, the Church is an arena for personal aggrandizement; while still others, carrying all their frustration forward at the bottom of each column, make their church a scene of perpetual warfare.

    Marney is clearly not satisfied with these answers, and neither should we be.

    “What’s in there, anything worth my time?” someone asks on the steps of our metaphorical church.

    What’s “in there” is the gospel of the crucified Christ who has the power to raise us from every death. And, yes, that gospel is more than worth our time.

    Marney ended his sermon by reflecting on Jesus Christ as the Center of our faith, echoing St. Paul’s insight (I Cor 1:18-31) that the scandal of the cross of Christ claims the center of the church’s proclamation. I suspect that it is right to bring up the scandal of the cross since we are forever preoccupied with impressing everyone around us that we are sophisticated and smart, and the gospel never does quite stop being a scandal. We really are offended that the gospel has more power than all our attempts either to organize or to entertain people into the reign of God.

    Marney observes that “the Church is no Church without this scandal, this offense, this Cross.” This cross—horrific, cataclysmic, and offensive—finally and mercifully, is not reducible to a cartoon or a program. This cross, finally and mercifully, resists being trivialized even by the church in its anxiety and its compulsion to be accepted.

    “We pray, God,” Marney says in closing, “that the life and witness of us all will issue from this Center, not from a lesser fragment.”

    Can the preacher get an “Amen”?

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  • A Matter of Substance

    by User Not Found | Dec 06, 2011

    This year, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company turned 100 years old. At a time when many Christian publishers are responding to the swiftly changing environment in the industry by producing tripe and pretending it is prime rib, thus treating persons of faith as though being a "fool for Christ" must make one foolish, the venerable publishing house of Eerdmans proves again its worth by cultivating a list of books distinguished by devotion and depth. And, their faith in substance has been rewarded by continued success in the marketplace. Who says the age of miracles has come to a close?

    "We're a company doing its duty under the eye of eternity," Bill Eerdmans said in an article in The Grand Rapids Press. Bill (William B. Eerdmans Jr.), who succeeded his father, William B. Eerdmans Sr., 48 years ago, is only the second president the family-owned business has had in its 100-year history. Anita Eerdmans, in a quote from the same newspaper article (which she has since said must have made their bankers cringe; though I'm pretty sure it did no such thing), said: "It's always been about the books. It's not about how big we can grow or how much money we can make. The books are always central."

    Both Bill and Anita (husband and wife) are good friends of Louisville Seminary; and Anita, who serves as vice president for marketing and director of young readers, is a trustee of the Seminary. It only takes about five minutes with Bill or Anita to understand the significance of this statement, "The books are always central." Or, you could tour their new headquarters in Grand Rapids and visit with the long-time employees of the publishing house, like Jon Pott, the company's managing editor, who cannot keep himself from talking about the scholars with whom he works closely and theological content as though what matters most for this publishing house, and for him personally, is the quality of the content of their books.

    There's a lesson here, for publishing houses, who are tempted to give in to every passing fad in the desperate hope that they will survive, but also for churches and seminaries. Of course, all institutions must change and adapt to shifts in the environment. But how you change matters. Quality matters. Knowledge matters. Those of us in the knowledge business have a duty to respect those who buy and read our books, listen to our sermons, and attend our classes. In the final analysis, people will not thank us if we sell them attractively or provocatively or humorously packaged messes of pottage (to use a biblical metaphor) when what they wanted and needed were the words of life. It's a matter of substance, maybe even a matter of life and death. Three cheers for a publishing house that understands this.

    ______________________

    For follow up reading, see Larry Tenharmsel, with Reinder Van Til, An Eerdmans Century: 1911-2011 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); and Ann Byle’s "WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids celebrates 100th anniversary" The Grand Rapids Press, August 14, 2011.

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  • Water Skiing with a Dead Poet

    by User Not Found | Nov 29, 2011

    A few weeks ago, in one of those small independent, often idiosyncratic, bookstores that we see fewer and fewer of these days, I came across a poet who had been (up until now for me) only a name on a list of lesser-known writers from long, long ago. The poet's name is William Dunbar. He was a court poet for King James IV of Scotland. James was the grandfather of Mary Queen of Scots and founder of my alma mater, King's College, in Aberdeen.

    Dunbar was, in some ways, a conventional court poet, but he wrote a passage that guaranteed at least one sale over five hundred years after he went out of business. I came across the passage standing in the bookstore scanning his verse:

    Done is a battel on the dragon blak,

    Our campioun Chryst counfountet hes his force;
    The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
    The signe triumphall rasit is of the croce,
    The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
    The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go,
    Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:

    Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

    Christ battling the dragon! Hell's gates crashing down! Demons trembling!

    No wonder C.S. Lewis said of this poem by Dunbar that "it vibrates with exultant energy" and "defies the powers of evil" with the ring of "a steel gauntlet flung down."

    By the way, a hint for comprehending Dunbar's mixture of late Middle English, Scots dialect and the occasional Latin: Read him out loud. Much (if not all) will become clear.

    C.S. Lewis gives another bit of advice for comprehending Dunbar's Christmas poem. This one needs to be sung, said Lewis. If you read it late at night, sitting alone in the quiet of your room, Lewis said, "On laying the book down," you are "almost shocked" to discover "that the choir and organ existed only in our imagination."

    Lewis does not share the tune he hears. Try one of your own favorites.

    Dunbar's poem about Christ's birth is perfect as we enter the season of Advent. Lewis observes of this poem that it has nothing in common with "the modern—the German or the Dickensian—attributes of Christmas."

    There's certainly nothing sentimental about it. Dunbar is closer to Gregory of Nyssa than he is to the shopping mall Santa when he writes:

    Synnaris be glaid and pennance do

    And thank your makar hairtfully,

    For he that ye mycht nocht cum to

    To yow is cummin full humly;

    Your saulis with his blud to by

    And lous yow of the fiendis arrest,

    And only of his awin mercy

    Pro nobis Puer natus est.

    A couple of days before I came across this little book by Dunbar, I heard Billy Collins, the former poet laureate, on A Prairie Home Companion. I remembered the poem in which Collins encourages readers of poetry to water ski across the surface of a poem, or to feel your way in the dark along the poem's wall until you find the light switch. This is nowhere truer than with a poet from another age, another whole world, like Dunbar. But somehow, the deciphering makes the discovering that much more fun—and that much more memorable.

    Today, in this age of instant access to ideas that are seldom worth even the small trouble, I want to encourage you to seek out a poet, a good poet, who will require a little work; slap on a pair of water skis, and have a go!

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  • The Purest Form of Thankfulness

    by User Not Found | Nov 22, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 
    "To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it," writes Wendell Berry in his classic essay Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (2000). As we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving, in a prolonged season of insecurity and want, when many people lack the most common necessities and many others fear the reverberations of economic shoes that may or may not yet drop, Berry's words are especially appropriate.

    Perhaps the purest form of thankfulness is simply not to take life for granted as we are living it. Just paying attention in the moment may be the most sincere expression of devotion in response to God the Giver. Perhaps, in fact, it is a prayer of gratitude more profound than any ever to enter the official liturgies of our churches just to savor those silent moments sitting with an aging parent who may not remember our visit; or listening to the problems facing a maturing child without giving-in to the temptation to offer advice; or sharing a glass of wine with a spouse or partner or friend who has had a really, really bad day. Herein may lie the mystery of the Eucharistic feast, reminding us that the very word Eucharist is all about a kind of thanks we offer because we have noticed God at work among us. I suspect that at life's end we will regret how poorly we attended to the ordinary occasions of tenderness far more than many of the things that clamor now for our attention.

    These thoughts have been on my mind lately, not least because of the publication of Joan Didion's achingly unsentimental memoir reflecting on the loss of her daughter, Quintana Roo. Her just-published book, Blue Nights, tells the story of an unspeakable grief hard on the heels of the death of Joan's husband, John Gregory Dunne, which was the subject of her magnificent memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Blue Nights opens with an elegant chapter explaining the title:

    "This book is called 'Blue Nights' because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning."

    Over the years, I have found repeatedly in the greatest chronicles of sorrow (like C. S. Lewis' A Grief Observed and John Claypool's Tracks of a Fellow Struggler) the same hard-won lesson that we find in Didion's memoirs, a message not unlike the one expressed by Wendell Berry. Life is a miracle, precious in every respect, precious beyond words, and it deserves all the reverence we can muster. Nowhere is this truer than in our regard for and care of the persons we love but so easily take for granted. The most haunting line in Didion's new memoir was evoked by her reflection on how all the most ordinary items and objects associated with her husband and daughter now serve "only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here."

    So, this Thanksgiving, I want to encourage us all, whether we will celebrate the holiday surrounded by loved ones or separated from them by miles, not to fail to appreciate the moment when it is here. If we are with our families, let us enjoy the warmth and insanity, the unintended humor, the differences between us that make us irritating and the similarities that make us even more unbearable to each other. And if we are separated, for God's sake, let's pick up the phone and not let the moment pass. Let's make it clear that we are not giving up on life or each other by treating life and those we love as the miracle they are.

    As the Book of Common Prayer reminds us to pray: "Most gracious God ... We beseech thee, give us a just sense of these great mercies, such as may appear in our lives by an humble, holy, and obedient walking before thee all our days."

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  • The Next Frontier

    by User Not Found | Nov 15, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 

    The following is an excerpt from “The Next Frontier,” a sermon presented by Michael Jinkins at the Stated Meeting of the Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, November 14, 2011. The sermon is available in its entirety in video or as a downloadable PDF

    “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” (Luke 10:2)

    I want to tell you a story about where we came from and where we may be going.

    The western territories of the United States spread out before our ancestors just like all the songs say, prairies that terrified us with their vastness, mountains that defied us with their craggy heights, and forests that whispered in the haunting wind and beckoned us to enter. To many of our ancestors, the west summoned us to take a chance, to move into the unknown. This was the case even before our War for Independence, but especially so after it. The richness of the resources of the American west laid virtually untapped, at least in the eyes of our ancestors, those adventurers, pioneers, and first settlers. The land was a vast promise just itching to be kept. And the people flooded in.

    By 1790 there were about 100,000 people settled in the Mississippi River Valley. Just ten years later, that number had nearly quadrupled. But the challenges of the west must have seemed even more numerous and more daunting than the strength of the first settlers. The land itself resisted the efforts of the settlers as much as it invited them. And there were other challenges, especially for those who hoped that civilization and godliness might flourish together on the new frontier.

    There is an old saying that saloons and brothels were the first institutions of the west, and there’s some truth in that. So there were clearly some moral challenges facing the church. But it is also true that the intellectual challenges to the truth of the Christian faith were, if anything, greater in the late eighteenth century even than today.

    If you think that modern atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, have the ear of the public, it’s nothing compared with the influence of Thomas Paine, a man who was read not only by eminent leaders like Thomas Jefferson but also by stable boys in Louisville and Lexington. Paine is often remembered most as the author of Common Sense, the tract that more than any other single piece of literature fanned the flames of colonial revolt. But Thomas Paine was also a virulent enemy of Christian faith.

    Far from feeling overwhelmed and dispirited at the enormous scale of the challenges facing it, including such challenges against the Christian faith, the church was filled with confidence. A defining biblical text for that whole era might be:

    “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” (Luke 10:2)

    Presbyterians began to build seminaries across the country to provide ministers of churches that did not yet exist in communities that were then only barely forming. We built seminaries to educate pastors and teachers for the frontier: Pittsburgh Seminary (1794); Princeton Seminary and Union Seminary in Virginia (1812); Auburn Seminary (1818); Columbia Seminary (1828); McCormick Seminary (1829); University of Dubuque Seminary (1852); Louisville Seminary (1853); Johnson C. Smith Seminary (1867); San Francisco Seminary (1871); and Austin Seminary (1902).

    Notice, in the year that Pittsburgh Seminary was founded (1794) the population of the United States was just under 4 million persons. The year Austin Seminary was founded (1902) the population of our country was just under 80 million. During the span of history of the founding of all ten Presbyterian seminaries, our nation grew by 76 million souls. We were convinced that we needed ten seminaries across this country to supply ministers to preach the gospel in a period that culminated in a population of 80 million.

    The current population of the United States, according to the population clock on August 23, 2011, was over 312 million. The population of the country is four times greater today than when we established our tenth seminary.

    In the 1790s, despite the claims of the nostalgic, the romantic, and the politically-motivated who will tell us that the founders of this country were more Christian than we are today, some historians estimate that less than 10% of the total population of this country actually belonged to churches.[i] Even the most generous studies estimate that the proportion was less than 20%.[ii] That percentage had risen to about 50% by the time that we stopped building seminaries.[iii] Today, according to Gallup, 43.1% of the American public claim to attend some church, though, that figure is often disputed. Apparently people like to give the impressive even to anonymous pollsters that they are more faithful than they really are.[iv] But all of this means (and this is the point we shouldn’t lose no matter how we cut the statistical pie) that today, by any count, there are more (far, far more!) potential hearers of the gospel than at any other time in the history of this country.

    Why has the church not kept pace with the needs and challenges of the growing populations around us?

    I believe the church has lost its confidence regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want us to identify the loss of confidence in our church for what it is.

    This loss of confidence is not the consequence of a realistic assessment of unfavorable demographic trends. It is the consequence of an unrealistic theological assessment of the love and power of the God we serve. What we have here is not (vis a vis “Cool Hand Luke”) a failure to communicate or organize or ride the crest of the demographic tidal wave, but a failure of trust.

    I would be willing to be discouraged today if two things were true: (1) If the gospel of Jesus Christ has lost its power; and (2) if there were fewer people to hear Christ’s message of liberation. But there are millions more people today than when we first built our seminaries to provide ministers for churches that did not yet exist in communities that were only beginning to be formed on the frontiers of this country. And the gospel of Jesus Christ still liberates persons today around this globe.

    The only thing that has changed is the location of the frontier. The frontier is not somewhere “out west.” The frontier is “among us.” And so is the reign of God – “among us.” Yes, we need to identify this frontier. And, yes, we need to articulate the gospel through media that will be heard on this frontier. But, mostly, we need to believe again, because really the only thing that has changed is the location of the frontier.

    Oh, and one other thing has changed. We no longer have confidence in the power of God to seek and to save, to liberate, and to raise from death to new life. Our goal must be to proclaim the message of Christ and Christ crucified that still has the power to save, to liberate, and to raise humanity to life abundant.

    Generations ago, those who brought Christian faith westward, those who founded our seminaries and churches throughout the west, took up the challenges of the frontier to build new churches in communities that did not yet even exist. They did this because they had confidence in God and in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Today, our challenges are great. But it is time for us to stop focusing on the challenges and to remember the God who is more than a match for any challenge, in whom alone we can entrust the future. The people on today’s frontiers need the good news of Christ crucified to raise them to life abundant. They want to hear this good news of liberation, even if they have no inkling of what it is or what it means.

    The above blog is an excerpt from “The Next Frontier,” a sermon presented by Michael Jinkins at the Stated Meeting of the Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, November 14, 2011. The sermon is available in its entirety in video or as a downloadable PDF

     


    [i] Jerald Brauer, Protestantism in America: A Narrative History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 94.
    [ii] Stanley I. Kuther, Dictionary of American History, (Thomas Gale, third edition, 2003), Volume 7, p. 83.

    [iii] Ibid., 83, figure 1.

    [iv] See Bob Smietana’s article, “Statistical Illusion,” in Christianity Today, April 2006.

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  • Self-Interest and the Glory of God

    by User Not Found | Nov 08, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 

    Most of us, if we think of St. Benedict at all, think of monks and monasteries. I have a British friend who’s only thought of St. Benedict has to do with eggs and Canadian bacon, but I know that’s not right. Several years ago, I became interested in St. Benedict, who lived c. 480-547, after reading a journal article about his understanding of self-interest and the glory of God.

    One of Benedict’s convictions was that you can only demonstrate the glory of God to others by doing something that is not motivated by your own interests. Good monks, according to Benedict, “do not live according to their own wills, nor obey their own desires and pleasures.”[i]

    Benedict’s perspective, of course, is not original. And that’s the point really. Benedict’s conviction is born of his Christian faith and has its roots in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and in certain Pauline letters, for example, Philippians, chapter two:

    “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant….” (Phil 2:1-11)

    Esther de Waal, in her book, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, explains that Saint Benedict “wants us to free ourselves from the possessive self, concerned with self-interest, which so grasps and clutches that it gets in the way of any free and open relationship with God. So it is the use which we make of our will which is the point at issue. Are we going to use it to serve our own drives and impulses and assert our independence? Or are we going to use it to serve others and make it a means of returning to Christ? That is the challenge.”[ii]

    Last week, Benedict’s conviction came to mind as I thought about the imaginative and generous people who make it possible to prepare the next generation of men and women for leadership in the church. I was thinking about this especially in light of the action of our Board of Trustees committing Louisville Seminary to a strategic plan that will make it possible for future students to attend our Seminary fully funded. Students will not have to take out student loans, and will be free to go wherever God calls them after graduation, whether to congregations, counseling agencies, social justice ministries, or other kinds of service.

    Such generosity stands over-against one of the least attractive aspects of contemporary culture, the increasingly pervasive sense of entitlement, the preoccupation of selves with themselves. Sometimes, watching television news programs or even reading the emails that accumulate in the course of the day, a theme emerges that might be summarized by phrases such as, “Hurrah for me!” or “What about mine?” We see expressions of self-interest at virtually every level of society, from politicians who sacrifice the common good for their own party gains, to the person who knocks down the elderly passenger in the stampede to get in line to board a plane. While it is not necessarily a bad thing for an individual to take up for him- or herself (an inability to do so might be considered unhealthy), it is also true that it takes no particular virtue to look out habitually for our own interests.

    Thus, the message of Benedict's conviction is important for all of us, not the least of which are those in the Reformed tradition who were raised on the catechism: “What is our chief end?” “To glorify God and enjoy God forever!” John Calvin and Company would agree with Benedict on this. To glorify God, to demonstrate God’s ends over our own, we simply have to act in ways that are not motivated by our own self-interests.

    One of the most impressive aspects of the vision that guided the Strategic Planning Committee and the Board of Trustees of Louisville Seminary in developing our “Covenant for the Future,” was the thought that our commitment should serve as an encouragement and an invitation to other schools and other institutions of the church to eliminate seminary debt.

    Our hope, from the beginning, has been to make a contribution to the future of the church’s ministry by thinking beyond our narrow interests. To this end, we have committed to sharing the results of our research— what we learn as we attempt to put our plan into action, our mistakes as well as our successes. Rather than worrying about competition, our trustees, professors, administrators, staff, and students are wagering that this strategic plan will serve the Presbyterian Church and the wider church, our society, and the global community by encouraging and inviting others to offer similar support for the future of ministry.

    As Susan Garrett, Professor of New Testament and the Vice Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, has said, “What a boon it would be to the church everywhere if creative, energetic, and charismatic men and women who presently cannot afford to attend seminary or divinity school could do so, and then, afterward, go wherever God calls them!” This kind of inclusive and long-range vision reflected in the conversations that emerged from the Strategic Planning Committee is exhilarating, especially in this cynical, me-first culture.

     

    [i] The Rule of Saint Benedict, David Parry, OSB, tr. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd), 20.

    [ii] Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, Kathleen Norris, foreword (London: Fount, 1984), 46.


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  • Solving Problems

    by User Not Found | Nov 01, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 


    There's a certain satisfaction that attends facing problems. In fact, I like problems. The reason is simple. Problems have solutions. That's how you can differentiate a problem from a predicament. Problems can be solved, predicaments can't. The best you can do with a predicament is live through it as faithfully as possible. Problems require that we roll up our sleeves and get to work trying solutions. That can lead to satisfying and rewarding work.

    Problems also evoke creativity, courage, and a sense of adventure from us. Among the challenges facing the Presbyterian Church and other denominations today, some are predicaments. And we must simply try to live through the predicaments as gracefully and faithfully as we can. But some of the challenges we face are genuine problems. We can do something about these. And, sometimes, the ripples caused by our solutions can actually solve other problems.

    Take for example the problem of crushing student indebtedness. It is not just a problem for undergraduate colleges.

    We have all seen situations in which a promising seminary student graduates ready, theologically educated, prepared, and called to enter ministry but finds it difficult to accept a particular position in a congregation—especially if the congregation is a new church development or redevelopment, or a smaller church. We have even seen situations in which a seminary graduate had to return to a previous occupation so he or she could pay off educational loans.

    At a time when our church needs risk-taking, energetic, entrepreneurial congregational leaders, we need to do everything we can to help seminary graduates embrace adventurous leadership and try new things, some of which may not succeed on the first try. We need the equivalent of spirit we see among the daring young people who will try and try and try again to launch a new tech business. And to support them, to make it possible for them to take risks and eventually succeed, we need the equivalent of venture capital for the church's future.

    There are probably a dozen or more things we could try through congregations and judicatories and seminaries. But today, in advance of the announcement tomorrow our new strategic plan, I want to tell you about one thing we are going to do at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    We plan to make student indebtedness for theological education a thing of the past. We plan to do this so that we can liberate our graduates from seminary debt so they are free to go wherever God calls them when they graduate, whether that be to a congregational ministry, service as a marriage and family therapist, or some other vocation as a servant and leader for the church.

    This does not solve every problem facing our church. But this is one thing we believe we can do. Then graduates from Louisville Seminary can strike out into the modern-day equivalent of the frontier to plant new congregations, or take on the challenge of helping struggling congregations find a new lease on life, or do any of a hundred things none of us have yet imagined. Our graduates will be free to take more risks.

    Obviously, we will need to provide them with the educational foundation and introduce them to the kinds of ministry formation and professional development that will support their efforts. And we will do this too. But to address only the educational challenges while ignoring the financial ones is simply inadequate for the future of ministry in our church.

    Who knows what other problems we might eventually solve while riding the waves from this one solution.

    We will be able to build a class of students at Louisville Seminary based on their promise for ministry, and to ensure that our student body reflects the complex, rich diversity of communities in which they will serve in ministry after graduation. We will build a class of students consisting of persons with particular promise for leadership, who are ready to engage others in the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. The potential effect of bringing such students together in one place is breathtaking. But the potential effect of sending them forth is even more so!

    There is at least one other benefit our church may derive from tackling this problem. Maybe we will remember the confidence we had as a people of God who looked westward generations ago and imagined churches in every new community that popped up. It was an audacious confidence. And, today, we need nothing less.

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  • A New Poet Laureate

    by User Not Found | Oct 25, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

    This past summer Philip Levine was named to succeed W. S. Merwin as Poet Laureate. If you have not read Levine I want to encourage you to do so.

    My grandmother was a poet of sorts. Her poetry would never have been published, I am relatively sure, if it hadn’t been for the respect our town had for my Uncle Curtis. So the local paper regularly published her poems. I say this at the risk of being pummeled by my family in East Texas, but her sort of poetry is not the kind of poetry I’m recommending today. You see, while there are few things more annoying than bad poetry, there are few things indeed more marvelous than great poetry.

    Philip Levine writes great poetry. Instead of telling you, let me show you:

    Everyone knows that the trees will go one day
    and nothing will take their place.
    Everyone has wakened, alone, in a room of fresh light and risen
    to meet the morning as we did.
    How long have we waited quietly by the side of the road
    for someone to slow and ask why.
    The light is going, first from between
    the long rows of dark firs
    and then from our eyes, and when
    it is gone we will be gone.
    No one will be left to say,
    “He took the stick and marked off
    the place where the door would be,”
    or “she held the child in both hands and sang the same few tunes
    over and over.”

    These lines are drawn from the poem “One Day” from the collection, The Simple Truth (Knopf, 1995), for which Levine received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that year.

    Levine grew up in Detroit of Russian of émigré parents. He helped build Cadillacs and Chevrolets for a time. He celebrates ordinary life and ordinary work, as in his collection, What Work Is, for which he won the National Book Award.

    When told that he had been named Poet Laureate, Levine, who is now eighty three years old, observed that he was pleased that the honor had come his way, but, he said: “How can I put it? It’s like winning the Pulitzer. If you take it too seriously, you’re an idiot. But if you look at the names of the other poets who have won it, most of them are damn good. Not all of them – I’m not going to name names – but most. My editor was thrilled, and my wife jumped for joy. She hasn’t done that in a while.”

    You see what I mean? You want to read a poet who can say something like that! Like Wendell Berry and Louise Gluck and Seamus Heaney, Philip Levine is one of the “living legends” of poetry. Reading him won’t put a farthing in your pocket, but it will make your life richer by far.

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  • Great Pastors Are Omnivorous

    by User Not Found | Oct 18, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

    Great pastors are omnivorous. They will feed intellectually on anything and everything that offers real nourishment. They read theology and biblical studies, as one would predict, but also physics, history, sociology, psychology, and economics. They read novels and poetry. They are attentive to the arts.

    This thought came to mind recently as I was listening to Bob Brearley preach. Bob is the pastor of the Saint Simons Presbyterian Church on Saint Simons Island, Georgia, where Debbie and I have a cottage. Bob reads widely. And it shows in sermons that never fail to stimulate the mind as well as touch the heart. In one sermon he moved from the latest psychological research about how age affects creative thinking to a wonderful exposition of the lectionary text to a theological reflection from Barbara Brown Taylor to a blog by Conrad Sharps, the pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and trustee of our Seminary.

    This thought also came to mind while I was reading a fine sermon by Lee Bowman, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Highlands, North Carolina. This was her Easter sermon, “Staring at the Dark, but their eyes were watching God,” which opens with a story from a 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston. And, it occurred to me again as I read Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong, a book given to me by George Sinclair, the pastor of Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Alabama.

    Several years ago, Bill Enright, emeritus pastor of Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, told me that the best advice he had gotten in seminary was from a professor who challenged him to read a new book each week. This advice gave birth to a life-long habit. He reads everything, from theology to science to finance. And it shows! He is one of the most fascinating conversationalists and preachers I have ever known.

    Of course, the greatest omnivorous pastor of all time was Jonathan Edwards, the New England theologian whose curiosity apparently knew no bounds. He was devoted to natural philosophy, as science was then called. His observations on spiders are a revelation. He also wrote about revelation as a theological subject. He wrote about philosophical questions, like free will, and authored a perceptive study in what we would now call the psychology of religion. Just for fun, some time, dip into his “miscellanies.” You could not do better than to begin with the volume of these edited by our own Amy Plantinga Pauw (The Miscellanies, 833-1152, Yale University Press, 2002).

    When I think through the annals of my favorite preachers, I remember sermons from Laura Mendenhall and Tom Long, Scott Black Johnston and Tasha Blackburn, Barbara Brown Taylor, James Forbes and Lewie Donelson, omnivores all! The list could go on and on of preachers I admire, whose sermons take you far afield as they also take you deeper into the Christian faith. The one thing they all have in common is the restless curiosity that keeps them reading broadly. They practice thinking about all of life through their faith, whether it is Tasha Blackburn poignantly “seeing” a Christmas pageant in her home congregation through the philosophical problem of theodicy (the attempt to make theological sense of evil and suffering), or Lewie Donelson “seeing” the cross of Jesus in a whole new light because of the literary theory of Jacques Derrida.

    The fact that great pastors and preachers are omnivorous makes a difference in their preaching, their conversation, and their interaction with others. They can converse with virtually anyone about almost anything. They subscribe to the advice Thomas Jefferson once gave a young correspondent: Know everything you can about something, and something about everything.

    When I am in the company of an omnivorous pastor, it is easy to recall why the minister was once referred to as the “parson,” a word that derives from the Latin for the “person.” Time was when the “parson” was the exemplary “person” in a community. Many still are. They are the kind of person we want to be around, not least because they are so interesting.

    The fact that great pastors are omnivorous can make a difference in their understanding of life. They often seem to be more balanced, deeper, less reactive, and more reflective. They tend to take the longer view of things – because their memory and experience is more expansive. In the midst of the crisis de jour, they are less likely to think, “THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT COULD EVER, EVER, EVER HAPPEN TO US!” They are less likely to get swept up in the generalized anxiety of the moment because they know dozens of things that have happened that were far more difficult to deal with. Their experience is multiplied by the experiences of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others.

    I think their lives and ministries also tend to be more sustainable over time.

    I used to teach a course every year for senior seminarians called “Entry into Ministry.” One of my favorite features of that course was a panel we convened of experienced pastors who would reflect seriously on the topic: “I Wish I’d Known Then What I Know Now.” The most memorable of these panels occurred when I invited three pastors, two of whom were retired, and one a good deal younger. I will not mention any names because of what happened that day. But what unfolded led to one of the most astonishing “teachable moments” I’ve ever encountered in a classroom.

    The panelists were talking about how important it is for your pastoral vocation (and for the sake of your church) to live deeply and fully and to be nourished by a wide range of resources and experiences. The two retired ministers (who were not only experienced, but were also legends in the Presbyterian Church on a national level) were going back and forth, talking about novels they had read, favorite authors, plays they had seen, movies, beloved pieces of music. They talked about how poetry fed their souls. They talked about how vital it was for them to stop in the midst of their days regularly to pray, to meditate, and to turn to classic sources of devotion for spiritual wisdom. They mentioned new biblical commentaries they were reading. Lectures they had attended. Superb sermons they had recently heard. They traded recommendations for great new plays and films as the students listened in, feverishly taking notes. Their point was that congregations need their pastors to live fully, to think new thoughts, to be fresh and imaginative.

    After several minutes, it became obvious that the third pastor had not said a word. One of the retired ministers prompted him. “What do you do to feed your spiritual and imaginative life?”

    The pastor responded by saying, “I don’t have time for novels and poetry. I don’t have time for books that aren’t work-related. If I pray, I do it on my own time, not on the church’s time. The same goes for reading the Bible. I look at my job just like I would if I worked for a major corporation. I go to my office. I do what is required of me. My workdays are 12 to 15 hours. I barely see my family. I sure don’t have time for movies or plays or music.”

    There was a moment of silence. You could have heard a pin drop. Then one of the retired ministers turned to his younger colleague on the panel and said, “If you keep that up, you’re going to be dead inside.” He paused, looked at the haggard face before him, and continued. “Hell, you’re dead already.”

    Now, I knew that the younger pastor on this panel was going through a rough patch, but I had no idea he would be in for an intervention that day. After class was over, the retired minister who had spoken to him spent some more time with him one-on-one. Based on conversations he and I had later, I think this interchange made a difference in his life. But I guarantee you that the students and I didn’t forget what we saw and heard that day. To witness the liveliness of these two retired ministers, both of whom poured their lives out on the national stage of our church for decades and were still going strong, in contrast to the tired, weary, spent younger colleague: this interchange demonstrated more than anything I could ever merely have said about the importance of a life sustained by real spiritual and imaginative nourishment.

    Of course, it is not just great pastors who are omnivorous.

    We have all known great teachers, attorneys, doctors, chaplains, counselors, business persons, all sorts of really interesting people in all walks of life who read broadly and drink deeply from the springs of human knowledge, whose curiosity is contagious, who make us want to understand more about the world around us. I recently spent two hours on a plane next to a fellow who works as a financial analyst. By the time we landed in Memphis, Tennessee, not only had he shared with me the titles of eight books (history, biography, business administration, and two novels) I now want to read, but he had also shared the infectious joy of discovery and learning that nourishes his life. And every time I sit down for a visit with Lucy Steilberg, our friend and member of our President’s Roundtable, not only do I come away with five new novels I absolutely have got to read as soon as possible, I come away with new insights into the most important issues of human life which Lucy gleans from her deep encounter with ideas.

    St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” Omnivorous people awaken us to a fuller life for the glory of God.

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  • Costly Preaching

    by User Not Found | Oct 11, 2011
    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 


    Debbie and I went to a movie last summer. That may not seem all that news worthy, but she swears that the last movie we had seen in a theater was not a talkie. We went to see Woody Alan's Midnight in Paris. I'm not a movie critic, but I enjoyed the film, especially the performance of the actor playing the young Ernest Hemingway.

    A few days after seeing the movie, NPR featured a segment in which the same actor read the closing of Hemingway's early short story, "Indian Camp." When you have a chance, read this one. It pulses with truth, like many of his early stories (e.g., “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"). The last couple of paragraphs are as true as anything ever written in the English language.

    These events conspired to remind me of why there was a time when I read a lot of Hemingway. So I went around the corner to our neighborhood book store and bought a copy of his complete short stories. As luck would have it, this edition included Hemingway's preface to the earliest edition of these stories, where he reflects on his own experience as a writer. Any of us, who share the writing vocation, whether we write sermons, articles, books, or blogs, are likely to resonate with his observations:

    In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it to the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.

    If there's ever been a writer who took his own advice, it was Hemingway. And he paid a price for doing it. But there's something here about having something to say that we need to hear. Experience is at the heart of knowing.

    Years ago, as a young professor, I was visiting with my dean. He asked me what I was writing. I said that I was working on a piece for a magazine, but I couldn't make any headway. He said that in his experience when he was stuck, it was because he didn't really have anything to say on the subject. He didn't have anything to say because he didn't know enough about it, either because he lacked experience, or hadn't done sufficient research or study.

    Simple, right?

    When it comes to preaching, his advice is especially on target. But it can be very, very difficult to put his advice into practice.

    Knowing something – when it comes to knowing enough to preach on it – places our lives in the crosshairs. It is one thing to know enough about something not to embarrass yourself at a cocktail party, and it is quite another thing to know about it in a way that readies us to preach.

    Those who hear us preach do not want us to hold our subject matter at arm's length. We have to dive in, get wet, swim around in our subject until our fingers get all pruney, and when we emerge from the subject, our hearers want to see the wet footsteps of our baptism in the sanctuary and the pulpit. There is no template for this sort of preaching. It is as idiosyncratic as the preacher. An Ernie Campbell's or a Jim Forbe's or a Barbara Brown Taylor's preaching is like no one else's, but they are similar in one crucial respect: They know of what they speak from the inside out.

    This kind of preaching (this kind of writing) costs! To return to Hemingway's metaphor, it can dull, blunt and bend the writing (or preaching) instrument to travel deep into the faith, to explore, to live, and reflect deeply on life and faith, to allow guilt and grace, mercy and judgment, hope and disappointment in your own life to become moments through which the gospel can shine for your hearers. But those who risk preaching from the lived heart of faith and experience will always find a hearing. We will listen to them because they know what they are talking about. And through their preaching we are invited and inspired to learn for ourselves.

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