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Thinking Out Loud
  • The Joyful Ministry of the Cross

    by Michael Jinkins | May 29, 2012

    Charge to the Graduating Class of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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  • Paying the Piper

    by Michael Jinkins | May 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • An Inescapable Call

    by Michael Jinkins | May 15, 2012

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

    An Inescapable Call

    by Mary Gene Boteler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

     

     

     

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

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  • Agnosis in the Service of Faith

    by Michael Jinkins | May 08, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

    Ouch!!!

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

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


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

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

    [v] Ibid., 50.

    [vi] Ibid., 64-65.

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  • The Meaning of Pentecost

    by Michael Jinkins | May 07, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Where are our Roman roads?

    by Michael Jinkins | May 01, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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  • A Favorite Book

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • "Why toleration has never been enough."

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

    • "Love is an unfinished revolution."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Free Finally

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Good Question

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 16, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Who made you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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  • Redefining the Possible

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 10, 2012

    They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32 NRSV)

    On this Tuesday after Easter, I want to consider for a moment what it means for us that Jesus Christ calls us to follow him, and to invite reflection on those moments throughout our lives when the call of Jesus Christ has come to us personally.

    Even Christians from traditions that do not emphasize a born-again experience need to remember that all Christians are born-again as disciples of Jesus. We aren’t reborn just once, however. We are reborn and again and again throughout our lives. Daily we rise to new life in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we keep on rising daily to new life, day after day and year after year. And isn’t this a better arrangement than sleepwalking through our lives?

    St. Luke tells us that two disciples of Jesus were walking to the village of Emmaus. Ironically, they were living already in the era of resurrection but didn’t know it. They were walking as though their hopes were dead, nailed to a cross, a victim of a conspiracy between the Roman state and powerful religious leaders. They were walking as though their hopes were walled-up in a tomb. The rumors of resurrection could not dispel their gloom. The rumors they had heard about Jesus having risen only compounded their grief with confusion and dismay.

    And, then they met Jesus on the road. They didn’t know that it was Jesus, even though they were disciples. Why didn’t they recognize the Jesus who was walking beside them? The answer is simple. They knew that Jesus was dead.

    As they walked along with Jesus, they could not recognize the Jesus their own minds hid from them. Their vision problem wasn’t a failure of the optical nerve, but of the imagination. So, Jesus himself provided the fresh intellectual framework, the new understanding that they needed in order to recognize him. He spoke directly to their minds, inviting them to rethink how they construed the Scriptures as well as their own expectations and offering access to a new faith and hope—faith not in the advent of a triumphant messianic general but in a savior who revealed God’s love for the whole world by releasing his hold on his own survival.

    We are told that in the moment when Jesus broke bread with them their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Why were they able to recognize Jesus at that moment? Because he had been opening their minds all afternoon, enlarging their imaginations enough, first to glimpse God’s purposes and then to envision their own participation in them.

    They recognized Jesus at that moment because he had illumined their minds to know what to look for. They said to each other. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem and told the other disciples how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

    The resurrection redefines the possible. This redefinition is why the disciples’ hearts burn within them: because through the living Jesus’ presence they have experienced God’s resurrection in their own lives. Suddenly they understand who Jesus Christ is and what his calling means. Suddenly they realize that a new era has dawned. Suddenly their minds are open to all that this new era will demand of them as they follow Christ in faith and learn to live in scorn of the consequences.

    Some years ago, I was climbing into the pulpit of a church, First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma, when I stopped for a moment before preaching to read a message carved into the pulpit desk. The carving faced the preacher. It was clearly meant to serve as a message from the congregation, to remind the preacher of his or her duty. It read simply: “We would see Jesus.”

    “We would see Jesus.” That is the implicit request of everyone who walks through the doors of a church on any given Sunday morning, or a seminary chapel on a Friday morning. We want to see Jesus.

    If this is what we want, and if Luke’s Gospel is true, what prevents us from recognizing Jesus are our own expectations. Perhaps our vision is obscured by our expectation of what Jesus should look like, how Jesus should behave. Perhaps by our expectation that heaven is no match for the proud powers of this earth. Perhaps by our expectation that death is inevitably stronger than life. Perhaps by our expectation that resurrection is only a childish hope to help us get to sleep at night.

    “We would see Jesus.”

    Well, perhaps unrecognized, perhaps unacknowledged, perhaps unseen, perhaps unloved, Jesus walks among us today, and every day. And whenever he walks among us, wherever he meets us, Jesus calls us to follow him into his risen life.

    Are not our hearts burning within us?

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  • Knowing How to Act

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 29, 2012

    This blog post was originally published on March 29, 2012.

    In 1853, the year our Seminary was established in Danville, Kentucky,
    Antoinette Brown (Blackwell) became the first woman ordained in the Congregational Church. The Universalist Church (1863), the Unitarian Church (1871), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (1889), and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1948) soon followed in the ordination of women. It would take 40 years and dozens of overtures to the General Assembly, however, before Margaret Towner became the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1956. The journey toward ordination has been long and arduous for women, and asKaren Russell (MDiv ’08; ThM ’10) reminds us, being a woman in ministry is still uncharted territory. I hope that sharing the insights from some of our many tenacious, courageous, and creative female graduates in these “special edition” posts of Thinking Out Loud during the month of March has helped all of us celebrate anew the significant contributions of women in leadership roles and importance of women in ministry.

    Knowing How to Act

    By Karen Russell

    The most challenging thing I’ve found as a woman in ministry is knowing “how to act.” I was raised in a tradition where the idea of women preaching, pastoring, teaching, or leading was tightly proscribed, so I had no models of what ministry looked like for women other than as a spouse or Sunday School teacher. I eventually took a job with an Episcopal ministry, and my supervisor was a female priest. But I never saw her in a parish situation. I was 40 years old before I experienced a woman in a pastoral situation, which also was the first time I heard a woman preach during a worship service.

    I cannot tell you what the sermon was about, what scripture was used, or anything she said. What I do remember is a feeling that a veil had somehow been pulled down, showing me opportunities I had never imagined. That worship service started me on a journey that has led to places I had not expected, doing work I’d never envisioned, and feeling a sense of satisfaction that far exceeds anything I’ve experienced before. But knowing “how to act” continues to be a question for me.

    The question of how to wear the mantle of pastoral authority without being authoritative is a constant struggle for women, I think. One of the great gifts women bring to pastoral ministry is our innate tendency to nurture, but the balance between nurturing others and retaining the pastoral authority to shepherd is difficult for me. The lack of female pastoral role models as my faith was forming contributes to this difficulty. I know how to lead a meeting, administer a program, negotiate difficult financial times, or create interesting marketing materials. I am less confident about my skill in leading a group of people to be part of the body of Christ when change tends to brings out our most un-Christ-like qualities.

    Luckily, I have found many good role models in the women ministers I have encountered in seminary and in my current work, most of them younger than I am. I am often envious of these women who, while still facing significant challenges, were lucky enough to see the opportunities of ministry earlier in life and who took advantage of those opportunities. I believe the female voice I heard proclaiming the gospel that Sunday morning proclaimed that with God not only is nothing impossible, but everything is possible. In the light of these infinite possibilities I can worry less about knowing how to act, trusting that the God of possibility can use even my miss-steps.

    The Rev. Karen Russell (MDiv ’08; ThM ’10) is Program Associate in the Office of Theology and Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA).

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  • Where's Pogo When You Really Need Him?

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 26, 2012

    Many years ago, Walt Kelly's comic character, Pogo, made the painful observation: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

    In a recent National Public Radio interview with Bob Edwards, Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (2012), said that the two things people need informationally to make good decisions in our society are pragmatism and synthesis. And we are getting less and less of both these days from our journalism. People who already agree with MSNBC tend to watch MSNBC, he observed. People who already agree with Fox News tend to watch Fox News. And a growing portion of each group tends to believe members of the other group are unreliable and may even be out to get them.

    Each group finds itself becoming increasingly confirmed in the opinions its members already firmly hold. Each group is carefully shielded from having to face any facts that don't square with its members’ already strong beliefs. Neither group is encouraged to synthesize various perspectives, including perspectives that might differ from either extreme. And no one in either group is encouraged to think in pragmatic terms, which almost invariably require mediation, negotiation, compromise, weighing options and alternatives, and living with the uncomfortable insight that none of us has a monopoly on truth. This is unfortunate, because most of the best decisions result from the collective wisdom of highly differentiated groups.

    It would be convenient but inaccurate simply to blame the present situation with respect to public information on corporate greed or partisan politics, Johnson went on to note. We aren't being forced to consume propaganda in a totalitarian state. We are choosing to propagandize ourselves. If our nation is becoming hooked on the mentally polarizing equivalent of crack cocaine, it is because we are demanding it from the information dealers of our own choosing. The problem, Johnson reports (and his analysis is based on a careful study of our behavior) is that we tend to want to be confirmed in what we want to believe is true. We resist information, data, ideas, and facts that are contrary to our immediate self-interest, or, even more problematically, to our wishful thinking about ourselves.

    Where's Pogo when you really need him? Or, for that matter, where are John Calvin and St. Augustine of Hippo?

    It has become fashionable for even some of the most moderate, the most sensible, voices in our society to try to pin the rap of the progressing polarization of our society on somebody out there. We'd all prefer to believe this is the case. But the enemy resides in every human breast. We really are our own worst enemies when it comes to living in a functional society. The culprits are not simply the venal politicians who will say whatever they think people want to hear just to get elected. The culprits are not just the heads of news corporations pandering to the lowest common denominator in the most sensational terms. Unappealing as their actions may be, they are just delivering the packages we ordered.

    So, Pogo, having met the enemy, how do we love him enough to tell him the truth that will set him free? That is, when the "he" or "she" is us!?

    Walt Kelly created this poster for Earth Day in 1970 (http://www.igopogo.com/we_have_met.htm). The image is copyright (c) 2011 OGPI and used with permission. To learn more about Pogo and his creator, visit http://www.pogopossum.com/index.htm

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  • Blazing New Territory

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 22, 2012

    Snowden Isaiah McKinnon (BD ’53) was the first African American to graduate from Louisville Seminary, and Dora Pierce(BD ’61) was the first women to complete her degree. It wasn’t until 1980 when F. Camille Williams-Neal became the first African American woman to earn the divinity degree from our Seminary. During the month of March, I am pleased to offer weekly “special edition” posts of Thinking Out Loud which are helping us to celebrate the perseverance of all women who have followed God’s call to a variety of ministries despite many forms of discrimination and inequality, including alumna Teresa Snorton (MDiv ’82), the first female bishop in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who reflects on some of my questions about being a woman serving in ministry.
    Blazing new territory

    By Bishop Teresa E. Snorton

    What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being (a woman) in ministry?

    I entered ministry in the late 1970s when there were few women in formal ministry in the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) denomination. This was compounded by my decision to attend seminary, which few men, let alone women did in my home conference, the Kentucky Conference of the CME Church.

    It was a personal challenge to discover who my role models would be. Most of my mentors turned out to be males who had a commitment to inclusivity in ministry.

    I am grateful to clergy women like Johanna Bos at Louisville Seminary and Jacqueline Grant at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta who wrote and taught about feminist and womanist theology, thus helping me find my voice and identity as a woman in ministry.

    I continue to find it challenging to balance family and ministry, since as a woman I have always maintained the traditional roles of mother, nurturer, cook, housekeeper, etc., along with ministry. My perception is that male clergy often get “excused” from certain family expectations because of their ministry vocation.

    What has surprised you the most about being (a woman) in ministry?

    When I first entered the ministry, I was surprised by the resistance of some to the concept of women in ministry. I did not understand how they could profess a belief in a loving, liberating God/Jesus, yet still discriminate against women.

    Some 35 years later, I am still surprised by the resistance to women in ministry in some geographical areas and faith traditions. In the black church, I am struck by the irony of those who did not want to be discriminated because of their race/color (which was said to be a God-determined fact) yet who subsequently discriminate against some because of their gender (another God-determined fact). The dogmatic use of scripture to justify these positions continues to puzzle me, perhaps because I have a dynamic, transformative view of theology and God’s work in creation.

    What have you found especially gratifying about being (a woman) in ministry?

    I am especially gratified to blaze new territory, especially as the first female Bishop in my denomination. Rather than see myself as a token woman in many places, I see the opportunity to introduce a new relational approach to ministry that is directly connected to my feminist/womanist theology. I love to invite people to see themselves beyond where the world and even they can sometimes imagine, using my own story as an illustration.

    The Rev. Dr. Teresa Snorton (MDiv ’82) is Presiding Bishop of the Fifth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, and she will be the Festival Preacher at Louisville Seminary's 2012 Festival of Theology and Reunion, April 29-May 1. See also “First female bishop in Christian Methodist EpiscopalChurch oversees Alabama" in Birmingham News (March 5, 2012).

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  • Self-righteousness Is Not Righteous

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 20, 2012

    Christianity keeps getting a bad rap. This is at least partially our fault as Christians.

    There are days when it is hard to turn on a television or radio, or to open a newspaper, to discover again what “Christians” are saying about somebody else’s behavior, lifestyle, values, morality, perspective on the environment, sexuality, economics, etc. etc. etc., in the most judgmental and self-righteous terms. In the last few weeks alone I have been stunned to hear repeatedly “Christian” leaders, “Christian”politicians, and representatives of various “Christian” organizations and churches denounce one group or individual after another in favor of their own righteousness.

    At one point last week, I was reminded of that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the village turned out to stone to death a person accused of blasphemy only to stone also the chief prosecutor for repeating the blasphemy in the course of making the official accusation. Once the stoning starts, nobody is safe.

    Where did we ever get the idea that being Christians gave us the inside track on righteousness? The Bible, by contrast, shows the most religious folks, the folks convinced of their own righteousness, in a consistently bad light.

    According to Jesus of Nazareth, his followers are to be good and faithful; he didn’t come to destroy either the law or the prophets (Matthew 5:17-20), but our goodness and faithfulness are defined in terms of rejecting revenge, placing the needs of others before our own needs, and rooting violence, hatred, envy, and lust out of our own hearts (Matthew 5: 21-42). Followers of Jesus are not, in fact, to be confident in our own goodness or righteousness at all. The emblem of our faithfulness is a wholehearted trust in God’s grace. According to Jesus, our resemblance to God has more to do with the quality of our mercy and forgiveness toward others than what most of us regard as ethics, morality, or even religious behavior (Matthew 5: 43-48). Jesus warns against praying and practicing our religion in front of other people so that they will notice how religious we are (Matthew 6: 5-18). He warns against trumpeting our generosity so that others will notice (Matthew 6: 1-4). And, in a remarkable passage about “values,” he is careful to say that seeking the reign of God in this world has to do with God’s righteousness, not ours (Matthew 6: 24-34). Jesus warns us not to draw too tightly our circle when it comes to those we will include, implying that the real question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but“Am I a neighbor to others?” (Matthew 5: 43-47; cf. Luke 10: 25-37).

    Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been described as teaching the ethics of the kingdom of God. But, if this sermon does teach ethics or morality, they represent a very different version from what we get in contemporary discourses on Christian values. Jesus’ approach to morality turns the light back upon us, his followers, asking us to look at ourselves, to look at our own hearts, to look at our own trust, mercy, forgiveness, lack of openness, lusts, the violence we harbor, and our desire for revenge. There is no encouragement at all here for Christians to examine the ethics and morality of others.

    From where, then, does the compulsion come to equate faithfulness with self-righteousness, especially for us Christians?

    C. S. Lewis seemed to point to taking ourselves too seriously. In his wonderfully diabolical little book, The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon instructs a demon-in-training how to ensnare human beings, Lewis describes a close connection between self-seriousness and self-righteousness. “For humor,” Lewis writes, “involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this [a sense of humor]. Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”[1]

    Hell, and a whole lot of other places (some of them very religious, some of them even “Christian”), could be characterized in these terms. Pride, ambition, lack of proportion, self-importance, envy, resentment, and a perpetual attitude of grievance, all of which are enemies of faithfulness, do not belong to any particular Christian denomination or religious faith alone; they are not the exclusive property of the left, right, or center (politically, socially, or theologically); they are, sadly, human failings in their inhumanity. They place us above others, and the higher we place ourselves above others, the harder the fall. Pride is the most unoriginal of sins.

    Recently, in a lunch conversation organized by Louisville Seminary Trustee Kyle Lanham for two of his friends from Indianapolis, our professor, Cliff Kirkpatrick, shared another perspective on the problem of faithfulness and self-righteousness. Cliff paraphrased the late Lesslie Newbigin, who reminded Christians that God has called us “to the witness stand”not “the judge’s bench. Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Maybe we just aren’t clear about our role.

    Jesus himself warned that religion can become sacrilegious. In the venerable Authorized Version (aka the KJV) of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s [or sister’s] eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”(Matthew 7: 1-2)

    Anne Lamott has said: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do.”

    What gets lost in the “Holier than Thou Shuffle” (the only dance to which even Christians who don’t believe in dancing know all the steps) is the good news of the gospel. And the good news of the gospel is not that any of us are “holier than thou,” nor that we have better values“than thou,” nor that we are more righteous “than thou,” whomever “thou” may be.

    The good news of the gospel is that God forgives sinners. There may be more than this to the gospel, but there’s certainly not less. Will Campbell famously said that the Christian gospel can be boiled down to this single phrase (please excuse Will’s French):“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” That is a message our society needs to hear, if indeed it could only hear it over the clatter of us “Christians”trying to prove that somebody else is the b*****d, but that we deserve God’s love.

    Whatever else Jesus taught, there's no doubt he taught us this: Self-righteousness is not righteous.


    [1] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters(London: The Folio Society, 2008), xiii-xiv.

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  • Louise Glϋck speaks the truth

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 13, 2012

    In a course I taught a couple of years ago, I began each class with a poem. One day, I read a long section from Louise Glϋck’s volume, Averno. I began the reading with the passage, “death cannot harm me/ more than you have harmed me,/ my beloved life”and ended with the words, “It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./ It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./ Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.”[i]Between these two passages lie verses that repeat the theme of loss, “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared,” but they do so in a way that speak less of resignation than of acceptance and even of a profound (I hesitate to use the word but cannot find another) beatitude. The poet confesses at one point, “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end/ still believing in something.”[ii]

    When I finished reading the poem that day, I looked up from the book and observed one of the students with tears running down her cheeks. After class we spoke briefly about the poem, about how these verses touched the quick. She was awaiting a diagnosis from her doctor. She was struggling with her faith.

    A year or so later, I was leading a discussion on poetry in a local congregation. I happened to read this section of Averno again in that setting. The same young woman was in the discussion that day. After the class was over, she came up to me, and said, “I had hoped I would never have to hear that poem again. Thank you for reading it.”

    The young woman’s reaction in all its complexity—distressed, yet grateful—begins to explain why Louise Glϋck is probably my favorite contemporary poet. The beauty of her verse is inseparable from its stark aspiration to speak the truth.

    “And your hunger,” she seems to say directly to me, in another poem, “is not for experience but for understanding, as though it could be had in the abstract.”[iii]She knows better, of course, that understanding is inextricable from experience, or from some sorting out of experience, whether our experience is recast in mythological terms (Glϋck breathes classical mythology, Greek and Roman, as naturally as Gerard Manley Hopkins breathed a Christian sacramental view of life) or in naturalistic terms (as when Glϋck gives voice to the wild iris or the red poppy).

    I have read her poem, “The Wild Iris,” dozens of times. Each time I read it, it offers more. Yet, it also resists me. It resists my attempts to appropriate it directly or utilize it in any literal sense to Christian ends, though it does seem to speak of resurrection. The poem invites me to enter into it, but demands that I accept it on its own terms.

    At the end of my suffering

    there was a door.

    Hear me out: that which you call death

    I remember.

    Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.

    Then nothing. The weak sun

    flickered over the dry surface

    It is terrible to survive

    as consciousness

    buried in the dark earth….

    You who do not remember

    passage from the other world

    I tell you I could speak again: whatever

    returns from oblivion returns

    to find a voice:

    from the center of my life came

    a great fountain, deep blue

    shadows on azure seawater.[iv]

     

    The line that haunts me in this poem is this one: “whatever/ returns from oblivion returns/ to find a voice.” On a purely natural (or maybe naturalistic) level, we are listening to the voice of a wild iris, whose brilliant blue life springs from an apparently dry and dead bulb buried beneath the earth. And maybe that is all. Isn’t it enough? The poem holds me in its literal grip, but whispers transcendent possibilities that resist my appropriating them into any doctrinal form. I think resurrection; then I think again. The poet, in “Field Flowers,” seems to read my mind, conflicted as I am, seems to overhear the argument I am having with myself, when she asks wryly:“What are you saying? That you want eternal life? Are your thoughts really as compelling as all that?”[v]Well, no, my thoughts aren’t all that compelling. My thoughts are (at their best) like the flowers of the field which bloom today and tomorrow are dry as straw and ready to be burned away. But Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as richly and beautifully as are these flowers of the field that are here today and gone tomorrow. Should I not wish that they would last forever?

    In “The Red Poppy,” the poppy, scarlet like blood, like fire, speaking to humanity, wonders if maybe we humans were once poppies ourselves, sometime, long, long ago, when we allowed ourselves to open up, to reveal the fire of our hearts, a fire that reflects the “lord in heaven/ called the sun."[vi] By holding firmly, sticking closely to the natural, we find ourselves inevitably drawn toward transcendence.

    Her poem, “The Garment,” which begins, “My soul dried up,/ Like a soul cast into fire, but not completely,/ not to annihilation,” closes with words that could be transcribed as a cartoon text bubble over the heads of the bewildered disciples that Jesus met on the Emmaus Road: “And when hope was returned to me/ it was another hope entirely.”[vii] But which of us has not lived through some experience when our souls were dried up, when our hopes were taken from us? Surely, most of us have known hopes that were stolen or eclipsed by misfortune only to be returned or to rise to possibilities we had never dreamed of. “Bright wings” brush against us most often when little else is bright.

    And in her poem, “The Untrustworthy Speaker,” Glϋck says:“Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken./ I don’t see anything objectively./ I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist./ When I speak passionately,/ that’s when I’m least to be trusted.”[viii] We feel the “bright wings” brush against us here too, because we have learned to distrust our wants most when we are most passionate. We have learned to hesitate before we attribute to truth or to God that for which our hearts clamor most loudly.

    If it is the case, as Louise Glϋck says in Averno, that there is not enough“candor” in our world, I think we have at least one poet competent to help us restore it.


    [i] Louise Glϋck, Averno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 10, 13.

    [ii] Ibid., 12.

    [iii] Louise Glϋck, “Moonbeam,” in The Seven Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 5.

    [iv] Louise Glϋck, The Wild Iris (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 1.

    [v] Ibid., 28.

    [vi] Ibid., 29.

    [vii] Louise Glϋck, Vita Nova (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 20.

    [viii] Louise Glϋck, Ararat (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 34.

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  • Challenges, Surprises, Fulfillment and the Wall of Pastors

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 08, 2012
    The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, established in 1992, serves the campus and larger community by informing individuals on matters of concern and justice related to women and all people who suffer discrimination, violence, and inequity; and by celebrating the gifts and achievements of women in the Church and the world. During the month of March, I am pleased to offer weekly “special edition” posts of Thinking Out Loud in which several of our women graduates work toward these same aims, enlightening and educating all of us about the opportunities and difficulties that they have faced as women in ministry. In turn, their accounts give us opportunity to learn about and celebrate their own distinct gifts, achievements, dedication, and courage as Christian leaders. In today’s post we hear from Angela Cowser, a 2006 graduate and PhD student at Vanderbilt, who answers my queries about the challenges, surprises, and joys of being a woman in ministry; and Melissa DeRosia, a 2005 graduate and pastor in New York, who reflects upon her experience of being the first female pastor in her 100-year-old congregation.

    Challenges, Surprises, and Fulfillment

    By Angela Cowser

    What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being in ministry?

    • Sexism. In my role as a community organizer, being female has been a challenge when working with male clergy who’ve been steeped in and affirmed inside an unreflective, unreconstructed, patriarchal understanding of ecclesial leadership.
    • A lack of sustained engagement, camaraderie, and fellowship with other female clergy, especially inter-racially. Wise leaders need people around them who love them, question them, and push them to think and act with more imagination, honesty, and faithfulness. A group of female clergy who are in sustained relationship with each other, especially across race and ethnicity, can be an important support in helping women better understand what they do and why.
    • A privatized practice of religion that disconnects and neglects the public and policy implications of Christian ministry. I have been troubled by the pervasiveness of private, therapeutic hermeneutics, ethics, and pastoral care, which are disconnected from or silent about the public implications of the gospel. Should churches have a role in public education when systems are found to be inequitable? Could we have been pro-active in helping potential homeowners understand the mortgage market, thereby avoiding toxic mortgage products? Is there more we can say and do over time—to help members in both congregations and communities improve their health? We are good at emphasizing religion’s private face, while neglecting a more public, political, and prophetic role. The public and prophetic are equally important, necessary, and faithful to Jesus whose private healings and confrontations had significant public implications and impacts.

    What has surprised you the most about being in ministry?

    I’ve been surprised and delighted by the level of affirmation and support that I’ve received from my congregation. I continue to enjoy and need to work off of the synergies that exist between congregational ministry, teaching, research, and community organizing. Each discipline and calling nurtures and informs the others.

    What have you found especially gratifying about being in ministry?

    The place of joy for me is being in the midst of people who love each other and enjoy praying with each other, and who value and celebrate sustained engagement, camaraderie, deep learning, and fellowship. Ministry creates spaces in the Sunday school classroom, the seminary lunchroom, and the research table where moments of exhilaration and freedom can happen.

    The Rev. Angela Cowser (MDiv ’06) is a PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt Divinity School and lead organizer for POGO (People of God Organized), a community group of churches organized for justice and reconciliation in east Nashville, Tennessee. While at Louisville Seminary Angela was one of the co-founders of Women at the Well, a campus organization for women of color.


    The Wall of Pastors

    By Melissa DeRosia

    The church was overwhelmingly beautiful. Light streaming through stained glass windows flooded the sanctuary with rainbows. The building held the memories and stories of generations of churchgoers in this small Midwestern town. In every room you could smell Church—stale coffee, mildew, crayons, and a mixture of aftershave and old lady perfume. I secretly believe that this is what God smells like. The mauve colored carpet had seen the spills of one too many potlucks. Now tarnished brass name plates “in memory of” were affixed to everything that wasn’t nailed down.

    The search committee and I were in conversation about our call, my call to be their pastor and their call to take a chance on a young, fresh-from-seminary, female pastor. We were all giddy and naively optimistic about the journey God was laying out before us.

    Then I saw it.

    The wall.

    The wall is in the church parlor, where people gather after service to drink coffee and catch up on the town news, and it can be seen from the sanctuary when a curtain is opened to accommodate the rare overflow crowd. On this wall are mounted, from floor to ceiling, photographs of every pastor who has served the church for more than 100 years. As I scanned the wall, I quickly noticed: all of the pastors were male—and all of them were staring at me.

    I stood there, staring back at them, in disbelief that I might be the first woman to have a portrait hanging on this wall. I grew up in a church that always had a woman pastor. I went to a seminary where more than half of the students were women. How was it possible that I would be the first woman pastor whose portrait hung on this wall?

    It was possible, because people from the congregation told the pastoral search committee, “If you ever call a woman pastor, I won’t come to church anymore.” It was possible, because this was a town where there are more churches than restaurants and hair salons combined, and there wasn’t one female pastor to be found. It was possible, because even the most progressive congregation, even in a metropolitan area where a generous number of women serve in leadership, there are still barriers of gender stereotypes for women who seek to respond to God’s call in ministry.

    These barriers aren’t new. After writing The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion (Alban Institute 2011) one of the most common responses shared with me by women who pioneered the ordination of women in mainline denominations was“I can’t believe these same stories are being lived out decades later.” While in a growing number of congregations it is no longer surprising or incongruous to see a woman in the pulpit, it can be very wearisome to encounter the same gender stereotypes over and over again. Regardless of the number of times we are stared down by the wall of pastors, the only way to break down the barrier of the stained glass ceiling and be the first woman to serve as a pastor is to be a persevering, determined, and thick-skinned woman who isn’t afraid to dance, tip-toe, stomp, and if necessary kick our way through them.

     

    The Rev. Melissa DeRosia (MDiv ’05) is the pastor and head of staff at Gates Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, where she lives with her husband Matt and two young daughters. Passionate and dedicated to follow God’s call in the changing landscape of the church, she has served as moderator of presbytery and is an elected member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly Mission Council. Melissa also is co-author with Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley of The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry (The Alban Institute, 2011).
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  • Jane Kenyon will break your heart

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 06, 2012

    Over the next two weeks, I want to introduce you to two of my favorite poets. But before I do that, I want to say a word about poetry. During the past several years, I have led workshops and conversations on poetry. One of the reasons I do this is to encourage appreciation for poetry's capacity to do things for us that nothing else can do. From time to time, someone will say to me, “I don’t like poetry.” Most of the time what they mean is, “I don’t like bad poetry.” When exposed to good poetry, they are usually surprised to discover not only that they “like” it, but also that they feel a “need” for it.

    Jane Kenyon will break your heart. She will break your heart because of how she says what she has to say. Her verse keeps to a trim sparring weight, saying much by saying little. She will also break your heart because she falls silent far too soon—dead at forty seven, and conscious of death’s approach long before that. Her struggle with depression and, finally, leukemia provides an inner landscape for much of her poetry, but this inner struggle is vividly cast against the natural world, as in the opening lines of the poem which begins her collection, Let Evening Come (1990), “Three Songs at the End of Summer”: 
                                                                                                Jane Kenyon
                                                                                Source: http://www.aprweb.org

    A second crop of hay lies cut                                             
    and turned. Five gleaming crows
    search and peck between the rows.
    They make a low, companionable squawk,
    and like midwives and undertakers
    possess a weird authority.[i]

    Our lives, it is clear from Kenyon’s poetry, are part of nature. We find ourselves; we learn to know ourselves, in and through this natural world. The natural world of the Midwest, from which Kenyon came, and the Northeast in which she spent her most productive years, echo through her poetry. Kenyon was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she attended the University of Michigan, before marrying poet Donald Hall, a professor at the university. After their marriage, they moved to New Hampshire where she lived the rest of her life, becoming, in time, the poet laureate of New Hampshire. Hall, who would go on to become poet laureate of the United States, wrote arguably his most powerful volume of poetry, Without(1998), in response to Kenyon’s illness and death. And Wendell Berry reflects also on the loss he felt at Kenyon’s death in one of his Sabbath poems of 1998 (poem VI), writing: “For every year is costly/ As you well know. Nothing/ is given that is not/ Taken, and nothing taken/ That was not first a gift.”[ii]

    Jane Kenyon will break your heart. But enough of my telling you why; let me show you how.

    First, a poem from her 1993 collection, Constance, perhaps her most haunting poem, “Otherwise”:

    I got out of bed
    on two strong legs.
    It might have been
    otherwise. I ate
    cereal, sweet
    milk, ripe, flawless
    peach. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I took the dog uphill
    to the birch wood.
    All morning I did
    the work I love.

    At noon I lay down
    with my mate. It might
    have been otherwise.
    We ate dinner together
    at a table with silver
    candlesticks. It might
    have been otherwise.
    I slept in a bed
    in a room with paintings
    on the walls, and
    planned another day
    just like this day.
    But one day, I know,
    it will be otherwise.[iii]

    The poem takes in the world we take for granted with the same steady dark eyes we see in photos of Jane Kenyon, eyes that refuse, in the gathering darkness, to look away, but refuse also to grow maudlin and self-pitying.

    Finally, a few lines from one of my favorite poems; it appeared in the posthumously published collection, Otherwise (1996), “Happiness”:

     

     

     

    There’s just no accounting for happiness,

    or the way it turns up like a prodigal

    who comes back to the dust at your feet

    having squandered a fortune far away.

     

    And how can you not forgive?

    You make a feast in honor of what

    was lost, and take from its place the finest

    garment, which you saved for an occasion

    you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

    to know that you were not abandoned,

    that happiness saved its most extreme form

    for you alone…

    I must leave it to you to read on in these poems, and to let Jane Kenyon break your heart, too. But, perhaps, in this breaking there is also a heart healing we also need.


    [i] Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1990), 3.

    [ii] Wendell Berry, Given: Poems (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005), 60-61.
    [iii] Jane Kenyon, Collected Poems (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2005), 266.

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  • Call me “Mother”

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 01, 2012

    Women Making History: A Special Edition of Thinking Out Loud

    Louisville Seminary is very proud of its progressive commitments regarding the education and preparation of women for ministry. Women have served on the faculty since the mid-1970s, and for more than fifteen years the faculty has consisted of nearly fifty percent women. The student body over the past ten years has even exceeded fifty percent. While Louisville Seminary holds all of its graduates in high esteem, during this Women’s History Month Thinking Out Loud will share insights from some of our many tenacious, courageous, and creative female graduates. I have asked several of our alumnae to write about their experience as a woman serving in ministry: What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of being in ministry? What has surprised you the most about being in ministry? What have you found especially gratifying about being in ministry? Their reflections will no doubt enlighten and inspire you, as they have me.

    Michael Jinkins,
    President

    Call me “Mother”

    By Anne Vouga

    I am old enough to have felt a call to ordained ministry before ever having met any female clergy and old enough to remember the people who gruffly changed lines to avoid taking communion from the hands of a woman priest. I was not one of the brave pioneers, however. It has taken God decades to get me into the Church, and while I have guiltily watched from the sidelines, women have taken their places as ordained leaders all around me. In seminary, surrounded by talented women professors and by female students of all ages, I thought that women were now seamlessly integrated into the life of the Church, and that my gender would hardly be noticed in my ministry. That notion evaporated my first week on the job, when my attempts to promote good environmental stewardship by accepting a donation of new dishes and getting the dishwasher repaired (so that the parish would no longer use environmentally harmful plastic) were met with resistance and the comment, “Well, it figures. We get a woman priest and the first thing she wants to talk about is dishes …!”

    First, I must point to the widespread consternation over how to address me. In the Episcopal Church, male priests are commonly called “Father,” but the female equivalent, “Mother,” makes those of us who are not highly Anglo-Catholic cringe. It conjures up a picture of a pious Mother Superior in a habit. “Rev. Anne,” on the other hand, sounds rather like a country parson and is grammatically incorrect. And as for just plain “Anne,” why should my parishioners call me only by my first name while they honor a male colleague with the title, “Father?” I have been called everything from “Father Anne,” to “Madre,” to “Priestess” in an attempt to cover the discomfort with humor, and there is no perfect solution in sight. A title is perhaps not a big deal, but the inability to name an identity is surely a sign that the identity itself is not clearly and unambiguously formed.

    While the title “Mother” might still make people uncomfortable, I must say that the life experience that has best prepared me for the role of parish priest is my experience as a mother, and a single mother at that! On the one hand, I was prepared for the long hours of never-ending work and the deep loneliness of the responsible caretaker. On the other hand, I recognize the duty to love and guide while letting go and encouraging independence. The same nerves of steel and heart of love that allowed me to care for my sick child in the hospital now allow me to pray with a grieving spouse in the ICU. I recognize the same feelings of pride and satisfaction when the governing board takes ownership of a difficult issue as I did when my teenager got behind the wheel of the car for the first time. And the eyes peering over the edge of the chalice and over the silver baby cup look up with the same openness and vulnerability. I had no idea that motherhood was preparing me for ordained ministry. That is both surprising and strangely gratifying.

    The Rev. Anne Vouga (MDiv ’08) is the Rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She also blogs at “Writing What I See” | annevouga.blogspot.com

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  • 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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