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Thinking Out Loud
  • American Exceptionalism

    by User Not Found | Sep 27, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

    There's nothing exceptional about nationalistic arrogance. A good many nations have indulged in religious self-righteousness. The "God-backs-our-cause" mentality has festooned and adorned the rhetoric of countless wars and political campaigns in history, and not just in our country. No, there's nothing exceptional about it, but there's also no virtue in it. Nationalistic Exceptionalism is at odds with Christian faith. And when it becomes a tenet of Christian faith, that faith has been seduced into heresy.

     

    It is easy for contemporary Americans to see how wrong the radical German Christians of the 1930s were to recast German history into a false mythology; to elevate "German-ness" to the pinnacle of humanity; to promote a festering racism till it issued forth in unspeakable genocide; to argue that the military supremacy of their country over others was inevitable and righteous; to align their (Christian) faith to the means and ends of their nationalism; to exclude aspects of the biblical witness that did not fit their social, cultural, and political agendas.

    The pastor, Martin Niemoller, a U-boat captain of World War I, was so alarmed by the idolatry of German Exceptionalism that he preached a famous sermon opposing it: "Jesus Christ ist mein Führer" (no translation required). He was imprisoned in a concentration camp for his witness. It is easy for us to recognize his Christian heroism. We laud the courage of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (martyred), Karl Barth (sent packing as an undesirable immigrant; he was Swiss), and countless others.

    The Reformed Confession, "The Theological Declaration of Barmen," bears reading today, not as a warning against the transgressions of the people of Germany in a generation past, though it was written in 1934 specifically to protest against the idolatry rising in Germany at that moment, but as a warning against any people (including us) who dress their jingoistic arrogance and national self-interests and base racism in religious garb.

    Jesus Christ as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we must hear and whom we must trust and obey in life and in death . . . Just as Jesus Christ is the pledge of the forgiveness of all our sins, just so—and with the same seriousness—he is also God's mighty claim on our whole life; in him we encounter a joyous liberation from the godless claims of this world to free and thankful service to his creatures. (from The Theological Declaration of Barmen)

    Jesus Christ liberates us from the compulsion always to be right—reminding us that we are instead forgiven. Exceptionalism is a self-generated doctrine used to justify whatever we do (because we, as a special people, have license to do it). But the core of the Christian message is that, sinners though we are, we have been justified in and through Jesus Christ.

    Certainly it is a virtue to love one's country. I love America: the land, its people, our form of government, and way of life. But to raise any nation to the level of Divine Exception is to pervert legitimate love and devotion into an illegitimate idolatry. It is to place alongside the one Word of God, whom we must trust and obey, another word demanding also ultimate allegiance. That we cannot do without losing our souls.

    Go comment!
  • Living Legacies

    by User Not Found | Sep 20, 2011
    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.


    The late Dan Fogelberg wrote a wonderful song more than twenty-five years ago. It was a song about his father, a musician like Fogelberg. You may remember it. He sang, "My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man. I'm just a living legacy to the leader of the band."

    I can't hear this song without thinking of my grandfather, Corley Fenley. He was many things, a teacher, a musician, a leader in his congregation. I learned many of the most important things in life from him, including how to pray. A musician who never met an instrument he couldn't play, he was literally the "leader of the band," as well as the director of the church choir. And, in a very real sense, I've seen my life as a living legacy, and most often a poor imitation of his.

    A few days ago, Fogelberg's image of a "living legacy" came to mind again as I watched Paul Schaap, one of our trustees and with his wife, Carol, the source of the Schaap Scholarships for Excellence here at Louisville Seminary, teach a roomful of students, chemists, community leaders, university officials, and friends a lesson in advanced organic chemistry. The occasion was the grand opening of the A. Paul Schaap Chemistry Building and Lecture Hall at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

    His lesson was so clear that even I could follow it. After it was over I visited with Carol. We talked about what a good teacher Paul is, how natural, humble, and good natured he is in front of a classroom. He makes learning fun. She said, "You know, he would have made a good minister." Indeed he would have. Of course, if he had become a pastor, a significant breakthrough in organic chemistry that has helped doctors make more accurate diagnoses and save lives might not have been made. Paul is a living legacy to his father, a graduate of Louisville Seminary, a minister who served congregations across the Midwest, but his legacy has taken its own distinctive shape, determined by the distinctive gifts God gave him.

    We never can tell exactly how the legacy will be expressed. I think of another trustee at Louisville Seminary, Sumpter Logan. Sumpter was in that little group of folks who came to Austin, Texas, in 2009 to talk to me for the very first time about the presidency of Louisville Seminary. A business man, devoted husband and a veteran of more strategic planning processes for our Seminary than anyone can remember, Sumpter is also a living legacy to his father, another graduate of Louisville Seminary, a pastor who served congregations in Kentucky.

    The person of whom one is a living legacy need not be a minister. Debbie and I recently toured the home of Cassius Clay, the nineteenth-century political leader, close friend and supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and leader in the pre-Civil War Emancipation movement, who set his family's slaves free the minute he inherited his father's estate. Mary Jane Warfield Clay was never "just" Clay's wife. She ran a plantation, a massive business venture, and in the course of renovating White Hall, the Clay home south of Lexington, Kentucky, imported to the United States the technology for central heating. The Clays lived the kind of life movies are made about, and they bequeathed to their children a spirit of independence and love for freedom and civil rights that may just be unequaled in American history. Their daughter, Laura, a friend and colleague of Susan B. Anthony, was one of the most important leaders in the movement that enfranchised women. She was also the first woman nominated for president by a major political party in 1920. The clays left us with one of the grandest homes in Kentucky. But Laura was their greatest legacy.

    This week as I was sitting, smushed into the back pew of a very small plane between Pittsburgh and Detroit, I was reading my worn little Loeb edition of Epictetus. I find this first century Stoic philosopher to be the ideal companion for air travel. In one of his discourses (Book I. xix.), Epictetus warns against the temptation to live in such a way so as to attract the attention of others. He makes fun of tyrants, the power-brokers of the ancient world, who loved it when people scraped and bowed to them and made a big deal over them. Even more, he ridiculed those who imitated tyrants, the people who dressed and went around like tyrants and loved long, impressive-sounding titles, because they wanted people to pay attention to them.

    Epictetus flips the scales by which so many of his contemporaries evaluated their lives. He says that we know our lives really matter when there are people who pay attention to us not because of what we might do for them or because of how important we look, but because of what sort of persons we are, because of our maturity and wisdom. We know our lives matter, he says, because others wish to become like us.

    My grandfather was, I am sure, unaware that the cotton-headed kid following him around the dirt roads of East Texas would grow up wanting to be like him. I'm sure the same could be said for the fathers of Paul and Sumpter and Laura. That's part of the beauty of the character of the truly virtuous. But Epictetus' question is a good one, "Who wishes to become like you?"

    Many of us can point to the people of whom we hope to be living legacies. Are we inspiring anyone in turn? That's a question worth pondering.

    Go comment!
  • Republican Values

    by User Not Found | Sep 13, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

    I knew something didn’t feel exactly right.

    I was watching television coverage of a town hall meeting somewhere, ages ago. Peoples’ faces were contorted in fury as they shouted down an elected official. It was impossible to hear anything approaching intelligible from either side through the cacophony and the din. A commentator on one channel lauded the meeting as a confrontation between “the people” and “a career politician.” And while, as I recall, I didn’t agree with the position of this particular elected official, I remember feeling very uneasy.

    My uneasiness only increased over the summer as our elected leaders attempted to address the serious issue of our nation’s debt ceiling. This uneasiness led me to reflect.

    A decade ago, my wife, Deborah, and I co-authored a book, The Character of Leadership: Political Realism and Public Virtue in Nonprofit Organizations, in which we asked the question, “Are you in a principality or a republic?” We took our cue from the Renaissance writer Niccolo Machiavelli. Specifically, we took our cue from the surprisingly different approach Machiavelli took when writing a book on the early Roman Republic over-against his approach to writing an instruction manual for a prince.[1] We characterized principalities as aristocratic institutions that respect the vesting of power in structures of command and control. Principalities commonly reflect the personality of a single prince, we observed, perhaps the founder of the organization or a successor of that founder (see Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, for a recent example). Principalities often express their power in anomalies of rank and privilege enjoyed by certain members of the organization. They understand respect as something acquired by birth or marriage into certain bloodlines, never as something that you earn. In a principality, authority belongs to those who are related by birth or descent or some other exclusive property. Principalities generally have the power to make the lives of members socially comfortable or socially unbearable either by extending affiliation with the aristocracy or by withholding affiliation – and the favors that come with affiliation. Principalities often demonstrate strong regional affiliations.

    In our book, we contrasted principalities with republics. We observed the philosophical commitment to equality and fraternity that lie at the heart of republicanism, noting also that republics function through a complex set of social conventions and laws which seek to ensure that the voices of a wide variety of group members will be accorded a respectful hearing, and that such hearings may lead to meaningful, but tempered, changes over time in the institution. Republics generally favor meritocracy over aristocracy. Those who have nothing to commend them but hard work, skill, talent, diligence, and persistence are the natural leaders in a republic. Power is more widely distributed in a republic than in a principality. Instead of asking the question, “I wonder if this will please the prince,” republicans ask more routinely, “I wonder if this is a good thing to do” or “I wonder if this will work.”

    But here is why I reflected on all of these matters in light of viewing the television coverage of the town hall meeting and the debt ceiling debates. Debbie and I left something vital out of our study of leadership. What we did not do was contrast republics with democracies. It occurs to me now that this was a serious failing on our part.

    Two essays from last spring illustrate why it is so important to understand the difference between the two, though many people today simply see them as synonymous.

    The first essay appeared on April 23, 2011, in The Economist under the title, “Direct Democracy: Vox populi or hoi polloi?” Surveying the emergence of democratic movements in many parts of the globe – not least in the Middle East – the journal comments on democracy in Switzerland. It says: “The Alpine federation’s political system, in which citizens may vote 30-plus times a year in a mixture of local and national polls, is proving seductive for politicians and voters of all stripes. Some Swiss votes are ordered by politicians, yet many, known as ‘initiatives,’ are binding votes on national legislation triggered by citizens’ petition. In recent years these have widened state health-insurance to cover alternative medicine; enforced deportation of foreigners guilty of serious crimes and benefit fraud; and banned the building of mosques with minarets.” The journal goes on to observe that while many political leaders are keen to garner support for new laws, “few want to allow voters to write them: that would be not so much democracy, they say, as ochlocracy – mob rule.”[2]

    The warning sounded generally about democracy in The Economist was given much keener focus in an essay by David Brooks in The New York Times.[3] Those who are fervent democrats (i.e., fans of what The Economist called “direct democracy”), Brooks says, “have unlimited faith in the character and judgment of the people and believe that political institutions should be responsive to their desires. The believers in a republic have large but limited faith in the character and judgment of the people and erect institutions and barriers to improve that character and guide that judgment.”

    Now, this is interesting, especially given the fact that many of the people today who are the most vocal supporters of “pure democracy,” an almost knee-jerk reactivity to “the will of the people,” so often bring up the founders of the American Republic as their exemplars. In fact, as Brooks notes, “The first citizens of this country erected institutions to protect themselves from their own shortcomings.” In addition to the institutional “checks and balances” of the Republic, however, are what Brooks refers to as “a system of habits and attitudes that would check egotism and self-indulgence.” Brooks quotes Irving Kristol’s 1974 essay, “Republican Virtue vs. Servile Institutions” as follows: “The common man is not a fool, and the proof is that he has such modest faith in himself.” To be “public spirited,” according to such Republican values, did not mean that one pressed upon the public one’s own “passionate opinions about public matters.” It “meant curbing one’s passions and moderating one’s opinions in order to achieve a large consensus that will ensure domestic tranquility.” Brooks comments: “Instead of self-expression, it meant self-restraint.”

    What I wish Debbie and I had clarified in our study of leadership in the church, in schools, and in various nonprofit organizations and charities, is that republicanism encourages a quality of lively, creative, and fair social life that is often squelched in principalities, but it does this by encouraging reflective leadership through institutions, not by stoking the kind of culture of reactivity that is the bane and lifeblood of pure democracies. There is, of course, a theological issue at stake here. Republics assume that if left to my own passions, I will almost inevitably seek my own interests at the expense of others. Republics have a high theology (and take a low view) of original sin. Consequently, republics seek institutional safeguards against self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and self-interest. Republics erect buffers against reactivity.

    Republics also value negotiation and compromise. Both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United States of America see themselves constitutionally as republics, of course, and not as democracies. And these days, there are a lot of folks – in church and society at large – who believe that negotiation demonstrates a lack of commitment to your ideals, and compromise is the language of the devil. I would encourage these folks to take seriously the social and political (as well as theological) dimensions of John Calvin’s wise counsel: “In all of life, we are negotiating with God.” To negotiate with God in all of life, means that we listen to others and that we grow in light of what we learn from the perspectives of others.

    Leadership might almost be defined as the process of moving an organization, a group or a nation forward amid the challenges facing us through the negotiation of conflicting and competing interests and values. Good leadership is certainly accountable to the people. But good leadership requires the willingness to learn and to educate. Good leadership does not leave a people emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually where it finds them. It provides a larger vision, and sometimes (often!) that larger vision will not reflect our private interests or our individual preconceptions about the world.


    [1] Most people are only familiar with Machiavelli’s The Prince, but are unfamiliar with his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, an essay on the early Roman Republic. A good critical edition of The Prince is the Cambridge University Press edition (1988) edited by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price; I recommend the Penguin Books edition of The Discourses edited, with an excellent introduction, by Bernard Crick (1970).

    [2] The Economist,Direct Democracy: Vox populi or hoi polloi?” April 23, 2011, 62.

    [3] David Brooks, “The Politics of Solipsism,” The New York Times, May 6, 2011. A25.

    Go comment!
  • 9/11

    by User Not Found | Sep 06, 2011

    This post was written by Michael Jinkins.

    “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
    asks the youngest present on Passover. The response requires remembrance.

    Remembrance is among the most courageous things we do. It is also among the most important. Remembrance connects us to our past, but in a way that guides our futures. “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt and the Eternal our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” Remembrance tells us who we are. So the Passover Haggadah tells us, “Now if God had not brought out our ancestors from Egypt, then even we, our children, and our children’s children might still have been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

    “Do this remembering me,” Jesus told his disciples the night before he was crucified. The central event of the Christian faith is forever linked to Jesus’ appeal, “Remember me when you do this.” And so, for centuries, people have come from East and West and North and South and have been nourished together at the Eucharistic Table, remembering Christ, his death and resurrection, offering up to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

    The story of our faith, a story that stretches back into history for millennia, a story that speaks through the centuries, reminds us in so many different ways of this great fact: God works God’s redemptive purposes through all things. Through the injustice, violence, and cruelty of bondage God worked God’s own redemptive purposes, as Passover reminds us. Through the injustice, violence, and cruelty of crucifixion God worked God’s own redemptive purposes, as the Eucharist proclaims. God works even through that which God does not will.

    Remember. Remember that which claims us beyond every competing loyalty: the way and will of God to deliver and liberate. Remember that which puts every competing allegiance in its place: the redemptive purposes of God revealed, we Christians believe, in Jesus of Nazareth. Remember.

    This week, we will remember an event that marked our nation’s life forever. We will remember the injustice, the violence, the cruelty. We will remember the deaths of persons who were simply going about their day at work, or were on their way to shop, or were traveling to visit friends and family. We will remember the terror and hatred that lay across this day on the calendar like a deep shadow, a negation, like a bruise, a wound, like a smudge, an erasure.

    Some of us will remember our anger. Some of us will remember our prayers. Some of us will remember our angry prayers. But one thing more we must remember, and never forget: God works God’s redemptive purposes through all things. God works even through that which God does not will.

    In the days following the terrorist attack ten years ago, many of us turned to the scriptures of our faiths for comfort and guidance. I stood in the pulpit of Madison Square Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas, preaching the Sunday immediately following that terrible day. Some of those who worshipped that Sunday found comfort and guidance in this text of scripture: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose” (Rom 8:28). This passage does not affirm that “everything happens for a reason”—though people sometimes mistakenly draw that lesson from it. Nor is the passage a superficial message that everything will work out just fine for religious believers—that if you belong to the “right” tribe or club or sect, God will make life’s rough spots smooth. Rather, it is a reminder that however savage this life may be, however base and violent and dangerous, God works God’s redemptive purposes through everything. Nothing is beyond the reach of God’s outstretched arm. Nothing can ultimately defeat God’s redemptive mercy. And nothing can separate us from God’s reconciling love.

    There were many in those days, ten years ago, who found this passage from Romans so resonant they could hardly bear to read it when it said: “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36). But there were many more in those days, ten years ago, who heard, perhaps for the first time, the profound comfort of the words that followed: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

    In the ten years since 9/11/01, we have seen people who work for reconciliation and understanding among persons of different faiths and no faith at all, people who stretched their hearts and minds to accommodate a courage inspired by hope. In these ten years, we have remembered and we have allowed our remembrance to foster goodness instead of bitterness, greatness instead of fear. Yes, there are those who have capitalized on the anger and the anxiety in this post-9/11 world to preach their sermons of hatred, but they have not prevailed. “The better angels of our nature” (to recall Lincoln’s phrase) have endured through this time. And today, here, we can remember, and remembering we can affirm, softly but surely: God works God’s redemptive purposes through all things. God works even through that which God does not will.

    There will be services of remembrance, concerts, and memorials throughout our country, including here in Louisville, Kentucky. Our friends in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania will be in our thoughts and prayers. At Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, in mid-town Manhattan, the congregation will mark the events of 9/11/01, minute by minute, with moments of silence and prayers offered by firefighters and naval officers and people who lost friends and family members in the towers. Scott Black Johnston will preach a sermon, titled “Thou Art With Me,” on Psalm 23. And following the morning worship services, the congregation will host a large interfaith service for members of several Christian congregations, Jewish synagogues, and Islamic communities. As they and we remember together, we are also bearing witness: Evil will not triumph. Love will not be quenched. God works God’s redemptive purposes through all things. God works even through that which God does not will.

    Go comment!
  • Other Rooms, Other Voices

    by Michael Jinkins | Aug 30, 2011

    At a really great party, the sort that spreads out through a house or an apartment, you can move from one room to another stopping to listen here and there to the great conversations. One group may be discussing a fascinating story they just heard on NPR, another may be reflecting quietly on a major policy problem in local government, while another may be erupting in laughter at someone’s outrageous stories about a recent vacation. Moving from room to room you find yourself, in turn, touched, moved, inspired, and amused.

    This summer, as I read this blog from one week to another, I felt as though I was attending just such a party, moving from one room to another, listening to stimulating conversations. Marian McClure Taylor (Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches), Jonathan Yarboro (pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wetumpka, Alabama), Arch Taylor (long-time missionary to Japan and activist), Angela Cowser (Associate Pastor of Multicultural Ministries, Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee), Morgan Roberts (Honorary Life Trustee of Louisville Seminary and Pastor Emeritus of Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Conrad Sharps (Louisville Seminary trustee and Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama), Debra Mumford (Frank H. Caldwell Associate Professor of Homiletics and Associate Dean for Student Academic Affairs), Marty Soards (Professor of New Testament Studies), Dianne Reistroffer (Director of Field Education and Methodist Studies, and Professor of Ministry), and Susan Garrett (Professor of New Testament Studies) provided for us an astonishing conversational feast at a gathering orchestrated by our Communications department. I know you will join me in thanking these friends and colleagues for the thoughtfulness of their blogs. Following this brief thank you, is a synopsis of each blog beginning with the most recent, just in case you missed any of them.

    This has been an eventful summer. We have experienced stomach-churning emotions from a harrowing roller coaster ride on the stock market and frustration at continued political deadlock among our elected leaders. We have been shocked by the horrific violence that shattered so many lives in Norway and the riots that rocked England. And that’s only the beginning. While I often wished I were sending blogs your way this summer in response to events occurring around the globe, I also was deeply grateful for this time to focus on a new book for Westminster John Knox Press on the topic, “what’s next for the Reformed project?” As we begin a new academic year at Louisville Seminary, the actual writing of the book is virtually finished. It should be in the hands of the publisher by the end of the fall semester. I will visit some of the themes of the book from time to time this year.

    For now, however, please join me in thanking all of our guest bloggers for “thinking out loud” with us.

    Summer Blogs

    Planning for the Morrow by Susan Garrett

    What would it mean to be “single-minded” in strategic planning? Can we design “SMART goals” that are not just smart but also wise? I think that, with prayer and humility, we can. To do so requires that we stay resolute in keeping our institutional mission and vocation before us. We must trust in God’s providence and in the “wisdom from above” (James 3:17). This wisdom helps us to discern God’s way for us, and will enable us to persevere when tests and trials undermine our best-laid plans (as happened with Abraham: see James 2:21-23). We prepare for the future, even as we trust that our future lies wholly in God’s hands.

    Aunting by Dianne Reistroffer

    A refreshing look at the impact of extended kinship networks on families and communities.

    A Case Study in Mutual Forbearance by Jonathan Yarboro

    Perhaps we should look for guidance from the faith communities that have weathered the storms of living together as the people of God. What would we find? I am willing to bet we would find expressions of deep faith and piety, great joy and intense pain, and humility above all else.

    Wise and Discerning by Angela Cowser

    The writers of Proverbs tell us that knowledge (and discernment) begins with a fear of the Lord. From that godly foundation comes a willingness to listen to and learn from others and an ongoing desire to ask God to bless us with a Spirit of discernment…..Cultivating a discerning spirit is a lifelong pursuit and a virtue necessary not just for the young.

    “Best” Books by Marion Soards

    What is “the best” book I’ve ever read? If you love texts, and music too, then let me commend George Herbert’s works to you—both for reading and contemplation as prose and poetry and (with Vaughan Williams help) for listening and inspiration as music and song. Little in prose and poetry (and music) is for me so rewarding and so inspiring as these “best” pieces of religious art in words.

    The complexity of shame by Debra Mumford

    In order to minister effectively in African American contexts, one must understand the complexities of black cultures – of which shame is an important component. Traci West helps us better understand intimate violence in relation to black women in general and shame in particular. We will be fortunate to have her as our guest lecturer in the fall.

    The Stone Mason by Conrad Sharps

    This is how the house of God is built. It is built and sustained on our knees in prayer: piece-by-piece, soul-by-soul, chiseled and integrated with discernment and love into what no human hand can accomplish without the help of God. As disciples, we are to invest our lives, our efforts, our resources, and our leadership in the creation of a church that reveals God’s kingdom.

    When is risk immoral? By Marian McClure Taylor

    Letting the financial sector behave like a large casino has devastating consequences for God’s beloved children.

    Does it matter that Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was not a Christian? By Morgan Roberts

    How is it that, every so often, people who make no claim at being Christian end up doing something fully as Christ-like as that which is being done by Christians? Here’s a question for summer reflection: Does it matter that Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was not a Christian?

    Encountering right-brain transformation by Arch Taylor
    Jill Taylor, with her left hemisphere fully restored following a serious stroke and eight-year process of recovery, learned to keep it from running away with the instantaneous emotions of anger or fear. She gave reign to joy, peace, and compassion of her right hemisphere, her "circuit board of mysticism." As for us, Paul says, "We have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16b).

    Go comment!
  • Planning for the Morrow

    by User Not Found | Aug 23, 2011

    This blog post was written by Susan R. Garrett.

    Dr. Susan R. Garrett is Dean and Professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    Much to my surprise, I discovered this past spring that strategic planning can be fun. This finding was an unexpected benefit of my work with Louisville Seminary’s Strategic Planning Committee, which is chaired by President Michael Jinkins and includes faculty, administrators, staff, Board members, our student body president, and a local church leader. Our committee began its work in February by listening to the community and seeking its wisdom. Since that beginning we have prayed together, researched, imagined, estimated, assessed, persuaded, refined, and listened some more.

    We agreed right away that Louisville Seminary is called to provide transformative theological education for the practice of ministry in an increasingly diverse world, and that the strategic plan must build on our institutional strengths even as we innovate. We then undertook the work of evaluating the numerous creative proposals submitted to us and began fashioning from them a coherent and visionary plan. In early June, we met with Jeff Call, a gifted facilitator who helped us progress from the stage of improvisation and creativity to laying out concrete steps for implementation. Jeff taught us how to create “SMART goals”—objectives that are “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.” Seeing the plan taking shape on the projector screen was exhilarating!

    It seems intuitively obvious that leaders must plan for an institution’s future if they wish to be faithful servants and good stewards. Financial, ecclesiastical, and social and cultural circumstances are all dynamic; opportunities and threats must periodically be assessed and strategies reconfigured, or the institution risks becoming irrelevant and unable to fulfill its mission.

    I have noticed, however, that the necessity of such planning was not “intuitively obvious” to Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount he exhorted his disciples to trust that God would care for them: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:25, 34 NRSV). I also recall the Epistle of James, whose author echoes Jesus, but in harsher tones:

    Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15 NRSV)

    But aren’t both Jesus and James being naive and utopian? They are advocating a way of life fit for 60s flower children, but not for complex institutions in today’s difficult business environment. They do not take account of the need to make prudent use of resources entrusted to us. Their teachings are in conflict with the best managerial intelligence of our day.

    I think the key to resolving this conflict is to attend to Jesus’ and James’ underlying logic. Both teachers were worried about the psychological problem known in the biblical era as “double-mindedness”—a problem addressed in Jesus’ warning about wanting to serve “both God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24) and in James’ contrast between “friends of God” and “friends of the world. Those who are double-minded profess to be friends of God, yet act as friends of the world. They lack singleness of purpose, being fundamentally motivated by worldly standards of value. In their desire to achieve worldly success, they fail to honor or trust God.

    What would it mean to be “single-minded” in strategic planning? Can we design “SMART goals” that are not just smart but also wise? I think that, with prayer and humility, we can. To do so requires that we stay resolute in keeping our institutional mission and vocation before us. We must trust in God’s providence and in the “wisdom from above” (James 3:17). This wisdom helps us to discern God’s way for us and will enable us to persevere when tests and trials undermine our best-laid plans (as happened with Abraham: see James 2:21-23). We prepare for the future, even as we trust that our future lies wholly in God’s hands.

    The Strategic Planning Committee looks forward to sharing the results of its work in the near future. May God continue to bless Louisville Seminary, and through this institution reap a harvest of righteousness.

    Go comment!
  • Aunting

    by User Not Found | Aug 16, 2011

    A refreshing look at the impact of extended kinship networks on families and communities

    This post was written by Dianne Reistroffer. 

    The Rev. Dr. Dianne Reistroffer is Director of Field Education and Methodist Studies and Professor of Ministry at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    As another summer draws to a close, fond memories of family reunions – large and small – come to mind. This summer’s family reunion of the Reistroffer clan was centered around the safe return of my nephew, Tony, from a year’s deployment as part of the international peace-keeping force in the Sinai. It was a grand occasion. My favorite reunion took place years ago in Miles City, Montana, when five generations of the Crosby clan (my maternal grandmother’s people) assembled. I accompanied my grandfather to the event, which took place just months after Grandma Hart’s passing. Despite his deep grief, Grandpa Hart was determined to go, and I am glad that I went. It was a special time for us as I met people who were a vital part of my grandmother’s formation and spirit. The poignancy of meeting all of these Crosbys was underscored by the fact that Grandpa was beginning to show signs of memory loss, and now I was becoming the repository of family narratives and connection.

    Reunions remind me of the beauty of extended kinship networks and their impact on families and communities. Sadly, we in the church speak little of the roles and practices of aunts, uncles, cousins, and other kin folk. The sway of the nuclear family (husband, wife, children) in our preaching, teaching, and programming seems peculiar in light of the biblical witness to extended families. Indeed, my favorite family reunion story is the account of the missing twelve-year-old Jesus, assumed to be with other members of the extended family as they all journeyed from their hometowns to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of Passover (Luke 2:39-52). In the traveling company of relatives and friends, Mary and Joseph believed that Jesus would be safe and protected (v. 44). As someone who relishes her role as an aunt, I find myself in this Gospel story, in this single verse.

    Any mention of the place of aunts and uncles in our families and communities catches my attention. Perhaps that is why a book my colleague, Frances S. Adeney, shared with me this summer brought an immediate sense of joy. Written by two professors of communication, Aunting: Cultural Practices that Sustain Family and Community Life is a study of aunts in contemporary families and the important role they play in families and communities.[1] I smiled when Frances’s gift arrived in my office because my faculty colleagues have grown accustomed to this auntie’s frequent e-mails celebrating the achievements and lamenting the struggles of two generations of my nephews and nieces. I relish my role and active “aunting” of now two dozen nephews, nieces, great-nephews, and great-nieces. And while my three siblings have done a marvelous job of parenting, this book gives me validation and permission to rejoice in my vocation of aunting the next two, perhaps three, generations of my family, and to understand the ways “aunts continue to supplement and fill gaps in nurturance inevitably left by nuclear families, which cannot possibly meet all members’ needs without support” (p. 16).

    Aunts and uncles care for nieces and nephews, provide them mentoring and modeling, offer them distance and perspective as trusted confidantes, and are prepared to step in to help them and their parents during times of stress and crisis. Interestingly, the authors’ seven-year research about aunts uncovered the phenomenon of “constructed kin” among immigrant and other communities when biological kin are not available. “Neighbor and community aunts” are common in Latino/a, Asian, GLBTQ, and other communities (pp. 39-63), and there is mounting evidence that as biological families become distant, geographically speaking, young adults’ construction of an extended network of neighborhood/community kin has become more common. These findings in Aunting remind us that singles are a growing segment of our society. The number of unmarried Americans 18 and older in 2009 stood at 96.6 million, or 43% of all U.S. residents in this same age group.[2] We in the church would do well by capitalizing on this development and the often unacknowledged resources of extended kin networks. A good first step would be to recognize and honor all those “kin” who play vital roles in our families, in our churches, and in our communities, starting with our weekly family reunions on Sunday!

     


    [1] Laura L. Ellington and Patricia J. Sotirin, Aunting: Cultural Practices that Sustain Family and Community Life (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010).

    [2] http://factfinder.census.gov/, accessed July 25, 2011.

     

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  • A Case Study in Mutual Forbearance

    by User Not Found | Aug 09, 2011
    This blog post was written by Jonathan Yarboro.

    The Rev. Jonathan Yarboro has served as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wetumpka, Alabama, since graduating from Louisville Seminary in 2006.

    The Form of Government section of the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), old and new versions, features a powerful term: mutual forbearance. The actual citation reads:

    “…we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (G-1.0305 or F-3.0105).

    This historic principle of church order is rooted in the understanding that unity is best exercised in diversity. Scripture clearly supports this understanding, but Western culture often does not. Examples of mutual forbearance do not make good headlines. As a matter of fact, I would argue that anyone wishing to define mutual forbearance in contemporary media would be hard pressed to find resource material. Much of today’s media paints a very different picture of how we live in relationship with others.

    Some scholars have highlighted the significance of mutual forbearance in living one’s faith. All of my seminary professors in some way embodied what I have come to appreciate as one of the key elements of a faithful Church. Still, even religious headlines, especially within the Presbyterian denomination, underscore the difficulty human beings have in fully embracing the concept. How can we as “the church” begin to live in to what Scripture clearly calls us to do: to treat one another with respect and dignity, especially in the face of theological difference?

    Since 2006, I have served as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wetumpka, Alabama. This congregation of 160 members is nestled in the beautiful Coosa River basin of Central Alabama, the buckle of the Bible belt! First Church is a middle class congregation and has been, for the most part, since its founding in 1836. For 175 years, believers willing to call themselves Presbyterians have gathered here to worship, work, and witness. The history of this congregation is fascinating and multi-faceted. Allow me to share one crucial piece of it with you.

    Over the years, each time a potentially divisive decision has been placed before this congregation, someone in the church has stood, just before the vote, and proclaimed in some manner, “No matter how this vote turns out, we will not split. If we split, we die.” Consider, briefly, the implications of this statement.

    Each time this statement has been shared, it has come from a different person. At times, it has come from an Elder, but not always. It has never come from the same person twice, and never from the pastor. What this says to me is that the main reason First Presbyterian Church of Wetumpka continues as a thriving community of believers is its commitment to mutual forbearance. This congregation has persevered through civil wars, world wars, racial wars, denominational splits and unions, and more.

    In his book, God’s Tapestry: Reading the Bible in a World of Religious Diversity, Gene March, A.B. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Seminary, explains why this principle is so hard to embody. He says the stakes are higher the more common our ground becomes. [1] In other words, we may find it easier to practice mutual forbearance with those in other churches than we do within our own. Recent tensions over changes in Presbyterian church polity certainly support this notion, but they do not have to.

    Perhaps we should look for guidance from the faith communities that have weathered the storms of living together as the people of God. What would we find? I am willing to bet we would find expressions of deep faith and piety, great joy and intense pain, and humility above all else. Sounds like mutual forbearance and a productive excursion of faith to me. How about you?

    ___________________

    [1] W. Eugene March, God’s Tapestry: Reading the Bible in a World of Religious Diversity (Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2009) 103.

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  • Wise and Discerning

    by User Not Found | Aug 02, 2011
    This blog post was guest-written by by Angela Cowser.

    For the Lord gives wisdom, and from God’s mouth come knowledge and understanding. Proverbs 2:6

    On the afternoon of my father’s burial (March 17, 2011), a group of my parents’ friends gathered for conversation in my mother’s den.  We talked about a range of topics, most especially my dear Papa.  I found myself deep in conversation with one of our next-door neighbors, who was sitting to my right, when a woman sitting to my left interrupted my conversation to ask me:

    How do I help my 27-year-old daughter develop a discerning spirit”?

    I asked her why this question was important to her and why she thought I might have an answer.  She said that there was a lot of trickery and deception in the world; she wondered how to teach her daughter to make wise decisions.  This mother, watching me listen to my neighbor, believed “that I had wisdom.”

    What’s at stake in this mother’s question?  A scenario: at some point you or I may find ourselves in a car with a drunk driver.  If there is an accident, the consequences could be catastrophic and life-altering: possible death or disability of the driver, passengers, fellow motorists, loss of driving privileges, imprisonment.  How do we help (young) people make good decisions about whether to get into the car, or stay out, and understand the implications of either action? And, what about decisions regarding money, relationships, work and career, politics, faith, and religion?  So many voices, opinions, and agendas compete for our allegiance – how do we teach wisdom, discourage foolishness, and help those who know it all realize that they know very little?

    The writers of Proverbs tell us that knowledge (and discernment) begins with a fear of the Lord.  From that godly foundation comes a willingness to listen to and learn from others and an ongoing desire to ask God to bless us with a Spirit of discernment.

    At Eastminster Presbyterian Church, one way we nurture discernment in our adult Sunday Bible class is to create a culture of confessional honesty.  We bring our joys and struggles to the table, where they are handled with care, love, and deep questioning.  Through the unction of the Holy Spirit, both students and teacher pursue wisdom and pray for godly counsel and direction.  We place a high premium on paying attention and staying alert and sober.  Each week, we place personal experience, tradition, and reason up against the Word to “unmask idolatries in (self), Church, and culture,” so that together, we may grow to full maturity in Jesus Christ.

    Cultivating a discerning spirit is a lifelong pursuit and a virtue necessary not just for the young. Bless you.

    Angela Cowser, Louisville Seminary alumna (MDiv ’06), is Associate Pastor of Multi-Cultural Ministries at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and Ph.D. Candidate in ethics, homiletics, and practical theology at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

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  • "Best" Books

    by User Not Found | Jul 26, 2011
    This blog post was guest-written by Marion L. Soards.

    From time to time someone will ask me what is the best book I’ve ever read? There’s no answer to the question—obviously.  What kind of book?  A novel?  A book in biblical studies?  A work in theology?  A volume of poetry?  A collection of short stories?  A chronicle of scientific investigation?  A coffee table book of photographs and narrative?  A manual of literary style (one of my favorite kinds of books)?  A dictionary (another of my favorites)?  The Bible (certainly my favorite book)?  The list could go on.

    Now, while I am truly nonplussed by the query concerning the best book I’ve ever read, still I am often tempted to say, “The works of George Herbert.”  I have in mind two specific pieces by Herbert that are often brought together in a collection of his works, namely, The Country Parson and The TempleThe Country Parson is an essay about being a clergyman, particularly in a rural setting—but it is relevant to any situation in ministry (either ordained or lay ministry). Occasionally, I recommend this writing to students, and often they conclude, as I have, that this work from the early seventeenth century is about as good a treatment of pastoral ministry as anything that has been written since then.

    The work comprises thirty-seven “chapters” and two prayers (one for before and one for after a sermon).  The chapters vary in length, though all are brief, and some are no more than half of a page.  The wisdom within the chapters, however, is remarkable.  For example, Herbert comments on “The Parson’s Knowledge” (Chapter VI)—which could also easily be entitled “The Christian’s Knowledge.”  He recognizes the crucial, fundamental nature of (1) a holy life, (2) prayer, (3) diligent study of Scripture, and (4) the study of “Commenters and Fathers” on the Scriptures—an epistemological tour de force that has not been surpassed in 400 years.  All Christians would profit from an encounter with Herbert’s sketch of the life of The Country Parson.

    The other work that I have in mind is The Temple, a four-part collection of poems that are meditations on Christian life in the broadest sense, for as Herbert says,

                    A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,

                    And turn delight into sacrifice.

    Herbert’s poetry is sublime—so much so that Ralph Vaughan Williams set portions of the poetry to music as Five Mystical Songs.  For those who love poetry and music, there is not much that I can more highly recommend.  As a sample of Herbert’s poetry consider a portion of The Temple that is named “The Call.”  It is a part of Herbert’s text that is set to music by Vaughan Williams as the fourth of the five mystical songs”:

    THE CALL

    Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:

    Such a Way, as gives us breath:

    Such a Truth, as ends all strife:

    And such a Life, as killeth death.

    Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:

    Such a Light, as shows a feast:

    Such a Feast, as mends in length:

    Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

    Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:

    Such a Joy, as none can move:

    Such a Love, as none can part:

    Such a Heart, as joys in love.

    Thus, what is “the best” book I’ve ever read?  If you love texts and music too, then let me commend George Herbert’s works to you—both for reading and contemplation as prose and poetry and (with Vaughan Williams help) for listening and inspiration as music and song.  Little in prose and poetry (and music) is for me so rewarding and so inspiring as these “best” pieces of religious art in words.

    Marion (Marty) L. Soards is Professor of New Testament Studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1990.

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  • The Complexity of Shame

    by User Not Found | Jul 19, 2011
    This blog post was guest-written by Debra J. Mumford

    In September of this year, Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School, will be the guest lecturer for the annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lectureship, sponsored by the Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary. Though her writings and lectures cover a range of social justice issues, Dr. West has written and lectured with depth and frequency on violence against women. In her book, Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics, West adeptly steers her readers through the complex intersections of race, religion, and culture that converge upon the lives of black women who are victims of intimate violence. West defines intimate violence as male-perpetrated rape, childhood sexual abuse, and wife/partner battering. Though West treats the subject thoroughly, using black women’s stories as points of departure for analysis of sociological theories and practices, she addresses one area better than many who have trod this ground before her and since – the area of shame.

    Shame for many blacks is very complex and very real. Shame is a feeling of internal despair or disgrace brought about by one’s own actions or someone else’s. Women who are victims of intimate violence experience shame on many different levels. Some feel shame because they think they must have done something to incite the violent behavior. Some feel shame manifested as feelings of perpetual uncleanliness. They try hard to scrub away any reminder of the perpetrator and the violation that took place, usually to no avail. Some feel shame because they were violated by a black man with whom they were supposed to be in solidarity. If they were to admit to having been violated and actually press charges against the perpetrator, they would simultaneously be confirming stereotypes of black males, which have been socially constructed by the larger white society. 

    Victims of intimate violence who are Christian may experience additional levels of shame. Some may blame themselves for not measuring up to the will of God as it relates to sexual chastity even though they were raped and had no control over their fates in that regard. Some may take their Christian teachings about forgiveness and turning the other cheek to mean they must immediately forgive the perpetrators without demand for justice or accountability. Some may feel shame about not living up to the stereotype of the strong black woman. After all, strong black women do not need help dealing with their problems. Strong black women are the ones who help others rather than those who receive help themselves. Some feel shame in considering divorcing an abusive spouse. Divorce may propel them into single motherhood which would only affirm yet another stereotype of black women in larger white society.

    In order to minister effectively in African American contexts, one must understand the complexities of black cultures – of which shame is an important component. Traci West helps us better understand intimate violence in relation to black women in general and shame in particular. We will be fortunate to have her as our guest lecturer in the fall.

    Debra J. Mumford is the Frank H. Caldwell Associate Professor of Homiletics; Associate Dean for Student and Academic Affairs at Louisville Seminary.

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  • The Stone Mason

    by User Not Found | Jul 12, 2011

    This blog post was guest-written by Conrad Sharps.

    The Cathedral of Siena, Italy.

    Once I led a group of pilgrims on a tour of Italy. In Siena we stood in amazement for several minutes, trying to absorb the sheer majesty of the Cathedral of Siena (Italian: Duomo di Siena). It takes that long to allow your eyes to go up and down the seemingly acres of beautiful white and black marble laid in a breathtaking pattern.

    Given time to explore, I walked the length and width of the cathedral, enjoying the art, the majesty, and the opportunity for personal meditation. Wanting to conclude our visit by stopping by the Cathedral bookstore, I started racing back diagonally across the nave. But I never made it. Something caught my eye near the western end of the Cathedral.

    Several feet above the floor stood a very bright lamp, and underneath it was a man on his knees. I made my way toward him to resolve my curiosity. He was a stone mason working on the marble floor.

    I thought it interesting, in this most significant and majestic house of worship built more than 800 years ago, that a stone mason still knelt with simple chisel and hammer to refurbish the marble floor. Centuries have come and gone, and yet his labors resembled those who first built the church.

    I stood and watched him for several minutes, mesmerized by his patience and commitment to detail. But what really struck me was his posture. He went from kneeling on two knees, to kneeling on his knees and elbows several times: matching color, measuring, cutting and cementing small pieces of stone into place. Not only did his posture resemble that of prayer, his resolution and commitment seemed to me to be a prayer enacted.

    This is how the house of God is built. It is built and sustained on our knees in prayer: piece-by-piece, soul-by-soul, chiseled and integrated with discernment and love into what no human hand can accomplish without the help of God. As disciples, we are to invest our lives, our efforts, our resources, and our leadership in the creation of a church that reveals God’s kingdom.

    Our work in its truest spiritual form should be that of prayer enacted.  As the Psalmist writes: “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker…” (Psalm 95:6)

    Like the faithful before us, let us humble ourselves before God, seeking first his face, and then withholding nothing from our labors. Centuries may have come and gone, but this is still how the Church of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom it represents is built.     

    The Rev. Dr. Conrad Sharps is Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama; a member of our Board of Trustees; and an alum (MDiv ’85) of Louisville Seminary.
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  • When is risk immoral?

    by User Not Found | Jul 05, 2011
    This blog post was guest-written by Marian McClure Taylor.

    “Risk is its own reward,” proclaimed a billboard seeking casino customers from among travelers entering Louisville, Kentucky.

    The billboard’s message about risk reminded me of an article by the Calvin College Professor of Economics John Tiemstra, entitled "Financial Crisis and the Culture of Risk" (Perspectives, May 2009; ReformedWorld, January 2009). Tiemstra traces how risk went from “being a morally fraught but unavoidable problem of human existence to being a commodity traded on markets like wheat or copper.”  One of the most important landmarks on that journey, he says, was the spread of casino gambling.

    Many mainline denominations give scarce attention to gambling, and I have never heard a sermon on it. Here are a few of the key moments in my awakening on this issue.

    In 1981, I interviewed a famous Haitian in Port-au-Prince who met me at a casino. After playing some slot machines, it turned out that lucre really is filthy, so I went to wash up. I can still feel my shame as I tipped a poor bathroom attendant for the towel I needed to wash money grime from my hands. Humans have a need to play, but it was shocking to juxtapose my ability to play with money with this woman’s dire need for money. This up-close moment is writ very large in the growing disparities of our economy today.

    Then there was an administrative assistant who worked for me some years later. I lost her after she had problems with the “work release” program she was serving due to her having written bad checks to feed her gambling habit. In the release program, she was allowed to work at my office, then go say goodnight to her six children and return to jail for the night. Her exploration of risk’s potential rewards harmed her children. In fact, no one takes risk without drawing someone else into that risk. And as Tiemstra wrote, “The Christian would not try to lay risk off onto others for whom we are supposed to show love.”

    Now I serve the Kentucky Council of Churches. The Council struggles against the expansion of casino gambling out of concern for gamblers’ families and for people whose addictions make them hear that siren call, “Risk is its own reward.” The Council policy also states concerns about the casino gambling industry fostering greed, harming local economies, and increasing crime.

    These localized effects of the casino sector are bad enough. But the latest global economic meltdown showed that our national slide into being a casino culture hurts us all. Financial sector efforts to manage risk failed and will fail again barring adequate regulation, because the sector has lost its prudential moorings. Letting the financial sector behave like a large casino has devastating consequences for God’s beloved children.

    Professor Tiemstra asks that preachers address why gambling is against God’s will. Some might call us moralistic fuddy-duddies. But that is a risk worth taking!

    Marian McClure Taylor, Louisville Seminary alumna (MDiv ’95), is Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches and also served as director of World Missions for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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  • Does it matter that Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was not a Christian?

    by User Not Found | Jun 28, 2011
    This blog post was guest-written by F. Morgan Roberts.

    As most of us look forward to summer travels, relief from regular work, and time for reflection and study, many of the Hispanic migrant children whom I tutor weekly will move from Florida, following the crops to another state, and not returning until weeks after school has started in the fall. They will live in substandard housing; their summer will not be like that of my own grandchildren. As I thought of my migrant kids, heading off to their “different summer,” a doctor who teaches in a nearby medical school told me about a man in his country who devoted his entire life to the education of nomadic children whose families follow their herds.

    The hero of my friend’s story was a man who, even though his noble birth afforded him a formal education in law and fluency in English, German, and French, never forgot that he himself was born in a tent, the son of a tribal chieftain. And so he went and pitched a “white school tent” among a nomadic people. From that simple beginning, as others joined him, there began a movement that grew so rapidly during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that, by the end of his life, having established 550 nomad schools, a half million nomads could read, with the most promising students going on to a nomad college that graduated 9,000 trained teachers (many of them women), with other graduates moving on to careers as physicians, lawyers, and engineers.

    Of course, this man’s movement encountered strong opposition; particularly because the education of so many women threatened the status quo of those for whom an uneducated populace, raised by illiterate mothers, was a source of profit and power. So threatening was the success of his work that, finally, his enemies paid him the supreme compliment: they accused him of being a CIA operative! When he died in May of 2010, the gratitude of his graduates was so overflowing that, at his funeral, 24,000 mourners were in attendance.

    Such stories somehow don’t make our front pages—maybe because all of this took place in Iran, and his name was Mohammad Bahmanbeigi, and he was a

    Muslim. Rather surprisingly, however, this man devoted his life to something strangely and beautifully Christ-like. Like the Word in John’s gospel, who became flesh and “pitched his tent among us,” this man stepped down from a higher, nobler place and “pitched his tent” among a people deeply in need of the light of literacy.

    How is it that, every so often, people who make no claim at being Christian end up doing something fully as Christ-like as that which is being done by Christians? Here’s a question for summer reflection: Does it matter that Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was not a Christian?

    One of the regular listeners to my Sunday night radio program from Shadyside Church in Pittsburgh was a Jewish rabbi. I first became aware of this when he sent me a sermon he had delivered on Rosh Hashanah. I liked one of his stories, and so I phoned to ask permission to use it in one of my sermons. “No problem,” he replied. “I use lots of your material.” “How can you possibly do that?” I asked, “So much of my material seems specifically Christian.” “It’s easy,” he said, “I just take it and make it Jewish.”

    Isn’t there a basic truth in what he was saying? A true word is a true word no matter who utters it. A just action is a just action regardless of who performs it. Does God look down from heaven to see if people are wearing the right label?

    While my migrant children are gone for the summer, I will spend some time reflecting upon those words that seem to deny the notion that God’s spirit is somehow a prisoner of the church: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

    The Rev. Dr. F. Morgan Roberts is an Honorary Life Trustee of Louisville Seminary, well-known Presbyterian preacher, and Pastor Emeritus of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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  • Encountering right-brain transformation

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 21, 2011

    by Arch B. Taylor Jr.

    Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor has recounted her personal journey through a serious stroke and eight-year process of recovery.

    A massive hemorrhage affected the left hemisphere of her brain, disabling her language centers and her ability to analyze and order information. She could not think of herself as an individual ego, a “solid” distinct from other people and the environment.

    In her unaffected right hemisphere she thought of herself as a “fluid” flowing in the life force energy of the universe. She rejoiced in pleasure of the present moment, spontaneous, carefree, and imaginative. “I perceived myself as perfect, whole, and beautiful, just the way I was.” Freed from left hemisphere dominance, her right hemisphere was “completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world.”[1]

    This account reminds me of many near-death experiences (NDE) documented by modern authors. Individuals may have an out-of-body experience, pass through a tunnel, or meet departed loved ones in a heavenly realm. Many speak of an instantaneous life-review and a sense of total acceptance and well-being. Details differ, depending on personality and culture, but one is constant: they all encounter a light, and they emerge with an abiding sense of confidence, optimism, altruistic concern for others, and interest in spiritual and ethical matters.

    Researchers have shown that all the elements of NDE reside in the brain’s right temporal lobe, which Melvin Morse calls “the circuit board of mysticism."[2] Experts can artificially induce the phenomena of NDE—except the light, which many people call “a divine being” or a “being of light.”[3] Some people have undergone transformation by encountering the light without an NDE.

    As I contemplate the Apostle Paul’s Damascus Road experience and assemble several autobiographical references in his letters, I believe he underwent something like a near-death experience. Certainly, Paul saw the light: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:5-6).

    The light transformed Saul, the zealous Pharisee who persecuted the church, into Paul the propagator of the gospel and apostle to the Gentiles. Himself forgiven and accepted, Paul now knew that God, who shows no partiality, accepted the Gentiles along with the Jews. Paul declared: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32).

    Dr. Jill Taylor, with her left hemisphere fully restored, learned to keep it from running away with the instantaneous emotions of anger or fear. She gave rein to joy, peace, and compassion of her right hemisphere, her “circuit board of mysticism.” As for us, Paul says, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16b).

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  • “For the pleasure of writing the page well”

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 14, 2011

    The title this week is a line from one of my favorite poets, John Ciardi. If you are a fan of Dante, you may have read Ciardi’s translation of The Divine Comedy. Or you may know Ciardi’s original work. If you don’t yet know Ciardi, I hope you’ll get acquainted.

    This poem begins,

    “One Easter not on the calendar I woke

    and found I had survived ambition.

    There was nothing I wanted more of. Time, yes,

    if it was given. An unfinished thought

    to add a page to, not for the thought’s sake,

    but for the pleasure of writing the page well,

    if I could write it well. Or if not, for the trying."[1]

    This summer I shall be writing again though not on this page. I’ll be working on a book on the future of the Reformed faith.

    While I immerse myself in this project, I have asked some friends if they would be willing to think out loud for us. They have very generously agreed to do this. So I would like to introduce you to our guest bloggers for the summer. As a group, they represent a wide spectrum of our Christian community. I know you will enjoy hearing from them.

    I want to take this opportunity to welcome them to this blog, and to thank them for their willingness to share their thoughts with us all.

    Our guest bloggers this summer are:

    Susan Garrett (Professor of New Testament), Dianne Reistroffer (Director of Field Education and Methodist Studies and Professor of Ministry), Marty Soards (Professor of New Testament Studies), and Debra Mumford (Frank H. Caldwell Associate Professor of Homiletics and Associate Dean for Student Academic Affairs): all members of our own Louisville Seminary Faculty.

    Conrad Sharps, Senior Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama; member of our Board of Trustees; and alum (MDiv ’85) of Louisville Seminary.

    Morgan Roberts, Honorary Life Trustee of Louisville Seminary, well-known Presbyterian preacher, and Pastor Emeritus of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    Angela Cowser, Louisville Seminary alumna (MDiv ’06); Associate Pastor of Multi-Cultural Ministries, Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee; and Ph.D. Candidate in ethics, homiletics, and practical theology, Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

    Arch Taylor, an alum (BD ’45; ThM ’54), long-time missionary to Japan, activist, and friend of the Seminary.

    Jonathan Yarboro, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wetumpka, Alabama, since graduating from Louisville Seminary in 2006.

    Marion McClure Taylor, Louisville Seminary alumna (MDiv ’95), is Executive Director of the Kentucky Council of Churches and also served as director of World Missions for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

    As I pack up my laptop computer, I want to thank you for your hospitality this year in welcoming “Thinking Out Loud” into your lives and ministries. I especially want to thank you for your responses each week to the various blogs and email blasts. See you in August!

     

    [1] John Ciardi, “One Easter Not on the Calendar I Woke,” from Echoes: Poems Left Behind (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989), 1.


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  • “Diseases desperate grown”

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 07, 2011

    The passage is Shakespeare’s, from Hamlet:

    “Diseases desperate grown

    By desperate appliance are relieved,

    Or not at all.”[1]

    It also appears at the beginning of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s superb book, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, one of the most penetrating and thoroughly fascinating historical investigations of a medical or scientific field I have ever read. Mukherjee’s book follows on the heels of last year’s runaway bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a book of such profound humanity and erudition that it now appears on the required reading list for some residents in oncology. Following the publication of these two books is James L. Kugel’s In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief, which on one level is an inquiry into the “foundations of religious belief,” but on another is the story of a person’s struggle with mortality and meaning in the face of a very bad diagnosis.

    Each of these books relate in one way or another to cancer. Each has its own story to tell. And each should be required reading for any pastor, any elder or deacon or member of a congregational care team, or anyone whose life or family has been touched by this desperate disease. Well now, that’s just about all of us.

    So why should we read these books?

    If ever there was a person born to tell a particular story it was Rebecca Skloot. With humanity and compassion she tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, who died of cancer in Baltimore in 1951. Cancer cells taken from her without her knowledge or consent – as they were routinely taken from countless patients in that era – showed a remarkable capacity to continue to live and to grow and to divide in laboratories, becoming the first “immortal cells.” Named the HeLa cells, they have been used in research the world over and have contributed to medical advances and saved lives beyond number. Yet, Henrietta’s family, still living in poverty, has no medical insurance to take care of the simplest procedures. This is one of the most enthralling “reads” you’ll ever come across, but it is also one of the most deeply disturbing and moving. There are cautionary, and celebratory, aspects of her and her family’s experience that we should never forget.

    The Emperor of all Maladies is an enthralling “must read” for completely different reasons. Siddhartha Mukherjee does for cancer what Oliver Sacks does for neurology. He takes us deep inside the humanity of cancer. He transports us from the earliest appearance of the disease (in ancient Egypt) to the latest developments in genetics, but he never loses the human focus, the human dimension, the human costs of the disease. “Scientists,” he writes, “often study the past as obsessively as historians because few other professions depend so acutely on it. Every experiment is a conversation with a prior experiment, every new theory a refutation of the old.” At 472 pages (not counting end notes) this is not a quick and easy read. But, seriously, any pastor or care-giver who wants to understand more deeply what those with cancer are facing, what those who treat cancer are struggling to understand, and just what we are up against with the cunning disease, should read this book. Mukherjee’s compassion and humanity are only matched by his humility, as he observes near the end of the book, quoting Richard Klausner, director of the National Cancer Institute: “There are far more good historians than there are good prophets.”

    The story of how Harvard professor of religion James Kugel came to terms with a highly aggressive malignancy is important because the way we face death and the threat of death has so much to do with the way we live our lives. This book will hook you from the beginning. Kugel had me on page two when he quoted William Saroyan who is reported to have said on his deathbed: “I know everyone has to die, but somehow I always thought an exception would be made in my case.” From Kugel’s superb translations and careful readings of Hebrew texts to his personal reflections on his own life and death and the significance of religious faith, this book offers, page after page, an unsympathetic, richly textured examination of ultimate reality. To say that the searing honesty of his faith is “refreshing” is vapid and silly. His searing honesty is a form of faith, and it is necessary, as when he reflects on the passage in Proverbs 12:21, “No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked are full of misfortune.” “No harm befalls the righteous” [Kugel writes] “- in what world did the author of those words live?”

    Today, I am recommending three books on cancer, if you will. You may decide that you can’t read them all at once. But I do encourage you to read them all.

    James L. Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (New York: Free Press, 2011).

    Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (New York: Scribner, 2010).

    Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010).

    ______________________________________________________

    [1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act IV, Scene III).

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  • "From Dan to Beersheba"

    by Michael Jinkins | May 31, 2011

    The education of a (still relatively) new president, Field Report 3

    As the 2010-2011 academic year draws to a close, so does my year-long listening tour. And, as today's blog title suggests, it has taken me from one end of the country to the other, from Orlando, Florida, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, from Boston, Massachusetts, to Palo Alto, California (from which I am writing this dispatch), and many, many points in between.

    Wherever I have gone this year, my first priority in meeting trustees and many of the friends of Louisville Seminary has been to listen. My goal: to garner the wisdom of people who care about the future of the church, the integrity of theological education, and the mission of Louisville Seminary.

    This past week, visiting with friends of the Seminary in Northern California, I was struck by three things:

    1. A comment by a long-time friend and alum of the Seminary, David Parks (MDiv ’63). We had dinner with David and his wife, Barbara, in a wonderful Croatian Restaurant. David reflected on the value of understanding the Seminary’s history in order to move forward into the future. David, an engineer and mathematician, said, "You only want to make new mistakes." That's a keeper!

    David also spoke with deep appreciation of the community he experienced at Louisville Seminary and encouraged us to continue to provide a place where people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives can come together to live and learn.

    2. This theme was reiterated in conversations with Laurie and Gay Hoagland. Laurie is a member of our Board of Trustees. He serves as chief investment officer for The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Gay, who serves as director of leadership initiatives in the Stanford University School of Education, reflected on what it means to "recreate the village that we've lost."

    Laurie and Gay exemplify the sense of adventure and joy that are at the heart of the Christian message. On a tour of the Hewlett Foundation with Laurie, I spied a photo of Bill Hewlett, under which was one of his maxims: "Never stifle a generous impulse."

    3. This theme was given concrete expression on Sunday in worship at the Valley Presbyterian Church, a vibrant congregation led by Louisville Seminary Distinguished Alums Mark (MDiv ’76; DMin ’85) and Cheryl (MDiv '77) Goodman-Morris. At the close of worship, in a sanctuary cradled among the forest and rushing streams of Portola Valley, the entire congregation gathered to lay hands on a family, the Ticha family from Cameroon, who will soon depart for another city because the father has been transferred. The Ticha family expressed their love for this congregation in a statement, after which Cheryl blessed them, the entire congregation crowding close round them. The relationship between this congregation and this family has led the church to partner with churches in Cameroon and to reach out to immigrants from Cameroon, living in Northern California.

    In light of all of these conversations, I remembered visiting with Mark and Barbara (MDiv ’87) Barnes in Oxford, Ohio. Their congregation now partners with two congregations, one in Colombia, another in Russia. I thought of the experience I had at New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, one of the most diverse congregations I have ever attended, where the celebration of Pentecost made the original event utterly contemporary.

    Recently, I said that the church is healthier today than at any point in my life. Its challenges are real. No doubt about that. But the Spirit of God is active among God's people. We are being drawn and invited, and even provoked, to hear the gospel with new ears and to respond with renewed energy. This is why this relatively new president is pleased to be at Louisville Seminary at this moment in history, serving with this faculty, administration, staff, and these students, supported by so many wonderful friends across the country.

    As I've said many times before, if you want a theological education for the practice of ministry in an increasingly diverse world, Louisville Seminary is the place to be. We're the place to be, not only because of what our students learn in classrooms, but because of what they experience together in this community. We have the opportunity in this learning community to learn and to model a way of being faithful and open, generous in our beliefs, and generous in our hospitality.

    Mark and Cheryl asked me to close worship this past Sunday with a blessing and a benediction. I suppose my words were more of a charge: "They will know we are Christians, not by our contempt for those who are different, nor for our self-righteousness, but by our love."

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  • Prophetic Compassion

    by Michael Jinkins | May 24, 2011

    A few weeks ago, as Debbie and I drove that breathtaking mountain road between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Ashville, North Carolina, we passed the turnoff to Lake Junaluska, a place of great significance to that old renegade preacher and theologian, Carlyle Marney, who died there on July 5, 1978. Predictably, the road sign that signaled the exit set me off on a remembrance of one of the voices that shaped my vocation. In Marney’s case, “voice” is more than metaphorical. We always said that Marney had a voice like God’s – only deeper.

    Stories are told of Marney’s intellectual brilliance, how he once met a young man in the back country of Amazonia. Desperately wanting to communicate in a common language, the two found that they were both fluent in classical Latin. Marney read absolutely everything, and his books, including The Structures of Prejudice: An Approach to Understanding and Dealing with Prejudice in Culture (1961), The Recovery of the Person: A Christian Humanism (1963), The Coming Faith (1970) and Priests to Each Other (1974) still merit study. He was to have given the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale the year he died – thus John Claypool was tapped to deliver the series in his stead.

    Stories are told of Marney’s prophetic insight and deep commitments. My friend, the great pastor, Dr. Marvin Griffin, once told me of Marney’s prophetic courage and leadership on behalf of the cause of desegregation and how that leadership took the concrete and subversive form of unequivocal, publically expressed friendship between the senior pastor of the largest white Baptist church in the region (Marney) and the young pastor of a large Black Baptist Church (Griffin). Marney taught many of us that sometimes the most prophetic thing you can do is be a friend. His prophetic commitments help explain the dedication of Mary Kraft’s volume about Marney published by Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte: “For those who loved him and some who didn’t.” His commitments may also explain why he influenced two or three generations of young Presbyterian pastors arguably even more than the young pastors of his own denominational tradition.

    Among the stories about Marney that shaped me most were those about what I would call his prophetic compassion in the face of human brokenness, and how this compassion inspired the founding of The Interpreter’s House, a place where ministers’ lives, shattered in all sorts of socially unacceptable ways, were put back together. Those with a literary bent will recognize the allusion to “the house of the interpreter” from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan’s book – and in Marney’s world – The Interpreter’s House was a place where discernment happened, where lives came into focus in light of God’s grace and judgment, and healing occurred.

    Maybe nothing Marney did was quite as prophetic as establishing a place that made forgiveness a positive therapeutic strategy. I have struggled for years with one story about what this meant in Marney’s own life.

    It seems that one morning, as a group of area pastors gathered around a coffee pot in advance of some clergy meeting, Marney noticed a pastor sitting alone, looking troubled. Marney sat down across the table from him and nursed his coffee in silence. At last, the silence was broken when the pastor looked into Marney’s face and asked, “Marney, do you really believe, do you really believe, that almighty God can forgive anything.” Marney (as the pastor himself reports) leaned across the table and said, “I forgive you.”[1]

    Marney believed that forgiveness doesn’t mean much if we hold it as an abstraction, as a general principle. Forgiveness needs to be made real by flesh and blood, in ordinary “priestly” acts by ordinary people, or so he says in his remarkable book, Priests to Each Other:

    “[T]he church is a womb where God’s kind of persons happen, are made, are called forth…. When church is church, life is koinonia, both as church-gathered and as church-dispersed. Life is life in common wherever you are. Koinonia means to know as you are known: to be known utterly by one who calls you forth…, before whom it is safe to come as you are.”[2]

    He knew that regret, even when combined with a sincere desire for forgiveness, (what we have classically called “contrition”) is not enough. Repentance is the key. But Marney also knew that repentance isn’t even possible unless forgiveness is sure and certain. Forgiveness makes repentance possible (not the other way round!) – something we may all want to recall on Sunday mornings when we confess our sins in worship.

    In his perceptive sermons, like those in the collection, Beggars in Velvet (1960), he comes alongside his listeners and readers with a Word of God that speaks to them, because it speaks to him, a word of grace that is never cheap (because it does offer and demand renewal, repentance, reconciliation, and redemption), but that does not pretend to exempt the preacher from the sins against which he or she preaches. This is one of the great differences in Marney’s prophetic ministry from the thin, shrill, prophetic pronounces of so many others. When he confronted hypocrisy, he did so with a wry smile, recognizing the hypocrites desire to be better. When he confronted social evils, he did so with genuine grief, recognizing the part he played in perpetuating them. And even when he quarreled with the church – and he did sometimes – it was a lover’s quarrel. He understood, as a preacher and as a pastor, that the Word of God was not his possession, was not synonymous with his words.

    Marney practiced a kind of faithful agnosticism, which was really just another kind of humility, as when he said of Karl Barth’s multivolume “doctrine of God” in the Church Dogmatics, that nobody knows 1,500 pages about God, not even in German! This humility could turn with scorn, to face the arrogance of certain atheists too, however, as when he said that while it is “a perfectly valid admission” for a person to say God is not alive to him or her, “to knock [God] off for the rest of the world seems to me presumptuous.”[3]

    I’m saying all of this today because Marney also said, “The first word of the Church is … against bad religion.”[4] This is especially true when the “bad religion” comes from our own ranks.

    I am more and more struck (and more and more saddened) by how many contemporary Christians seem to think that we are not known as followers of Jesus Christ by our love (as the spiritual song sings), but by our self-righteous contempt for people who aren’t like us, either in their values or beliefs or lifestyles. Maybe the most prophetic act we can perform, in this context, is to extend forgiveness to those our society doesn’t like to forgive, or to befriend those our culture would prefer to ignore, or to love those our co-religionists call “unlovely” and “unloveable.”

    It hardly matters whether a Christian identifies him or herself as a “Red state” or a “Blue state” sort. Neither has a monopoly on the Christian gospel. And, sadly, neither has a monopoly on self-righteousness and judgment. Grace is neither a conservative nor a liberal value. So the prophet of Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, taught us long before we had phrases like “Red state” or “Blue.” As far as Marney was concerned, grace is a human value; it was confirmed as such by Jesus of Nazareth, a person with whom we share a common humanity – though, to be frank, we don’t share the same religion. Maybe that’s worth thinking more about.

     

    [1] Mary Kraft, Marney (Charlotte: Myers Park Baptist Church, 1979), 76.

    [2] Carlyle Marney, Priests to Each Other (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1974), 20.

    [3] Mary Kraft, Marney, 92.

    [4] John J. Carey, Carlyle Marney: A Pilgrim’s Progress (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1980), 84.


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  • A Pilgrim People, the Bible, and the Challenge of Following a Living God

    by Michael Jinkins | May 17, 2011

    The greatest crisis of faithfulness the church has ever faced occurred during its infancy. We have a fairly full account of the controversy in the Book of Acts, chapters 10 and 11. It was a conflict over the issue of inclusivity.

    Simon Peter, we are told, had a dream in which he was offered “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” In the dream, a voice from heaven entreated him to kill and eat. Being a deeply devoted and faithful man, Peter might easily have taken this dream as a temptation. Peter obeyed the Bible, and the Bible clearly stated that he was forbidden to eat unclean animals. The Levitical laws were explicit on this subject. To eat an unclean animal would mean either laying aside or radically re-thinking core biblical teachings. But even in the midst of Peter’s deep offence at the thought of eating unclean animals, his response acknowledges that the vision was from God. Peter did not say, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” to the heavenly voice; he said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

    It is difficult for us as twenty-first-century Gentile Christians to comprehend the faithful revulsion prompted by Peter’s dream. To eat something unclean was a direct contradiction of God’s explicit commandments. As Peter was puzzling over the meaning of the troubling vision, a delegation came to him from a man named Cornelius, an Italian, indeed, a Roman centurion, a godly Gentile whom God had led to seek out Peter.

    The writer of Acts says: “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” So Peter went with these men to the home of Cornelius. Cornelius gathered his relatives and friends, who were eager to hear the gospel. Peter said to them, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit “fell upon all who heard the word.” Peter then inferred that he could not withhold baptism from people who had received the Holy Spirit. God was at work in ways Peter’s faith could not comprehend.

    The meeting of the apostles and other believers in Jerusalem, which followed soon after Peter’s experience with Cornelius, only confirmed both the deep conflict and the inevitable conclusion (at least it appears inevitable some twenty centuries later): God was at work, God was moving in ways that required Christ’s followers to fundamentally re-think their relationship to Torah, God’s law.

    This story ends with words that reflect as much puzzlement as praise. Peter says: “If then God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” The author of Acts comments: “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

    Paul’s missionary journeys and the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world were only possible because these staunchly Jewish, deeply faithful apostles sensed that God was up to something that called into question the continuing relevance for Christians of certain core convictions about what it means to live as faithful people. Apparently, God had determined that a person could follow Jesus of Nazareth without first becoming a Jew, and, hence, without obeying certain unambiguous regulations of Torah regarding circumcision and the keeping of certain laws, including dietary laws. The implications of this insight would be an ongoing controversy for decades, and are reflected, for example, also in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the book of Revelation.

    Christianity lives, as St. Irenaeus said, guided by God’s two hands, the Word and the Spirit. Through the centuries, the Word and the Spirit have guided faithful Christians as they have sought to discern God’s direction for the Church in the midst of shifting historical, social, and cultural realities. This process of discernment has not been easy, and the debate has often been contentious. Sometimes, it has been hard for the Church to hold together while it works through the implications of the gospel in new and varied contexts.

    Great controversies have sometimes erupted over how to interpret biblical texts in light of what the Spirit was saying to the Churches. Slavery was at long last denounced, after centuries, because Christians determined that Christ’s love demanded its abolition, even if the institution had been enshrined in many biblical texts. The great gift of ministry brought to our Church by the leadership of women alongside men only became a reality because the Church came to realize that the Spirit of God never stops leading the Body of Christ into new and deeper forms of faithfulness. And Gentiles are only included in the Church today because Peter was willing to allow Christ to lead him (and ultimately the Church) beyond the literal pages of the ancient laws preserved in the Bible.

    Our friend and colleague Gene March, former Dean of Louisville Seminary and A.B. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, refers to this movement of God among us as the “widening circle of divine love.” We are a pilgrim people following a living God. Perhaps the best responses to God’s leadership in such moments as the one through which we are living are awe, wonder, and praise. Certainly, the awareness of the challenges presented in our following a living God should make us all a little more humble and generous to the struggles of others as they seek to do the same.

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