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Thinking Out Loud
  • A Matter of Substance

    by User Not Found | Dec 06, 2011

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

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

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

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

    ______________________

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

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  • Water Skiing with a Dead Poet

    by User Not Found | Nov 29, 2011

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

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

    Done is a battel on the dragon blak,

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

    Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Synnaris be glaid and pennance do

    And thank your makar hairtfully,

    For he that ye mycht nocht cum to

    To yow is cummin full humly;

    Your saulis with his blud to by

    And lous yow of the fiendis arrest,

    And only of his awin mercy

    Pro nobis Puer natus est.

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

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

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  • The Purest Form of Thankfulness

    by User Not Found | Nov 22, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • The Next Frontier

    by User Not Found | Nov 15, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     


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

    [iii] Ibid., 83, figure 1.

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

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  • Self-Interest and the Glory of God

    by User Not Found | Nov 08, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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


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  • Solving Problems

    by User Not Found | Nov 01, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • A New Poet Laureate

    by User Not Found | Oct 25, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Great Pastors Are Omnivorous

    by User Not Found | Oct 18, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Costly Preaching

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

    Simple, right?

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

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

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

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

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  • Thinking Faith: Theological Education for Everyone

    by User Not Found | Oct 04, 2011

    This blog post was written by Michael Jinkins.

    Recently, I read an article that Craig Dykstra, Senior Vice President for Religion of the Lilly Endowment Inc., wrote over twenty years ago. I came across the article in the course of doing research for a book I’m writing on the future of the Reformed movement. Dykstra’s essay, “Thinking Faith: A Theological Education for the American Churches,”[i] is as relevant today as when he originally wrote it. It represents, I think, a clarion call to everyone who cares about providing people with the spiritual resources they need to live. It is an invitation to pastors, elders, Christian educators, professors, administrators, publishers, judicatory leaders, and others to explore new ways to bring the riches of theological knowledge to a large and diverse public.

    Doing this won’t necessarily be easy.

    For whatever reasons, we have seen considerable erosion of many of the institutional structures that supported once robust programs of theological education in our churches, especially for adults and youth. Many of the excellent magazines and curricula that delivered solid, thoughtful theological and biblical studies to church members a generation ago have simply disappeared. Meanwhile, although we have seen the development of some excellent programs seeking to bridge the gap between academic theology and congregational life, many of the most interesting and potentially edifying theological insights still have a hard time making it from the specialist journals to the pew.

    Many of us look back with longing to the “Covenant Life Curriculum” that came into being in the late 1960s, a series of Christian education resources that placed the biblical and theological wisdom of the leading theological minds of that day in the hands of Christians from every walk of life. I remember a conversation over dinner, several years now, with a business man in Shreveport, Louisiana. He had served on virtually every non-profit, church, college, and seminary board in his region, and he had given unselfishly of himself and his resources to support a wide variety of ministries. I asked him what made him the kind of Christian he was. With his usual humility he deflected the praise before saying that whatever he understood about living a good life, a Christian life, had come to him through the “Covenant Life Curriculum.” Theological education makes an incalculable difference in peoples’ lives.

    In contrast to those (and they are many) who say that people today just will not tolerate deep theological thought, Dykstra writes: “My own reading is that religious searching is going public, that there is a new taste for theology in the hearts of many, and a consequent yearning for a theological education, not only in the church, but in the larger context of public life.” To illustrate his point, he notes articles from a variety of “secular” writers about projects among all sorts and conditions of folks to study the Bible or to understand the complex, fast-moving, and pluralistic world we live in from the perspective of faith in God. One of the sources he cites is an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Can We Be Good Without God?” by Glenn Tinder, a political scientist, who asks: “If we turn away from transcendence, from God, what will deliver us from a politically fatal fear and faintheartedness?”

    Ironically, I frequently find that many of the most inquisitive essays about faith, especially the essays that are unafraid to plumb the depths of thought, are not in church or religious publications but are in periodicals like The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times. I’m not entirely certain what this says about us as Protestant Christians, except perhaps about our loss of nerve to speak thoughtfully about our faith. But I am relatively certain that the presence of thoughtful essays on faith in “secular” journals tells us that people yearn, as Dykstra says, to “think about ultimate things; and to think through penultimate things in the context of ultimacy.”

    He explains further: “I do sense a reasonably widespread feeling on the part of many people that the language, assumptions, and convictions of a radically secular culture are simply not rich enough to sustain the sort of life people feel in their bones that they are to live. Still hoping that religious traditions contain wisdom worth mining, many of the most discerning members of our society are asking for help from those who are theologically conversant.”

    Joe Nash, a member of our President’s Roundtable at Louisville Seminary, made much the same point last year in one of the “Listening Tour” conversations I had around the country. Joe, an active member of his church in Greenville, Mississippi, asked how we can bring the theological riches we enjoy routinely in our seminary classrooms to a much larger public.

    Without the deep resources of faith, the deep resources of a thinking faith, Dykstra observes that “fundamental questions” of life “get trivialized or become difficult if not impossible even to pose.” We need, as Ed Farley put it, “The wisdom proper to the life of the believer.” Dykstra adds that this wisdom is proper to the lives of non-believers too. This wisdom requires deep theological thought, not as the exclusive domain of the academic specialist but as a common inheritance of every Christian. We need this wisdom, not for our own sake, not to satisfy mere curiosity, nor to privately edify ourselves, but for the sake of the world around us, a world which suffers when it does not have adequate spiritual resources to deal with the challenges facing it.

    Dykstra unapologetically uses the term “theological education” to describe what we need: “Theological education means participation in an inquiry into the truth and substance of all things in the context of the present reality of God. Theological education means direct engagement with the resources needed for a thinking faith.” By using the term “theological education” he rejects the split we often see between the knowledge and wisdom we all need to live faithfully and that which pastors and other so-called “religious professionals” gain in a theological seminary. We all need the best, the deepest, the most thoughtful resources possible to deal with the moral, social, cultural, economic, political, and ecological demands of our time. “The times we live in require a thinking faith – or no faith at all!” Dykstra writes. “If Christian faith is not a thinking faith, it will not be Christian faith at all. It will be something else – something so flat and barren as to be the spiritual equivalent of despair; or something so external as to have no substantive effect on any dimension of our lives that does require thought.”

    Dykstra’s essay left me with a profound sense of possibility, a vital and exciting sense of opportunity that is directly related the palpable need in our society for thinking faith. And, as I said earlier, the essay sounds a clarion call to each and all of us, encouraging us to seize the opportunities of the moment, to act creatively to bring the best resources of our faith to as many people as possible. I invite you to read a portion of Craig Dykstra’s essay [ii] for yourself, and I will look forward to hearing how you respond to it.

     

    [i] Published in the Roman Catholic periodical, The Living Light, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Fall, 1990), pp. 7-16.

    [ii] A portion of Craig Dykstra’s essay, “Thinking Faith: A Theological Education for the American Churches,” is included in Chapter 1, “Hunger,” of Dykstra’s book, Growing in the life of faith: Education and Christian Practices, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).


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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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).

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  • 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.

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  • 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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