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Thinking Out Loud
  • God's Will

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 04, 2016

    God's Will“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself …" (Philippians 2:6-7a, New American Bible)

    Knowing the Love of God

    The air conditioner clattered in Father Paul Scaglione's office at the back of the parish house while outside a stifling heat bore down on the late afternoon. Hot air rippled visibly in waves as a lawnmower droned back and forth across the lawn.

    We had been talking a long time, much of my talk subtly avoiding what had brought me to that room. I sensed then, as perhaps never before, something of the frailty of the human condition. Well, my human condition anyway. Our meeting took place several weeks after a near-death experience when large blood clots that formed in my right leg broke off and showered my lungs with smaller clots. The persistent cough, which dogged my every step on a visit to New York City and left me drained at the end of each day, turned out not to be the remnants of a winter cold, as I had thought, but pulmonary embolisms in every lobe of both lungs. Lying in the hospital, my only thought had been how quickly I could get back to work. I had taken ill in the middle of chairing the Louisville Institute's Board meeting and was heading that weekend to Virginia to preach for my son's ordination, before going on to North Carolina for alum and donor events, followed by the seminary's spring convocation the next week. The fact that my life, let alone my schedule, had dramatically changed had not yet dawned on me.

    Suffice it to say, neither had I really reflected on my near death nor had I paused to reflect on why I kept such a frenetic pace. A song lyric by Rosanne Cash comes to mind now: "We talk about your drinking, but not about your thirst." Well, thirst can take many forms. And so can avoidance behavior.

    What brought me to visit with a spiritual director was a visit in that hospital room from a person who knows about human frailty - his own - my predecessor at Louisville Seminary, John Mulder. I remember waking up in that hospital bed hooked up to an IV and various monitors and hearing the “bing” from several machines made to keep me alive. Amid the disquieting paraphernalia of modern medicine, John was sitting in a chair pulled up close to my beside.

    "May I pray with you?" He asked. Waking slowly, and only gradually realizing I was not still dreaming, I said, "Hello John. Sure you can pray." After praying, John said that he wouldn't stay long, he just wanted me to know that he had left with my assistant the contact information for his therapist and his spiritual director. It was up to me, of course, but he hoped that I would call them when I was up to it. He wanted me to know that the struggles with which he dealt a decade or more before might have been avoided if he had sought such help. After a few minutes more, he left as quietly as he had arrived.

    I was grateful, but perplexed. In truth, I had a hard time understanding how all the things for which I was praised could possibly be a problem. I was, after all, often told how well I was doing professionally because of my high energy, because of the way that I just kept going and going, because of my willingness to pile on one more visit to a potential donor, to squeeze in one more trip into an already tight schedule, or to go from one meeting to another, to another, and another without a break. I was driven and emotionally intense. How could it possibly be that something so good could be a problem? How could my behavior be connected to an accident of physiology? After all, I only got sick.

    As the air conditioner clattered and whined that early summer afternoon on my first visit to my spiritual director, I gradually unwrapped for him what brought me to his office, and I debated internally whether I really needed to be there. At some point, I stopped talking. The silence gathered slowly. We sat there for a few moments. Finally, Father Paul broke the silence by saying that what God wanted for me, for all of us, is simply for us to know the love of God ̶ that we know ourselves loved and forgiven and accepted by God. That is God's will for us.

    I sat there for a few moments taking in the child-like simplicity of this message. Then I said, "Well, I've got a pretty good idea that isn't all my seminary expects of me." To which Father Paul smiled and repeated what he believes God wants for us.

    I suppose, if I had to be brutally honest, I just didn't believe him that day. I mean, I believed that he believed he was right, but I didn't think he was. What he said was "very Christian," as I said to him then. It also sounded, well, naive. As our time drew to a close (after something over two hours of conversation), I said, "So, do you want me to pray or something? Is that what you suggest?"

    I'll never forget what he said next. "No. You're not ready to pray."

    It took a long while before I came to understand that he was right, and not only about my not being ready to pray. What God wants for me, for all of us, is to know the love of God, to know ourselves as being loved, forgiven, and accepted by God. But knowing the love of God, as my spiritual director understood and I did not yet, was going to take something more than just thinking about it.

    Inhabiting the Heart

    I'm a theologian, and theologians are pretty good at knowing a lot of things we don't understand. Some theologians, like Karl Rahner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are good at both knowing and understanding, but I wouldn't say they are typical of my tribe.

    As a theologian, I knew the difference between saying "God is love" and merely saying "God loves." I had written a dissertation based in large measure on this very distinction. But it is a very different thing to make the southward journey from my brain (which knows) to my heart (which understands).

    They say that some people don't really make such journeys until they hit bottom, and bottom for me was not that winter day as I lay on a hospital bed being prayed for by John. It certainly wasn't that summer afternoon sitting in Father Paul's office for the first time. It was a year later when I found myself at Gethsemani Abbey utterly at the end of my emotional and spiritual rope, praying alone in the abbey church those simple words from the Psalms that have been a refuge for generations of Christians:

    "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me." (Psalms 70:1)

    What happened during those days of silence cannot be put into words. But it had something to do with embracing the emptiness that is true to our being and entrusting whatever we are and whatever we will be and whatever we may do to God alone. Into that emptiness and surrender flowed the love that is God.

    I came to understand that when we say that God wants nothing so much as for us to know the love of God, we are not just saying that God wants us to "feel loved," although that is no small thing in itself, but that God wants us to be drenched and soaked in God's love and to learn to share in that love that is God's being so that we may become like God in ourselves and toward others. To do that requires a strange and paradoxical thing. We have to let go of ourselves. We have to let go of whatever image of ourselves we cling to. We have to let go of that false self certainty that demands that we feed its continual and bottomless appetites. We also have to let go of that self that appears so good that we would be willing to sacrifice absolutely everything to maintain it.

    I have been struck, again and again, by the resonance between the commandment that prohibits our making of ourselves (or of any created thing) a graven image (Deuteronomy 5:7-8), Jesus' warning that if we cling to ourselves, we shall lose ourselves (Mark 8:34-37), and the Buddhist belief that the root of suffering lies in the illusion of a permanent, fixed self which must be kept secure against all life's changes. When we come to the point of loosening our fisted grip upon ourselves and our deep need to control the world around us, to make the world and the people around us over in "our image," we become open to know the love of God.

    It seems that we become open to receiving the love of God by loosening our grip upon ourselves because the love that is God is a self-emptying love.

    Surely, you say, I must have known that! That's Sunday school stuff! But, again, there's a great difference between knowing something in our heads and understanding it in our hearts, between knowing something as a kind of theological fact and knowing it as an existential necessity.

    God is love. Such a simple thing to say. Such a simple thing to believe. God is that love and life and creative energy that pours itself out without reservation and without holding back. The "source" of all being gives itself away to and through the "other" who reciprocates in joy, thankfulness, reverence, and love, emptying itself in an eternal act of mutual self-giving. That love, life, and creative energy, that eternal act of self-giving that flows between God the "source" and God the "other" is itself also God the "spirit." God wants nothing so much as for all creatures to know, to be drenched in and to share in this love that God is ̶ ever-flowing, ever-giving, ever-emptying, ever-filled.

    This is the unavoidable and irresistible reality at the heart of being, the reality that empowers every act of creation, and the spirit that breathes forth compassion and justice. This is the love that made us out of nothing at all. This is the love that makes us whole, that makes peace within and among us. This is God's will for our lives, and God uses all of life as God's tools to bring us to this love.

    To know the love of God is to inhabit the spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. And, so, the author of Philippians pleads with his hearers and with us, his words climaxing in the text of our oldest Christian hymn:

    "If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being in the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.

    "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
         Who, though he was in the form of God,
           did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
         Rather, he emptied himself,
         taking the form of a [servant],
         coming in human likeness,
         and found human in appearance,
         he humbled himself,
         becoming obedient to death,
               even death on a cross."

                          (Philippians 2:1-8, New American Bible)

  • The Name of God is Mercy

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 01, 2016

    The Name of God is MercyPope Francis has been in the news again. But I'm not going to talk about that. Well, not right away.

    Recently, the pope was in Mexico, where he spoke to a large gathering (it filled a soccer stadium) of young people in Morelia. I listened to his sermon on television and was struck by his words to these young people, some of whom live in desperate poverty: "You are the wealth of Mexico," Francis said again and again throughout his sermon. He told them he was not saying this to flatter them, but to help them understand what it means to walk with Jesus. Then he warned them not to become "mercenaries of other people's ambition."

    In the midst of an age when financial considerations seem to provide the clinching argument in so many disputes, the pope broadened the meaning of “economics.” He reminded us that the church has long used the word, "economics," in ways that call into question the reductionism of so many contemporary discussions. Traditionally, the Christian Faith has used phrases like "God's economy" or "the economy of God's redemption" to speak comprehensively of the working-out of God's ultimate purposes for all creation.

    The Greek word from which we derive the term economics, oikos, denoted the basic social group in the ancient Greek political world. The word made its way into Christian theology through the Greek New Testament, where it meant a human dwelling place, a house, or a home. Thus, by extension, “economics” refers theologically to the ordering of the "dwelling place" and of the living relations of human society according to the way of Jesus Christ.

    The pope’s comments reminded me of something Professor James Torrance, a Reformed theologian and pastor, once said. Torrance observed that the fundamental mistake of Capitalism, Communism and Socialism is to reduce the human being to a financial unit, whether a unit of consumption or of labor. Human beings in God's economy are created in God's triune image for God's redemptive purposes and are called in their humanity to live together in love, justice, peace, and mercy.

    When Francis speaks of "wealth," then, he evokes a Christian theology of economics. In so doing, he challenges us to allow our faith as Christians to take priority over all other interests.

    Looking into the faces of these young people, as the television camera panned across the vast crowds, it was easy to see what the pope meant when he described them as "the wealth of Mexico." These young people, first and foremost, are children of God called to touch the suffering of the world, the human household, with God's healing love.

    But the main reason the pope has been in the news recently is because his name has been mentioned in connection with our presidential election campaign.

    I would like to say something that may surprise the readers of this blog. I agree with one thing recently said about the pope. Although the comment made about him was said derisively and as a criticism, I believe that what was said about him should be taken as a high compliment. It was said that "the pope is very political."

    As a Christian theologian, I would say that what the pope said in Mexico was political. But the way the pope is "political" is not the way the criticism seems to have meant. It all has to do with the way we have changed (and I would say perverted) the meaning of the word "political" to describe something sordid, narrowly partisan, and antithetical to authentic Christian faith. However, the word “political” has a deeper, nobler meaning than what gets tossed around by both political parties and a number of religious figures in our country these days.

    Politics, classically and theologically understood, relates to the way people order their lives together. The word “politics,” like the word “economics,” is from the Greek; it comes from the Greek word polis meaning "the people," as in "We, the people" (see, for example, Aristotle's use of the word in his classic essay on the subject). The pope is political in the best, highest, and the most theological sense of that word, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is inescapably political; the gospel is about the way people live together to the glory of God.

    The gospel of Jesus Christ is and always has been concerned with the ways we order our lives together. From the Magnificat (the prayer of Jesus' mother, Mary; Luke 1:46-55) to the pages of Revelation (a book of apocalyptic "forth-telling" not "fore-telling"), the faith of Jesus of Nazareth is resonant with the message of the great prophets of the Old Testament. Christ came to bring to every beating human heart the reign of God that restores humanity and all of creation to God's vision of love, justice, peace, and mercy. Our Christian faith prays and works for justice that rolls down "like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24) as much as for the personal repentance, forgiveness, and righteousness that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor, the hungry, those excluded and hated for his sake; Luke 6:20-22). St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. James, as well as the gospel and letters written under the name of St. John, reiterate this message, making it clear that the gnostic division of spirit (as good) from human flesh (as evil) is false. God didn't go to all the trouble of incarnation just to make us religious, but to redeem and restore us to that humanity for which we were created in God's image.

    I am saying all of this simply to provide a Christian context for some of the controversies that rage in the highly partisan and ideologically fevered world in which issues are often discussed in our society. It has become very hard for modern Christians to "hear" about certain issues without first putting these issues through their partisan and ideological filters before allowing them to be submitted to the gospel. Thus, when the pope speaks as a Christian leader and teacher on a subject such as immigration (to take just the most recent example), his comments are immediately tallied up as belonging to a particular version of partisanship or ideology, when, in fact, he may simply be trying to articulate and apply the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whatever our national interests may or may not be, we Christians are called to be "neighbors."

    Many years ago, in the midst of the controversy in our Presbyterian Church over the so-called "Sanctuary Movement" (a social movement in the 1980s in response to the plight of an earlier generation of people seeking refuge from a dangerous situation in their countries of origin in Latin America), I led the congregation I then served as pastor through a biblical study of the issue. Interestingly, while we could find scant biblical mandate for the concept of "sanctuary," which dates in the Christian world to the late fourth-century AD, we did find in Jesus' teachings (e.g., Luke 10:25-37) and in the teachings of St. Paul (e.g., Galatians 3:26-28) a much more demanding and universal mandate. According to the gospel, the "neighborhood" of Jesus Christ travels with each of us. The question Jesus raises is not, "Can this or that person be defined as a neighbor?" But, "Am I a neighbor?" We are called to view ourselves as the neighbor of whomever we meet - whatever their culture, race, religion, or nationality. And we are called to extend to them nothing less than the "neighborhood" of Christ, that is, the love and justice, peace and mercy of Jesus Christ. This "neighborhood" of Christ extends beyond every boundary ever erected by whatever political or economic powers or principalities that have risen and fallen in history, from empires to nation-states.

    After we finished our study, one of the most wonderful members of that church's session came to me with a question. "So, if a person fleeing another country comes to my door seeking help, as a Christian, I am their neighbor in Jesus Christ, and I should serve them in a way that is consistent with that calling. Is that right?”

    I told her yes, that seems to be what the Bible teaches.

    "Okay, then," she said. "I will, if they come. But I will also pray that they don't come to my door."

    This was one of the most honest responses I've ever heard to the claim of the gospel. She heard the gospel. And she took it seriously while recognizing that she didn't think it coincided with her interests or inclinations. This is where the pope's message gets really tough, because his new book, The Name of God is Mercy (New York: Random House, 2016), echoes a message preached by one of his predecessors, "the name of God is mercy." Mercy, it turns out, is not only a theological virtue, it is a political virtue as well.

    In the series of interviews presented in his new book, Francis says: "I am ever more convinced of it, this is a kairos, our era is a kairos of mercy, an opportune time."

    Drawing on the biblical concept of the fullness of time, "kairos" time in contrast to "chronological" time, God's time as opposed to the time on the clock or the calendar, this is the opportune moment, according to Francis, to accomplish what God intends for the sake of God's mercy. The pope challenges us, in the midst of a polarized age, a fearful age, an age that glorifies bullying and aggression, greed and covetousness, that now is the right moment to act selflessly, to risk living out the implications of God's redemptive economy. As Pope Francis says, quoting John XXIII in his opening of the Second Vatican Council: "The Bride of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than arm herself with the weapons of rigor." Quoting another of his predecessors, Benedict XVI, Francis says: "Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel message; it is the name of God himself, the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ."

    Mercy is the name of God. That is the pope's message. And, as we've heard at the end of a thousand paid political announcements on television, "I approve this message."

  • Cultivating Resilience

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 23, 2016

    resilienceIn recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to one particular personal characteristic as a key to thriving in leadership and ministry: Resilience.

    Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, in their popular book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (New York: Free Press, 2012), described resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances” (p. 7). In a chapter titled, “The Translational Leader,” they explain that while they had not intended to write a book on “the seven habits of highly resilient people,” they discovered in the course of their research that whenever they found communities that were able “to reorganize dynamically in the face of disruption” they also “encountered the same character over and over again” among the leadership of these communities. “These leaders demonstrated an uncanny ability to knit together different constituencies and institutions – brokering relationships and transactions across different levels of political, economic, and social organization” (p. 239).

    re●sil●ience (rĭ-zĭlˊyəns) n. The ability to come back from failures, disappointments, grief, and humiliation, and to come back stronger because of what was learned in the midst of circumstances that might discourage or even break another person.

    This is a quality valued by many leaders. We have heard political leaders of both parties talk about what they have learned from being rejected by voters or from the “beatings” they have taken. We have heard also of inventors and artists who repeatedly tried and failed until they found that original contribution only they could make.

    Ministers and other leaders of religious organizations will recognize the quality which Zolli and Healy describe because the term “resilience” is so similar to what Edwin Friedman often referred to as “persistence” and “stamina” in his A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury, 1999, 2007, pp. 188-189). More recently, my friend and colleague, George Sinclair, Jr., the senior pastor of Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, Alabama, explored the spiritual and pastoral dimensions of resilience in his book, Walking in Wonder: Resilience in Ministry (Eugene: Cascade, 2014). George identifies resilience as a spiritual quality. “Pastoral leadership,” he says, “… is more art than science; it is more dance than technique. It is less about management and more about imagination. And imagination is grounded in wonder” (p. 105).

    The question we are left to ask is this: Can resilience be nurtured, or is it simply a personality trait you either have or don’t have and there’s nothing much you can do about it?

    While we might examine “resilience” in psychological or sociological terms, I think George’s pastoral exploration of the subject is especially helpful, at least to me as a person of faith. It leads me to believe we can, indeed, nurture resilience as a theological or spiritual quality. George opens the door to understanding how spiritual disciplines and practices can make us more resilient when he says that resilience is fundamentally “grounded in wonder.”

    Recently I asked a colleague in ministry, someone who is known as much by their ability to deal with the stresses of leadership as she is by her success, to tell me what she believes is the key to her own resilience. Though the words she used are different from those used by George, the theological insight is the same. She is learning (and she resisted saying she “has learned”) to understand that everything and everyone she loves and values and cares about and all she works to accomplish belong to the God who is greater than she can conceive and more loving than she can imagine.

    “How do you learn to do that?” I asked.

    “Prayer,” she responded. “Prayer.”

    I used to have a cartoon taped to my door when I was a pastor. I think it came from Leadership magazine, a quarterly that was published by Christianity Today. It showed a church secretary poking her head into the pastor’s office, and, seeing him on his knees praying, she says to the person behind her, “Oh, good. You can come on in. He’s not doing anything.”

    We active-minded, high-achieving Protestant sorts tend to think of prayer either as intercession for things we want God to do or as navel-gazing. I suspect that is why many people, some pastors included, complain that they have prayed and prayed but “nothing happened.” Many of us just don’t seem to understand a concept of prayer that runs throughout the histories of Christian and Jewish thought. Prayer isn’t primarily intended to change God, but us.

    We tend to think of prayer as “talking to God.” And there are times, places, and occasions when prayer is a matter of “talking to God.” But prayer is far, far more than this. And when it comes to developing, nurturing and maintaining resilience, stamina and persistence in us, it is to this “far, far more” that we need to look.

    Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, in an essay he contributed to a book exploring the relationship between Thomas Merton and the spirituality of the Eastern Church, writes: “The Russian Orthodox saint Seraphim of Sarov says, ‘Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation’.” [Jonathan Montaldo, editor, Merton & Hesychasm: The Eastern Church & the Prayer of the Heart (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2003), p. 3]. And how do we attain this inner peace that benefits not only ourselves but all of those with whom we come into contact (including the congregations and organizations we lead)?

    Bishop Ware continues:

    “‘Act out of stillness.’ Unless by God’s grace we possess in some measure stillness of heart, a quality designated in the Greek Orthodox mystical tradition by the word hesychia, our acts will prove superficial and ineffective. But if we act out of the stillness, our actions may effect healing and transfiguration far beyond anything we imagine possible. ‘Act out of the stillness.’ Contemplative action is the most powerful action of all.” (p. 3)

    There is no shortcut to the stillness of heart that produces and maintains resilience in us. It requires practice, regular practice that gradually suffuses our whole lives and shapes our responses to others.

    Some time ago, in a previous blog, I mentioned the thought of another teacher of Eastern Christianity, Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 AD). His understanding of equanimity in the face of all the changes and disappointments of life is particularly relevant in this context. The disposition of inner calmness and composure which he teaches us to cultivate is closely related to resilience.

    What is required in order to cultivate this inner calmness, this equanimity which keeps us balanced no matter what life brings and prevents us from living in dread of the future, regret of the past and resentment of those who may differ from us? Evagrius invites us to find places of sustained silence and periods of solitude where God can strip away all the false images of ourselves that keep us from being the persons God created us to be. Evagrius invites us to risk placing ourselves in the proximity to God’s Word beyond the reach of distractions that amuse us and keep us from seeing ourselves in light of God. He invites us, first and foremost, to listen for God. And, if we listen for God, undistracted, he believes we will learn to offer ourselves to God without reservation, trusting God to do with our lives as God intends.

    And, so, Evagrius encourages us:

    “Pray not to this end, that your own desires will be fulfilled. You can be sure that they do not fully accord with the will of God. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that ‘thy will be done’ in me. In every matter ask God in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as God does.”

    Practicing the presence of God in our lives, a practice that necessarily begins in silence and some degree of solitude, has the potential to stream into every aspect of our lives, making it possible for us to see God present wherever we find ourselves. Ironically, it is precisely in the consciousness of our emptiness in the presence of God that we can be filled with God’s Spirit of life and love; it is in the awareness of our brokenness that we are healed and made whole however life may have bruised us; and it is in our weakness that we experience God’s strength. And it is by this that resilience is cultivated in us.

  • God is in the Clouds

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 19, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    God is in the CloudsThe fields of Central Texas range over softly rolling topography. Crops of wheat, sorghum and cotton take their turns maturing under skies of blue that blaze white-hot from May to late September. My daily walks as a young pastor took me past fields that stretched to a horizon bounded to the West, North and South only by the curvature of the earth and to the East by The Mountain, a hulking mesquite-covered plateau notorious for harboring rattlesnakes.

    If the scenery did not stop your heart, the occasional flock of blackbirds exploding from a field would. Midday often found me watching birds break into the sky, turn, and turn again, like a cloud alive with black wings until they settled in a distant field or dipped to follow a tractor furrowing the black earth. There were moments when the only sound was a driving Texas wind, dry and hot, when the air was charged with the aromas of snuff and wildflowers, and the reign of God seemed to embrace creation right down to the roots of the blanched grass at my feet. In the midst of the land, a collection of houses and buildings rose like stubble in a gleaned field, and in the midst of it all an old church tower, white as bleached bones, marked the gathering place of the congregation where I served as pastor.

    I was not a stranger to the country, having grown up on an East Texas farm. But I was a stranger to the world of vast family farms that made up my parish, a world largely vanished now. I had lived in larger towns and in cities for more than ten years as a student and in my first pastoral position. Here, I had to become reacquainted with the agricultural calendar, the rhythms of the worked earth, of tilling, planting, cultivating, harvesting, lying fallow, and tilling again.

    The first time I visited the small town of Itasca, Texas, I was struck by how far it was from any metropolitan area. It could not even claim the distinction of being in the middle of nowhere. It was just on the periphery of nowhere. Most travelers knew Itasca only because there was a Dairy Queen and a state maintained rest stop (now gone) on the interstate where you would turn to go into town. Few turned. Most Presbyterians knew Itasca simply because of the Presbyterian Children's Home nearby. Frankly I worried about the remoteness of the parish. I wondered if my family and I would fit in, if we would get bored with the slower pace of life, if we would find the kinds of friends there we had known and loved in the city. My concerns on these scores were put to rest. When we eventually left Itasca, after almost five years as their pastor, we experienced a grief that took years to get over. We had become part of the community, the people and the land.

    "Someday you're going to look back on this time as the best of your life," a judicatory official said to me as we walked along the sidewalk in Itasca. Oddly enough, there have been few times in my life that I don't look back on as the best time of my life, including last week, or yesterday. Usually I feel like "this moment, right now" is the best time ever in my life. But I have, in fact, looked back on this first solo pastorate as particularly wonderful, and I have often wondered why it was so good.

    I think there are basically two reasons, and they are related to two things I learned then.

    First, I discovered in that first solo pastorate that the great voices of the church's past, including its distant past, are a living cloud of witnesses, that they are our exact contemporaries (to adapt a phrase from Sǿren Kierkegaard), that they have something to tell us and something to teach us that we would be infinitely poorer if we did not know.

    Second, I realized that the people with whom I served - the members of the congregation I knew and loved and cared for - were also among the great cloud of witnesses. I learned that sainthood is a living category, that one does not have to die to be canonized. These two discoveries transformed my ministry right at the beginning of it and made me understand that our salvation is a matter of our long-term transformation, and that this transformation occurs in real concrete communities of faith. We are shaped as pastors by the congregations we shape. We change them (we hope, for the better); and often they transform us redemptively.

    I think my learning these two things was somehow connected with the geography, the place, we inhabited together. Somehow I was able to focus on the sacrament of human community because distractions were subdued. I do not mean to idealize or sentimentalize or romanticize the country parson's life. To do so would diminish its sacred quality. The people I served were not paper cutouts. These were real people, often leading difficult lives. People suffered irreparable losses in that community. There were divorces, bankruptcies, illnesses, injuries and deaths. There were betrayals small and large. All of humanity, its good and bad, is concentrated in a village. We knew one another well - sometimes too well. But there was integrity to the life, wholeness of earth, sky and community that made our churchly life come into focus.

    The ancient formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the church there is no salvation") took on new meaning for me as a statement of the most common and obvious sense: we are called into wholeness by God, and we become all God created us to be only in communion with others. This may not be what the Church fathers meant by this statement, but I came to believe it is the doctrine's truest meaning. God calls us from disintegration into a community that is grounded in the very being of God's own communal being. Father, Son, and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer: these halting attempts to speak of God's own plurality in union, name the relationship that God is, in the image of which we were created. We were made to be together (this is the character of the God in whose likeness we were made), and without this togetherness we can't become who we were created to be.

    I learned these lessons, the first about the contemporary nature of past saints, and the second about the sanctity of my contemporaries, simply by paying attention in the particular setting in which we lived as a congregation, by allowing the classical witnesses to Christian faith to become my conversation partners and by privileging the wisdom of those with whom I broke bread. Of all the things I learned as a young pastor, these are the lessons that remain.

    Clouds of witnesses surround us like mists rising early before the day settles in. Clouds of witnesses break from fields of stubble like black birds on the wing. And God is in the clouds.

    [This blog is based on a chapter I contributed to a book edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr., From Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral Beginnings, Michael L. Lindvall, foreword (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008). Used with permission.]

  • Love and Sacredness

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 15, 2016

    Pinecone Church

    Down a leafy country road, curving and climbing through the English county of Cumbria, just when we thought we'd gone astray, the small village of Wreay came into view, hardly more than a wide spot in the narrow road. Getting there had been an adventure.

    The GPS wasn't much help. Nor was the huge British highway atlas that Debbie cradled in her lap. The tiny roads on the map looked like sinuous blue capillaries, unnumbered and without intersections. We'd left the big six-lane motorway that runs down the western side of the country from Glasgow to "the South" (as all the signs on the freeway vaguely read, as though to say, "If you don't know where you're going, we don't much care if you get there"). Just beyond Carlisle was where we decided we take our cross-country chances because we knew the major highway didn't go to a village as small as Wreay. We chose a small road toward Penrith, exited the motorway, and catapulted off the roundabout in a generally eastward direction.

    Now, if ever you're trying to find the turn to Wreay from the old Penrith road, just one piece of advice: If you come to the turn for the village of Unthank, you've gone too far. Find a driveway and turn around. But don't turn around in the driveway of the apparently perpetually irritable farmer who has a "No Turning! This means you!" sign in his drive.

    We did find the turn to Wreay, and our marriage survived the journey. And that's saying "summut" as they say in the north of England. We found St. Mary's Church, better known as the Pinecone Church, smack in the middle of the village. It is surely one of the most remarkable church buildings ever designed, combining naturalistic and mystical carvings, references to paganism, the natural sciences, paleoarchaeology and patristic theology. Insects share wall space with angels, and everywhere pinecones are carved. The elegant curved apse graces an otherwise simple rectangle of stone. A couple of years ago I wrote a whole blog on the church's remarkable architecture and it's even more remarkable architect and patron, Sarah Losh, who built this basilica in the nineteenth century.

    I had wanted to see the church since I first read about it. What most struck me about the church "in the flesh" was not its unique design and its wondrous, playful carvings, or even the richly wooded site where it stands. What struck me most was the love to which every stone and tree bears witness.

    Love can make a place holy. As surely as lives sacrificed in war can hallow a place like the battlefield at Gettysburg, compelling a visitor to tread quietly across a wide pasture where hundreds fell, just as surely Wreay's churchyard hushes the voice, slows the step, bows the head.

    Sarah's love is what does it. Sarah's love for a friend, a brave young army officer who never returned from a distant war. Sarah's love for her parents. Above all else, I think, Sarah's love for her sister whose tomb dominates the small graveyard, hallows this place; her beautiful, graceful likeness is carved in marble, her gown flowing softly in the darkness of the mausoleum.

    So much whimsy among the cavorting figures that festoon the church inside and out, but the pinecones carved everywhere solemnly remind us that this place of worship is not just about life's joyful abundance, but about death as well, and a hope almost desperate for resurrection. So much grief over lives cut down before their time, and lives lived out into a lonely old age, so much love poured out in tears. Holy rivers of tears baptize this beloved soil, all the more beloved because of those who lie beneath its surface or rest in tombs upon it.

    After Debbie and I visited the church and the family graveyard and strolled the park in which the church stands, we went across to the ancient pub, hoping we weren't too late for lunch (we were). There we found a chatty publican who told us that the pub dated virtually from the founding of the village, centuries before this church was built, and that if it wasn't for the pub the church never would have been built.

    Maybe he was right, from his perspective. But it was love that built St. Mary's, and it is love that holds it in time and space to this day, suspended in this world as in a gossamer web of pure devotion.

  • A Mantra for Leaders

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 08, 2016

    MantraWhen presidents of theological schools gather, you get a really interesting combination of conversations ranging from hard-won wisdom to pedestrian kvetching. This year's gathering of presidents of graduate schools belonging to the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) was no exception. Except that it offered an especially large amount of the former and much less of the latter.

    Over the course of three sun-drenched days in San Antonio, Texas (does anyone want to guess why ATS, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, has its annual January meeting of presidents in San Antonio?), we heard from some of the most knowledgeable people in theological education, including Dan Aleshire, the longtime executive director of ATS, Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Seminary, and Richard Lischer, professor at Duke Divinity School and author of the best-selling memoir, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery (New York: Harmony, 2002). We also heard from our fellow presidents sharing some of those "I wish I'd known then what I know now" sorts of insights that are priceless.

    Among the most valuable of these sessions was a brief presentation by Dale Meyer, president of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Among the insights Dale doled out to us was what he referred to as his "mantra," three phrases which were handed down to him by another colleague who in turn had received the saying from yet another leader. Like so many great pieces of wisdom, the advice finds its way to us as an oral tradition. If you happen to know the original source, please let me know.

    Here's the mantra that Dale repeats to himself regularly and which I guarantee will become part of my prayer and meditation:

    "Accept chaos.
    Give back calm.
    Provide hope."

    I'm going to reflect briefly on each of the elements of Dale's mantra.

    Accept Chaos
    Will Willimon once observed that the worst possible preparation for becoming a minister (and I would include institutional leaders of most any sort, too) is a prior career as a group photographer. Anyone, Will says, who is going into ministry needs to give up on getting everyone pointed in the same direction, standing still and smiling at the same time.

    You don't have to be a Zen priest or a Greek philosopher to know that life just doesn't hold still for long. Everything changes. Order proceeds toward disorder. When you get up in the morning, it is utter folly to expect that everything you nailed down yesterday remained fixed overnight. Nothing stays fixed. Either in place or repaired!

    This is why the most important preparation we do for any meeting is not the agenda (as important as it obviously is), but ourselves. And we prepare ourselves best not by trying to anticipate every single, imaginable, possible thing that might arise in the meeting, endlessly playing the tapes of the possible disputes or arguments we dread might happen. We prepare ourselves best by entrusting ourselves and the group that is meeting to God's providential care, asking that God lead us all into God's own purposes - which, incidentally, are almost never identical with the will of any individual around whatever metaphorical table we are gathered.

    Change is the fundamental reality of life. The sooner we come to realize this, the better for us and the organizations we lead. Improvisation fits the reality of organizational leadership better than the ability to read a musical score. But, as every jazz musician knows, improvisation is as much a matter of practiced skill as it is art. In the midst of the change, craziness and chaos, there is something else required of us, even if we are skilled in improvisation.

    Give Back Calm
    I think it may have been Ed Friedman who said that the indispensable gift a leader has to give her organization is to be a circuit breaker within its systems. If he didn't say this, he should have, because really this is at the heart of his much-discussed ideas of a well-differentiated leader who projects a non-anxious presence.

    Organizations NEED their leaders to be calm, cool and collected, especially in the midst of all their chaos. The more conflict there is, the more calm the organization needs from its leader. Rattled leaders, anxious and excitable leaders, emotionally reactive leaders only make matters worse. To return to the metaphor of the circuit breaker, the hotter the system runs, the cooler the leader needs to be to make sure the whole thing doesn't blow.

    Shortly after becoming a seminary president, I asked several experienced presidents what was the most important thing they had learned about leadership. One said that a leader must learn to speak very, very softly. The louder the situation, the softer we should speak. Though he had a pretty quiet voice to start with, I really think he was speaking metaphorically. Bombastic posturing seldom leads to good decision-making. It just tends to turns up the temperature in the room.

    If the system needs a circuit breaker, so does the leader herself. Each of us needs that internal switch that allows us to hit pause in the midst of a tense situation, that mechanism that restrains us from reacting on impulse and allows us the emotional room to respond thoughtfully, constructively and calmly. Calmness makes it possible for us to listen to others. A leader who is calm and who listens tends to influence others to do the same. Reflectivity is as contagious as is reactivity, and calm reflection allows the room needed in a group to see a fuller range of options than does anxiety-driven reactivity.

    Provide Hope
    Hope is the opposite of cynicism, and hope is a theological act. It goes far deeper and is far more enduring than mere optimism.

    Hope is the confidence that we and our families, churches, schools, organizations and, indeed, the whole wide world belong to God. "Into thy hands," is a prayer of pure hope, and it is the prayer a leader can pray throughout the day without ceasing.

    A year or so ago, I was visiting a young ministry couple. Over lunch, the wife shared with me her frustrations about a worship service she had recently attended. The whole thing was so dismal, she said. The minister seemed tired and distracted throughout the entire service; the sermon was about depression, but it mostly just seemed depressing. After describing the service to me, she said, "The church should be about hope. Our people need hope."

    I was reminded of this conversation during the recent ATS presidents meeting when Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, related a similar experience of a friend of hers. She said her friend was attending a Mass conducted by a priest who dolefully and drearily stumbled through the liturgy. It was a very sad affair. Her friend told Kerry that afterward she had to bite her tongue to keep from telling the priest, "Father, I know this is the holy sacrifice of the Mass, but you're not the one being sacrificed!"

    Our churches and other organizations look to their leaders for hope. Not glorified gold-plated nonsense, by the way, but real hope. And that hope resides in the confidence that God will take the best we can do and do with it more than we could ever have imagined. This hope lives in the confidence that God is up to bigger and better things than we can ask or imagine.

    So, here's a mantra worth remembering always and repeating often:

    "Accept chaos.
    Give back calm.
    Provide hope."

  • Do We Worship the Same God?

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 05, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Thin Places 11When I meet God I am prepared to stand corrected. This is because, as a Christian, I believe that when I meet God, I'm in for some surprises. I think we all are.

    The incomparable Daniel Migliore, for many years professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, was often heard to quote St. Augustine of Hippo, the greatest theologian in the church's history, as saying: "If you understand God, it is not God you have understood." The impenetrable wonder, the utter incomprehensibility, the wholly, infinite otherness of God mean that God defies all of our definitions, exceeds all of our expectations, will not be contained in any of our little doctrines however sincerely or ferociously we hold them. The most ancient of Christian orthodox traditions holds that God is not a thing, that God is not an object, and that God is not one more category among all the other categories within human conception. Or, to put it in terms familiar with Christian theology, we are made in God's image, not vice versa.

    Yet, the tendency persists among religious folk to believe that some of us have God in a box, our own little box, and that God belongs to us alone. All others must be mistaken.

    There's the old joke about a recent arrival in heaven being shown around the grounds by an angel. He is shown Presbyterians happily playing volley ball with Roman Catholics and Baptists; Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and Hasidic Jews making s'mores by a campfire, even a weathered Neolithic shaman wrapped in elk hides laughing it up with a Buddhist priest and a Muslim imam. As the new arrival and the angel make their way across a vast Elysium field, they come upon a tall stone wall with "Quiet Please" signs prominently posted. "What's with the signs?" asks the new arrival. "Shhhh, that's where the [ ___ fill in the blank with your favorite sect ___ ] live. They think they're the only ones up here."

    The inclination to exclude others on the basis of religious beliefs is virtually universal. That doesn't make it any less offensive or puzzling.

    Recently I came across a passage in H. Richard Niebuhr's Social Sources of Denominationalism (a book written in 1926!) which posed the conundrum with a wry twist of humor. I'm paraphrasing, but Niebuhr expressed his own bewilderment over the idea that God evaluates our eligibility for eternal salvation on the basis of opinions we hold regarding metaphysical processes.

    When you say it like that, it really does sound bizarre.

    Again, as a Christian, I believe we live in the two-thousand-year-old afterglow of an encounter with a human being in whom we believe we have met none other than God. We are left with the stunned, often frightened, even sometimes disbelieving, testimonies of those who first met this man. We are left with questions galore about how it is possible for God, the immutable and eternal, to become a human creature, frail and subject to change. But all of these questions about "how" evaporate, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, when in awed silence we meet this Word who is God.

    The one thing we are not left with after this encounter is a secure, dogmatic place on which to stand in the presence of the eternal Mystery. We certainly are not left with a divine mandate or even permission to judge who has the right answers. As a Christian, I just don't have the option to judge, not if I want to follow the Palestinian Jewish rabbi named Jesus who said, "Judge not, lest you be judged."

    Yet, again, the impulse to exclude persists among us.

    A new (or perhaps renewed) version of exclusivity has arisen lately related to the question of whether or not different faiths ultimately worship the same God. (Note, please, that this is quite a different conversation from whether or not different people intend to worship different gods. We know some people worship different gods. It is a fact attested to in many of the world's great faiths, including the faith articulated by Jesus of Nazareth who said that we can either worship God or Mammon, but not both at the same time.) The question often posed these days is not about our tendency to erect competing gods in the place of the eternal God, but (again) whether or not all attempts to worship the eternal God are feebly and sincerely directed ultimately toward the same divine being, whether or not we recognize this fact.

    I remember a story told by my teacher, the late Professor James Torrance, a remarkable Reformed theologian who studied under Karl Barth and with C.S. Lewis. James related what happened to him one day walking out of an ecumenical service in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the time of "The Troubles." An angry Presbyterian woman came up to him and shouted into his face, “How can you, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, worship beside those idolatrous Catholics?” To which James graciously responded, “If you are asking how it is possible that we Presbyterians and Roman Catholics can offer our imperfect worship to Almighty God, the only answer is that it is by the grace of God. All of our broken efforts are caught up into that perfect worship that Christ offers God the Father on our behalf."

    If anything, the question posed about whether we ultimately worship the same God has only become more pointed in the past couple of decades as we have become more generally aware of the presence of persons from faiths other than Christianity in our midst. The discussion of the question often provides more heat than light.

    Recently, Stephen Prothero, one of our culture's genuine public intellectuals and a brilliant communicator on world religions and religious literacy, wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal asking, "Are Allah and Jesus the Same God?" (Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2016). It is a provocative title and a question, frankly, that would likely rankle many Muslims and Christians, but the title gets at the heat behind the question of God's identity; it may also provide some light.

    Prothero relates the story of a Wheaton College associate professor of political science who was placed on administrative leave after posting on Facebook that she was donning a head scarf, a hijab, for Advent. She wrote: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book." Subsequently, Wheaton College began the process to terminate her employment. Wheaton has made clear in its own statements that the professor was placed on leave not for wearing the head scarf, but because of the theological statements she made including the belief that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God."

    In his editorial, Prothero comments:

    "Islam and Christianity both affirm that there is one God, creator and judge, who speaks through prophets, whose words are written down in scripture. Still, they are not two paths up the same mountain. Christians do not believe in the divine inspiration of the Quran. Muslims do not believe that Jesus is an incarnation of God."

    I think that what Prothero says is essentially accurate, though I'm as doubtful about an out-of-hand dismissal of the whole "different paths up the same mountain" metaphor as I am of its theological durability. Either way, its affirmation or its denial just claims to know a lot more than I know. And, about that which I cannot speak, I would simply prefer to remain silent, if I may drag Ludwig Wittgenstein into this dispute (though he may come kicking and screaming).

    It seems to me that we may be approaching the whole question from the wrong end, by evaluating whether or not it is ultimately the same God we worship based on our various beliefs about God. Doing so only plays into the hands of the most radical and least sensible elements in every faith, those who seek to divide and conquer. And doing so misses the most obvious point, that God is not reducible to any human concepts about God.

    Within my own faith, a Christian faith shaped in the forge of Protestant history yet still related to the wellsprings of the orthodoxy of the ancient catholic church, we attempt to express what cannot be expressed about the Holy One whom Jonathan Edwards called "the Being of being" by speaking of the Triune plurality of the One God. We feel compelled to talk about God in this way because we believe we have met none other than God in this man named Jesus. This existential, historical encounter with Jesus of Nazareth forces us to rethink what it means to confess, with our spiritual forebears, the people, prophets and patriarchs of ancient Israel, "The Lord is God, the Lord alone."

    We Christians speak of the eternal Word, the Son of God, the Beloved, the Begotten, who comes from and returns to the eternal Source, God the Father, the Almighty; we speak of the act of Procession by which the Son comes from the Father, not as a mere action but as divine person, the Spirit, the very Life and Love of God. We speak of creation as the overflowing of divine Love which cannot be contained. We speak of the deep need for God implanted in the hearts of God's creation. We speak of the frailty of our human nature, our need for redemption, for healing, and the belief that we are somehow redeemed and healed in God's assumption of our humanity. We believe that God is revealed to humanity in the life and death of Jesus, and that God confirmed that the life of self-giving love which Jesus lived is not a mistake by raising Jesus from the dead. But, in all of this Christian theological reflection (and it is just that, Christian theological reflection), we have not narrowed the options of who God is. Rather, we have kicked open the doors of possibility to express that age-old word of deepest piety, asking again and again and again in our amazement, "Who are You, Lord?"

    Ultimately we all stand in the presence of divine Mystery, and anyone who thinks they have the answers in that presence is foolish.

    Each time I read again the giants of the Christian faith, whether it is Justin Martyr, John CassianJulian of Norwich or John Bunyan, as I listen to their struggles to speak of meeting the Eternal, I find reverence renewed and certainty dashed. We Christians do not hold an exclusive copyright on the nature and character of God. Nor can we speak for God. We just don't know what God may be up to with other people who conceive of God in terms foreign to our experience. But this we do know: far from being a sign of strength, it is a sure sign of insecurity in one's own faith to feel we must prove the sincerity of our beliefs by judging the beliefs of others.

    Prothero is, I think, correct in warning us against "pretend pluralism" that tries to paper over the differences among faiths by saying that they are all basically headed in the same direction or trying to teach the same truth but in different ways. Faith is, as Abraham Heschel once said, the indispensable prerequisite to interfaith dialogue, and we should be ready and willing to articulate and to hear the differences in our faiths and to recognize that they are not all trying to accomplish the same ends. To go beyond this, and to say that the God to whom we try to bear witness and about whom we try to speak in the stuttering phrases of our creeds is NOT the God worshiped by others, is saying far more than any of us can say. If it does nothing else, reverence produces humility.

    As Augustine writes at the opening of his Confessions:

    "Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and thy wisdom infinite. And thee would a human praise, a human, but a particle of thy creation, a human, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that thou resists the proud, yet would this human praise thee, he, but a particle of thy creation."

  • Currents of Change

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 05, 2016

    Currents of ChangeRecently I participated in two group discussions reflecting seriously on the changes facing our churches and theological schools in North America. These were wonderful and difficult conversations: the first among the presidents and board chairs from our Presbyterian seminaries from across the country; the second among presidents from a variety of seminaries in a gathering sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS).

    As Dr. Ann M. Garrido, associate professor of homiletics at the Aquinas Institute of Theology, made an excellent presentation on the spirituality of administration for our ATS gathering, I remembered an experience I have had repeatedly and something it may be teaching me about leadership in a time of rapid change.

    Walking along through the shallow waters of a beach, sand shifting beneath and through my toes, I have often wondered at how surprised we are by change when it is among the most constant realities of life.

    From season to season the sandbars on my favorite beach shift dramatically. These are huge hills of sand that weigh tons. They are seemingly immovable, yet they are moved all of the time by the ceaseless rhythms of wind and waves and the regular rhythms of tide powered by the pull of the moon on the earth.

    The sandbars teach us what we resist recognizing. Everything moves, even the most apparently solid, heavy and permanent. We cling to anything in life in vain. Still, everything moves.

    Recently, while practicing meditation using Jon Kabat-Zinn's guided mindfulness meditation program, I was invited to become conscious of the rise and fall of my breath as if I were riding gently on it, up and down, like a small boat rising and falling on the waves. Completely still, completely quiet and the mind recalled to rest, I was more conscious than ever of the constant movement and change that runs like a current through each of us and all of life.

    It occurred to me later that it might be a good exercise for most of us, worried about changes threatening the ways things have always been done, to walk more on the beach and to spend less time in the mountains.

    Certainly things are changing in the mountains too. But the mountains and the hills don't move as fast as the dunes and sandbars. From one season to another, a ridge does not seem to shift positions at all. It takes millennia to notice. Of course, over time even continents move, but only God gets to see this happening.

    Walking along the beach, the tide relentlessly shifting the vast sandbars on which we walk, we sense and we see what remains otherwise much less apparent. All things are moving; all things are changing. To lead well or to live well, we must learn to love the moment and the movement, neither to resist nor deny it.

    We are not made of stone. Nor are the groups of people, the organizations, the institutions that bear our faith, our traditions, our deeply ingrained ways of finding meaning, passing on from age to age the hopes and beliefs we hold most precious. Flesh and blood, sand and sea water, move and change continuously. And, yet, a beach is always a beach, and the sea water is always salty, and the sun and the moon and the winds endure.

    I wonder what new sandbars God is carving on these beaches we love?

    "Be thankful to the Lord, and speak good of God's name. For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting: and his truth endures from generation to generation." (Psalm 100:3b-4)

  • An Artist of Wonder: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 25, 2016

    HeschelAll my best ideas I've stolen. Usually from my friends. So it was that I stole my friend Ted Wardlaw's idea of asking our faculty "surprise questions" at the dinners we host twice a year for prospective students visiting our campus.

    In one of those dinners a few years back, I asked our faculty, "Of all the theological figures from the past, with whom would you most like to spend an evening conversing?" Among the people who got a vote were John CalvinKarl Barth and Mother Teresa. But at least four professors (myself included), each from very different scholarly disciplines, selected one person: Abraham Joshua Heschel (pictured).

    I never knew Abraham Heschel personally. He died in 1972, the year I graduated from high school. Yet, from my days in seminary, his wisdom has remained a touchstone for my thought and life.* My high regard for Heschel is far from unique. He continues to exert a tremendous influence on people from across the spectrum of faiths.

    What is it about Rabbi Heschel that causes him to be revered, honored and beloved by persons of so many different faith traditions over forty years after his death?

    In the introduction to a recent anthology of Heschel's thought, its editor, Samuel Dresner, provides at least a partial answer to this question, reminding us of the breadth of soul of this remarkable person. Ten days prior to Rabbi Heschel's death, Dresner tells us, in an interview with NBC, he addressed young people saying: "Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Know that every deed counts, that every word is power. … Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art. …" This advice from a man who, the very day before he died (nine days after giving this interview), stood in the snow before a federal prison adding the final brushstrokes to his own work of art, "waiting for the release of a friend, a priest, who had been jailed for civil protest." [Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder, edited with an introduction by Samuel H. Dresner (New York: Crossroad, 2014), 9.]

    As I sit here, near dusk on a mid-winter Sabbath, Heschel's classic study of the Sabbath beside me, I recall why I came to love Heschel in the first place. Here was a scholar, a teacher and a faith leader who, like a prophet of the Old Testament, did not believe that spirituality and social concern are polar opposites that need to be reconciled but are essential aspects of the same character, the love of neighbor flowing naturally and necessarily from our wholehearted love of God. Heschel believed deeply that either God is all-important or not important at all. And his devotion to God led him to claim people the world over as God's children and his neighbors. As Dresner notes, when Heschel died there were two books at his bedside: one a classic of Hasidic spirituality, the other a study of the war in Vietnam. "The combination was symbolic," writes Dresner in his introduction. For Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as practitioners of other faiths in this tragically torn world, perhaps there is no better example of a person convinced that humanity "dwells on the tangent of the infinite, within the holy dimensions; that the life of [humanity] is part of the life of God." (Heschel, Wonder, 10-11.)

    In a time when people are bewitched by the accumulation of the things that consume their lives, when we feel threatened by the very forces of violence that promise to give us security, and when those who compete to lead us speak out of the emptiness of their own lust for power, Heschel's voice is more than prophetic, it is sane. And it is a sanity which recognizes that the world in which we live is not a mere accident but an act of God, and that this God is both merciful and just. As Heschel's daughter, Susannah, said in an interview in the Catholic magazine, America, in 2007: "For my father, religion may begin with a sense of mystery, awe, wonder and fear, but religion itself is concerned with what we do with those feelings. … God poses a challenge to go beyond ourselves and it is precisely that going beyond, that awareness of challenge, that constitutes our being." (Doris Donnelly, “Lovingly Observant: An Interview with Susannah Heschel,” America, June 18, 2007. Accessed December 13, 2015. http://americamagazine.org/issue/618/article/lovingly-observant.)

    Reading the new anthology assembled by Dresner, as good as it is, only whetted my appetite to go back to Heschel's classics. I started with Rabbi Heschel's magisterial two-volume study of the prophets of ancient Israel, where I came across this passage:

    "Others may suffer from the terror of cosmic aloneness, the prophet is overwhelmed by the grandeur of divine presence. He is incapable of isolating the world. There is an interaction between [humanity] and God which to disregard is an act of insolence. Isolation is a fairy tale.... The prophet's word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven." [Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper, 1962), Vol. 1, p. 16.]

    And in what is possibly the most remarkable textbook ever written for the study of philosophy of religion, Heschel confronts us, not with chapters on abstruse and abstract ideas of speculation, but with subject matter that places us in the bull’s-eye of obligation, such as: "The awareness of grandeur," "philosophy begins in wonder," "the mystery within reason," "to be is to stand for," "the problem of the neutral," and "needs are not holy." [Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951).]

    Of course, I had to return to The Sabbath, a book that by the sheer power of its evocation of the beauty of God's purpose for humanity puts to shame every pale attempt we make to construct our little imitation "sabbaths" and "sabbaticals." Just a sample must do, as when Heschel writes in this amazing book:

    "For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise. The art of keeping the Sabbath day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation." (Abraham Joshua. Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 16.]

    Few theologians of the twentieth century were better prepared to speak to the modern human condition. Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. He was, as one biographer has said, "a prince among Hasidim," the successor to Martin Buber in Frankfurt, arrested and deported from Germany in 1938 by the Nazi regime, and eventually arriving in America where he flourished at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for the remainder of his life. With a voice tempered by human loss and divine hope, Heschel taught and wrote against the backdrop of the Shoah that had devastated his own people, the rise of nuclear armament that threatened the entire world, and the raging wars of post-colonialism. It was, in part, because of Heschel's influence that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the anti-Vietnam War movement. He suffered greatly, at times, because of some of the positions he took. Yet, his involvement in the political world was integral to his faith in God. He knew personally the high social cost that must be paid if persons of faith and good will refuse to stand against evil.**

    Drawing this blog to a close is much more difficult than usual. Once one begins, there is so much from Heschel's thought and life one wants to share. But I shall close by returning to Dresner's fine brief introduction to the new anthology. Dresner tells the story of visiting Abraham Heschel in his apartment in New York City when the rabbi was recovering from a heart attack. Quietly, and with great difficulty, Heschel spoke to Dresner about the inevitability of death, and the fact that he was ready and willing to offer his life back to God. "Take me, O Lord," Heschel said, not in despair or resignation, but with great joy. "I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime. … That is what I meant when I wrote [in the preface to his book of Yiddish poems]: 'I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.' "

    Perhaps, of all the gifts we may pray from God, this is the greatest. May we all ask not for success, but for wonder.

    *One of the most joyful activities of my ministry as a young pastor was to help organize, together with Christian and Jewish leaders in Dallas, Texas, an event honoring Heschel's memory some ten years after his death. Byron L. Sherwin, author of the small volume on Heschel for the Makers of Contemporary Theology series published by John Knox Press in 1979, spoke for that event. And one of my greatest joys as a scholar was being asked by Heschel's Dutch publishers to allow an essay I had written on wonder in the presence of the Holy to serve as the foreword to a new edition of Heschel's writings in the Netherlands.

    **Biographical information in this paragraph is principally drawn from Byron Sherwin's book, mentioned above, pp.1-8; also of value was the introductory note Heschel himself wrote for his posthumously published book, A Passion for Truth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), viii-xv.

  • Busy-ness, As Usual

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 22, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Gethsemani Lake

    Sitting toward the back of the auditorium at Southern Methodist University, a harried, distracted young associate pastor in a busy Dallas suburb, I felt as though the speaker at the lectern was talking directly to me. Henri J.M. Nouwen was at the podium delivering the address that would soon be published as a book, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (New York: Seabury, 1980).

    I would like to say that I have never forgotten the lessons I learned that day. The truth is that I have forgotten them repeatedly. I had even forgotten that I had once learned them. Each time I learn these lessons, it is as though for the first time.

    Of this I have been reminded, because I brought my old copy of Nouwen's The Way of the Heart with me on retreat to Gethsemani Abbey earlier this month. In the back of the book (which I apparently bought in 1980 for the princely sum of $7.95!) were the notes I had written to myself the first time I read the book. Written in pencil, more than thirty years ago, were the things I had learned. Or thought I had learned. Because reading them again on my retreat, I couldn't recall learning these things way back then. Yet, I do recall sitting in a coffee shop with another young pastor after we heard Nouwen's lecture that day mulling over his stark diagnosis of our calendars full of activities and our hearts drained of meaning and life.

    I might have forgotten I had ever learned the cure, but I surely remember commiserating over the disease. And when I re-read the book, sitting in my room at the retreat house with winter skies threatening and winds whistling through the window, the remembrance of my first encounter with Nouwen came back in a flood.

    He wrote:

    "Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul. The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people's fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives.

    "Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying or doing. We simply go along with the many 'musts' and 'oughts' that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. ... [W]e ought to move up the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life. Thus we [ministers] are busy people just like all other busy people, rewarded with the rewards which are rewarded to busy people!"
    (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 21-22.)

    I remember this other young pastor and I, sipping our coffee between comments to one another, reflecting on the accuracy of Nouwen's assessment of the lives we lived. Two stunned young ministers, silence at times hanging in the air between us, as we squinted at the light that came glaring down on our lives and our ministries. "What good are we doing?" we asked each other. Acting compulsively out of our own fears and anxieties, resentment, and anger, greedy for success and starving for applause and approval. "What sort of liberation are we offering our people who are also caught up in the same vicious cycle?"

    The conversation I remember. I just don't remember ever knowing in my heart of hearts, at the core of my being, what I had written in pencil in the back of that book. Here's what I wrote down:

    "We thirst and we hunger after God, but we are not filled because we refuse to be filled. We go only far enough, take only enough of a drink or a taste to say, 'Ah, that is good. Thank you.' But we do not drink to fill or eat the feast provided. In a solitary place God waits for each of us, to show us ourselves in radiant, direct honesty, to show us our abject hunger, our spiritual dehydration. God waits in the desert, in the wilderness of trials for us. And if we want God we must go there alone. This is the painful news: Our need is great, absolute. Without [God] we will die. This is the good news: [God] waits for us in the solitude of transformation. [God] promises to fill us and to send us on changed."

    Maybe I did learn what Nouwen was talking about after all. Or maybe I just regurgitated a paraphrase of his message. I really don't know. I rather suspect I had not yet suffered enough, had not yet thirsted or hungered or hurt enough to really long for the filling and healing about which I was writing. But maybe that is just the arrogance of age now speaking. Surely a young pastor can feel spent and tired and can suspect that his ministry is an act of vanity because he detects the compulsions that drive and motivate him. Surely a young pastor can discern the anger she feels at her people for not living up to her expectations or appreciating her sufficiently, but discerns also that the anger may really come from her own fear of being found wanting. It is a strange thing to enter into this sort of conversation, your contemporary self wondering at whether you were once wiser than you are today. But really, all such speculation is ultimately fruitless because we are perennially pretty clueless at whatever age we find ourselves.

    The author of Galatians speaks of the danger of constructing again and again edifices of self-justification that he had previously torn down. I think he may be reminding us that progress in the life of the Spirit is not linear. We don't rise rung by rung on Jacob's ladder, getting steadily higher and nearer to heaven with each step. Rather, progress in the life of the Spirit is a matter of spiritual proximity. Inasmuch as we entrust ourselves to God, to the degree that we rest in God, conscious of our utter dependence upon God, we may be "making spiritual progress," if that's even the way to say it. Perhaps better, we testify with St. Paul that daily we just keep dying to the self, the false self that wants defending and craves security and longs for validation because it thinks that if it gets enough external confirmation of worth and accumulates just a little more of whatever the world values it will finally and forever we safe. According to St. Paul, the score-keeping that validates the false self has been nailed to the cross, where Jesus died, where we also have been crucified. And the life we live now hangs on trust in the God who promises love for us in the dying breath of the risen Jesus. (See: Galatians 2:15-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 3:2-16)

    A story from the Desert Fathers that Nouwen relates helps me to understand the nature of the lifelong pilgrimage we are on. He tells the story of Abba Elias, a holy man tormented by demons. The demons persecuted him, taunted him, threatened him. He tried desperately to fight them off. Finally the old man cried out, "Jesus, save me!" And immediately, the devils fled. Just as suddenly the Lord spoke to Elias, who by that point sat sobbing. "Why are you weeping?" asked the Lord. "Because the devils have dared to seize a man and treat him like this," answered Elias. The Lord said to him, "You had been careless. As soon as you turned to me again, you see I was beside you." (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 29.)

    From time to time in life and ministry, we are likely to find ourselves trying to live as though we could defeat the powers of evil on our own, as though we don't need God to provide every breath of life and whatever strength we possess. And from time to time in life and ministry, we are likely to discover that our attempts to live life under our own power are utterly illusory, that before very long we have become victims of all the demons of hell, the compulsions, fears and anxieties, the anger, resentment, jealousy and greed that become so easily the driving forces behind our actions. In such moments, if we are very fortunate, we will come to ourselves and realize that we are in real danger of losing our souls even while we are preaching the gospel to others.

    The task is to keep turning to the God who is always beside us and within us, always present, though hidden in the solitude of that wilderness to which we can resort whenever we wish, where the Spirit and the Word of God never fail to bring healing. There is a river that makes glad the city of God, the dwelling place of the Holy. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be shaken, though the nations rage and the kingdoms tumble and the earth itself trembles. However distracted we may be by busy-ness, as usual, God waits for us there, while the river eddies, pools and flows.

  • Truth to Power and Privilege

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 19, 2016

    The Ethical Legacy of Barbara Jordan

    Power and PrivilegeIf you are of a certain age, you may remember her speech. I was a college student, midway through the summer term, glued to my television set that evening, as U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan spoke. The date was July 25, 1974, and we were in the midst of a national crisis. Citizens across the country were about to receive a lesson in constitutional law and democracy that we would never forget. Please allow me to quote from Barbara Jordan’s comments, and as I do, I encourage you to bring to mind the power of that voice, that utterly peerless, commanding tone and authority:

    “Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States, ‘We, the People.’ It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787, I was not included in that ‘We, the People.’ I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in ‘We, the People.’

    “Today, I am an inquisitor. And hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
    [Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, edited by Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 27.]

    Recently I was reflecting anew on Barbara Jordan’s words as I returned to a book given to me many years ago by my friend Bill Powers, at the time the dean of the Law School at the University of Texas and subsequently the president of that university. The book Bill gave me is Philip Bobbitt’s Constitutional Fate: Theory of the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). In his book, surely one of the most fascinating texts in the field of constitutional law, Bobbitt argues that too often, when we think about the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, we do not necessarily take ethics into account. In a chapter titled, “Good and Bad/Good and Evil,” Bobbitt writes:

    “Ignoring the existence of ethical arguments has had other costs as well: not only candor, but simplicity too is sacrificed. Most importantly, the exile of ethical argument from the domain of legitimate constitutional discussion has denied an important resource to the creative judge who exploits all the various approaches [i.e., to constitutional interpretation, including the historical, the textual, structural, prudential and doctrinal approaches] from time to time and case to case.” (p. 137)

    Bobbitt’s comments could be used as a sort of hermeneutical lens through which to read anew Jordan’s words, spoken originally on that summer evening in 1974. Our faith in the U.S. Constitution is not an abstract allegiance, nor an adherence to some ancient standard forever fixed in stone. It is a living confidence in the ability of “We, the People” to respond ethically to the challenges of living together with all our differences over the long haul of history.

    Barbara Jordan alludes to the challenge of forging and honoring among us “We, the People” in the keynote address she offered two years later at the Democratic National Convention in New York City.

    The driving question behind her address that evening was, “Who then will speak for the common good?” Again, she began her speech with a historical reference that is also an intimate reference, a very personal reference:

    “It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a presidential candidate,” she said. “But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?” she asked, “I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.” She continues:  “A lot of years have passed since 1832, and during that time it would have been most unusual for any national political party to ask a Barbara Jordan to deliver a keynote address. But tonight, here I am. And I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.” After reflecting on the variety of things she might speak about on such an occasion, given this historic opportunity, she tells us what she will speak about: “We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community.” (Jordan, Eloquent Thunder, pp. 35-36)

    In the past two years, I have often longed to hear Barbara Jordan’s voice again.* As we have witnessed national tragedies and national disgraces, as we have endured patches of genuine soul-searching, even repentance, but also moments of disappointing denial, I have wished that I might hear Barbara speak truth to power and privilege, as only she could.

    Her historical perspective would, doubtless, have helped us think about how far we have come with reference to race in America; but I firmly believe that she would not let any of us off the hook. She would also remind us of how much further “We, the People” have to go to make “justice for all” more than just a rhetorical flourish on an old document.

    Her deep personal faith in God would remind us that we are not a law unto ourselves, but that we owe our lives and all we are, including our lives as “We, the People,” to God. Her faith in God would remind us of our own limits, our blind spots and our tendencies to corrupt and undermine even our best inclinations and motivations.

    Her profound faith, “whole,” “complete” and “total” in the power of our U.S. Constitution to do good, to speak for the common good, would remind us also that we are not helpless, that we have national resources that transcend party allegiances and ideologies and our own narrow self-interests.

    In a time, when so many citizens are prepared to throw up their hands and give up even trying to construct a common good in the midst of dissent and dissension, I wish I could hear Barbara pray the prayer she offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1978. On that occasion, this daughter of a Baptist preacher and one of the most respected political leaders and teachers of her time, prayed to God:

    “Teach us to know that if we are to be successful stewards, we must be your servants. We know that we cannot solve the many difficulties which beset your people. But you can. We cannot reconcile people whose prejudices and narrow-sighted self-interest prevent brotherhood. But you can. We cannot infuse hope in those who despair. But you can.” (Jordan, Eloquent Thunder, p. 68)


    *I am grateful to Texas State Senator Max Sherman for this wonderful collection of Barbara Jordan’s speeches, which includes a compact disc on which we can indeed again hear her voice.

  • Faith and Political Rhetoric

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 11, 2016

    Faith and Political Rhetoric
    Editor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post was originally published January 31, 2012. Dr. Jinkins felt that, given the current trends in public discourse, this blog warrants further reflection.

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

    • Individuals have priority over community, and the only right that ultimately counts for anything is the right of the individual not to be constrained by the needs or interests of others.
    • Altruism is suspect because the only thing we can vouch for with anything approaching certainty is the purity of self-interest and the will to survive.
    • The single great power we can trust is the power of the economic free market to reward industry and provide the greatest good.
    • The middle way, moderation, negotiation, and compromise are evils because morality has no shades of gray.

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

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

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

    "Why," I asked.

    "Jesus told me to," he said.

    This is where I ended up, too.

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


    1Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 198-221.
    2Ibid., 217.
    3See, for example, Barbara Jordan, Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder, ed. Max Sherman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 43-48, 56-65; Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Basic Books, 1993); and Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

  • Behold the Beauty of the Lord

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 10, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    TOLImage010816The cotton fields that once lined the roads of East Texas between Lufkin and Dallas looked like row upon row of popcorn bouquets by late September, not long after which defoliating would begin. The crop dusters soon would come spraying their defoliants, and leaves would drop to expose the cotton for harvest. I remember the stark beauty of the cotton crops, the thick white tufts set in green foliage against a field of rich black earth.

    One particular drive along these fields stands out from the many. My grandfather and I were in his car. I can't recall how old I was, but I couldn't have been more than eight. We had delivered my grandmother to Dallas to stay a few weeks with her mother (Big Momma), and we were returning home. The little bronze Ford Falcon flew along the two-lane road, windows down. This was the early 1960s BCA (Before Conditioned Air). On the front seat between my grandfather and me lay a sheaf of music with a rock on top to keep the pages from blowing out the windows. There was music from all our favorite collections: Golden Steps, Stamps Baxter Quartet Specials, Happy Haven Radio Songs, and pages of sheet music for hymns and choir anthems. My grandfather, Bonnie Corley Fenley, directed music for the Redland Baptist Church, a nonpaid position in those days. He had a fine tenor voice and never met a musical instrument he couldn't master in an afternoon. He taught me to sing harmony.

    The indelible imprint of that hot September day is of an old man and a boy singing their hearts out, the laughter blending with music. I remember the wind and the love and the songs. I would have stayed in that front seat singing forever if I could have. I would have built three tabernacles right there if I'd known how. It was the house of the Lord on wheels with a standard transmission and dicey brakes.

    I suspect that the reason the highly technical theological doctrine of perichoresis, inherited in Orthodox Christianity from fourth-century theologians like AthanasiusBasil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, made perfect sense to me intuitively the first time I came across it in seminary was because of my childhood experience of singing with my grandfather. This doctrine can appear, at first blush, so abstract, the idea that three persons of the divine Trinity are in such a relationship of mutuality that they almost seem to flow into one another. Yet each person possesses full integrity, the Father as Father, the Son as Son, the Spirit as Spirit. This doctrine, for all its intricacy and sophistication, resonates with my simple childhood experience of love: The singers, a grandfather and grandchild and the music they sang together bear striking similarity (though the dissimilarities are striking too, of course) to the divine Giver, the Gift and the eternal act of Giving; the divine Lover, the Beloved, and the Eternal Love they share; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    Here is an "analogy of being" that never stopped holding true, even in the Barthian deluge of seminary. Hans Urs von Balthasar's soaring tribute to the mystery of the triune God, which I would not learn about until I was a graduate student, was fully prefigured for me that day as we drove along singing in that old Ford. Von Balthasar wrote about the primal reality of God's Being, which is not a "statically self-contained and comprehensible reality, but one that exists solely in dispensing itself; a flowing wellspring with no holding trough beneath it ... the pure act of self-pouring-forth." [Von Balthasar, Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed (Spring Valley: 1990), p. 30]. Pouring forth, singing out, joy and love reverberated into the hot Texas breeze that flowed through that car and out over the cotton fields participating in the mystery of God's creative love that will never be contained.

    This reality, the reality of Reality itself - that God's being is in communion, that God's being is in becoming - seemed to me (then and now) concrete and personal and anything but abstract. The church's halting attempts to make sense of the living God as Trinity made sense to me because of the lived approximations of the God in whom I had participated (though imperfectly and unconsciously and after a creaturely fashion "through a mirror in a riddle") as a child. After all, I had sung with my grandfather. I had experienced deep in the marrow of my bones something of the truth of that life and love and trans-cosmic music that is the Spirit shared by God the Father and God the Son caught up in adoration, joy and mutual love.

    Others have done a fuller and more profound job of theologically reflecting on this reality, Eberhard Jüngel and John Zizioulas, among them; and at least one theologian, Jeremy Begbie, has performed a far more subtle and sophisticated analysis of how music and the arts reflect and give expression to God's being.* All I am really qualified to do is bear witness to what I believe I have experienced of this reality. And this experience began early for me.

    Years later, when I performed in jazz, blues and rock groups in high school and college, I discovered the deep magic of musical improvisation. Playing with small bands of musicians who created something among themselves at once practiced, disciplined, but also utterly new and unexpected every time we performed, I felt as though I was tapping into a reality at the heart of creation - this otherness, this beauty, this transcendence, this something indefinable and real woven into life by a prodigiously talented God who enjoys sharing with us and invites us to participate in creation. In many ways, I have always felt like a child trying to tap into the perichoretic wonder that I experienced while singing harmony with my grandfather. Recently, it occurred to me that my lifelong spiritual harmony has also always been an aesthetic journey, whether acknowledged at the time or not, a quest to behold the beauty of the Lord.**

    Sometimes my memories skip like a stone over the surface of the past, and I recall an evening when our youth choir played and sang for church campers on the banks of the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country. I recall the exultation, pure and sublime, that I experienced when playing piano for them. I remember the afternoon on a visit home from college, sitting in a darkened room playing blues guitar with my friend Ben, just before he joined the Navy. We traded riffs back and forth in a musical conversation. Remembering these and countless other moments, I realize that there is no way under heaven to express the deep rightness, the in in-sync-ness, I sensed in those moments. In those moments and hundreds of others, playing music with others, it was as though we were tapping into something beyond ourselves, some rhythm, some harmony or melodic line, some reality at the core of creation, something perfect and real and good.

    The stone skips across the surface of something deeper than we can imagine. It is the weight of the depth that makes the stone stay airborne, skipping again and again, before it takes its final plunge and disappears into the darkness waiting below. In those moments as the stone dances across the water, I know, every place we play becomes thin.

    *Eberhard Jüngel's Gottes Sein ist im Werden (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1965, 1986), and John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985, 1997) helped renew an awareness in theological circles of the dynamics of God's being as Trinity. Jeremy Begbie's engagement of Trinitarian theology with the arts is simply extraordinary, Voicing Creation's Praise (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991) and Theology, Music, and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

    **This blog is extracted from a much longer essay of mine by the same title, which was published in A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets and Preachers, edited by Allan Hugh Cole, Jr. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). Used with permission.

  • Where's Pogo When You Really Need Him?

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 04, 2016

    Where's PogoEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post was originally published March 26, 2012. Dr. Jinkins felt that, given the current trends in public discourse, this blog warrants further reflection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A City Occupied: A Christmastide Reflection

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 29, 2015

    Christmastide ReflectionI read old books. I read new ones too, of course. But I often read old books. Why?

    Anyone who has read the excellent essays of Marilynne Robinson will see how much we can benefit from allowing our minds to be nourished by texts from the past. Her essay, “On Human Nature,” bringing writers like Gregory of Nyssa into conversation with William James and Richard Rorty, provokes the imagination in ways that a reading of contemporaries alone could never have achieved.*

    G.K. Chesterton has said that listening to the voices of the past – and this includes the voices preserved in what we often refer to as “tradition” – is a way of extending the franchise to the generations who have gone before us. The dead should get to vote, Chesterton says.

    In his preface to a very old book (I’ll turn to this specific book in a moment), C.S. Lewis says that old books help us put “the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.” For this reason, he believed that for every new book we read, we ought to read one old book. We keep a balanced perspective by drawing on wisdom old and new. This seems pretty sensible to me. We are tempted to believe that the crises, debates, problems and controversies of the moment in which we live are the worst ever faced. Old books help us to see that no age was ever free of difficulties. They also help us to understand that the assumptions we share in an age may be the very things keeping us from finding solutions. A “new” solution can sometimes come from a very “old” source. “Two heads are better than one,” C.S. Lewis writes in his preface, “not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” This is particularly true if one of the heads comes from a very different time.

    The book to which Lewis wrote this preface is, as I said a moment ago, a very old one. It dates from the fourth century A.D. and was written by one of the greatest theologians of the ancient church, Athanasius. The title of the book is De Incarnatione or On the Incarnation.**

    I confess that I love this book, although I do not share the general philosophical worldview of its author. I learn something new every time I turn to this very old book. It is without apology a book of Christian doctrine, a theological book of the highest order, and it requires careful study, not only to understand it in the context of its own philosophical and theological world, but to translate it (literally and figuratively) into our contemporary vernacular. But I have often found that it is precisely in this hard work of study and translation that we gain some of the most extraordinary “spiritual” insights.

    Again, in his preface to this book, C.S. Lewis observes:

    “For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

    To show what I (and Lewis) mean, I would like to reflect for a few moments on just one of the many ways Athanasius attempts to plumb the meaning of the mystery of God’s incarnation.

    For Athanasius, our atonement is inseparable from God’s union with humanity in Jesus Christ. Humanity has been atoned with God in Jesus Christ. We have been reconciled with God in the act of God’s becoming human. And now, our human flesh has been taken into the very depths of the Triune God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit; in union with God, our broken humanity is healed.

    Athanasius attempts to explain what this means for us by telling a story. Imagine, he writes, a great king who has entered into a great city that has become overrun by bandits and brigands. These enemies are ruining the city. The great king takes up residence in one of the houses of this city and declares the city to be his own. Indeed, the great king makes it his own by dwelling in this city. The king’s occupation of the city has the effect of routing the bandits and brigands who would not dare to exert their claims or attempt to take advantage of the city’s inhabitants now that the city has been made the king’s own. The king has united himself to the city and to its inhabitants through his presence in it. The city is his. Athanasius then draws the line clearly from the illustration to the theological reality:

    “For since God has come to our realm and has dwelt in a body similar to ours, now every machination of the enemy against humanity has ceased and the corruption of death, which formerly had power over them, has been destroyed. For the race of humanity would have perished, unless the Lord of all and Savior, the Son of God, had come to put an end to death.” (De Incarnatione, chapter nine).

    Speaking as Athanasius did in an age when earthly kingdoms were common and lawless brigands were a regular threat, his example would have been immediately understandable. However, there’s almost a greater effect in hearing the story today when literal kingdoms are few and the threats we face are somewhat different. The metaphor works perhaps even better because of the distance and dissimilarities.

    Metaphors always point to deep truths through their congruities and incongruities. One might almost say that like art (according to Pablo Picasso), metaphors tell us the truth by telling us a lie, or at least only a partial truth. The friction between the metaphor and that of which the metaphor speaks can make the meaning even more intelligible.

    In the time and philosophical world of Athanasius, there was a logic at work in his story that does not work with most of us today. And, yet, there is still a wisdom operative in the notion that God has laid claim fully to humanity by becoming fully human. In our own time when the Christian doctrine of atonement is either ignored as altogether irrelevant or is clung to as an appeasement of a blood-thirsty deity by the death of an innocent, Athanasius’ old book breathes new life into the doctrine, reminding us that Jesus Christ is God’s atonement, that God always acts in love for all the world, that God is not a split personality divided between loving and hating, that when we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating God’s being for us fully and forever.

    This is one idea that never gets old, however old the book is that conveys it.

    *Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 1-29.
    **Lewis’s preface to On the Incarnation was reprinted by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 2011 in an edition of the book translated (with an introduction by) John Behr. It provides an excellent and clearly accessible edition of the classic text. For those with more technical interest, I highly recommend the edition edited and translated by Robert W. Thomson, Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, in the Oxford Early Christian Texts series (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) which provides both the Greek text and a good English translation.

  • Preparing the Way of the Lord

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 14, 2015

    Prepare the Way of the LordThe great 16th century reformer of the church, Martin Luther, maintained that if we wish to know what God is like, we would do best to run to the manger in Bethlehem or to the cross on Calvary. He was convinced that the source of authentic knowledge of God lies not in abstract speculation, but in an encounter by the power of the Holy Spirit with Jesus of Nazareth.

    As we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ - the Word of God in speechless infancy - I want to share with you three Christmas prayers, each of which reminds us that the incarnation is not a riddle that can be solved but a mystery that reduces us to awe and reverence.

    "God, the Eternal Mystery of our Life, by the birth of Your own word of love in our flesh You have made the glory of Your life in its eternal youth into our life, and have caused it to appear in triumph. Grant us that when we experience the disappointments of our lives we may be enabled to believe that Your love, which You Yourself are and which You have bestowed upon us, is the eternal youth that is our own true life."

    -Karl Rahner, Prayers for a Lifetime (New York: Crossroad, 1984), p. 46.

    "O Son of God, from the beginning you were with the Father, and for us and for our salvation you came down from heaven. Grant us more and more to receive of your fullness and to accept from you the power to become the children of God; for you are the true light of everyone who comes into the world, now and forever."

    -John Wallace Suter, Prayers of the Spirit (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943), p. 18.

    "While all the world, Lord God, lay wrapped in deepest silence, and night had reached its mid-point, your all-powerful Word came down. As year by year the beauty of this night returns, growing old with the aged and renewed in the wonder of children, so may we, grown old in sin but reborn to grace, proclaim with our lives what we chant with our lips: Glory to you, our God, in the highest heavens, peace on earth and in the depth of every human heart."

    -Concluding prayer for vigils, Christmas Day, Benedictine Daily Prayer Compiled and edited by Maxwell E. Johnson, Oblate of Saint John's Abbey and the Monks of Saint John's Abbey (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005), p. 1371.

    May God grant you a blessed Christmas!

  • Pagan Shrines in the Crypt

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 10, 2015

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!
    Pagans in the CryptCarl Jung once said that beneath the foundation of every Christian cathedral there lies a sacred pagan site. His comment was more metaphorical than historical, but nonetheless true. I was thinking about Jung's words when my old friend, the Rev. Dr. Alan Gregory, head of an Anglican theological college, took us down into the crypt below Canterbury Cathedral back in June.

    I thought again about Jung's observation, especially its symbolic and spiritual significance, a few days later when Debbie and I stayed in the Kilmartin Valley. As I mentioned in the previous blog, it is almost impossible, at least for me, whenever I visit this valley, not to reflect on the fact that it was set apart for sacred purposes for thousands upon thousands of years, through a succession of different religions.

    Archaeologist Francis Pryor, in his new book on Britain's prehistory, spanning the period from just after "the Ages of Ice" (9600-8000 BC) through the rise of Celtic Britain (1000 BC – 45 AD), reflects on "certain 'natural places' " which were "viewed by Neolithic communities as being special in some ways." In doing so, Pryor makes an observation that deserves further consideration: "Religions tend to come and go, but places retain a more secure hold on people's consciousness." [Francis Pryor, Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from British Prehistory (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 56-57]

    People return again and again to particular places with a sense of expectancy regarding the holy, with a sense of possibility, of hope, but also of dread that they may indeed meet the Transcendent there. This is why, I think, Philip Larkin's poem, "Church Going," is not only poignant but prophetic. The somewhat bewildered cyclist in the poem who enters a small Irish church concludes that the church probably wasn't worth stopping for, but he also recognizes that he was drawn to this patch of earth, "this cross of ground," and that others will likely be drawn there long after the last Christian believers depart:

    "Since someone will forever be surprising
    A hunger in himself to be more serious,
    And gravitating with it to this ground,
    Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
    If only that so many dead lie round."

    [Philip Larkin, "Church Going," in The Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), 35-37]

    Jung's observation not only speaks of the tenaciousness of a people to keep expecting to meet the holy on the same ground, but also the tenaciousness of past faiths to keep their hold on a people. There are layers upon layers of strata buried in the human heart. Just because a new structure of beliefs has been erected does not mean the old is forgotten. The people of a place, out of a sense of reverence (and not just superstition), may be hesitant to let go of an ancient ritual or belief even at the cost of the strong remonstrances of the officers of a new faith.

    A seventeenth-century entry in the Minutes of the Synod of Argyll, from the Western Highlands of Scotland, demonstrates this. The minutes read: "1650 the parishioners of Craignish were rebuked by the Kirk Session for 'goeing sun-gates about the church before they go in to the kirk for divyne service." One might have assumed that hundreds of years of Christianity - first Celtic Christianity, then Roman Catholicism, then Presbyterianism - would have expunged pagan religious beliefs and practices from the people of this place. One would be wrong about that.

    We have considerable evidence that ancient monuments, like burial cairns and stone circles, were used apparently in succeeding ages (for example, from Mesolithic to Neolithic to Bronze Age communities) for very different ritual purposes. But the older rituals exerted their pull even in the midst of the new. For example, there are standing stones in the Kilmartin Valley that were erected around 1800 BC, but the stones used were actually quarried and carved a millennium or more before that and had long been employed by earlier people for their own ritual purposes. It seems that the ancient carved stones were, in fact, chosen specifically because they had been held sacred in the distant past. They were transported to a new location and set up (they had previously lain in the ground) to be re-employed in an arrangement of standing stones.

    In much the same way, ancient rituals and old beliefs survive among the people of a place, although they may be (metaphorically speaking) kept hidden in the crypt beneath the church. And, sometimes, as we see in the Synod Minutes, they are not hidden at all.

    When this happens we tend to speak of syncretism, usually in a derisive tone. And, yet, I would agree with G.K. Chesterton who thought that syncretism was not a curse but a blessing in Christian faith, part of the genius of this Jewish Messianic religion which within just a very few generations of its origin in Palestine had taken on Hellenistic and Roman ways and over time incorporated various elements of the Paganism of its adherents. Each time we put lights on a Christmas tree or utter the word "Easter," the pagan shrine peeks out from the church crypt and gives us a wink. Let's smile in reply.

    Doesn't it make sense that we should? In the name of the God who will not be held captive by any creed and against the puritanism of every age that wants to make God small enough to fit into its own little box, we can celebrate the contents of our crypt. And perhaps we too can walk the sun-gates before going into the church for divine worship.

  • "Together" in the Wilderness of Solitude: An Advent Exercise

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 08, 2015

    Together in the Wilderness"When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself." Matthew 14:13

    Anyone familiar with the gospels will be familiar with the pattern. From the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, one finds the natural ebb and flow of Jesus' presence with the people and his withdrawals into solitude for prayer.

    In the story told in Matthew chapter fourteen, Jesus withdraws "in a boat to a deserted place" immediately after he has heard that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered by Herod Antipas the son of Herod the Great. It is a moment of personal distress and arguably of vocational crisis that drives Jesus into solitude. Earlier in the same Gospel, we are told that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness after being baptized by John, though one may prefer the softer reading that he was “led” there (Matthew 4:1). Again and again, we find Jesus in desert places, on a mountain, upon the water, in a wilderness, or in a garden. In such instances we find Jesus alone, in solitude, led or driven into an inner sanctum where he wrestles with temptation or seeks nourishment, comfort or direction.

    What did Christ find in the wilderness? I wonder. And what did he take into it? In fact, the two questions may be closely connected.

    In our contemporary culture, many people endure alienation, loneliness, anxieties and a nagging fear that their lives lack meaning, all the while pursuing an existence of self-sufficiency, self-absorption and self-aggrandizement - immersing themselves ever more deeply in the illusions of self that produce their suffering. Often they seek relief from their sense of alienation and anxiety by receiving regular doses of distraction, whether through the seemingly endless venues of entertainment or through the various intoxicants of the body or the mind. The fact that one is religiously or spiritually inclined does not necessarily alter the picture, although the distractions sought by these folks may wear religious, spiritual or even Christian labels. Indeed, it is often tempting to believe that Jesus is our pioneer, not only in faith (as the book of Hebrews says) but also in finding relief in a particular sort of distraction, in a temporary escape to the wilderness.

    There is an entire ecclesial industry built up around the idea that the church exists to provide whatever numbs the soul or distracts the mind enough to get us back into the soul-depleting business of self-preoccupied existence week after week. The withdrawals by Jesus are pointed to as proof that we all need a spiritual refueling to keep up with contemporary existence.

    On the basis of the evidence presented in the Gospels, however, it does not seem that Jesus found rest and relaxation in the wilderness, at least not of the sort that allowed him merely to enter back into the stream of an existence that pretended to be self-sufficient. Rather, Jesus' withdrawals took him deep into a confrontation with his own absolute trust and utter dependence upon the being, love, reign and will of God. Jesus' experience of the wilderness does relate to our own, but in a way that subverts some popular ideas about the spiritual life as a filling station that gives us the energy to live and cope with an otherwise self-obsessed and soul-depleting existence. Communion with God calls into question business-as-usual, existence-as-usual, challenging us to reflect critically on the things we appeal to for meaning and depend on for security.

    Thomas Merton, toward the end of his life, articulated an understanding of the relationship between prayer and life in a book, Contemplative Prayer, which was written primarily about the monastic experience but has lots to offer those of us who are not monks.

    "Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face-to-face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the 'consolation of prayer' for its own sake. This 'self' is pure illusion, and ultimately he [or she] who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in madness." [Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image, 1969/2014), xxxii]*

    Jesus found in the wilderness of prayer his own emptiness and the trustworthiness of the God who sustains. Or, to put it in a slightly different way, Jesus found God's purpose for him affirmed and clarified and reaffirmed by God, sometimes against the onslaughts of the devil, sometimes in the midst of personal loss, terror and intimidation, and sometimes in the face of exhaustion and the ravages of his own human frailty. Jesus found all of this in the wilderness of prayer because of what he brought into that wilderness. Jesus brought our humanity and God's whole creation into the solitude of prayer and entrusted us, creation and himself to God's love. In this way, as in others, Jesus modeled prayer for us. We are not refueled in the wilderness of prayer merely to enter again a self-absorbed and soul-depleting existence, but we are renewed in and through prayer by being given the heart of God for others and the world around us.

    In the wilderness of prayer, in that solitude and silence where we remove ourselves from all that distracts us and clutters our minds and keeps us from attending to the Word of God, we make the life of the world around us our primary concern. As Merton observes, freed from all distractions, we listen and we question, we try to gain clarity and discernment, and we expose ourselves "to what the world ignores about itself - both good and bad." (Merton, Contemplative Prayer, xxxviii)

    A Lenten Practice for Advent
    As we journey more deeply into this season of Advent, a season of spiritual preparation that parallels the season of Lent (which is why purple is the liturgical color of both seasons), I would encourage us to take the world of others into prayer with us, to invite the world and its needs into the wilderness of solitude as we draw near to God. There are many ways we can do this, of course, but I would like to offer a practice that may seem a little surprising, though it is presented in the new (2014) edition of Merton's Contemplative Prayer.

    This practice of intercessory prayer, which beautifully reflects Jesus' own teachings regarding prayer and love of others in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48; and 6:5-15), is actually provided by Merton's Buddhist friend, Thich Nhat Hahn. It is a form of prayer, Thich writes, "practiced by all schools of Buddhism." For a complete version of Thich's "The Nine Prayers," I will direct you to Merton's book on contemplative prayer for the full text, but I would suggest for us as Christians to borrow one key idea from this practice. I encourage us in this Advent season to commit to offering our petitions not only on behalf of those we love and for whom we feel a natural affinity, but also for those beyond our circle of affection.

    Understanding that the purpose of prayer is not merely to benefit the self, but realizing that we also are in need of clarity and direction from God, in each petition that we pray (whether we are petitioning God for health and wholeness, peace and joy and love, for forgiveness or grace), let us move from praying for ourselves to praying for particular individuals and groups of people. In each petition, following the example Thich provides, let us pray first for ourselves; then for a person we like; and then for a person we love. Next, let us pray for a person who is simply "neutral" to us (someone who is known to us but that is all); and, finally, let us pray for a person "we suffer when we think of."

    By doing this, of course, we will find ourselves following Jesus' teaching not only to pray for our "friends" but also for our "enemies." Following this practice, we can expand our prayer to offer petitions not only for ourselves and individuals but also for groups of people, following the same pattern as above: first praying for groups of people we like, then for those we love, next for those who are merely neutral to us, and finally for those "we suffer when we think of."

    In a sense, we are taking all of these people into the wilderness of prayer with us, in the knowledge that Christ, our Heavenly High Priest, bears us all into the presence of God as though our names were carved on his heart. This kind of prayer is time-consuming and demanding. It is also potentially transformative. It will be, I think, very difficult, if not impossible, to return from the wilderness of prayer with quite the same attitude even toward our enemies having prayed for them in this way.

    As we draw toward the coming of Christ this Advent, let us determine that we will not arrive at the manger in Bethlehem alone, but with our neighbors, with those dearest to us, and those the very thought of whom causes us to suffer. We all need the love and grace of the Christ child. This we have learned in the wilderness of prayer.

    *This year we have observed the centennial of Thomas Merton's birth in 1915. Merton, known as “Father Louis” at Gethsemani Abbey, died in Bangkok on December 10, 1968. There are still seventeen monks living at Gethsemani who served with Merton, including some who studied under him when he was Novice Master. Douglas Steere, opens his introduction to Merton's Contemplative Prayer with a passage from the poet and mystic William Blake, who wrote: "We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love." I know you will join me in giving thanks that God placed Thomas Merton on this earth, though only for a little space of time, to help us all learn better to bear the beams of love.

  • The Gift of Advent

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 01, 2015

    Gift of AdventIf someone forced me to choose whether I would declare myself to be an "Easter Christian" or "Christmas Christian," without doubt I would come down on the side of Christmas. I love Christmas. And it's not just because I love the whole joyful, sparkling, pagan-spangled, Bethlehem-bound discombobulation we call Christmas. Nor is it only because Christmas points to the central mystery of Christian faith, the incarnation of God. It is also because I find myself, along with all of those who have dwelt in great darkness for weeks amid the most hauntingly beautiful of our hymns and evocative of prophetic utterances, at long last emerging into a great light. Advent is the season of doleful expectation, so true to our human experience, that makes me look forward to and love Christmas so much.

    For some, I confess, Advent has become little more than the shabby waiting room outside the doctor's office, strewn with out-of-date magazines, a television blaring carols and visions of sugar plums to distract us from the clock. But Advent is so much more. Advent is the season that reins us in and holds us back, incessantly saying, "Not yet!" True. But, it is for this very reason that Advent makes Christmas more worth the wait: Advent blesses the waiting. Advent demonstrates liturgically the paradoxical wonder of waiting for the God who is present to show up.

    This year I would encourage us to immerse ourselves even more fully into the waiting and not to rush prematurely and headlong into Christmas. Despite the siren songs of our commercial culture that display Christmas decorations shortly after Halloween, I encourage us to enter into these days of expectation as fully as possible, to feel the weight of waiting "between the times."


    We live in a world of terrors and fears, in an age of anxieties and worries. There is so much hatred and violence, suspicion and insecurity. So many wars, so many rumors of war, and conflicts without number. "Upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity... Human hearts failing them for fear and for looking after those things which are coming to pass on earth," as we are reminded in a text often read during Advent. (Luke 21:25f)  Of course, these words could describe (and have described) virtually every age since the author of Luke's Gospel first put pen to papyrus. "It's an inconvenient time" sang Nanci Griffith years ago. Living "between the times" has always been inconvenient. It is what we Christians have long done and still do. We live suspended between the first coming of Christ and the end of the ages. This is what Advent enacts.

    In the midst of this moment, I suggest we allow Advent to speak to us and to speak for us in its own plaintive voice. Advent speaks in the voice of disenchanted hope on the threshold of the enchantment of Christmas. It beckons us to pause here with the God who waits with us for God's full deliverance of creation.

    Certainly there are gifts to purchase, travel plans to be made, and celebrations with families and friends to be organized. At the very same time, let us also be as fully present as possible in this moment of Advent. For the sake of our souls, for the sake our communities, and for the sake of our world, let us allow the ancient prophets their moment. Let us feel our exile in these Lenten lands and hold here the shadow side of hope.

    To this end, I encourage us to pray the collect designated in the Book of Common Prayer for the first Sunday in Advent, as the BCP itself recommends, each day throughout this season of Advent until Christmas Eve:

    "Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen."

    And as we pray this prayer daily, I encourage us to attend to the strange and remarkable message that underlies this collect: that the grace we need to cast away darkness and put on the armor of light is a grace which God gives us. We simply don't have it in ourselves to live in hope. This is the gift of God. This too is the gift of Advent.

  • Thin Places: Walking with the Dead

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 27, 2015

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Walking with the DeadTwilight arrives late this far north in mid-summer, well after eleven o'clock p.m. This fact always catches me by surprise, as it did this past June traveling through Scotland, although by now I should know better. Like the haunting half-light of a waning solar eclipse, when finally darkness arrives, the shadows do not so much lengthen across the landscape as they envelope everything at the same moment. Everything fades from view, including the Ballymeanoch Standing Stones which stand just a few hundred yards from where we were bedding down for the night.

    Driving through the Kilmartin Valley of Argyll, on the western coast of Scotland, twenty-five years ago, I had wondered what it would be like to sleep among those sacred stones and cairns, henges and burial cysts, some of which were constructed a millennium before the Egyptians began to build their great pyramids. Darkness as thick as black pudding came over the landscape replacing the retreating twilight, and I was getting a sense of exactly what this would be like as I looked out the window of a house only a few hundred yards from the Dunchraigaig Cairn. This is one of the darkest places on earth, especially on a night like this with clouds blocking out the light of the moon.

    The cattle that were bedding down beside the standing stones disappeared into the darkness, oblivious to the significance of their pasture. As we curled up to sleep, the bedroom curtain open so we would see the stones at first light, I thought back to previous visits to this valley during the many years we have gone there.

    On one of those visits, I recall standing on the terrace beside the village church. Below me for a couple of miles down through the valley stretched what has come to be called the "linear cemetery," an avenue of burial cairns and cists, standing stones and other monuments running for a mile or more through the glen. The "modern" church is old enough that it would earn a couple of historical markers if it were anywhere in the United States, and it was certainly not the first church on this site. The original church for the village, a medieval structure, was constructed beside the even older Celtic standing crosses which served as a preaching point for priests of that faith almost 1,500 years ago. But even the early Celtic Christians who lived in tiny "beehive" cells in the surrounding hills were Johnny-come-lately.* Or, perhaps, I should say our Christian faith is the latecomer to the area, since I wouldn't be surprised if there are people there today who carry the DNA of the folks who arrived in this area from Continental Europe sometime after the last ice age retreated. And the ice age ended about 15,000 years ago.

    Standing beside the church, I was struck by the awareness that throughout the human occupation of this valley (and human beings are known to have been in this valley for some nine thousand years) and through several successive religious faiths (in most of which we have no idea what the people believed or what rituals they practiced), this valley has been considered holy, set apart, somehow sacred. This is the thinnest of thin places.

    During the centuries from the construction of the henge which stood outside my bedroom window and the building of the first circle in what we now call Temple Wood, and through the use of this valley as a burial place for the families who lived in the vicinity (from roughly 3500 BC to 1800 BC), it appears that the people who built this sacred landscape did not live amid the monuments they built. They made their homes at the boundaries of the valley, just outside the sacred precinct.

    It is sometimes hard for us to get a sense of just how tangible holiness might have been for people like those who built these monuments. For me, this numinous quality was communicated well in a story that one of our guides told us about a burial in one of the cairns. It appears that only one person was originally buried in that particular cairn, whereas in others it seems whole families, perhaps even for several generations, had been buried, and that these successive generations of families entered the cairns periodically for ceremonial purposes. Not so with this cairn, said our guide.

    Our small group stood inside the cairn around a single burial place, a tomb constructed of slabs in which a single body had been found long ago. We were given a few clues as to the identity of the man buried there. Most telling were the multiple carvings of axe heads, such as were emblematic of the Bronze Age, all over the surface of a huge slab that had covered his tomb. The guide told us that it is believed the person buried in that tomb was not just a tribal leader or a shaman, though he may have been both, but a metal worker. He knew how to make implements of bronze.

    "Think about it," said our guide. A metal worker possessed a singular craft only recently discovered. He knew how to turn solid stone into liquid in a fire and how to create from this flowing liquid solid tools like axe handles. This was not just industry. This was magic. Awe surrounded his craft.

    There was no sharp line dividing sacred and profane in that world. The production of bronze tools touched at the very heart of sacred mystery. And it produced not just respect, but awe and fear. The tribe's respect for the bronze worker may be why he was buried in this large cairn all alone. But fear, it is believed, is why the ancient tribe placed several huge slabs on top of the enormous decorated one that covered his tomb. Magic was strong in this man. And no matter how much they respected him, even revered him, once he was dead, they didn't want him getting out of his tomb again. Which is why his tomb is so different from another tomb we entered further down the valley.

    I have never been anywhere else where you can be gripped by such an overwhelming sense of the vastness of scale of a sacred landscape. (Within six miles of Kilmartin there are over one hundred sites with ancient carved rocks and some twenty-five sites with standing stones, many of which are almost two thousand years older than Stonehenge.) Yet, in the midst of this vastness, you can suddenly find yourself breathless with claustrophobia in an ancient burial cairn, your limbs compressed and contorted, your breathing constricted as your chest feels it is being physically crushed by the weight of the ceiling above you and the walls around you, the damp earth and stones, just inches from you on every side. Every sense, smell, touch and sight, tells you that you have crossed the boundary from the land of the living to the abode of the dead.

    Each of our little group dropped down into the next burial cairn, allowing ourselves to slip down the steep tomb wall at one end with the assurance from the guide that we would be able to extricate ourselves from the tomb at the other end. What he didn't tell us going in was that we would be crawling out of the tomb through a hole just large enough for our shoulders to pass through, and only by a process of the most subtle physical twisting and turning. But walking through this tomb made the claustrophobia and gymnastics worth it. Making my way along the passage, it was impossible not to imagine the use of this cairn for centuries upon centuries, not only as a final resting place for loved ones, but as a place in which families communed with that which lies beyond the boundaries of human knowledge.

    At the end of the afternoon, as I made my way up the hillside, climbing back to the terrace on which stands the present village, after this summer's sojourn among Kilmartin's avenue of ancient monuments, I wondered what it might mean that the sacred has been experienced in this place for thousands and thousands of years and through God only knows how many different religions?

    At the very least, it must mean that we would do well to hold our beliefs a little less tightly, a little less dogmatically and with a lot more humility. This is the first thing I learned walking with the dead of the Kilmartin Valley.

    There is at least one thing more I learned from them. Despite the expanse of years that separates us from the men, women and children who lived and died in that place over the millennia past, as we examine the evidence they left behind and deduce from it what we can about their families and societies, it is clear that these were people we would recognize. They were intelligent, inventive, creative people. They liked to eat foods we still eat. They may well have been our first story tellers. They cherished one another, of this we are certain, giving gifts to one another in life and honoring one another in death. They were reverent people. These were people like us. And they believed that they were brushing against something holy in this place. I suspect they were right.

    *Kilmartin gets the "kil" in its name from the "cell" in which a priest lived. Indeed, wherever you come to a village or a church in Scotland or Ireland with this prefix, you have come across the remembrance of a priest's dwelling.

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