Letters From Our Pastor

A Child at Home

October 20, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins
As a young minister in the Church of Scotland, as Assistant Minister of the Beechgrove Church of Aberdeen, it was my responsibility to conduct many funeral services. Church of Scotland parish churches are required by law to provide funeral services and marriages to anyone who lives within the bounds of their parish whether or not the persons making the request are church members.

Beechgrove Church was a large parish church and its parish was enormous. Some of the families with whom I dealt after the death of a loved one were active members of the church and I knew them well; some only showed up for Christmas Eve; some had not entered the doors of any church since their baptism; some had never been baptized. According to Scottish law, we were required to provide the essential ecclesial services of funerals and weddings for anyone in the parish who asked.

Some ministers chafed at this law. And, for good reason. In a large parish, it meant that you had multiple funerals on many weeks. And this did steal away valuable time ministers might have dedicated to so many other aspects of the life and ministry of their congregations. But I came to appreciate the wisdom of this law.

It gave me an opportunity to serve as the minister to people who otherwise might never hear the comfort of the gospel, who might never be exposed to the power of God’s love expressed in the Psalms and the hymns of the church.

What particularly struck me was that when given the choice of biblical texts (and I always wanted the family to choose biblical texts important to them), every single family, whether active in church or not, asked for Psalm 23. It was so deeply embedded in the culture that even the unchurched knew about it.

We would read it, and pray it, and we always sang it. And the hymn version of Psalm 23 I came most to love was the great paraphrase by Isaac Watts.

The closing verses of Watts’ paraphrase go like this:

“The sure provision of my God

Attend me all my days;
O may your house be my abode,
And all my works be praise.

“There would I find a settled rest,

While others go and come;
No more a stranger, of a guest,
But like a child at home.”

For so many of the families who gathered to bury loved ones, this text sounded a theme previously unfamiliar to them. In the House of the Lord, we are not strangers, nor even welcome guests, we are God’s beloved children, “at home.”

Those who came to bury their loved ones heard, sometimes for the first time, that their relationship with God is not defined by keeping some sort of contract whereby God will act graciously toward us if and only if we enter into a legal transaction with him, promising to believe certain things, and do certain things, and reject certain other things. Instead they heard the great good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to reveal God’s loving heart toward us, a heart more abundantly gracious than we can imagine. Our relationship with God, in the terminology of one of Scotland’s greatest theologians, is filial, not legal.

This coming Sunday is our annual Scottish Heritage Sunday. It coincides with Reformation Sunday which commemorates the beginning of the Protestant Reformation which swept across Europe in the sixteenth century. Today of all days, it is important for us to remember: It isn’t guilt or fear that drive us to God, it’s love that draws us. And this Sunday we will sing what I suspect is the best-known hymn in Scotland.

Patience

October 6, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins
Some time back I made the mistake of praying for patience. What’s the old saying, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”

Well, I’m still waiting for patience. All I’ve got to say is this: God is taking his own sweet time. If patience doesn’t emerge soon, I may just have to complete my life’s journey without it.

As some of you know, I paint. Not useful painting, of course. Not rooms and ceilings and fences, but the other kind: with oils, canvases, and so forth. My wife, Debbie, as you also know, is an accomplished watercolorist. She’s also fairly accomplished on the patience front too. She takes months and years carefully learning techniques from art teachers, practicing, working at the craft of her art. She takes weeks with a single painting. And if it doesn’t come up to her standard, she scraps it and starts over.

I get frustrated if a painting doesn’t emerge quickly and do exactly what I want it to. Paintings that take days, I find especially painful.

I’m taking a tutorial right now with an extraordinary artist. He requires that I submit two pieces in progress for him to critique. For each piece, I need to describe what precisely is challenging me most. I need to estimate how close to finished the painting is. And he requires that we work from a reference photo. I don’t work like that ordinarily. I’m not a by the book painter. My method is to fail and to fail and to fail until what I’m looking for emerges.

Today, I painted by the book. My reference photo is a picture I took at the Met of a painting of the Seine River in winter by Claude Monet. My goal is to produce a painting in my own abstract expressionistic style grounded in the form of Monet’s painting. I painted for four and a half hours today, and would estimate I’m just under half-way finished with the painting.

I’m sort of miserable right now. The painting is not where I want it to be. It is not where it will be this time tomorrow. And I’m having a hard time just letting it be.

I know that Epictetus, my favorite Stoic, once said, “Nothing great is accomplished quickly.” But I still find it annoying that even my mediocrities take so much time.

My point.

We have been together, dear friends, for twenty months. It has been a joy and an honor serving as your interim senior pastor. Our search committee for a new senior pastor has been hard at work throughout most of these months. If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t come along when it did, I’m pretty sure you would have sent me on my way last summer with a handshake and a nice slice of Chantilly cake for the road. But among the many things this pandemic changed was the timeline for our PNC.

They are still hard at work. They are making good progress. But it will still be awhile before they finish their work.

I’m not going to encourage you to pray for patience. You never know what God will do to you if you pray that prayer. But I will encourage you to pray patiently for the wonderful members of our church who are hot on the trail for our next pastor. This committee covets your prayers.

The PNC is doing their work with discipline and care, intelligence, love and imagination. They are taking no short cuts. They will not settle for less than the very best senior pastor for our congregation.

And, as some of you know already, although my second contract will end at the close of December, I’ve promised to stay with you through next Easter to buy the PNC more time.

Nothing great is accomplished quickly. Patient or not, according to our timeline or not, God will bring us God’s choice for our next senior pastor. And quickly or not, that will indeed be great.

Hearts Troubled, and at Peace

September 28, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins
Let your heart be not troubled. Don’t be afraid. You trust God. You can trust me too…. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give you peace unlike what the world offers. Let your heart be not troubled. Don’t be afraid.” (From St. John chapter fourteen)
We know so little. We don’t even know for sure where these words (traditionally attributed to Jesus) came from. When asked who wrote the Fourth Gospel, known to us as “The Gospel According to St. John,” the venerable early Christian martyr Polycarp, who had known the historical apostle John, was reported to have said, “It was a long time ago, and no one knows for sure.”

Wherever the saying from the Fourth Gospel originated, however, it has remained in the Christian canon of holy scripture because it rings true. But, I have to say, it also runs counter to the most common impulses of many Christians, and a lot of other folks too.

Jesus places the focus of our trust on God. Specifically, Jesus places our focus on the God who in Christ’s supreme act of self-sacrifice revealed God’s open, loving heart to all humanity.

Life is ever-changing, inconstant, unpredictable. It is contingent upon a multitude of factors beyond anyone’s control. And if we place the focus of our trust on the rising and falling fortunes of this world, our happiness, our hopes, and our joy inevitably we fall victim to the relentless changes of life, and to the turning of fortune’s wheel.

Jesus’s teachings in all four gospels touches on this point quite often. Do not treasure the things that are corruptible, the things that rust and rot or can be stolen. Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be found, says our Lord.

Is Jesus a kill-joy? No, he’s very much a pro-joy. He’s apparently even pro-happiness. He’s a fellow who knows how to have a good time, New Orleans-style. He is a wine bidder and a friend of sinners. I suspect he may have been something of a nuisance with the karaoke machine at the local bar too.

But Jesus’s teachings in all four gospels warn against the perils of hitching our hearts to the perishable. He warns us against the disquiet that rules the hearts of those who long to know and control their future. Jesus takes critical aim at our illusion that we can plumb the ultimate telos, the world’s end, the final judgement, his return and so forth. And, in these teachings of Jesus, in particular, I find a wisdom we need to recover if we want untroubled hearts.

The peace offered by the world is tied directly to one’s ability to control the changes of life and to see where the bends are in the road ahead. The peace offered by the world is the peace that says, “Put all your eggs in the basket; mark it breakable; and watch that basket as if your life depended on it!” The peace offered by the world promises us that as long as we can stay on top of everything, we’ll be just fine.

Of course, we all know, this is no peace at all. Indeed, this is the path of lifelong, debilitating anxiety.

I’ve noticed something happening to lots of us in recent days. Our moods are souring. Our hopes feel diminished.

I’m noticing usually gregarious friends avoiding conversation for fear that they will say something that leads to painful disagreements. Months of isolation, a world at the mercy of an unmerciful disease; political divisions that thrive on hostility and that have the ability to make even the most common-place actions and thoughts grist for a partisan political mill; civil unrest that has inspired soul-searching among many but has also provoked polarization among others, who, in fact, share far more than separates them; and a bitterly antagonistic election cycle that is being used as an excuse for threats of violence by various partisans: all of this is bad enough.

Making it all worse, however, is a cult of instant opinionating and prognosticating that dominates the various media, causing many people both to hang their hopes on (what the Book of Common Prayer called) “the diverse and manifold changes of this world” and on the unknowable future.

When I open the editorial pages of my favorite print news sources (I avoid television news except for the weather report and sports), overwhelmingly I meet civil prophets trying to read the tea leaves of the moment to determine whether this candidate or that one is likely to win election, whether the economy is unsteady but doing pretty well, fundamentally sound despite the restlessness of certain markets, or doomed to fall to historic levels, and that’s just for starters. Wars and rumors of war persist. The moon, if not turned to blood, is at least debated as a resource to be mined. History run amok. A planet in crisis.

If writers of editorials gave up the prediction game, they’d have almost nothing to say. And they would give it up, I am quite sure, except for one thing: most people enjoy torturing themselves by enthralling their hearts to that which will bring only more misery and disquiet.

I told someone several months ago that I now watch less news than I used to. Their reply assumed that I have become less concerned about reality and more irresponsible.

In fact, I feel considerably more in touch with reality and I feel even more capable of responding to the actual needs around me than when I depleted myself with the daily habit of worrying and wondering what was going to happen next in the world.

It seems to me that Jesus was more a sage than a prophet; and, according to ancient Jewish sources, the sage is more important to the life of faith than is the prophet. And Jesus’s wisdom lies in trusting God, and not placing our trust or hope in this changing world around us; it lies in loving creation and humanity with complete abandon; responding to the needs of others as we cross their paths or they cross ours, and examining the ways we live together to try to insure that goodness and justice and mercy can be wrangled out of (what Kant called) “the crooked timber of our humanity.”

That sounds wise to me, and it may just be the path to joy and peace.

Journey Inward, Journey Outward

September 14, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins
The lectionary has me thinking a lot about the exodus of the children of Israel.

They traveled outwardly from Egypt, where they had been forced into slavery, across the Desert of Sinai to the land God promised them. But, as we all know, the children of Israel were not able to complete their outward journey until they completed an inward journey too. And, indeed, that first generation of liberated Israelites had to pass away before a new generation could make the journey inward, become ready to assume the full burden of freedom, and complete the journey to the promised land.

Again, these thoughts have been on my mind this week.

Providentially or serendipitously or by mere chance, a book I probably haven’t thought about in twenty years or more presented itself to me as I was preparing to write this week’s order of worship: Journey Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O’Connor. It tells the story of The Church of the Savior in Washington, D. C., a congregation that inspired many other churches around the country to reclaim the church’s role of a center for mission and ministry in a community. In that, of course, it is very much like our own Saint Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Going through O’Connor’s book again after so many years, I came upon a passage underlined in pencil.

“God is Lord of history. He speaks in events. He does not choose the mighty, but the weak. He does not choose Rome, but Bethlehem — not a throne, but a cradle — not a crown, but a cross. In March, 1965, [God] was not different. He still looked to the lowly. He addressed the churches of America through an unlikely town and an unlikely people. He did not choose Washington, D.C., but Selma, Alabama; not the country club there, but a Negro church in a remote section of town; not astronauts who were circling the earth, but a little band of people who traveled on foot the fifty miles along U.S. Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery. And across the country, churches which could not find life in the symbols they had, found a new and living one in that line of marchers. It might die as other symbols die, but for a time, which may still endure, it had the power of every living symbol, to transform, and change, and heal.”

Let’s hold on to that last phrase, “the power… to transform, and change, and heal.”

If we feel weary and sad by the acrimony in our world today, I wonder how God must feel. We have such promise. We do. We were created with such gifts. We have been lavished with such abilities and capacities. Why do we have such a hard time achieving justice with peace? Why is it so hard to forgive, much less forget? Why do some folks believe that to work for reconciliation means an avoidance of hard truths? Why do others feel that we must make a choice between supporting the legitimate law enforcement and the lives of black neighbors? Why must the virtue of freedom be promoted as though it can exist without responsibility to others?

A couple of days ago, I laid aside my newspaper. And gazing out the window I wondered aloud if there is any way we can go forward as a people. Later the same day I read a short essay about Gore Vidal’s classic novel, 1876. Writing in the upheaval of the late nineteen-sixties and not long after Watergate, Vidal made the case that the year 1876 was the low point in our republic. I would have put it at 1861 or 1862, probably. We did have a civil war. Or, maybe, I would have rated the years of Andrew Johnson’s administration or Andrew Jackson’s, or the Great Depression, as our low point.

There have been many times in our nation’s history when people believed there was no way forward. Thus has it ever been, that our own generation is the one that feels the lash, the hunger, the thirst, the fear felt by that ragged first generation of Israelites wandering in the Sinai Desert.

I believe deeply that our “Outward Journey” forward will depend in large measure upon our “Inward Journey” spiritually as a people. Having experienced the fifties as a child, the sixties as a teenager, and the seventies onward as an adult, I have seen us rise to moments of great challenge. You have too. We witnessed an American president stand among the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York to plead for us to seek justice, not revenge, and to bless and not scapegoat people of other faiths. That is a symbol I shall forever treasure. We witnessed a black man address a vast crowd made up of the tapestry of American ethnicity after being elected President of the United States. And for one shining moment I thought America again would show the world the way forward.

Today, as ragged as we may feel, tracked by a disease that knows no mercy, confronted with complex social issues, struggling with violence and the threat of violence, but finding ourselves also among people of good will speaking out for justice for all, I am more convinced than ever that we have enduring symbols that have the power to change minds, and that the Spirit of God even more than our symbols can journey into the human heart to transform even the most callous, the most frightened, and the most hateful soul.

God can and will transform us all. That is God’s promise, not mine.

Tired and True

September 8, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins
Misreading may say as much about our mental states as Freudian slips.

A few days ago a catalogue arrived from L.L.Bean, the Maine outdoorsy outfitters. It was their fall catalogue full of duck boots, cozy sweaters, socks and the best darn house shoes ever invented. Emblazoned across the cover it said: “TRIED AND TRUE.”

That’s not what my brain read, however.

My brain read, “Tired and True.” To which I nodded my head soberly until I realized that I had misread it.

This week a cartoon in the New Yorker said it all for me. A little girl toddles into her parents’ sitting room, and asks her parents, “Are we there yet?”

I remember with fond nostalgia March of this year. We all went into a temporary hibernation that we thought would last a couple of weeks. Memorial Day come and went, as did the Fourth of July, and now Labor Day. And just when I had begun to think we would emerge (very pale!) from our caves, today’s headline tells me that COVID-19 is on the rise in twenty-two states.

I’d really like to find the person who prayed for us all to gain patience right now and have a little talk. Apparently they’ve got a direct line to God. I’m not sure, however, if I’ve gained much in patience. But, I’m “tired and true.”

Please take care of yourselves and your loved ones, my friends. Please help us find ways to serve those who are suffering the most in this pandemic. Please pray for our health care workers, our doctors and nurses and the army of support staff that keep our health care system going. I know they are even more tired …… but true.

Annus Horribilis

August 24, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins

Some of you will doubtless recall the Latin phrase, annus horribilis, made famous by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 1992. In that year, the marriages of two of her sons, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, definitively hit the rocks after years of rumors, and a fire gutted 115 rooms of her beloved Windsor Castle.

Whether the year 2020 will be remembered as horrible I will not debate. This year still has another four months and I sure don’t want to tempt fate. For many, however, it has already been a year of relentless and devastating loss, horrible by any scale. Even for those who have escaped the worst aspects of the year — the illnesses and deaths of friends and family, economic losses and high anxiety over the future of their families, social and political unrest — we have all felt the metaphorical shaking of the earth beneath our feet.

Today, as I write this pastoral letter, we are waiting to see what will become of two massive tropical storms (or, maybe, hurricanes) which, as of this moment, are still heading toward Louisiana. The meteorologists on TV keep saying this is an “unprecedented” event. I keep hoping that we can put that word back on he shelf for awhile, because it has definitely gotten overworked this year.

The Sunday Lectionary is now taking us into the Exodus narrative, and I’m getting a little worried that after the plague of novel corona virus and the floods and winds of hurricane season we are in for locusts and frogs next. Something can have “precedents” and still be horrible.

Sunday I’ll be preaching on Exodus again (Ex. 3:1-15), but today, I’d like to briefly call to mind a passage from Psalm 105, which is the Psalm in this week’s Lectionary. This Psalm recounts events familiar from Genesis and Exodus, and includes one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible. The passage is about Joseph (whose story you’ll remember from my sermon a couple of weeks ago).

Joseph’s brothers, out of envy and jealousy, sold him into slavery. He was taken down to Egypt where he was kept in chains. The passage from Psalm 105: 17-18, in the sixteenth century Coverdale translation of the old Book of Common Prayer reads:

“[God] sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold to be a bond-servant; Whose feet they hurt in the stocks: the iron entered into his soul.”

This is pure poetry, of course. But it is something else too. It is testament to what can happen in the midst of the very worst conditions.

The iron entered into his soul.” A man betrayed and sold into slavery by those closest to him, exiled from his homeland, slapped into iron chains: all that conspired to harm him turns out to make him stronger. It is as though his brothers, unintended and unforeseen, set up an IV drip that fed the strength of iron directly into his backbone. He looked through the horrible time he endured, and instead of allowing it either to weaken him or turn him vengeful, he used it to grow, to mature, to become human enough to be merciful.

I love this text. And I am utterly captivated by Joseph’s response to all that happened to him in an “unprecedented” annus horribilis.

It isn’t what happens to us, but what we make of what happens, that matters most.

Mother Nature, as Thomas Friedman said earlier this year is just chemistry, biology and physics, and nature doesn’t care what happens. The engine that drives her is natural selection, that’s all. But, if Joseph is to be believed, the God who created nature and who can peek around history’s corners has a way of placing us where we can do the most good in this world, if we will. And we too always have the same opportunity that Joseph had when “the iron entered into his soul.”

The Inner Citadel, Part Two

July 27, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins

Last week I wrote a short essay in praise of equanimity, the quality of mind that is unruffled by external conditions. As I’m sure you noticed, however, the essay begged at least two important questions:

Why does this quality of mind matter?

And how can it be achieved and maintained?

I’d like to address these two questions today. But, first, I should say something about the value of equanimity in the history of Christian thought.

There are many who have argued that this frame of mind is a legitimate end in itself, in need of no additional commentary. They may be right. But it seems also true to me that equanimity provides such benefits to people engaged actively in the world, that we may benefit from thinking more fully about it.

There was no personal characteristic more highly prized among many early Christians than what they called equanimity. Whether the early Christian in question was Basil of Caesarea who strode the corridors of fourth-century Byzantine ecclesiastical power amid the landscape of shifting political alliances and court intrigue, or whether the Christian in question was Basil’s contemporary, the former court chaplain Evagrius Ponticus, who fled the Imperial power center after some sort of sexual imbroglio to spend the remainder of his life as a solitary monk in the deserts of Egypt, equanimity was seen as the essential equipment required to live at peace with oneself.

This quality of mind and spirit was especially valued in perilous times. And, we should remember, most times in human history have been perilous.

I, for one, tend to look back to my childhood as a peculiarly peaceful stable era. But adults, like my parents, who were navigating the 1950s and 1960s, from the endless hunt for Communists to the fears over nuclear annihilation, from the struggle for fundamental civil rights for our Black citizens to the divisions in our country over the Vietnam War, doubtless had a very different experience of this era. And I remember the 1970s for the delights of college, lots of afternoon-long picnics at the lake, the joys of marriage, and my first experiences of graduate school. But it was also a period of crisis in the political world, international danger and shame, and economic hardship.

Every age has its dangers, toils and snares.

Our early Christian forebears lived through the years when Christianity was virtually outlawed (a period, incidentally, of astronomical growth for the church) to the era when Christianity was sanctioned as the official religion of the Empire (a devastating development, by the way, in the eyes of many early Christians and Church historians). The world in which Christianity was born and took its first toddling steps was as red in tooth and claw as any other.

Barbarism among the Goths was only barely less brutal and capricious than barbarism among the denizens of the declining a Roman Empire. This was the time when the first monks appeared, ragged men and women inhabiting desert places, praying incessantly for the future of the world. Personally, I don’t think they fled the world so much as took the sanctity of God’s reign with them into the wilderness so that it might be cultivated and nurtured for future generations. We could say much the same of the communal monastic movement that soon after would bear the name of Saint Benedict, and even a bit later of the monastic foundations following his example who saved civilization, philosophy and faith for the future in places like Ireland, Iona and Northumbria during the darkest of the Dark Ages.

These early Christians knew that no desert refuge and no monastic enclosure was strong enough to guarantee safety, security, comfort, and hope. Thus they worked and prayed and studied to cultivate a faith that could sustain them in the midst of life’s dangers. This faith was neither theoretical nor propositional, but a personal trust and confidence in God that would nourish the spirit of equanimity.

1. Why? Why did all these early generations of Christians value equanimity?

Because they knew that equanimity alone provides the necessary frame of mind for rational thinking and living.

Fear and anxiety, and their cousins hatred and violence, do not provide what is needed to act rationally or faithfully in this world.

Revolutions may ride the dragon’s back, but revolutions rarely, if ever, end well. Usually, however lofty the ideals and fervent the zeal of the revolutionaries, they result in one complacent class being replaced by another, which soon falls to its own sins of excess and complacency. Eras of peace and justice following hard upon the heals of revolution are much less common in history than are reigns of terror and the turmoils of endless cycles of revolution.

Equanimity proceeds from an inner peace, an inner calm, a sense that “all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” neither because progress is inevitable (it isn’t!), nor because we are so smart or so good (we aren’t), but because God holds us and all history in his hands. Equanimity rests in the confidence that God calls upon us to act with justice, mercy, equity, compassion, and to leave the outcomes to the One who has and ever will be faithful in the outworking of his purposes for creation.

There is in the outworking of such equanimity not the merest shade of complacency or quietism, but a deep wisdom that God calls us to do our part but not to imagine that the ends depend on us alone. Each of us and all of us are called to a stewardship that receives a garden we did not plant, but for which we are responsible until we hand it on to others.

2. Equanimity is achieved by faith, not belief about a set of propositions or adherence to doctrines, but personal trust in the providence and love of God. And, therefore, equanimity is maintained by certain practices of faith.

One of the frustrations I’ve had with Stoicism has been this: its assertions, though often true, are supported by very little in the way of practices. In other words, I’ve often resonated to the wisdom of developing that inner citadel of the heart which life cannot shake, but Stoicism itself offered me little help in achieving and maintaining this frame of mind.

Both Christianity and Buddhism have done much better in developing practices of faith that help us sustain equanimity.

Anyone who has used the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola will be able to bear witness to how well these regular practices have opened their eyes spiritually and spoken to their hearts emotionally.

Those who have given themselves over to the regular and disciplined practices of Mindfulness and Mindful Meditation can bear witness to the manner in which these practices have changed their orientation toward life, toward its fragility and its changeability.

In contrast to the “name and shame” school of Social Justice which is so prominent today, those who possess equanimity are much more likely to see the “offender” as another side of themselves, as someone human, someone redeemable, someone suffering, someone who should be heard and loved, however difficult that may be, if we wish together to grow toward human maturity.

In contrast to the disciples of hatred and glorifiers of violence who intimidate and bully others for their own short-term private interests or out of a sort of tribal fear of the other, those who possess equanimity are more likely to be able to see beyond the others they oppose to a vision of a fair and just and good society that allows all people the chance to flourish and to learn from one another.

Rationality is not the enemy of faith, not if faith is trust in the goodness and love of the Just and Merciful God we Christians believe is shown to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Trust in this God and this God’s “end game” can sustain in us that unruffled equanimity that is better able to see clearly the field of options we have before us.

I have come to believe that most of the problems we face in this society really are problems. That’s good news.

Problems, no matter how tangled and entrenched, ultimately can be unraveled and solved. But they will not be solved unless and until there is a critical mass of people who possess the equanimity to help us solve them.

There will remain many predicaments in our world too, and predicaments cannot be solved. Equanimity helps us with them too, because a predicament cannot be solved, only borne with patience and understanding. This too is good news.

I hope that one day we’ll be wise enough to own the name of our species: Homo sapiens. Human beings have so much unrealized promise.

The Inner Citadel, Part One

July 6, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins

Montaigne was despised by both sides during the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics that ravaged France from 1562-1598, writes historian Robert Zaretsky in an essay (June 29, 2020) for the NYT. He was known in his time as a politique: Someone who “for the sake of all tries to find common ground in a land savaged by zealotry.” Zealots hate those who do the hard slow slogging work of incremental reform.

We remember Montaigne today as one of the most civilized and wise voices in an age (the sixteenth century) in which cataclysmic events such as war and plague threatened the populations of Europe. But in his own time Montaigne was an active person, a mayor in the Bordeaux region.

His wisdom is distilled in a series of Essays, literally forays into or explorations of a variety of subjects, which he wrote at his estate well outside the gates of the city over which he was mayor. His equanimity comes shining through these essays, making it hard for a contemporary reader to realize that he wrote them while the world seemed to be falling apart all around him. The lesson he learned in his own savage time, the lesson that comes through his essays, is that we can come to rely upon ourselves when the world is in turmoil. Or to put this theme another way: nothing external to us need affect our inner calm and equanimity.

There’s a wonderful song by the Avett Brothers that communicates a similar message, “Ain’t No Man.” The first lines go like this.

There ain’t no man can save me,
There ain’t no man can enslave me,
Ain’t no man,
A man that can change the shape my soul is in.
There ain’t nobody here
Who can cause me pain or raise my fears
Cause I got only love to share
If you’re looking for a truth I’m proof you’ll find it here.

This morning as Debbie and I were having our tea together, and I was reading through the usual political shenanigans, catastrophic injustices and worrying scientific information catalogued in the morning news, Debbie was looking at real estate listings in the Outer Hebrides.

Seriously. She’s looking for someplace inconvenient to live.

Of course, we both know that Montaigne and the Avett Brothers, as well as Seneca and Epictetus the Stoics, and Buddha and the Dalai Lama, not to mention our Lord Jesus, were right: the world has always been a mess, there never was a golden age when everything worked and dangers didn’t exist, and if your happiness, and security, and comfort, and hope depend upon the world around you, you’re going to suffer all the time. All the time.

I had just pulled out one of several volumes of Seneca in our bookshelf this morning, and was availing myself of his enduring wisdom, when my long-time assistant at Louisville Seminary sent me an email sharing the obituary in the Indianapolis paper of my old friend the Reverend Dr. John Wimmer.

John died a few days ago at the age of sixty-three after courageously fighting cancer for two years. The obituary was well written. It said the kinds of things that a good obituary is intended to say: chronicling John’s distinguished academic and ministry career, his executive service as founding director of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and, of course, his service as a program director for the Lilly Endowment, Inc., where he helped thousands upon thousands of congregations and pastors across the country with millions upon millions of dollars in grants.

There’s so much more the obituary could have said, however, that only John’s friends knew (many more things than I will ever know); many of these things demonstrate his quiet strength, compassion and courage, not least his faithful endurance of the malignancy that eventually took his life.

One of the secrets to John’s patient endurance and cheerfulness was his dedication to Stoicism, that philosophy which echoes through the ancient world and surfaces in the pages of the New Testament. It was John who, knowing my love of Stoicism many years ago, put me onto Evagrius Ponticus, that great and enigmatic soul of the early Church. John, with whom I had discussed my regular silent retreats at Gethsemani Abbey, told me about a Trappist monk formerly of that monastery, who had discovered connections between Stoicism and Evagrius. John and I traded correspondence on these connections and on Stoicism. But that’s only the external story.

John was a unique gift to me during a time of great perplexity and difficulty, when hardly a day passed that I didn’t feel like packing it in. Like the Stoics he loved, John’s interest in philosophy and faith was practical. A philosophy isn’t something to just think about, it is a way to live. And John found in his philosophy and faith a guide through life’s challenges right up to the end.

There’s an old story about a man who has fallen into a hole. Its sides are steep. Lots of people shout down advice to the fellow. Nothing they suggest works. Finally along comes an old friend. Instead of saying anything, he jumps into the hole with the guy, who then says, “Why the heck did you jump into the hole. Now we’re both stuck down here.” The friend smiles and says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before. I know how to get out. Come with me.”

This morning I had another conversation. Debbie and I are entertaining one of our grandchildren this week, our daughter Jessica’s daughter Grace. Some of you have met Grace. She’s stayed with us in New Orleans a number of times. Debbie and Grace had gotten dressed to run a few errands. Grace came bouncing into the den, twirled around so I could admire the new dress her Mimi had bought her, and then came over to my chair.

I was reading Seneca at that moment, thinking about John. The chapter of Seneca’s letters I was looking at is “On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World.” Seneca’s lesson, as ever, was that if we turn our happiness, security and sense of well-being over to the world’s conditions, we will be “servants to a multitude of masters.”

Some few of us have the freedom, the physical freedom, if you will, to try to flee the world, to find quiet places of rest and repose. Most people in the world do not have this freedom. And it was never in the nature of Stoicism or Christianity simply to escape the world’s trials to an insular oasis.

However, we all have a much greater freedom. This greater freedom comes from the awareness that If our enduring, long-term happiness depends upon finding the right place to live, far from the external conditions that frighten us today, we shall be disappointed. Indeed, if we wish to live in a manner than promotes the common good, we will have to find a philosophy of life that sustains us in this world.

Nothing outside ourselves can create the necessary conditions for enduring happiness. This is the mature, sustaining perspective of Seneca and other Stoics. Seneca was not just a theoretician. His philosophy provided him the inner strength to labor among the political and cultural elite of Roman society, not simply in the knowledge that he had a country estate to which he could repair, but in the confidence that the mind provided him an impregnable inner citadel from which he serve in the world around him. Not even the sword, which eventually was wielded by an executioner sent from the Emperor, could penetrate those walls.

“Grace, you seem very happy,” I said that morning.

She beamed. Why not be happy? She and her Mimi were dressed up and going to run their masked errands that might include a swing by Chick-fil-A.

I took my finger and tapped the middle of her forehead.

“The secret to happiness,” I said, “is right in here, not out there,” I said motioning to everything outside of her. “Can you remember that?”

She nodded. And I said it again, tapping her forehead again. I want her to remember this, long after I’m gone.

Thank you, John.

Miracles All Around

June 30, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins

Dear friends,

As I write you this note I’m sitting on our sun porch on Saint Simons Island watching a monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. It’s happening in our kitchen right now.

Debbie has been protecting this creature from the time it was a caterpillar on a milkweed. It traveled with her by car from Saint Simons to New Orleans and from New Orleans across about a third of Texas to pick up our granddaughter Grace and back to Saint Simons. This newly emerged butterfly was already well-traveled before it ever got its wings. This morning, while Debbie and Grace were at the beach it came forth from the chrysalis.

Until the past few weeks I was embarrassingly ignorant of the way butterflies come into existence. I knew the stages. My second grade teacher made sure of that. But I didn’t really comprehend the magic.

As you know a butterfly starts as a caterpillar munching away on leaves, until one day it transforms into a chrysalis. Transforms is the key word here. In my ignorance, I thought the caterpillar built a chrysalis, crawled inside, and grew wings. Nope. The caterpillar actually becomes the chrysalis. And those bits of the caterpillar that are inside the chrysalis become a gooey sort of bug soup. That soup is transformed into a butterfly and eventually breaks free to dry its wings and fly away. Incidentally, this process is really difficult for butterflies. And if humans try to “help” them, the butterflies will die.

Debbie and Grace came racing home from the beach when I called them with the news that a butterfly had emerged. Carefully they took the milkweed plant outside, the butterfly still hanging precariously from the chrysalis.

This is miraculous stuff: Transformations that can neither be seen nor really comprehended. Of course, this is why in the Christian traditions, this process has been used as an analogy for resurrection.

Why am I telling you all of this?

We living through a period of enormous stress and confusion in our history. The pandemic has upended the commonplace and introduced anxiety to everyday life in a way we couldn’t have foreseen. A renewed awareness of the ways in which our black neighbors are often maltreated and traumatized by the very systems that should serve and protect all citizens has awakened many of even the most dormant consciences. Going into both of these events our nation seemed more divided than many of us could recall. More than a few people have said to me, “I just don’t know where we are headed.”

In response to these realities, and in response to this question, I’d would like to offer two observations.

1.  If a future monarch butterfly had any consciousness of what it was going to go through on the way from caterpillar to butterfly, I have a hunch it would freak out. Really. I imagine most prospective butterflies would opt to remain caterpillars crawling around and chewing away on a nice green milkweed, enjoying its legs and dodging the occasional mockingbird. The stories about flying it may have heard will sound like silly fables. The risk of dissolving inside an apparently dead shell of its own tissue and hanging from a leaf would be far more real than the eventual possibility of wings. That miracle of transformation, so ordinary that it occurs all around us in nature, makes me reflect hard on the nature of spiritual and social transformation. And it brings to mind that wonderful passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans reminding us that as followers of Christ ours is not to conform to the self-serving and self-centered mold of the world but to allow ourselves to be transformed through the renewing of our minds into the very image of God.

2.  It’s hard for me to believe, but as July approaches I will have had the privilege and joy of serving as your interim senior pastor for almost a year and a half. What I have discovered as your pastor is that if there is a Christian congregation anywhere in America that can embrace the hard work of continuing spiritual and social transformation it is you. I have never known a group of people more eager to learn and grow in faith. I’ve never known more courageous and generous people. Every day I am with you (even now when we have to keep a safe social distance) I love and admire you more as a congregation. Miracles are happening all around us. God is at work throughout our world and in our society. The crises and challenges we face provide a chance for transformation like nothing else. We have a wonderful opportunity to respond to the needs of others with grace and mercy; with lamentation, confession to be sure; but also with deeper understanding and tenderness; and with compassion and a renewed sense of our common humanity. We have the opportunity to fly, as hard as that is to imagine as we crawl around in these leaves.

For the next few weeks, although you’ll hear me preaching through Steven’s digital magic, I will be away from New Orleans. I hope each of you know, however, you will always be in my prayers.

God bless you.

Michael

False Mythologies and True Choices

June 22, 2020 by Rev. Dr. Michael Jinkins

There is a mythology being constructed around the country. It asserts that so-called Evangelical churches that support the current executive administration of the United States are the heirs to the Confessing Church movement in Germany which opposed Hitler and the rise of Nazism. This false mythology also attempts to cast any Christians who raise questions about the actions of the current executive branch of our government and the president as allies of fascism.

I have held back on commenting explicitly on the rise of this mythology, in part, because there seemed to be no way of speaking about it that doesn’t appear to engage in partisan politics. But I think I’ve found a way to do that now.

I am an historical theologian. That means that a large part of my scholarship has been purely descriptive. Mostly I try to clarify how beliefs arose and what these beliefs consisted of through the dim mist of history. For example, in one of the many biographical essays I was asked to write for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I clarified the use of the term “puritan,” a term that has been thrown around so much over the past centuries as to lose all meaning. Indeed, I clarified it to the point that readers were able to see that several people labeled as “puritans” weren’t. The term simply wasn’t of use.

In our time, in our country, some of the most commonly used words have become useless. Recently I read a thoughtful Republican politician say that he has no idea what “conservative” means in today’s political rhetoric. His comment was, “I don’t understand what we’re trying to conserve anymore.” The word “liberal” has also become meaningless, at least in our country. In Europe it refers to both the economic system that values individual risk-taking and free enterprise, and the political system that emphasizes some version of democracy over authoritarianism. Neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” and some others thrown around in our current political climate, clearly denote what is believed by those who are described by the terms.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed the manner in which such words should be taken out of common usage until they are meaningful again. I agree. Even the word “Christian” is used in such a sloppy manner these days that I gave it up for Lent this year. Better to send it to the cleaners for awhile than to abuse what was originally a derisive term for those folks (“little Christs”) who followed the crucified Jewish prophet and healer.

In our time, and in our country (though by no means are we unique in this) there has also been a rise in casting anyone described by terms like “conservative” or “liberal” (and some other labels) as evil. I really mean evil. I recall the late Jack Stotts, President of Austin Presbyterian Seminary, telling a graduating class that he grieved the change in our country from saying, “I disagree with you. You’re wrong,” to “I disagree with you. You’re evil.” Especially when it comes to the mixture of religion with anything (maybe especially politics), the labeling of someone as evil means you can ignore them, even destroy them, with impunity.

I think we all recognize the way things are today with regard to these lamentable general trends of tossing around words that have become meaningless and using them and others to label people so they can be dismissed. People are complicated, however. Their views and values rarely conform to a single straightforward list of do’s and don’ts or to the platform of a political party. Most people live in grey landscapes not black and white ones. They are accustomed to taking a variety of matters into consideration when trying to decide how to act morally. They also know what it feels like to be wrong, although that’s harder to admit. But more and more this subtle approach which requires genuine individual weighing of alternatives and the burden of personal responsibility is being marginalized by an approach that says, “If you are ‘conservative’ you believe these things,” “If you are ‘liberal’ you believe those things.” It’s tribalism in the guise of good political citizenship.

Again, I think we know the general lay of the land. It’s a mess out there. Those who are too lazy to figure out what they actually mean when they use certain words, and those who toss around largely meaningless labels to avoid having to enter into genuine discussions and conversations seem to hold the field. But, here’s why I believe there’s room for hope. Most regular folks, when it comes to the complicated business of navigating their personal lives and relationships, want to take more care than some politicians, some pundits and some preachers do.

So: back to the false mythology of the hour.

Some fairly well known figures are saying that the churches around the country who vocally and unconditionally support the executive branch and the president are the heirs to the Confessing Church movement in mid-twentieth century Germany, a movement exemplified by the Protestant Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And, correspondingly, they hold that those Christians who do not agree with the policies of the executive branch and the president are fascists.

When I first heard this idea, I thought it so ludicrous that I didn’t even take it seriously. That was a mistake. It is spreading like wildfire. People love to hitch the wagon of their beliefs and efforts to a famous heroic cause, and there are few more heroic causes than the Confessing Church movement, whose leaders included people like Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) officially stands in the tradition of the Confessing Church movement in its adherence to The Theological Declaration of Barmen, a confession written principally by the Reformed theologian Karl Barth and adopted by a synod of churches across Germany in 1934. An underground seminary, led by Bonhoeffer, set about to educate ministers for this movement.

At the heart of the movement was the belief that Jesus Christ as he is attested to in the Bible is the one Word of God whom we must hear and obey in all of life, and that there are no areas of life over which Jesus Christ is not our Lord. This affirmation is in fact a re-affirmation of the oldest confession that Christians hold, tracing its origin to St. Paul himself, “Jesus is Lord.” And it carries the specific rejection that there are aspects of human life over which Christ is not our Lord. The anathema of this confession runs like this: there are no aspects of human life over which someone else other than the God revealed in Christ Jesus is our lord. Martin Niemoller courageously summarized this affirmation in a title of one of many things he wrote at the time: “Jesus Christ is my Fuhrer.”

Obviously, there was an implicit political message in the confession. No government can claim authority over the totality of human life. To do so is to usurp the place of God. In other words, such a move on the part of a government represents a form of idolatry. If policies of any government conflict with the lordship of Christ, the Christian is cast into the dilemma of wrestling with that ancient and enigmatic charge from Jesus (as he flipped a coin bound for the tax man back at his interlocutor) to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but unto God what is God’s.” Caesar, in other words, does not have a free hand over the conscience of the Christian.

This reality into which our faith thrusts us is fraught. It is why Christians and other persons may indeed be persons of goodwill but may disagree deeply over specific social and political policies.

But this history and this confession also clarify our Christian struggle of conscience. You may have seen the fascinating article in the New York Times (June 20, 2020) which told the story of a young Baptist pastor in Alabama who, in 2017, did what Baptist preachers and scores of other preachers have tried to do throughout history; that is, he tried to preach the Bible with integrity in a particular moment. Karl Barth once described the role of the preacher in a way this young pastor would understand well. The preacher comes to the pulpit, Barth famously said, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Faced with headlines regarding worrying policies of the then new administration, the young pastor preached a sermon based on the Beatitudes (see Matthew chapter five), from that section of the Gospels known as the Sermon on the Mount. Some members of the church were fairly enraged. And they confronted the young pastor. Among the things they said, was this: “Those are nice, but we don’t have to live by them.”

I find this statement, as a historical theologian, fascinating for several reasons, but for one reason in particular: One can say what one wants about the biblicist tradition represented in most Southern Baptist Churches, but when it comes to holding the Bible as the supreme authority over the Christian’s beliefs and behaviors, there’s never been any doubt as to where they stand.

In this case, however, these church members explained to the young pastor that the words of Jesus conflicted with the policies of the current administration, and they refused to consider that it was the policies that needed to be considered critically from the perspective of Christian faith. Instead, from that day on, they began to monitor the young pastor for statements that did not conform to their political agenda.

Speaking as a historical theologian I must say that their actions – and this church is by no means alone in this – have much more in common with the German Christian Church which remodeled Christian scripture and confessions (removing whole sections of the Bible, for example) to reflect the policies of the Nazis than they do with the Confessing Church movement which risked imprisonment and death for opposing the policies of the Nazi government.

Please understand me, I am not plucking out of the air the example of Nazism but reflecting historically and theologically on the mythology many evangelical churches and their leadership themselves are currently constructing to defend their support of actions that others, including other Christians, are questioning and criticizing.

George Orwell once said that those who control the writing of history also control the future. I think we should take that seriously.

In my life I have worn the labels of Christian, Presbyterian, and Evangelical (especially when in the British context), but I have also been called liberal and conservative. These days I would hardly know what any of those terms mean anymore if I just relied on the pejorative uses of them in our society. After a lifetime of studying the Bible, I am more sure than ever that it speaks with authority to our lives, but I am also critical and analytical of the Bible as a document and regard it as a witness written by human beings over many centuries attempting to come to terms with their experience of God. The Word of God speaks through the Bible, but I believe the words themselves are all human.

For me, faith has become simpler even as life has grown more complex. I believe, I truly believe, that at the core of all that is there beats the heart of Love divine. And the surest way to show our kinship with God is by loving others. My way of trying to do this is to try to follow Jesus of Nazareth. I fail far more than I succeed. But I cannot ignore Jesus no matter what any nation or its government says. I am also aware that when my nation acts, it acts in my name, because I am a citizen. And when it acts in a way I believe deeply is at odds with the Lord I try to follow, I cannot ignore the gap between the parting of these ways.

I believe that Christians and other persons of faith in other traditions can be good citizens. And sometimes citizenship is proven not in obsequious consent but in loving one’s country enough to speak against its government’s policies. There’s always more to say, but for today, this is enough.