27 July 2009

Having More Than Enough

John 6: 1-21

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 26th July 2009

What do we do with a text like this? In a postmodern, hyper-rationalist, hyper-skeptical age, what do we do with this miracle story? Do we even believe in miracles? What is a miracle? Do we just accept this text at face-value – “The Bible said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” Is that good enough? Maybe. It’s not enough for many who hear a story like this, knowing that miracles like this don’t happen every day (if ever), exactly as they are described here. Yes, I believe Jesus was a worker of miracles. Yes, I believe that miracles still occur. But what does this text mean, where is the kernel of good news in this story in our day when resources are scarce, the multitudes are still hungry, and people are walking away from the church in Europe and North America feeling not fed, not satisfied, but empty? What do we do with a text like this?

Apart from trying to explain the miracle, at the very least we can say there’s a direct connection in Jesus’ ministry with God and food. There’s a link between spirituality and food, between our hearts and our stomachs. How we prepare food, eat food, share food all have theological dimensions. Think of the kosher dietary laws within Judaism. Think of the presence of a table at the center of Christian worship space. Within Christianity, we generally don’t have dietary laws (we love our potluck suppers too much). Some Christians promote vegetarianism. Many Roman Catholics won’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Although, even this rule was subject to change several years ago when the feast day of St. Patrick fell on a Friday during Lent. Several Catholic bishops suspended the rule for just March 17 so that the Irish could celebrate with corned beef and a pint of Guinness.

Food matters to God. How and what people eat matter to God. Food helps to proclaim God’s love in the kingdom. Some of the foods we eat have a religious background. To this day, the bulk of the fish hauled out of the Sea of Galilee are called St. Peter’s Fish – otherwise known as tilapia. One Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), invented one of the first health foods – you know where this is going – a cracker for his congregation to eat, a Graham cracker in 1829. There was a sect of Christians known as the Millerites, who believed that Jesus would return in 1843. They waited and waited their way into what was called “the Great Disappointment.” Some believed that Jesus had in fact returned, but it was a spiritual, that is invisible advent. These Christians believed they were living in the already-present millennial kingdom; these Adventists came to believe that as part of their new identity they should invent alternative foods, signs of not being in the world. Peanut butter was later invented in this tradition, as well as a variety of cold breakfast cereals, including something called a “corn flake.” The corn flake was perfected by Adventist devotee John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) in a spiritual community known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium, Michigan. Food can be spiritual.

Crowds of people follow Jesus around the Sea of Galilee, hungry for his teaching and preaching. Jesus also knew that he (along with the disciples) had a responsibility to care for them. You can’t just feed the soul without also feeding the stomach; spirit and body have to be held together. To tend to one’s spirit one must also attend to the body; care for the body must include care for the spirit. In God’s kingdom, in God’s vision for this world, the two are never separated. They are inextricably linked.

John tells us, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’” So, what is this sign? Is it the relationship between spirituality and food? Is it the linking of body and spirit? Not really. Every Jew would have assumed such things. Was the miracle the sign? Yes, but how do we hear – or see the sign – how do we hear this text as good news and food for our hungry souls. What is the miracle, what is the sign?

Yes, turning five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed 5,000. Yes, providing so much food that each was able to eat as much as he or she wanted. When they were “satisfied” – satisfied – they gathered up fragments, “so that nothing may be lost,” and filled twelve baskets of bread left over. There’s more leftover after the meal than before. Presumably, the leftovers were for the ones who served.

How did they go from Philip’s statement, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” to Jesus’ directive, “Gather up the fragments, so that nothing may be lost”? This seems to be the critical question for us, the heart of the text. How did they go from a skeptical response to Jesus’ statement, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” to having twelve baskets of bread leftover? How does this shift take place within the heart of God’s people? How does this turn, this move occur? For, that’s the amazing thing here. Yes, the actual feeding of the multitudes is significant. The fact of the miracle is important. But perhaps the more profound miracle here, easily overlooked, is the changed perspective. A transformation of perspectives among disciples, from their focus on the seemingly impossible, overwhelmed by the burdens of moment which averts their focus upon God and thus limits what we think God can do, to seeing what God can do.

The real miracle is a changed perspective. Whenever our perspectives change and we discover what God can do in us and through us, that’s a miracle – because all of us are so set in our ways and sometimes so stubborn, skeptical, and suspicious that it’s well nigh impossible for God to do anything through us. It has to with perspective.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Yes, there are optimists and there are pessimists. The glass metaphor goes deeper than that. If it’s half- empty, then one must be sure to conserve what’s left because soon it will be all gone. The focus concentrates around absence and there’s anxiety around having nothing. If it’s half-full, then the assumption is on fullness, sufficiency, there’s something left to share.

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus said. “He said this to test” Philip. The question operates like a Buddhist koan. How we answer the question says something about our perspective. Philip clearly sees that there’s not enough. Andrew, on the other hand, tries to answer in the realm of the possible, “There is a boy here,” he says, “who have five barley loaves and two fish.” I want to say, “Yeah, Andrew, good answer! You get it. That’s the attitude.” He answers correctly. Then it fizzles out, “But,” he adds, “what are they among so many people?” That infernal, “But.”

Will there be enough? That’s what so many ask every day. I know that question and the emotions that go with it. My parents weren’t wealthy. Going out for dinner at McDonald’s or Burger King on Thursdays, payday, was a big treat. We never went without, but there was always anxiety around not having enough. My grandmother, being the thrifty Scot that she was, was always looking for ways to cut corners, to pinch pennies, to save, to conserve energy. I grew up with a perspective of scarcity, the glass as always half-empty. In the ways of the world – save, conserve – are noble and necessary ways to live. In a culture driven by economical impulses, fiscal responsibility is essential. We can’t be foolish. We need to be practical. In this economy, we have to prepare for the rainy day.

It was only much later did I realize that while this save and conserve philosophy might have served my financial well-being, it did not serve me well. It did not serve me when it came to the well-being of my soul and in matters of the heart. To act as if there’s not enough leads one to conserve and then ultimately to constrict the living of the heart. Very often the emotions underneath this way of being are full of fear and anxiety. While this save and conserve philosophy has served my financial well-being, it has not served me well when it comes to my understanding of God’s love for me and the world – it could not teach me about the abundance and extravagance of God’s love. The kind of love that conquers fear and helps to ease our anxiety, the love of God that gives and gives and pours forth, like a “fountain of all goodness,” as Calvin (1509-1564) liked to say. To act as if there’s enough – more than enough – leads us, in matters of the heart, to do the opposite of conserve, not to hoard but to share, not to constrict but to open up the flow of love. Matters of the heart ultimately overflow and shape what we do with our financial resources and our time and gifts. They’re all connected in God’s perspective.

Parker J. Palmer is one of the wisest men I know in our age. I don’t know him personally, but wish I did. His writings have been a companion to me for decades. He pretty much sums up the point of this “sign” or “miracle” here when he wrote, “The quality of our active lives depends heavily on whether we assume a world of scarcity or a world of abundance. Do we inhabit a universe where the basic things that people need – from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved [and I would add healthcare] – are ample in nature? Or is this a universe where such goods are in short supply, available to those who have the power to beat everyone else to the store? The nature of our actions will be heavily conditioned by the way we answer those bedrock questions.”[1] This is what’s behind, I think, Jesus’ test question. Is there enough bread? Which is it: scarcity or abundance? Answering one way leads to the kingdom, the other way leads to exile. “In a universe of scarcity,” Palmer explains, “only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war, will be able to survive. But in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful as well.”[2]

Tragically, “every time we act on the scarcity assumption, we help create a world in which scarcity becomes a cruel reality.” It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the story of the loaves and fishes, “Jesus makes a dramatic attempt to break people of the scarcity habit by revealing the reality of abundance.” And the gospel of John is all about the abundance of God – whether it’s Jesus turning water into wine, that’s 180 gallons of water into the finest wine (John 2: 1-10); or telling us there are many dwelling places in the Father’s house (John 14:10), or feeding the multitudes. Jesus, speaking for God, embodying the love and presence, the very life of God, says to us, “I came that [you] might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” “Abundantly” here, from the Greek perissรณn, means “superfluous,” or, in other words, “more than is really necessary.”[3]

In his Commentary on John 6, John Calvin said, “Christ plainly showed that he not only bestows spiritual life on the world, but that his Father commanded him also to nourish the body. For abundance of all blessings is committed to his hand, that, as a channel, he may convey them to us; though I speak incorrectly by calling [Jesus] a channel, for he is rather the living fountain flowing from the eternal Father.”[4]

This is where I need to be, where I want to live, with this mindset, claiming this truth, reminded of God’s abundance, receiving from God’s abundance, and free to make decisions living my life from that perspective. Yet, so often, our faith mirrors that of Philip and Andrew, who could not see past the present and what we don’t have. We tend to base our living on our own scarcity or even on our own fears of insufficiency. So we hoard and save and worry and end up living life in safe, but small measures. “We pull back when we should push forward. We give in to our fear of a shortfall rather than exercising faith in God’s abundance. But Christians are constantly on the call to go places where we have never been, to do things that we have never attempted and to be things we have never envisioned.”[5]

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Where? From out of the abundance of God. For Jesus knew, with God there’s always more than enough. So the crowd sits down on the tall grass. He takes loaves – takes what is available. He offers it up to God and gives thanks. The multiplication follows thanksgiving. Then he shares it, from out of his assumption of abundance. And after everyone is satisfied, there’s plenty leftover. That’s what God’s kingdom is like. That’s the kind of good news we hunger for. It’s the kind of miracle we can experience. It all depends upon our perspective.

[1] Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), 124.

[2] Palmer, 125.

[3] Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. & Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 206. The same word is used in John 6: 12 to describe the leftovers.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on John, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.xii.i.html

[5] Charles Hoffman, “More Than Enough,” The Christian Century, July 25, 2006, 18.

Image: Mosaic on the church floor in Tabgha, the site associated with Jesus' feeding of the multitudes, situated on the northern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

20 July 2009

Finding Rest for the Soul

Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 19th July 2009

“Come away to a deserted place,” Jesus said, “all by yourselves and rest awhile. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”

Come away. Rest awhile. That was his command; but we often don’t hear the text as a command, as an imperative, do we? We know of Jesus’ other imperatives: “Follow me (Mk 1:17).” “Love one another (Jn 13:34).” “Let the children come to me (Mk 10:13).” “Forgive, if you have anything against anyone(Mk 11: 25).” But, “Come away. Rest awhile,” we don’t hear this as a command – or even good advice – meant for our souls. We hear it as an option, or a luxury if we can find the time. We don’t have time to break away, we think, to rest, because we’re too busy, there’s too much to do.

You can sense the frenetic activity in this text. The disciples have just returned to Jesus, eagerly reporting on their mission activity. Jesus sent them out to the villages, two by two, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. They were “coming and going,” Mark tells us, that “they had no leisure even to eat.”

Coming and going; forgetting to eat. No time for leisure. Sounds like our lives, doesn’t it? We’re coming and going, 24/7, and not all of it kingdom work. In our age we’re coming and going and coming and going and at times not even sure where we’re going or why or for what purpose. The frenzied, feverish pace of our frenetic lives is one of the deep illnesses of our age. People are working more and more. Even with our wealth and technological advances, we’re still pushing ourselves harder than ever. “Time-off” or “down time,” or “leisure time” are becoming increasingly more difficult to find – and enjoy. And when we do take the time, we soon discover it’s not enough.

Do we work too much as Americans? Are we too obsessed with work? When do we take the time to rest? Most Europeans, for example, have about thirty days of vacation each year: six weeks in Switzerland, twenty-five days in France; thirty days in Germany, plus holidays. They might not have the same standard of living as most Americans. They might not have as much as we do. From my time in Europe, it seems that they have a quality of life and approach to life, a far healthier balance between work and leisure, that we Americans could learn a lot from.

Thanks to the formation of unions in America – “the people who brought you weekends” – most Americans don’t have a 10- or 12- hour work day or a six day work week (although those in upper management in corporate America certainly do). Since 1850, the average work week has been reduced by 31 hours. During the Depression in the 1930s there was a move to shorten daily work hours. Henry Ford (1863-1947) believed that shorting the work day workers would then consumer more in their free time. Today, vacations, time off for maternity (and paternity), and even “family leave,” are standards parts of a benefits package. With all this free time, why are we busier than ever?

The amenities of modern life don’t necessarily enhance our experience of leisure. A community of Amish people were once offered a television set. Do you how they responded? “If we were to add television to our lives, what would we take away? Conversation with our children? Reading? Praying?” They graciously declined.[1]

The average American works closer to 50 hours per week. But it’s really higher. Add to this figure that many carry more than one job, have longer commutes (sometimes an hour or more in each direction), and then add the ubiquitous phenomenon of email and text messaging and Blackberries following us around, many are working even when away from the office. People are always in work mode, it seems, rarely, truly detached or distracted from work. It’s always there.

This means there’s even more pressure to make the use of “free time.” Eight hours for work; eight hours for sleep; eight hours for recreation. That’s how Robert Owen (1771-1858), social reformer and early founder of Socialism, hoped to carve out the day for those who lived in his social communal experiment in New Lanark (near Glasgow), Scotland – back in 1817. In 1836, crowds were marching in the streets of the U.S. demanding an eight hour work day (which didn’t come until much later). For many today it’s ten hours for work; six hours for sleep; maybe eight hours for everything else – shopping, chores, transportation, answering emails, helping children with homework, meals, reading the newspaper (if we even get to the paper), visiting the doctor, going to church, prayer – the list just grows. It’s not surprising that people have stopped going to worship on Sunday because, as I hear (and at some level, understand), “It’s the only day I can really rest.” Saturdays are filled with chores; Sunday is the only day to sleep in, I hear.

Even prayer gets shortchanged because we feel we have to make the most of the “free time” we have, we have to be productive. Sometimes prayer seems like an inefficient use of one’s time – for how can one judge its effectiveness? We have to be productive.

Even when we do take time for play or for leisure, it’s rarely an end in itself. We’re driven by results. When we’re exercising at the gym is it for the sheer joy of exercising or are we doing it only because we want to lower our heart rate or bad cholesterol count?

We can blame our Puritan forbears for this. “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.” We can blame our Scots-Presbyterian forebears too. In his classic text on economics, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1725-1790), born in Scotland, known as the father of economics, and a staunch Presbyterian, believed that “activity is only truly productive if it takes raw material and makes it into something useful; the idle produce nothing.”[2]

When we are idle or engaged in activity that doesn’t produce measurable results – like prayer, meditation, or thinking, or contemplating, or worshipping or sleeping – then we soon feel guilty.

And so we work more and more – sometimes because we really love our work, but more often than not we work hard because we are driven, we have to, to improve our standard of living, to increase our wealth, to get out of debt, to provide for our families, to pay college tuition, or o prove to others or ourselves what we are really capable of. But at what cost?

Sleep deprivation is pandemic in our society. An article in Psychiatric Times entitled, “Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis and Mental Efficiency,” Dr. Stanley Coren, head of the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory at the University of British Columbia, writes that insufficient sleep takes a considerable toll on our bodies, on our mental health, and is potentially disastrous for others. The invention of the light bulb is partially to blame for this. In 1910, before the electric light bulb, the average person slept nine hours each night. In addition to the problem of financial debt in our society today, we’re also dealing with sleep debt. Coren found “our societal sleep debt is so great that simply losing one additional hour of sleep due to the spring shift of daylight savings times can increase traffic accident rates by 7 % and death rates due to all accidents by 6.5%.”[3]

“Come away,” Jesus said. “Rest awhile.” Into the frenetic, crazed rush of our lives come these words, this gracious imperative:


Come away. Rest awhile. Even the Lord of the universe, heaven-bent on the work of the kingdom, who commissioned his people to work, to serve, to follow, knows that in order for us to do the work God calls us to do, in order to be fully human – as Jesus was fully human – we need to step away from it all and rest.

Chart Jesus’ movement through the gospel of Mark and you’ll find a gracious rhythm here: work, then rest, in order to work, in order to rest. The rest wasn’t doing nothing, because included it was a time to pray and to worship. In compassion, Jesus is saying to his over-worked followers, “Come away.” You need to get away from the crowds and the endless expectations of others to a lonely place, a deserted place, or, literally, a private place.

There’s some resistance on their part, they seem be extra-earnest in their endeavors. Read the text carefully. “Come away to a deserted place – all by yourselves – and rest a while.” “All by yourselves.” In other words, Jesus says to them, “Yo, I mean you.” I’m talking to you, not to them, not to the crowds pressing in. You need to rest. The literal meaning of “rest” here means, “to cease.” STOP. But implied in it is to cease, to rest in order to gain strength. The word was used of soldiers resting and of land being allowed to rest, so that work, so that the bearing of fruit can take place at a later time and place.[4]

If you noticed, the lectionary reading skipped about twenty verses. In these verses, Jesus fed at least at least 5,000 people, and walked on water (!), and then in verse 53, healed the sick; wherever he went, people begged him for healing, eager just to get a touch of his cloak. Jesus packed a lot into a day. Even though he commands the disciples to rest here – and they had some time away together – the work of God continued, the work of compassion continues. Even though Jesus doesn’t rest much here, we know he took time away to rest, to pray, to reconnect with God, to be grounded. Without that connection, that grounding Jesus, too, would have been consumed by the needs of the people, he would have succumbed to compassion fatigue. If Jesus took rest seriously, then we have to all the more. The needs of God’s people are enormous and never ending; we have to be prepared.

We have to carve out time to rest – to sleep, to care for our bodies, but also to pray, to worship, to do those things that feed our souls, that open up and bring joy to the heart, that ground us, that remind us who we are and whose we are – and who we aren’t and whose we aren’t. We have to do this, because no one else is going to do it for us.

The psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875-1961) was right, “Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil.” Why? Because hurry takes us away from the things that matter and distracts us from the things of the heart – it takes us away from God. It’s difficult to listen to God when we’re on the go all the time. “How can we shoulder life’s burdens if we have no contact with [Christ] who is the Lord of all good life? How can we do God’s work unless in God’s strength? And how can we receive that strength unless we seek in quietness and in loneliness the presence of God?”[5]

Hurried lives usually point to hurried hearts. I think contemporary pastor and writer, John Ortberg, is on to something when he makes this crucial connection, “Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.”[6] We all suffer from a chronic condition that plagues us from time to time: Hurry Sickness. And the “most serious sign of hurry sickness is a diminished capacity to love. Love and hurry,” Ortberg writes, “are fundamentally incompatible. Love always takes time, and time is one thing hurried people don’t have.” If we’re hurried, sleep deprived, in need of rest – when we’re “cranky, whiny, angry,” and even “sad” – it’s very difficult to be compassionate, loving, and caring of the people who are right in front of us, around us, it’s difficult loving God, loving ourselves.[7]

Come away. Rest. It’s not a luxury in God’s kingdom; it’s a command. It’s required. Like keeping the sabbath, it’s a law designed to give us life. It’s a word of wisdom and grace for our souls. If only we can hear it as such. Jesus knows what’s best for us. Stop. Cease. Slow down. Rest. Eliminate hurry. There’s no indication in scripture that Jesus ever hurried. He knew the proper rhythm of life. And he invites us to do the same – “because, by definition, we can’t move faster than the one we are following.” And – sometimes, just sometimes – the single most spiritual thing we can do – is sleep.[8]

[1] Story told by Jim Rice, “Why Play: Contemplation, freedom, and the spirit of leisure,” Sojourners Magazine, January-February 1997. Rice’s extremely insightful article provides the contemporary social context for my reading of the Mark text.

[2] Rice’s summary of Adams. The complete title of this text, the first modern work of economics was, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published on 9th March 1776 in Edinburgh.

[3] Stanley Coren, “Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis, and Mental Efficiency,” Psychiatric Times (March 1, 1998), Vol. 15, No. 3. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/display/article/10168/54471

[4] Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. and Clean L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 80.

[5] William Barclay’s questions that emerge from his reading of this text, The Gospel of Mark (Philadelpia: Westminster Press, 1956), 156-157.

[6] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 84.

[7] “We get cranky,” “whiny,” “angry,” and “sad” – answers given by the children during the Children’s Message, when asked, “What happens when you don’t get enough sleep or rest?”

[8] Ortberg, 88.

Photo: Carving in a prayer bench in the cloister of Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland (www.flickr.com).

13 July 2009

Glorious Grace

Psalm 24 & Ephesians 1: 3-14
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 12th July 2009

I just returned yesterday evening from a conference at Montreat Conference Center, outside Asheville, NC, to celebrate the legacy of John Calvin on the 500th anniversary of his birth, 10th July 1509, in Noyon, France (northeast of Paris). The conference was billed as the Calvin Jubilee. As many have said to me, the thought of a Calvin Jubilee sounds like an oxymoron. It’s only an oxymoron, however, if one buys into the stereotypes we have of the man. He’s been much maligned over the years. If we did a word-association test with Calvin, the following words would probably come to mind: killjoy, sourpuss, a dour and vengeful sort, a sadist, misogynist, a narrow-minded prig, a prudish moralist, a tyrant, a religious fanatic, a cold, melancholic, even phlegmatic soul, “a steely spinner of harsh theological doctrines about a depraved humanity and a fierce God predestining people to heaven or hell.” He was certainly despised by some in his Geneva; some even named their dogs after him.

As the spiritual founder of the Reformed theological tradition, a leading theologian of the church, along with Augustine (354-430), Aquinas (c.1225-1274), and Barth (1886-1968), Calvin deserves a little more respect. Actually, we need to completely rehabilitate him, reclaim him in the church. It’s difficult to celebrate the man because he left us very little account of his personal life experience. He didn’t like to talk about himself and would not relish the attention given to him. He requested at his death that he be buried in an unmarked grave in Geneva. He didn’t want a shrine erected over his grave, neither did he want his bones to become holy relics for adoration.

People can say what they will about Calvin, and have, but as Peter Steinfels wrote in The New York Times last Saturday, Calvin was “a religious thinker and leader who may have done as much as anyone to shape the modern world.”[1] He’s often associated with predestination and usually quickly dismissed because of what we think he said about predestination, usually confusing predestinattion with predeterminism – and they are not the same. Calvin was not an advocate of predeterminism. He was an advocate of predestination – or what theologians call the doctrine of election.

The contemporary novelist, Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning, Gilead (one of my favorite novels), is a huge fan of Calvin. She’s a deacon in her church in Iowa and has been reading Calvin for years, for fun. She also reads Calvin in order to make her life better, and therefore commends him to the church. She claims that reading Calvin’s beautiful French prose has made her a better writer, but more than anything, in reading Calvin, (his sermons, his commentaries on scripture, in masterful Institutes) she has come to see the glory and wonder and amazement of God pouring through his writings. When Calvin wrote about theology, about God, he was not interested in rational speculative considerations of the divine, which, as he put is, “Flits about in the brain doing nothing.”[2]

The doctrine that consumed Calvin, and you can see it in the first ten pages of the Institutes, was a Christian doctrine of creation. What I mean by this is not creationism, although Calvin believed in a literal reading of Genesis, but a view of the glory of God found in the created order, and to the eyes of faith, gives profound witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice,” and that therefore we are “not only to be spectators in this beautiful theatre but to enjoy the vast bounty and variety of good things which are displayed to us in it.”[3] Calvin approaches this amazing world, the “theatre of God’s glory,” with awe, amazement, or as he put it, “wonderment.” God rules over the creation as sovereign. Our lives are held in the sovereignty of God. Calvin is so overwhelmed by the beauty of creation, but also the beauty (yes, beauty) of God who has called, claimed, loved, and redeemed us in Jesus Christ, and so calls us to serve this God in the theatre of God’s glory, the world. Robinson, along with historians remind us that “Calvin was a product of Renaissance humanism, a student of Greek and Roman classics who reread Cicero [106 BC-43 BC] every year, a writer of exceptional grace and lucidity in both Latin and French, a man of prodigious learning, who did not dwell on damnation but rather exulted in a sovereign but not at all distant God, a God whose glory was manifest in the goodness of the world and the potential of humanity.”[4]

Calvin believed the entire creation is shouting out the glory of God, the love of God, the redemptive power of God’s concern for us, all the time. Some see it, others don’t. And the reason people can’t see it – naturally, unaided – is because of the power of sin. Because of sin we can’t see what’s clearly there in front of our eyes. Because of selfishness, our egocentricity, because of our brokenness, of our refusal to live into the vision God has for us in Christ, we turn our eyes and so we fall. We have to stop thinking of the Fall in Genesis as something that occurred once a long time ago. Every time we turn our face away from God, we fall. Every time we turn away, we fall – again and again and again. This is our condition. Calvin called it “total depravity” – this is not to say that there is no good in us, because there is; it is to say that there’s not an area of our lives that is so pure, so perfect, so good, so loving that we can freely choose the pure, the perfect, the good; there’s no place in our lives unaffected by the brokenness, the woundedness of the human condition. It’s total. It’s comprehensive. Sin is a problem – a huge problem – it constantly interferes with our ability to enjoy God – and we’re supposed to enjoy God. But we can’t will our way out of this predicament by being good.

Remember that “Little Engine That Could,” who made it to the top of the mountain through an effort of will? “I know I can. I know I can.” From a biblical perspective this is a deceptive strategy when it comes to God, or following Christ. Theologically speaking, we have to “Throw out the engine that could because you can’t.”[5] We can’t work our way toward God. We are flawed through and through, every one of us, if not all the time, then often. We are continually dependent upon on the graciousness of God to intervene, to do for us what we can never do for ourselves – and that is to freely choose God and love God completely with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength. Theologian, Paul Lehmann (1906-1994), once said that Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity was a “most hopeful of all doctrines.”[6] That might sound odd. Why hopeful? Because it acknowledges that the source of our salvation and the course of our eternal destiny is not contingent upon our ability to choose, to believe, or to be good, or perfect, or whatever.

Think about it. To believe that the source of my salvation is dependent upon something that I have do, some good work or collection of works I have to do to made God happy, dependent upon something I have earned, to prove myself worthy of God’s love and acceptance, that God’s acceptance of me is contingent upon my ability to completely believe and trust one hundred percent in God would the worst possible sentence inflicted upon me. That’s not good news, gospel. In fact, it would be the worse possible news. It would be hell. Because then I would be left in a state – knowing my own brokenness and my woundedness and the tragic flaws in my own life – I would never be able to live up to some idealized vision of what I think God wants from me. That would not be grace, but something else.

And grace is God’s eternal, free choice to say, Yes to me through Jesus Christ, and to say, Yes, to you through Jesus Christ. Because salvation is a gift that cannot be earned, because none of us are worthy, it has to be given – and it has been given, already through the grace of God revealed in life of Jesus Christ. God elects us, God chooses us, God makes the first move toward us. Calvin had such a high view of election – of predestination – not because he created the idea, but because it’s all over scripture. God elects Abraham and his children and calls them to be a blessing to the world. God chooses people to kings and priests and prophets. Jesus calls the disciples, they did not choose him first. Even Jesus Christ is the elect of God through whom God chooses to redeem the world. The idea of election emerges from Paul’s letter, especially this one to the Ephesians.

Through his experience of Jesus Christ, Paul came to understand – not in an intellectual way, but in an existential, heart-felt way – that he was acceptable in God’s sight, not through any works of the law or merits, but through the glorious grace revealed in Jesus Christ. These verses, 3- 14, make up one long sentence in Greek – it’s an effusive, dynamic, (over)flowing expression of affirmation that leads to a crescendo of confession. “Christ…is the mirror , in which it behooves us to contemplate our election; and here we may do it with safety.” (Institutes III.xxiv.5). Jesus Christ has set us free and this freedom is granted to those who are far off and those who are near. We are abundantly free – accepted completely in the eyes of God. For it is God’s plan, revealed in Jesus, to bring all people together into one people. God is working God’s purpose out through everyone and everything. Jesus takes up into the high places with him, with God, to find communion with God – Jesus takes us, escorts us into the presence of God – because we would never be able to get there on our own. Election is God’s plan to include us in the work of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Jesus himself said to his disciples, “You did not choose, but I chose you (John 15:16).” This comes as quite an ego-shock to us who like to think we’re in control, that it’s all about us, that we can choose what we believe and what don’t believe, that we’re responsible for our own salvation. The bad news to the ego is: No, you’re not. The good news to the depths of our soul is: No, you’re not. God is. God always makes the first move toward us. Even when we think we made the first move, it was God placing this yearning within us, illuminating the deepest desires of our hearts. In our faith and in our doubt, searching after God, God is drawing us into relationship with God.

The twentieth century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, heir of Calvin, stressed, through a reading of Ephesians 1:3-4, that when God said Yes to Jesus in raising him from the grave, in saying Yes to Jesus “God has reached out to say yes to all human beings in Jesus Christ. This singular and potent, Yes, is the true biblical doctrine of election. It is not that God is bound to some and unbound to others. In the biblical doctrine of predestination, God is bound to each one of us by being bound to Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.”[7]

A word of caution, this doctrine of election is not meant to be a matter of speculative debate. Who is elect? Who isn’t? This is where the Calvinists who followed Calvin messed things up. They searched for proof of one’s election. Who is in? Who is out? That’s not for us to decide. Grace and with it election, for the two are related, “teaches that each of our lives is rooted in the gracious will and intentionality of God.” It’s meant to be a doctrine of encourage and hope.[8]

Why? Because God is working through us and is committed to us and will never leave us or abandon us. Why? Because God has work for you to do. Election is never a condition of privilege, but responsibility. Abraham and through him Israel were called, chosen, not because they were special, but because God had a job for them to do – to be a blessing to the world.

When we meditate and contemplate God’s grace, the reality of our election – that God has actually chosen us – we soon become discover that God has something in store for us to do, a new way to live and love, a new job to do, a new task, a project, a witness, a ministry – something.

This grace, this glorious grace is an extraordinary gift. To be chosen, to be elected, to be included in God’s redemptive plan and purpose is an amazing gift. But as Paul suggests in this text, we’re grafted, “adopted,” into God’s plan – because God has work for us to do. When we remember our election, we find ourselves empowered to serve, to live, to love in new ways – to enjoy God in new ways.

God might have elected us from the foundations of the world, but the working out of that salvation is not yet complete. We work out our salvation individually, but also in and through the community – it’s what the church is for. We might be elected, chosen by God in grace, but God isn’t finished with us yet, no matter what age we might be. The poet Maya Angelou expresses her amazement at people who boast that they are saved, who think that their growth in grace stops with their profession of faith, or who are confident in their status as Christians. “You are a Christian?” she asks of them, of us. And she adds, “Already?”[9]

The Christian life for Paul, for Calvin, for us as a people reformed and always being reformed, is living into the people we are by God’s glorious grace through Jesus Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever in the depths of our hearts. We are called to live into our election. Thanks be to God.

[1] Peter Steinfels, The New York Times, July 4, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/04/us/04beliefs.html.

[2] John Calvin, cited in a lecture by Serene Jones, “Calvin, Creation, and the Holy Spirit.” Calvin Jubilee, Montreat, NC, 9th July 2009.

[3] From Calvin’s Commentary on Psalm 104:331, quoted by William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 135.

[4] Steinfels.

[5] Cynthia L. Rigby in her lecture, “Calvin and the Wondrous Glory of God.” Calvin Jubilee, Montreat, NC, 8 July 2009. I’m am indebted to Cindy’s lecture for providing a larger theological context in which to frame the doctrine of election.

[6] Cited by Rigby.

[7] William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 48.

[8] Johnson, 42.

[9] Cited in Johnson, 45.