19 July 2015


Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

8th Sunday after Pentecost/ 19th July 2015

“Come away to a deserted place,” Jesus said, “all by yourselves and rest awhile."

Come away. Rest awhile. It’s a command, an imperative, no less important than, “Follow me” (Mk 1:17) or “Love one another” (John 13:34).  “Come away.  Rest awhile.”  We generally don’t hear this as a command.  We hear it as a suggestion or good advice, perhaps a luxury, if we can find the time.  We’re so busy, we tell ourselves, there’s too much to do.

You can sense the frenetic activity in this text. The disciples just returned from their mission activity and they’re eager to report.  Jesus sent them out to the surrounding villages, two by two, to announce 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.  Sound familiar?  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 we’re 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 the soul and of our age.[1]  People are working more and more.  Even with the overall wealth of our society 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.

Are Americans overworked?  Are we too obsessed with performance and output? When do we take the time to rest?  Americans get the least paid vacation time in the world.  Most Europeans, for example, have about thirty days of vacation each year: six weeks in Switzerland, twenty-five days in France; thirty-four days in Germany; thirty-seven in the United Kingdom. From my time in Europe over the years it appears that Europeans have a quality of life, an approach to life, a far healthier balance between work and leisure than we Americans do.  Perhaps you’ve observed the same.  While it is true that many of the churches are empty on a Sunday morning, many stores are closed and people are spending time with family and friends, sharing a meal, playing in a park.  For such a secular society they are, in many ways, keeping the Sabbath and making time to rest.

Thanks to the formation of unions in America—“the people who brought you weekends”—most Americans don’t have a ten- or twelve-hour workday or a six-day work week (although those in upper management in corporate America certainly do).  Since 1850, the average workweek has been reduced by thirty-one hours.  During the Depression, in the 1930s, there was a move to shorten daily work hours.  Henry Ford (1863-1947) believed that shortening the workday would allow workers to consume 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 was once offered a television set.  Here’s what they said: “If we were to add television to our lives, what would we take away?  Conversation with our children?  Reading?  Praying?”  They graciously declined.[2]

The average American works close to fifty hours per week.  But it’s really higher.  It’s higher for those that hold down more than one job.  Then add the commute time (sometimes an hour or more in each direction).  Then with the ubiquitous phenomenon of email and text messaging and Blackberries following us around, many of us are working even when we’re 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 most 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 communal experiment in New Lanark, Scotland (near Glasgow), Scotland, back in 1817.  In 1836, crowds marched in the streets of the U.S. to demand an eight-hour workday (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—grocery shopping, chores, community work, answering emails, helping children with homework, preparing meals, doctor appointments, worship, prayer—the list just grows.  It’s not surprising that people have stopped coming to worship on Sunday because, as I hear (and at some level, thoroughly 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, that 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 we’re told.

Then 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 also blame our Scots-Presbyterian forebears. 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.”[3] When we are idle or engaged in activity that doesn’t produce measurable results, such as prayer, meditation, reflection, worship, or sleep, we soon feel guilty.

And so we work more and more, sometimes because we really do love our work—and work can be a blessing.  However, more often than not we work hard because we are driven, because 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 to prove to others or ourselves that we matter.  But at what cost?

Sleep deprivation is pandemic in our society.  In 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.  Have you ever noticed, perhaps when you’re camping or when the power goes out at night, and it’s very dark, you’re ready for bed around 8 or 9 o’clock?  We have a sleep deficit in our society, 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%.”[4]

“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 devoid of activity, doing nothing, because it included time for prayer and worship.  With 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 to 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, “Hey, 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.  It means to cease, to rest in order to gain strength.  The word was used to describe soldiers at rest 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.[5]

Did you notice that 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) said, “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. 

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.  He says, “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 says, “are fundamentally incompatible.  Love always takes time, and time is one thing hurried people don’t have.”[7]  If we’re hurried, sleep deprived, in need of rest—when we’re grouchy, cranky, whiny, and angry when we’re sleep deprived—our hearts are disordered and then it’s tough to be compassionate or loving or caring toward the people who are right in front of us, or all around us, it’s also difficult loving God, and loving ourselves.

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.  Jesus knows what’s best for us.  There’s no indication in scripture that Jesus was ever in a hurry to get anywhere. He knew the proper rhythm of life. And he invites us to follow him in this way, “because, by definition, we can’t move faster than the one we are following.” Jesus calls us to stop, cease, slow down, rest, eliminate hurry. Sometimes, just sometimes, the single most spiritual thing we can do—is take a nap or get some sleep.[8]

[1] See also Omid Safi, “The Disease of Being Busy,” On Being with Krista Tippett, November 6, 2014. .
[2] 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.
[3] 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 March 9, 1776, Edinburgh.
[4] Stanley Coren, “Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis, and Mental Efficiency,” Psychiatric Times (March 1, 1998), Vol. 15, No.3. 
[5] Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 80.
[6] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 84.
[7] Ortberg, 84ff.
[8] Ortberg, 88.

12 July 2015

Presbyterians & Predestination

Ephesians 1: 3-14 

7th Sunday after Pentecost/ 12th July 2015

People can say what they will about John Calvin (1509-1564). And they do!  But as Peter Steinfels wrote several years ago in The New York Times, marking the 500th anniversary of his birth—Friday was Calvin’s birthday, he would be 506 today—Calvin was “a religious thinker and leader who may have done as much as anyone to shape the modern world.”[1] Calvin’s often associated with the doctrine of predestination and then he’s quickly dismissed because we assume we know what he meant by the word.  People often confuse predestination with predeterminism (or just determinism)—but they are not the same. Calvin did not advocate for predeterminism. He was an advocate of predestination or, simply, what theologians call the doctrine of election.

As one of the theological heirs of Calvin, Presbyterians are often associated with the doctrine of predestination; it’s sometimes all that people know about us.  I’ve been in many conversations that go something like this: “You’re a Presbyterian?  How do you spell that? Oh, you’re the ones that believe in predestination.” And then I'm asked, “So, do you really believe that?”  And then I say, “Yes, I do. 

Around the edge of two pages at the center of The Presbyterian Handbook, a whimsical yet informative overview of Presbyterianism, with an illustration of Cool Calvin wearing sunglasses on the cover, you’ll find a black border that reads: WARNING: IT MAY TAKE MULTIPLE READINGS—AND TIME—TO UNDERSTAND THIS CONCEPT.[2] The concept?  Predestination.  

Let’s look at what it is—and isn’t.  Let’s go back to Calvin.

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, his 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 it, “Flits about in the brain doing nothing.”[3]

The doctrine that consumed Calvin, and you can see it in the first ten pages of the Institutes, was the 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, which, to the eyes of faith, gives profound witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Calvin said, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice,” and, 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.”[4] Calvin approaches this amazing world, the “theatre of God’s glory,” as he liked to say, with awe, amazement, or as he said, “wonderment.” 

God’s rule over the creation is sovereign. Our lives are held in the sovereignty of God. The beauty of creation overwhelmed Calvin, as did the beauty of God (yes, beauty), the God who has called, claimed, loved, and redeemed us in Jesus Christ.  And so Calvin invites us to serve this God in the theatre of God’s glory, in the world.  Robinson reminds 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.”[5]

Calvin believed the entire creation is shouting out the glory of God, shouting out the love of God, shouting out 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—that is, naturally, unaided—is because of the power of sin.  Due to sin we can’t see what’s clearly there in front of our eyes. Because of selfishness or 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 the human condition.  It's what Calvin means by  “total depravity.”  This is not to say that there is no good in us, because there is; it is to say that there’s no 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 problema huge problem—it constantly interferes with our ability to enjoy Godand we’re supposed to enjoy God. But we can’t will our way out of this predicament by being good.

Remember the story of “The Little Engine That Could,” who made it to the top of the mountain through an effort of thought and will? “I think I can. I think I can.” From a biblical perspective this is a deceptive strategy when it comes to God, or following Christ. I recently discovered that an early version of this story first appeared in the New York Tribune, April 8, 1906, as part of a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing.  A brief version of the tale appeared under the title Thinking One Can in 1906, in Wellspring for Young People, a Sunday School publication.  It’s a fun story, but it’s lousy theology. Theologically speaking, we have to “Throw out the engine that could because you can’t.”[6]

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 the graciousness of God to intervene, to do for us what we can never do for ourselves—namely, to freely choose God and love God completely with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27). Theologian Paul Lehmann (1906-1994) once said that Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity was a “most hopeful of all doctrines.”[7] 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 or believe or be good or perfect, or whatever. 

Think about it. To believe that the source of my salvation is dependent upon something that I have to do, some good work or collection of works I have to do to make God happy, that salvation is contingent upon something I have earned, the result of having proved myself worthy of God’s love and acceptance, that God’s acceptance of me is dependent 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 terrible news.  That would be hell. Because then I would be left in an awful 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; it would be the opposite of grace.

Grace is God’s eternal, free choice to say Yes to me through Jesus Christ.  Grace is God’s Yes to you through Jesus Christ. Because salvation is a gift that cannot be earned, it has to be given, offered—and it has already been given 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 (because he didn’t), but because it’s found all over scripture. God elects Abraham and his children and calls them to be a blessing to the world. Abram didn’t wake up one day and say to himself, “Let’s say we leave home in Haran with the family, go to a distant, unknown territory, and begin to follow a new, alien God.”  God chooses people to be 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 in 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 accepted 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.  Calvin says, “Christ…is the mirror, in which it behooves us to contemplate our election; and here we may do it with safety.”[8]  Jesus Christ has set us free, and this freedom is granted to those who are far off from God and those who are near.  

We are abundantly free—accepted completely, through and through, 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 us up into the high places with him, with God, to find communion with God.  Jesus takes us, takes us by the hand and 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.  Didn't Jesus say, “You did not choose, but I chose you” (John 15:16)? 

Now all of this might come as quite a shock to our egos.  Our egos operate with the assumption that we’re in control of our lives.  The ego thinks that it’s all about itself all the time.  This doctrine is a jolt to our system because we like to believe that we can choose what we believe and what we don’t believe, that we control our destinies, that we’re responsible for our own salvation. The bad news to the ego is this: No, you’re not

But because there’s more to us than our egos,  No, you’re not in control is regarded by the depths of our souls, however, as really good news. The soul rejoices in knowing that God is God. 

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 always drawing us into relationship with God.

The eminent twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), theological heir of Calvin, stressed, through a reading of Ephesians 1:3-14, that when God said Yes to Jesus in raising him from the grave, when God says 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.”[9]

Barth’s statement on predestination attempts to clear up some of the misappropriations of Calvin.  The Calvinists came along after him and wanted to determine who was among the elect and who wasn’t.  The doctrine of election should not be used in this way. Barth’s reading of the doctrine leans in the direction of saying that God’s Yes in Christ includes all of humanity and that we’re all saved. 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 encouragement and hope.[10]

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 us to do. Election is never a condition of privilege, but responsibility. Abraham and through him Israel were called, chosen, not because they were better, 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 toward us, the reality of our election—that God has actually chosen us—we soon discover that God has something in store for us, 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. 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 communityit’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 our age. 

The poet Maya Angelou (1928-2014) expressed 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?”[11]

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.

[2] The Presbyterian Handbook (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2006).
[3] John Calvin, cited in a lecture by Serene Jones, “Calvin, Creation, and the Holy Spirit.” Calvin Jubilee, Montreat, NC, July 9, 2009.
[4] 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.
[5] Steinfels.
[6] Cynthia L. Rigby in her lecture, “Calvin and the Wondrous Glory of God.” Calvin Jubilee, Montreat, NC, July 8, 2009. I’m indebted to Cindy’s lecture for providing a larger theological context in which to frame the doctrine of election.
[7] Cited by Rigby.
[8] John Calvin, (1559), Institutes of the Christian Religion. III.xxiv.5
[9] Cited by William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 48.
[10] Johnson, 42.
[11] Cited in Johnson, 45.