Saturday, January 31, 2009

February 1- Calvin and the Super Bowl


February 1

God, Calvin, Football, and Joy

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to weap and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4)

Calvin: “The third part of Christian freedom lies in this: regarding outward things that are themselves indifferent. We are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking , our consciences will have not repose and there will be no end to superstitions..To sum up, we see where this freedom goes: namely that we should use God’s gifts for the purpose for which he gave them to us, with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind. (III.19.7,8).

Today is a great day for American sports- the Super Bowl. How does the Bible or Calvin view things like play and sports?
John Leith once preached a great sermon entitled “Christian Faith and the Common Pleasures of Life.” He spoke of the idea that Christians have often had a poor view of fun and simple pleasures.
One reason Christians have done this is because sometimes a zealousy for sports can take the place of faith. I have heard announcers on ESPN and seen writers of Sports Illustrated speak of sports arenas being places of worship, and bowing down to players as if they were demi-gods (we pay them money and attention as if they were). Sometimes indifferent or even good things are abused- any kind of media can turn into pornography; songs can turn to profanity; card playing can turn into gambling addiction; dancing can turn into sexual foreplay. When good things are abused, then they are immoral. Sometimes Christians go too far in banning the things that can be abused (I remember Christian pronouncements against movies, rock and roll, card playing). But this is the kind of asceticism that Calvin condemned. Calvin gets conflated with the strict Puritans, but he was a lot freer. Another reason sports have been condemned in the past is that they sometimes trivialize life. Augustine said that sin is the extraordinary love of ordinary things. T.S. Eliot said, “Here were decent godless people: Their only monument the asphalt road/and a thousand lost golf balls.”
But God has given us freedom to laugh, run, play, use our skills. If we use them properly, they can be witnesses for Him. Like when a player points to heaven when they make a touchdown. I remember the words of Eric Little, Olympic sprint Champion about whom the movie “Chariots of Fire” was written: When I run I feel his pleasure.”
The other thing is that God has created laughter, joy, the ability to run, jump, catch, be coordinated. In some ways athletics is a rejoicing in God’s creation- when used right.
If we abuse such things- or overindulge (certainly the Super Bowl is full of overindulging), then it can be wrong. But such indifferent things can also be used to transform the world. I like what Brad Scott, Presbyterian minister in Columbia did with the Super Bowl. He turned it into a “Souper Bowl Offering” for food pantries around the country. It raises tens of millions of dollars each year- and uses a game as a great advertising ploy in churches and communities.
C.S. Lewis said that our world lives in a “windowless universe.” The joy is found in that there is a window to another (spiritual) world- we can pull back the curtain and see the light! There is joy shining into the darkness of our lives. For Lewis, we come close to spiritual experiences when we have good, clean play. Not selfish play when we want to “crush” or demoralize and dehumanize the other team. But play that is full of joy. Lewis had the children in his Narnia novels playing in the closet when they discovered their other world. When we play and are joyful, we rub up against the kind of joy God wants for us. God delights in us, and has given us Himself to delight in. Joy is not just limited to our youth when we could sing, dance, have energy and less worries about mundane things. There is a joy in the Lord.
Friday, January 30, was the funeral for Kay Yow, longtime womans basketball coach for N.C. State. She taped her own farewell. One of the striking things she said was, “And now I say farewell, and its been a wonderful journey, especially since the time I accepted Jesus as my lord and savior.” She taped this while suffering with cancer. Play can, if we will let it, point us to a deeper joy- the joy of the Lord that no cancer, no job loss, no death can take away.
Christ has set us free- so there is a time to dance and to laugh as well as to weep and mourn. He has given us good things to enjoy, and the freedom to enjoy them! Enjoy the Super Bowl (in a Calvinistic, balanced way- of course!)!

Friday, January 30, 2009

January 31 God Rules


January 31

“For everything comes from God alone. Everything lives by his power, and everything is for his glory.” (Romans 11:36 LB)
“You, Lord, give perfect peace to those who keep their purpose firm and put their trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3).

Calvin: To make God a momentary Creator, who once for all finished his work, would be cold and barren, and we must differ from unbelievers especially in that we see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe just as much now as when it was begun. Unless we pass on to his providence—however, we may seem both to comprehend with the mind and to confess with the tongue- we do not yet properly grasp what it means to say “God is Creator.” Carnal sense thinks there is an energy divinely bestowed from the beginning , sufficient to sustain all things. But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, and ought to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver. God not only drives the framework of the world in a universal motion, but He also sustains, nourishes, cares for everything he has made even to the least sparrow [Mt. 10:29]. The prophet forbids God’s children “to fear the stars and signs of heaven as disbelievers commonly do.” Jer. 10:2]. When unbelievers transfer the government of the universe from God to the stars, they believe that their luck or misery depends upon the motion of the stars and not on God’s will. So their fear is transferred from him , toward whom alone they ought to direct it, to stars and comets. God is the keeper of the keys and governs all events. (Inst. I.16.1-4)

Who is really in charge of things? Calvin asks and answers that question. It is not us- we are finite and basically selfish. It is not the stars- they were made by God, set in motion by God. Today many live as if no one is in charge, and so they are responsible to take charge.
One thing this economy teaches us is that really hard workers, really smart people, really dedicated people who do all the right things can still get laid off. Sometimes it is impossible to take charge. If we are in charge and we the current is too strong to swim against, then it is a problem. People have thought that education, hard work, and buying things are the meaning of life. Yet people who are educated are unable to get jobs. People who work hard are being laid off. People cannot buy what they used to buy.
The Christian alternative is to trust God. The meaning in life is not tied to what we can create or produce. If that was true then those who are sick or who are retired could have no meaning. The meaning is not tied to what we create, but to the Creator Himself. Meaning is not something that happens once and stops. God instills the earth and all creation with meaning, energy, and His sovereign hand. It makes sense that the God who , in his power created the universe, still has power over it. God is a good governor, a righteous governor, and defines love and goodness by His nature (in contrast to Rod Blagojevich). We can trust God’s faithfulness and care for us.
Below are two quotes about God’s providential care. One shows God as our provider. The other points out (by one of our founders) that our nation needs God to sustain it.
Back of the loaf is the snowy flour,
And back of the flour the mill,
And back of the mill is the wheat and the shower,
And the sun and the Father's will.
Maltbie D. Babcock (1858-1901)

The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of man; and if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?
-- Benjamin Franklin

Providence enables us to trust instead of be afraid- to have peace and hope. This is important today.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

January 30 Providence


January 30

“For everything comes from God alone. Everything lives by his power, and everything is for his glory.” (Romans 11:36 LB)
“You, Lord, give perfect peace to those who keep their purpose firm and put their trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3).

Calvin: To make God a momentary Creator, who once for all finished his work, would be cold and barren, and we must differ from unbelievers especially in that we see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe just as much now as when it was begun. Unless we pass on to his providence—however, we may seem both to comprehend with the mind and to confess with the tongue- we do not yet properly grasp what it means to say “God is Creator.” Carnal sense thinks there is an energy divinely bestowed from the beginning , sufficient to sustain all things. But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, and ought to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver. God not only drives the framework of the world in a universal motion, but He also sustains, nourishes, cares for everything he has made even to the least sparrow [Mt. 10:29]. The prophet forbids God’s children “to fear the stars and signs of heaven as disbelievers commonly do.” Jer. 10:2]. When unbelievers transfer the government of the universe from God to the stars, they believe that their luck or misery depends upon the motion of the stars and not on God’s will. So their fear is transferred from him , toward whom alone they ought to direct it, to stars and comets. God is the keeper of the keys and governs all events. (Inst. I.16.1-4)

Who is really in charge of things? Calvin asks and answers that question. It is not us- we are finite and basically selfish. It is not the stars- they were made by God, set in motion by God. Today many live as if no one is in charge, and so they are responsible to take charge.
One thing this economy teaches us is that really hard workers, really smart people, really dedicated people who do all the right things can still get laid off. Sometimes it is impossible to take charge. If we are in charge and we the current is too strong to swim against, then it is a problem. People have thought that education, hard work, and buying things are the meaning of life. Yet people who are educated are unable to get jobs. People who work hard are being laid off. People cannot buy what they used to buy.
The Christian alternative is to trust God. The meaning in life is not tied to what we can create or produce. If that was true then those who are sick or who are retired could have no meaning. The meaning is not tied to what we create, but to the Creator Himself. Meaning is not something that happens once and stops. God instills the earth and all creation with meaning, energy, and His sovereign hand. It makes sense that the God who , in his power created the universe, still has power over it. God is a good governor, a righteous governor, and defines love and goodness by His nature (in contrast to Rod Blagojevich). We can trust God’s faithfulness and care for us.
Below are two quotes about God’s providential care. One shows God as our provider. The other points out (by one of our founders) that our nation needs God to sustain it.
Back of the loaf is the snowy flour,
And back of the flour the mill,
And back of the mill is the wheat and the shower,
And the sun and the Father's will.
Maltbie D. Babcock (1858-1901)

The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of man; and if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?
-- Benjamin Franklin

Providence enables us to trust instead of be afraid- to have peace and hope. This is important today.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January 29 Calvin and Unemployment


January 29

Calvin and Unemployment
Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth. 5 He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son. (Proverbs 10:4,5)
Acts 17:21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Those who are generous to the poor lends to the Lord. Prov. 19:17
“Anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat” II Thess. 3:10
Calvin: “A monk not laboring with his own hands is no better than a violent man and a robber;” and the
other, “Monks, however assiduous they may be in study, meditation, and prayer, must not live by others.” This boundary, too, they transgressed, when they placed lazy gormandising monks in dens and stews, to gorge themselves on other men’s substance.(I.1.4)
“Vices came of idleness [babbling, and enthusiasm for anything new]; the philiosophers [of Athens] spent whole days arguing, and were too focused on anything new; There were no humble merchants there who would set things in order in the state of Greece. Luke indicates (and this is confirmed by both ancient Greek and Latin writers) that the people of Athens did not take life seriously, but were generally covetous and opposing others. In the end they brought all Greece to utter ruin. (Commentary on Acts 17:21)
[Calvin wrote about helping those who were unworthy of being helped]: “Furthermore, not to grow weary in well-doing [Gal. 6:9], which otherwise must happen immediately. We ought to add that other idea which the apostle mentions: “Love is patient…and is not irritable” [I Cor. 13:4-5]. The Lord commands all men without exception “to do good” [Heb. 13:16]. Yet the great part of them are most unwr=orthy if they be judged by their own merit. But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that people merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all people, to which we owe all honor and love.” (III. 7.6)

Calvin knew what it meant to be unemployed. He lived on a thread most of his life. Remember that he ran for his life from France in 1532 to Basel. Calvin wrote “Psychopannychea” and “The Institutes” during this period of unemployment. No doubt he had motivation to write (as he was in exile for his faith), but it is also important to remember he had time to write, and writing became his living. McGrath, in his biography of Calvin says that Calvin’s sense of call was not a matter of his pride, but perhaps a matter of his belief that “God calls the unrighteous, the outcasts and the downcasts, those who are foolish and weak in the eyes of the world. To be called by God is almost a mark of total failure by human standards.” (McGrath p. 71). On May 4, 1534 Calvin resigned his chaplaincy of La Gesine which meant he broke with the Roman Catholic church and he also had no means to support himself. It could be assumed that he lived off of his savings from his chaplaincy while a student, and from his inheritance (his father died in 1531, Calvin went back to France to help settle his family affairs leaving again in July 1536).
The Bible and Calvin encourage us to work. But what if there is no work to be found? Calvin held up the need to creatively find new work. He set this example when he wrote his books to support himself (changing jobs from a chaplain, to student, to lawyer, to preacher). Certainly God used his unemployment in a powerful way.
Calvin was also a strong believer in providence and God’s calling us to certain labors (vocation). History and economies are in His control. There is no need to panic or worry, but instead a humble trust in God is important. In fact, such a trust is a witness to the outside world. This does not mean that we do nothing. On the contrary God calls us to do all that we can to glorify Him. The work we do is ultimately a calling of God to each one of us. Therefore we should pray that God would lead us into the correct vocation.
Yet Calvin also believed in helping those who were unemployed. He certainly helped the exiles who took refuge in Geneva.
Unemployment numbers have come out about our recession. Caterpillar laid off 20,000; Microsoft 5,000; Sprint 8,000; Home Depot 7,000; GM 2,000. South Carolina lost 54,100 jobs in the past year with unemployment jumping to 9.5% How does the church respond? How do the people of God respond? There is a need to be good stewards, yet also be gracious- knowing that none of us are truly worthy of anything we have. How do we as individuals and families respond? Maybe inviting someone over to eat who lost their jobs. Maybe we should respond with grace and kindness, not just looking to our own interests.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January 28- Fair Business Practices


January 28

11A just weight and balance are the LORD’S: all the weights of the bag are his work.
Prov. 22:7 The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower is servant to the lender.


Calvin: Now if the laws of buying and selling are corrupted, human society is in a manner dissolved…[He strongly condemns ‘respectable’ people who use tricks to take advantage of the simple.] “Not only are those thieves who secretly steal the property of others, but those also who seek for gain from the loss of others, accumulate wealth by unlawful practices, and are more devoted to their private advantage than to equity..He pronounces all unjust means of gain to be so many thefts.” In order that we may not be condemned as thieves by God, we must endeavor as far as possible that everyone should safely keep what he possesses and that our neighbor’s advantage should be promoted no less than our own.” (CR 24.675; 36.42- Leith JCDOCL p. 191,192).

Calvin did not hesitate to denounce fraudulent and oppressive business practices. He saw economic injustice as a serious matter for our Christian lives. He was concerned about just wages too. He said, “If a merchant charges more than a piece of goods is worth, he steals.” (CR 26.348).

When I was in Turkey visiting some of the sites of the Apostle Paul this past November, we ran into a typical bargaining market for tourists. A price was displayed, but everyone was expected to negotiate that price down. A $5 item might sell for $2. But it bothered me that something was so overpriced. I guess the sale at the department store that takes a $50 shirt and marks it down to $10 shows that if you buy it at the wrong time, someone is making a huge profit. Some enjoyed the fun of negotiating or getting a bargain, I guess. However, I’ve always liked the car places that put the bottom non-negotiable price right on the windshield. Other people are better negotiators than I am. My problem is that when something is so overpriced, it is a bit deceptive. Now, this is not forbidden biblically, it is just a matter of taste- and probably a total tangent. But this is a blog- and I can share my annoyances as well as preach against the things that are really bad like the two things below.

Going back to our own country, I received a credit card offer about three years ago for 6% firm. When I called them, they asked sixty questions and then we were ready to seal the deal. I stopped and asked what the rate was again- and the operator said, “9%”. I could not believe it. I would have lost 3% and not even known about it until the first statement! Honesty and integrity in business grows a business, so that people will come back. Deception scares people away.

Again I would say that payday lending (outlawed in North Carolina and Georgia) is a deceptive loan practice. Our S.C. legislature is considering allowing payday lenders to double the amount that can be borrowed, and I may help some through a temporary tight spot, but with an interest rate that averages around 300% (the law allows a 495% apr in S.C.), it ends up making the poor poorer. Last year attempts to ban or regulate the industry passed the House and lost in the Senate by 3 votes. They advertise themselves as easy money, and prey on the uneducated and desperate. But easy money turns into even harder money, that takes cars away (title loans), or encumbers a person too much. There have always been those who make a buck out of supposedly “helping” the poor. Maybe you have heard Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song about the mill worker (or miner) that loaded sixteen tons but “owed his soul to the company store.” In contrast to this is honesty, integrity, and generosity. God blesses those who give of their abundance to help those who have little. Today I’m going to look for ways to give a bit away. Maybe in Calvinistic fashion I’ll send an e-mail to my legislators asking them to vote against H.3301 that would increase payday lender’s muscle.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Spirituality and Interest Rates


January 27


The righteous man…does not lend at usury or takes excessive interest. He withholds his hand from doing wrong and judges fairly between man and man. (Ezekiel 18:8)
7The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.(Prov. 22:7)

Calvin: “When I permit some usury, I do not deem all usury lawful. And I disapprove if someone proposes to make a living by profiting from usury. Furthermore, I concede nothing except in setting forth certain exceptions. The first is that one not take usury from the poor, and that no one, being in a bad situation through indigence or afflicted by some calamity, be forced into it. The second exception is that he who lends not be so occupied with the gain that he neglects necessary duties; not wishing to keep his money secure, that he scorns his poor brothers. The third exception is…that we look closely at it with Christ’s rule: do as you wish others to do unto you. The fourth exception is that he who borrows make as much profit from the borrowed money. The fifth, that we not value things according to the world, but to the Word of God. In the sixth place, that we not only look at the private comfort of those with whom we do business, but also to the public good. In the seventh, that we not exceed the limits that the public laws of the land allow, even if they not be adequate laws… I now conclude that it is necessary to judge usuries… according to the rule of fairness.” (CR 10, 247-249)

Many would be surprised the Bible or Calvin say anything about interest rates. But the ability to loan and return the loan are important concepts that effect how we love our neighbor, and our own tendency toward greed and selfishness. Calvin lived in a time in which the old feudal system was in disarray with a rise of a money economy (replacing a barter economy), and a rise in industry and the middle class. Usury is excessive interest. At times it has meant charging any interest at all. The Council of Nicea had forbidden ministers from charging usury above one percent. Lending to another Israelite at high rates of interest (or at times with any interest) was forbidden, for lending to another believer was seen as a matter of philanthropy. By the time Calvin came along, short term interest rates ranged from 20-30%. Calvin’s openness to limited, fair interest helped lower the interest rates (Henry VIII’s edict did as well) to 9-10% (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usury).
One of the great problems of our society is interest rates, and the way we make loans. Some say the real estate collapse and rapid rise of foreclosures were caused by banks encouraging people to get loans beyond their means. Notably, people would put 0% down, and the house was bigger than they could afford. Bankers would get paid for each mortgage obtained, and the justification was that people who couldn’t afford housing could obtain housing. On top of this were the ever- insistent credit card offers with low cost beginning rates and high interest rates later. People would use easy credit. Then mortgage brokers would offer a lower interest rate on a second mortgage. If people could barely afford the first mortgage and were putting their house down as collateral on a second mortgage, eventually there was a collapse! The government was encouraging us to spend to help the economy- buy cars, buy tvs, buy computers. But this only led to more debt. Not many were saying we need to save or to be cautious. Now the government is going into debt to help us- $1.2 trillion now with another 800 billion looming. Eventually our government will run out of its ability to make loans. This happened with the USSR in 1989, and led to its collapse. To print money to pay loans leads to high inflation rates.
One other small point- South Carolina is one of the worst states for payday lenders- and car title lenders. These people have had interest rates as high as 500% mainly for the poor. Ironically, the Democratic candidate for governor in S.C. who lost his last election went to work for them. They have powerful lobbyists. But who lobbies for the poor?
My point is this- there is a balance. A balance for lending, and a balance for purchasing. Wanting more than you can afford is fueled by covetousness (a word not heard much today) or greed. It would be a good idea for us to look for ways to decrease our debt instead of adding to them especially right now. The people who were hurt the least by this last collapse were those who did not have huge debts, nor those who had huge investments in stocks. However, greed by even 10% causes problems for the other 90% (people were saying only 10% of the housing market was in trouble). Yes, interest can be a moral problem and a spiritual problem affecting our relationship to God.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

January 26- Caring for Society


January 26

The Shaping of Society
(picture is of Geneva in Calvin's day)

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3,4)

Calvin: (The principle of self-denial in our relations with our fellow men III.6.4) “When Scripture bids us act toward men so as to esteem them above ourselves [Phil. 2:3] and in good faith to apply ourselves wholly to doing them good [cf. Rom. 12:10] , it gives us commandments of which our mind is quite incapable unless our mind be previously emptied of its natural feeling. For, such is the blindness with which we all rush into self-love that each one of us seems to himself to have just cause to be proud of himself and to despise all others in comparison. If God has conferred upon us anything of which we need not repent, relying upon it we immediately lift our minds and are not only puffed up but burst with pride…Hence arises such insolence that each one of us, as if exempt from the common lot, wishes to tower above the rest, and loftily and savagely abuses every mortal man, or at least looks down upon him as inferior…Let us then unremittingly examining our faults , call ourselves back to humility. On the other hand, we are asked to esteem and regard whatever gift of God we see in other men that that we may honor those men in whom they reside. (Inst. III.6.4)

For Calvin there is no possibility of private Christianity. Monasteries and convents were out for Calvin. The Christian life was not only to be lived before God, it was to be rubbed up against others. The true test of Christianity for Calvin was love of neighbor. Once Calvin said, “The godly should not live to themselves and to the promotion merely of their own interests, but should endeavor to promote the common good of all according to their opportunities, and as far as they are able (CR: 31. 380).
Calvin was not a politician, but he was concerned about the welfare of his people spiritually, mentally (starting the Genevan academy), and physically (caring for the poor and needy, and ethical business practices of the merchants). Love of neighbor transforms the neighbor, honors God, and makes the world a better place. Calvin was not just concerned about the salvation of souls, but a community (Geneva) reformed by the Word of God (Leith IRT 73). John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland- who was exiled to Geneva for awhile, said, “in other places, I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion be so sincerely reformed , I have not yet seen in any other place [than Geneva]. Thus the one of the spiritual branch-descendants of Calvin came to America to make a “city set on a hill- for all the world to see the glory of God.”

Christians are called to do something for the glory of God in this world. Not seeking their own glory, but their neighbor helped and God thus honored and glorified. I have loved these Liberty Insurance commercials that encourage us to do a good deed and that will come back to us. One person sees a good deed and it inspires them to do another. Then the narrator says, “When it’s people who do the right thing they call it responsibility. When insurance companies do, they call it Liberty Mutual.” If people do the right thing, it is contagious. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iw97CfZtyGw&NR=1) and ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76h8jbjZqOI&NR=1 ).
No I don’t insure with Liberty or own any stock- just like their commercial. I long for this good side of people to come out- doing the right thing as individuals, as businesses, as communities.

So today, let’s see what we can do to make this world a better place. Let’s not just seek our own ambition, but the good of others.

January 25- Calvin and Christian Unity




I’m a bit behind (last week was to be the week of Prayer for Christian Unity), but thought this still is a great topic. Often I’m asked by unbelievers, “If your religion is about love, why are there so many denominations?”

Jesus: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20,21)
“I appeal to you, brothers and sister, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (I Cor. 1:10).
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: …dissensions, factions… and the like.But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:19-23)

That we are agreed, we can indeed on both sides truly and faithfully declare; but as I cannot persuade all of the fact as it really stands, it very much grieves me that some remain in anxiety and
suspense, for whose peace of mind I am desirous to consult. Hence, as I observed before, I think that I am not acting out of season in urging that there should be some public testimony of the agreement existing between us. (Calvin to Zurich ministers 1549)

Calvin worked hard to unite the Protestants in German speaking Switzerland (Zurich) with the French speaking Geneva, and he was successful. He worked to foster a relationship with the Lutherans through Melanchthon, but Melanchthon died. He fought hard against those who wanted to divide Lutherans from the Reformed (he wrote a tract against Westphal who called him a heretic for his ideas on the Lord’s Supper). He wrote letters to the English, the Scottish, the Huguenots in France, the Greek Orthodox, and many others trying to bring unity to their diversity. Calvin had originally wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church, but after death threats, excommunication, and open war against the Huguenot Protestants and Lutherans he saw the break as inevitable. He still worked to reform the church and to unite the Protestants.

Everywhere I have lived I have found a real spirit of Christian unity. I have found Presbyterians (PCUSA and some PCA, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, some Baptists, and many others) to want to work together for the good of the community. Food banks, utility help for the needy, housing help through Habitat and similar organizations, indigent healthcare, and even outreach to immigrants have been created by many different denominations working together. I think about the SouperBowl Offering coming up February 1 that goes toward local food banks. Sixty different denominations support this offering that helps the local needy. As our world in America has become more secular, the churches have become more cooperative. I know in my own church only 25% grew up in our denomination. In my parents’ day Methodists were to marry Methodists, Presbyterians married Presbyterians, Episcopalians married Episcopalians, Roman Catholics married Roman Catholics, etc. Today there is a sense that Christians should marry Christians (as it says in the scriptures). Calvin was not ready to sacrifice doctrine for unity. But he spoke a lot of “things indifferent” “Christian liberty” and his deep regret that Melanchthon died before he could make public his agreement with Calvin. Calvin said that the unity of the church is not about the liturgy or how the supper is served but in the concept that Christ is Lord of the church.

Why are there different denominations? First a denomination by definition is in some sense united. For example, a one dollar bill is a denomination, a five dollar bill is a denominatio, a twenty dollar bill is a denomination, but they are all money. Different Christian churches are branches leading into the same stream. Yet often language barriers, cultural barriers, backgrounds, theological differences, and yes the sins Calvin fought against- pride and divisiveness lead to differences. Love, grace, and a focus on our Lord can soften these differences. Christian monism is not the goal as much as Christian unity. We can be united yet different, with different tastes and emphases. At the same time, in the last twenty years, the old central denominational bureaucracy in the Protestant denominations of the U.S. is crumbling- with less missions, less resources, and less control. While this is happening, it is more important for individual churches and individual Christians to be working and praying in our communities and areas for Christian unity.
So, praying for Christian unity is a wonderful idea.

Friday, January 23, 2009

January 24- Strength and Courage


January 24

Joshua 1: 1 After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' aide: 2 "Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. 3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. 5 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. 7 "Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go."

CALVIN (His last commentary written six months before his death when he was already sick): Here, we see the steadfastness of God in watching over his people, and providing for their safety. The sanction given to Joshua’s appointment, as new leader by a renewed commission, was intended to indicate the continuance of his favor, and prevent the people from thinking themselves forsaken in consequence of the death of Moses. Joshua, indeed, had already been chosen to rule the people; and not only invested with the office, but also endowed with spiritual gifts. But as the
most valiant, however well provided, are apt to stop or waver when the period for action arrives, the exhortation to Joshua to make ready forthwith for the expedition was by no means superfluous. Still, however, the call thus formally given was not so much on his own account, as to inspire the people with full confidence in following a leader whom they saw advancing step by step in the path divinely marked out for him.

If I was inaugurated as president, the first passage I would read would be Joshua 1. It is a wonderful passage of leadership, inspiring, advising, and strengthening. Joshua and the people were in transition, and faced many dangers and uncertainties. God gave Joshua a call and a purpose, and he needed him to be strong and courageous, and to find strength in God. God encouraged Joshua by telling him that He would be with Joshua as much as he was with Moses, and that He had given Joshua the book of the law. These are words to leaders and potential leaders. But these are words for anyone. God was telling Joshua where to get his strength and courage in uncertain times. This is good advice for us as well. Calvin was one who believed we are called by God to be faithful and to glorify God. We are to be a people not afraid of the future because we know who holds the future in His hand. Calvin is not embarrassed to draw a distinction between believers who do not have the resource of God as a strength and those who find God to be a refuge and hope in troubling times.
Calvin wrote this at the end of his life. He chose this commentary at the urging of his friends, but also he knew the fledgling church would have a transition after his impending death. I believe he was reminding the church of the need for strength and courage. Obama may need to hear this word as he gets started, but the church, and we as believers need to hear this word of strength and courage as well.

January 23- Calvin on Helping Others


January 23
9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9,10)

Calvin: The Lord commands all men without exception “to do good” [Hebrews 13:16]. Yet the great part of them are most unworthy if they be judged by their own merit. But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love. However, it is among members of the household of faith that this same image is more carefully to be noted [Galatians 6:10], in so far as it has been renewed and restored through the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, “He is a stranger”; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh [Isaiah 58:7, Vg.]. Say, “He is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions. Now if he has not only deserved no good at your hand, but has also provoked you by unjust acts and curses, not even this is just reason why you should cease to embrace him in love and to perform the duties of love on his behalf [ Matthew6:14; 18:35; Luke 17:3]. You will say, “He has deserved something far different of me.” Yet what has the Lord deserved? While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself. Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature: to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches [Matthew 5:44]. It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.

John Leith once said that the strength of Calvin’s teachings is that it insists that Christians are not just forgiven persons but also ethical persons. The elect person is called to a life of service and obedience” (IRT p. 77). The inauguration yesterday was not an inauguration to power but an inauguration to service. When someone is elected to church office or to political office it is an honor bestowed in God’s providence. Yet election is always to serve. I believe Obama sees this. He started out on the right foot the day before the inauguration by proclaiming Martin Luther King Day as national service day. Life is not just about getting forgiven and getting saved. Maybe that is a beginning point. But it is also about honoring God with your redeemed life. This means loving your neighbor whether that neighbor is good or bad (see Calvin’s words above).

Thursday, January 22, 2009


January 22
Alarmed at One Common Danger
“One day Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side of the lake.’ So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped and they were in great danger. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Master, Master, we’re going to drown!’ He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. ‘Where is your faith?’ he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and water, and they obey him.’” (Luke 8:22-25)

Calvin: “Those with eyes can perceive it is not one sea of evils that has flooded the earth, but many dangerous plagues have invaded it, and everything is rushing headlong. Hence, one must either completely despair of human affairs or grapple with these great evils — or rather, forcibly quell them. Isaiah of old instructed God’s elect not to fear what they fear, not be in dread thereof, but rather to hallow the Lord of Hosts and let him be their fear and dread (Isa. 8:12,13).” (Inst. Preface to Francis I-King of France, 5)

Obama gave a great speech at the Inaugural address. He spoke of the dangers that we face economically (especially from greed and only trying to “prosper the prosperous”), and from terrorists. The "father of our nation," the new president said, "ordered these words be read to the people: 'Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.' “With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
Calvin was telling the King of France that we face many dangers, just as Obama was telling us in the Inaugural address. Calvin was proposing that we just not keep the status quo, which his enemies were asking the king to do. Rather, we should consider change for the better. Calvin was never an advocate for retreating away from the world into a fortress. He was not an advocate of going into a monk-like meditation for personal peace in the midst of danger. Nor was he an advocate for just fighting against the world. Rather, he was for grappling with the dangers and evils around us and transforming the world. Richard Niebuhr in his small book “Christ and Culture” points this out- Calvin is not for withdrawing from culture, or against culture, but for transforming culture. There are many Christians today who wish to retreat into fortress like mentality because the world has become a much more evil place than it was- in terms of crime, pornography, greed, selfishness, lust. But Calvin would call us to take our lamp from under the bushel, take our salt out of the salt shaker and make the world better.
I appreciated Obama’s call to face our dangers squarely and not to retreat in the face of them. The problem is not just economic injustice or war. The deeper problem is always spiritual. We do not need to fear what the world fears- losing things, or losing our place in the pecking order of nations. Christians, as citizens want the best for their country and pray for the place where God has placed us. Yet we also know the greater danger is to leave God out of our lives, to not respect or fear Him. This Jesus who calmed the storm can wake up and calm our storm as well if we call out to Him.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

January 21 The weather and Calvin


January 21
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10,11
“Wash me and I will be whiter than snow.” Psalm 51:7

Calvin speaks of the weather being under God’s providential and special control. He was speaking against the idea that God begins things but does not sustain them (similar to what deists believe).
[This view would mean] that no place is left for God’s fatherly favor, nor for his judgments. If they say that God is beneficent enough to mankind because he sheds upon heaven and earth an ordinary power, by which they are supplied with food this is too weak and profane a fiction. As if the fruitfulness of one year were not a singular blessing of God, and scarcity and famine were not his curse and vengeance. But because it would take too long to collect all the reasons, let the authority of God himself suffice. In the Law and in the Prophets he often declares that as often as he waters the earth with dews and rain [Lev. 26:3-4; Dt. 11:13,14; 28:12] he testifies of his favor; but when the heaven is hardened like iron at his command [Lev. 26:19] the grainfields consumed by a blight and other harmful things [Dt. 28:22]. As often as the fields are struck with hail and storms [cf. Isa. 28:2; Hag. 2:18] these are a sign of his certain and special vengeance. If we accept these things, it is certain that not one drop of rain falls without God’s sure command. (Inst. I.16.5).

Today, in South Carolina, it snowed! It is so rare here that we are purposefully unprepared. There are no snow plows (it is not economically feasible to buy them for the rare snows), few salt trucks, only an imported but rare snow shovel. One inch of snow shuts the schools down and sends the children rejoicing- out to play. In South Carolina we sing songs of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Jingle Bells” but some kids don’t see sleds and enough to make a snowman until they are in elementary school. Yet it does snow a bit about once a year. I remember watching my friend from Cameroon see the snow for the first time as a fifty year old. He was mesmerized! South Carolina is the same latitude as Israel. We see some snow, but not much. Yet we can go to the mountains and see it fairly regularly. Snow covers the ground making all the rough places smooth, covering over so much. God washes us, covers us, and makes us pure. Some parts of Washington experienced some snow during the inauguration too.
We live in such a secular culture that many act as if God does not have anything to do with the weather. I have actually heard the weather forecaster being blamed for lack of sunshine or for too much or little rain. Perhaps it is easy because we can now better describe how things happen to have the illusion that we cause things to happen.
When the British burned the White House, all of the country was definitely upset. The American army there was in tatters. But then something happened that forced the British to leave Washington and even put out the flames at the White House- a hurricane. Universally, Americans gave thanks to God for his providential care and protection. It demoralized the British and allowed the American army to regroup and repel them. If the same thing happened today, I wonder how we might perceive it. As a new government begins, it is still important to remember who is the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Monday, January 19, 2009

January 20- Calvin and Obama's start


January 20
“You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:25-28)

Calvin: God, respects the purity and innocence of the heart, not such things as kindred country, dignity, and riches which people esteem highly. Whatever difference there may have been between Jew and Greek before the coming of Christ, that difference has been abolished by Christ. (CR 49:36). We should not regard what a man is and what he deserves: but we should go higher—that it is God who has placed us in the world for such a purpose that we be united and joined together. He has impressed his image in us and has given us a common nature, which should incite us to providing one for the other. The man who wishes to exempt himself from providing for his neighbors should deface himself and declare that he no longer wishes to be a man, for as long as we are human creatures, we must contemplate as in a mirror our face in those who are poor, despised, exhausted, who groan under their burdens…If there come some Moor or barbarian, since he is a man, he brings a mirror in which we are able to contemplate that he is our brother and neighbor: for we cannot abolish the order of nature which God has established as inviolable.” (CR 51:105).

There are two things that seem to both humble and unite human beings- whether they are highly educated presidents or lowly unemployed citizens. These two things are the image of God and the sinfulness of humanity. The image of God is in each of us, and sinfulness is also in each of us. Because we are all made in God’s image, we are all worth something. Calvin would not have us believe as some traditions tend to do that those who do not believe are not worth something. So we are called to help all people whether they have faith or are worthy of help or not. Our sinfulness keeps us humble. The greatest and least in the eyes of the world are on equal footing before the judgment seat of Christ. We all stand in need of forgiveness. So no individual is intrinsically worth more than the next. There is no special seat for the wealthy of famous in Calvinistic churches. Calvin took a dim view of super pomp and circumstance, for it tended to hide our equality and gives the illusion of some not sinning. A third thing brings us together- our baptism. No matter our economic condition, race, educational accomplishments we must all be baptized under the same water and name.
Today the United States is inaugurating a new president. No doubt Calvin would approve of the diversity embodied in Barak Obama. We all should celebrate and rejoice that America has embraced diversity. Yet, Calvin might object to too much being made of it all. In hard economic times, to relish in millions spent on an inauguration- nearly five times I am told the Bush’s inauguration, is hard to swallow. Yet, no doubt Calvin would have approved of Obama’s holding up serving others, and painting cabinets for a homeless shelter-- as he did the day before his inauguration. No doubt Obama will be a mixture of the image of God shining and tarnished. This is all the more reason that we should pray for him.

Calvin and government- checks and balances


January 19
Calvin and Democracy
“The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone…Select capable men from all the people- men who fear God , trustworthy people who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times. , but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.” (Exodus 18:19-23)

Calvin: I will not deny that aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy far excels all others: not indeed of itself, but because it is very rare for kings so to control themselves that their will never disagrees with what is just and right; or for them to have been endowed with such great keenness and prudence, that each knows how much is enough. Therefore men’s fault or failing causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government, so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another; and, if one asserts himself unfairly there may be a number of censors and masters to restrain his willfulness. This has both been proved by experience , and also the Lord confirmed it by his authority when he ordained among the Israelites an aristocracy bordering on democracy. (Ex. 18:13-26; Dt. 1:9-17).” (Inst. IV. 20.8).

There is much debate on Calvin’s influence on government. Calvin obviously prefers a type of republican government where more than one person rules, and there are checks and balances. It is important he wrote this in a time of ferment among the feudal and monarchical systems of his day. The Duke of Savoy and the bishop had control of Geneva in the past. It was only when the Duke and bishop were unseated from control of Geneva that Calvin was able to do his work. No doubt Calvin was influenced by the Swiss councils and their way of governing by many. Calvin was a strong believer in checks and balances because of a deep sense he had of our natural selfishness. Calvin was not an idealist, but was very realistic of government’s limitations and tendency to make mistakes. He himself, remember, was exiled by the government. The King in France, Francis I, was constantly waffling between persecuting the Protestants and allowing them a place at the table. Yet, Calvin was most influenced by the Old Testament’s idea of elders and the advantage of having many different viewpoints collaborating and balancing together.
It is important in the secular world we live in, to not lose perspective on why there is a necessity for checks and balances in government. Our sin keeps us from seeing things clearly and without selfishness. Our finitude keeps us from governing the world as individuals (so even Moses was told by his father-in-law that he needed help before he wore himself out). There is no doubt Calvin’s thinking influenced John Locke in England and The Presbyterian signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, taught John Adams and influenced him. Calvin’s main concern was not government. But he did speak to government as playing an important role in our lives. He devoted the very last chapter of his Institutes to the civil government. Frankly, I applaud Obama’s saying that he wants to surround himself with people of diverse opinions so that he will be able to hear all sides and look at things from different angles. My hopes and prayers are that he will head their advice, but also head the advice of scripture.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

January 18- The Right Use of Earthly Things


January 18
I Corinthians 7:29-31- the time is short. From now on those who are married should live as if they were not; those who mourn as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world , as if not engrossd in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Calvin: “The good things of this life are to be enjoyed as gifts of God. If we must simply pass through this world, there is no doubt we ought to use its good things in so far as they help rather than hinder our course. Thus Paul rightly persuades us to use this world as if not using it; and to buy goods with the same attitude as one sells them. [Here are three principles: ]1) The use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us, since he created them for our good, not for our ruin…where is your thanksgiving if you so gorge yourself with banqueting or wine that you either become stupid or are rendered useless for the duties of piety and of your calling? 2) They who have narrow and slender resources should know how to go without things patiently, lest they be troubled by an immoderate desire for them. 3) All those things were so given to us by the kindness of God, and so destined for our benefit that they are, as it were, entrusted to us, and we must one day render account of them. “ (Inst . III.1-5 sels.]

Calvin believed in balance. He didn’t believe in the extremes of the ascetics who saw everything in the world as evil. But he also didn’t believe in those who would “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.” He didn’t believe in such strictness that we don’t enjoy life, or in such laxity that we can’t really appreciate what we have. Our lives are gifts from God, and we should enjoy the gift.
In our culture, we see self denial or putting on the brakes to our pleasures as wrong. If you mention fasting to the average American Christian they may think you’ve lost your marbles- almost like the people who beat themselves with whips. But there is a balance between withholding and punishing. It really boils down to who is God. Today, we post-enlightenment, post-modern Christians act as if we are the judge of what is right and wrong, instead of God’s being the judge. We are the judge and jury of which scriptures we will accept and which ones we will reject. We are almost like the believers in the days of the book of Judges- “every one did what was right in their own eyes.” The problem is that without an anchor to hold us back, we plunge headlong into the way of selfishness and uncontrolled, unbalanced self-indulgence. God, and the scriptures are a check on our pride and our decadence. But they also help us to rightly enjoy the good things of life. A key example is sexuality. God made us sexual creatures and put desires inside of us. But he put boundaries around us to guide us and keep us healthy. Unbridled sexuality leads to unhealthy living (physically, mentally,socially and spiritually). The boundaries were committed monogamous husband-wife relationships. Sexuality enjoyed in a committed, marital relationship is a great and wonderful gift of God. Sexuality outside of marriage leaves mental, sometimes physical, and always spiritual scars. Calvin would not say we should abstain from all sexuality (unlike the monk’s vow of chastity and poverty), but would not give into the sexual revolution’s idea of “if it feels good do it.” Sexuality is just one example. Buying and selling earthly goods is another. Calvin would not have us live in rags, but neither would he have us be a slave to the latest fashion. Calvin was always a proponent of the middle way.. Our society is paying the price now for our excesses. We do not want to swing on the pendulum to asceticism as our goal. Our goal should be to use the gifts God has “entrusted” to our care. Today so many are out of balance- it shows on our credit card "balances." It is important to have a goal in the way we use earthly things- gifts given to us from God.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Calvin, Providence and Jets in the Hudson


January 17, 2009
Providence
Matthew 10:29,31 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”

Calvin: “Now it has been commonly accepted in all ages and almost all mortals hold the same opinion today, that all things come about through chance…Suppose a man falls among thieves or wild beasts; is shipwrecked at sea by a sudden gale; is killed by a falling house or tree. Suppose another man wandering through the desert finds help in his straits; having been tossed by the waves, reaches harbor; miraculously escapes death by a finger’s breadth. Carnal reason ascribes all such happenings, whether prosperous or adverse to chance. But…all events are governed by God’s secret plan...We read that at Joshua’s prayers the sun stood still in one degree for two days; and that its shadow went back ten degrees for the sake of King Hezekiah. God has witnessed by those few miracles that the sun does not daily rise and set by a blind instinct of nature, but that he himself, to renew our remembrance of his fatherly favor toward us, governs its course.” (I.16.2)

Yesterday a flight from New York to Charlotte landed in the Hudson River because the engines went out shortly after take off because they hit a flight of geese (how unlucky). But it landed in the cold, icy Hudson and a normally smooth flight and day turned into a nightmare (how unlucky). But there were no boats on the water in its path (how lucky), and no homes were hit (how lucky), and everyone got out alive (how unlucky). Luck can look at the same event and see it as good luck or bad luck. Christians see God’s providential hand and trust that God has it under control. If not a sparrow falls to the ground without God’s care, surely not a 747!. NBC News called it a “miracle.” That is not a common word in a secular society. But miracles point to God’s control and to God Himself.
Calvin would not have us be blown back and forth interpreting/reading signs of luck. Instead he would have us be balanced and steady trusting in God’s leading and loving care. There is something freeing about not depending on luck or fate- which are impersonal and incontrollable. Instead of this blind, accidental belief, there is a trust that God is in control. Admittedly, it would be harder to talk about providence if everyone died. Maybe a secular person would sing praise to the pilot alone, or the skills of putting technology on the plane that made it safer in such a situation. But clearly it was not just a pilot or an engineer that created this miracle! I believe. I believe in miracles, and God’s providential hand guiding us.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January 16 Purpose in Pain


January 16
3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. II Corinthians 1:3,4

Calvin: “For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil…Hence also in harsh and difficult conditions, regarded as adverse and evil, a great comfort comes to us: we share Christ’s sufferings in order that as he has passed from a labyrinth of all evils into heavenly glory, we may in like manner be led through various tribulations to the same glory…The saints…experience the fact that God.. provides the assistance that he had promised.” (Inst. 3.8.3)

Cross bearing does not refer to carrying pieces of wood as much as it does being “beneath life’s crushing load, bending low, toiling along the climbing way with painful and slow steps.” Cross bearing means seeing purpose in afflictions and pain. “Crosses interrupt our plans, test our faith, and teach us patience in suffering” (Ramey and Johnson LCL p. 94). According to Calvin the crosses of life teach us (discipline us), correct us, and help us to share in Christ’s sufferings (sympathetically and really). It is a trend that people find it fashionable and less alien to say there is no meaning in suffering these days. I heard much of this about recent wars, terrorist acts, and other tragedies. While human evil is not explainable, that does not mean that we cannot , in God’s providence, learn from our afflictions and problems.
One of the greatest adjustments in life is going from a state of having more than enough to just enough. Many an American has been humbled in the last few months economically, psychological and spiritually. To think that there is nothing to be learned from our humilities is to miss an opportunity to grow in wisdom, strength, and grace. Wisdom does not only come from the good experiences and books, but true wisdom is gained as we learn how to adjust and weather storms. Strength comes in hard times too. The strongest trees have learned to resist winds, drought, and flood well. Grace allows us to see our own weakness and rely on a stronger power. Grace keeps us from judging others, but instead welcomes companions on the journey. So bearing our crosses help us to see life for what it is- not shallow, not meaningless, but rather full of meaning and hope. After all, cross bearing is done in the light and hope of the resurrection! There is a purpose in tough times and we are here as part of God’s purpose as well.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January 15 Cutting back=doing good


January 15
Proverbs 23:1-3 1 When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, 2 and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. 3 Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.
I Timothy 2:8-10
8I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.
9I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

Calvin: “As he enjoined men to lift up pure hands, so he now prescribes the manner in which women ought to prepare for praying aright. And there appears to be an implied contrast between those virtues which he recommends and the outward sanctification of the Jews; for he intimates that there is no profane place, nor any from which both men and women may not draw near to God, provided they are not excluded by their vices. He intended to embrace the opportunity of correcting a vice to which women are almost always prone, and which perhaps at Ephesus, being a city of vast wealth and extensive merchandise, especially abounded. That vice is — excessive eagerness and desire to be richly dressed. He wishes therefore that their dress should be regulated by modesty and sobriety; for luxury…we must always begin with the dispositions; for where debauchery reigns within, there will be no chastity; and where ambition reigns within, there will be no modesty in the outward dress. But because hypocrites commonly avail themselves of all the pretexts that they can find for concealing their wicked dispositions, we are under the necessity of pointing out what meets the eye. It would be great baseness to deny the appropriateness of modesty as the peculiar and constant ornament of
virtuous and chaste women, or the duty of all to observe moderation. Whatever is opposed to these virtues it will be in vain to excuse. He expressly censures certain kinds of superfluity, such as curled hair, jewels, and golden rings; not that the use of gold or of jewels is expressly forbidden, but that, wherever they are prominently displayed, these things commonly draw along with them the other evils which I have mentioned, and arise from ambition or from want of chastity as their source. immoderate expense arise from a desire to make a display either for the sake of pride or of departure from chastity. And hence we ought to derive the rule of moderation;

Monday, according to CNN: Outgoing Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said the recession may have caused a "fundamental change" in the incessant shopping habits of Americans - which will hurt retailers but will benefit society as a whole. Scott, citing his recent meeting with young shoppers, said many had given up eating out, going to the movies and shopping."Everyone has given up something and said how good they felt about it," he said. "I think in some ways it is healthy [for society], even though for us retailers it's not good."

It is hard to imagine the chairman of the largest retailer saying that cutting back on retail sales may not be healthy for a store in the short run, but could be healthy for America. The old saying of the greedy was what’s good for my company [read Walmart, GM, GE, AT&T] is good for America. While our selfish hearts would believe that greed, over-spending, buying what we don’t need are good for us and for the economy, such actions tear at the core and fabric of our country. Deep down, despite the layers of tarnish, the image of God calls out to us that we are not made for selfishness but for God. Deep down we know that love for neighbor is a better way than seeking “extravagance for me.” A slow, steady, balanced, moderate growth is much better than a fast over-extension of growth that must burst like a stretched out bubble. That is true nationally, and I believe it is true in our communities, families, and as individuals. Love (which goes hand in hand with self-denial) is a better way than self-seeking.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


January 14
Calvin on Moderation
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. Matthew 10:37-39

Calvin: As it is exceedingly harsh, and is contrary to natural feelings, to make enemies of those who ought to have been in closest alliance with us, so Christ now
says that we cannot be his disciples on any other condition. He does not
indeed enjoin us to lay aside human affections, or forbid us to discharge the
duties of relationship, but only desires that all the mutual love which exists
among men should be so regulated as to assign the highest rank to piety.
Let the husband then love his wife, the father his son, and, on the other
hand, let the son love his father, provided that the reverence which is due
to Christ be not overpowered by human affection. For if even among men,
in proportion to the closeness of the tie that mutually binds us, some have
stronger claims than others, it is shameful that all should not be deemed
inferior to Christ alone. And certainly we do not consider sufficiently, or
with due gratitude, what it is to be a disciple of Christ, if the excellence of
this rank be not sufficient to subdue all the affections of the flesh. (Commentaries Table 1-89)

Calvin sees a great balance in scripture. In this commentary on what can easily be interpreted as a radical verse, Calvin softens it. Calvin had a very strong sense that scripture speaks as a whole, and thus we should interpret scripture along with other scripture passages. Thus a passage that talks about “hating father and mother” (Luke 14:25-33) is interpreted in the light of passages that tell us to love one another. His point in this commentary is that the love of other human beings not become idolatry and replace or become superior to our love for God. In another place Calvin speaks of moderation as being required in human relationships (Serm on Mt. 26:36-9). Calvin interprets the passage about turning the other cheek in a similar manner- “Jesus is not here laying down a rule for outward action but is seeking to train the minds of believers to moderation and justice, that they may not after one or two injuries fail or grow weary” (Comm. Mt. 5:39).
Ronald Wallace says of Calvin: “An essential element in the ordered Christian life is the moderation of all passion, appetite, and zeal no matter what accompanies it.” Calvin says, “Our Lord himself is a remarkable example of temperance” (Comm. Lk. 5:29). One of the signs of being a believer for Calvin is the ability to resist the temptations and excesses of the world.
How we need to hear this today! There are few (if any- maybe the credit counseling people) telling us to resist excesses. The far louder siren cry of our day is to spend, spend, spend- for the good of the country, for the good of the economy, for the happiness of the family. Moderation would allow us to put aside savings for a rainy day, and to balance our needs against our wants. Moderation would also allow us to not mock the poor by our lifestyle, but to have more to help those in desperate need.
I once knew of two teachers married to each other. They lived off of one salary in a very modest home and gave the other income to missions and benevolences. I knew of a very wealthy businessman who lived in a middle class home in a middle class neighborhood despite earning millions each year. He refused to buy extra homes, but spent much of his income helping others get homes. I had an uncle who took this to the extreme. Though he was worth millions, he drove a 1965 rambler (up until his death in 2004- it ran well) so that he could give the bulk of his estate to poor seminary students at Columbia Theological Seminary. He had a nice house. He had been around the world, but in his old age he tried to live off of his social security and a few small rental investments so that others would be helped. His moderation brought purpose in his latter years (he lived to be 93). It is important to have what we need, but it is also important to distinguish between wants and needs.

Monday, January 12, 2009

January 13- Self Denial


January 13
Self-denial as a form of simplicity
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world and lose or forfeit your very self? (Luke 9:23-25)

Calvin: “The sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves” (Inst. III.VII. title); “the first step is that a man depart form himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the eservice of the Lord. The second point is that we seek not the things that are ours but those which are of the Lord’s will and will serve to advance his glory. ..It remains for us not greedily to strive after riches and honors—whether relying upon our own dexterity of wit or our own
diligence, or depending upon the favor of men, or having confidence in vainly imagined fortune—but for us always to lok to the Lord so that by his guidance we may be led to whatever lot he has provided for us. Thus it will first come to pass that we shall not dash out to seize upon riches and usurp honors through wickedness…or greed to the injury of our neighbors. (III. 7.7-9)

If the Christian life is denial of self, then American Christians have been missing something. I remember talking to a German theologian at seminary who wrote a book about the Christian life saying it was all about self fulfillment. I think American Christians easily bought into that thinking- Christ came for our blessing and comfort. Calvin would point out that Christ’s example was one of sacrifice, self-denial for a higher cause, and the cross. Christ’s own words were not “if anyone wants to follow me, let them fulfill their highest expectations and dreams of comfort.” But as one bard said, “when Christ bids us come, he bids us come and die.” Calvin emphasized over and over the dual ideas of mortification and vivification. We must deny ourselves- dying to our own selfishness and greed in order for us to really bear fruit for Christ and live for Him. Calvin rightly pointed out that we cannot love our neighbor if we do not deny ourselves. He said, “Now in seeking to benefit one’s neighbor, how difficult it is to do one’s duty! Unless you give up all thought of self and, so to speak, get out of yourself, you will accomplish nothing here” (III.7.5).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

January 12- Simply Calvin


January 12

Last week we mainly looked at economics from Calvin’s perspective. This week we will look at something that plays on economics- the idea of modesty and simplicity.
“Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and on the streets, to be honored by others. ..And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received your reward in full. (Matthew 6:1,5, TNIV)

Calvin (speaking of the need to simplify the baptism rite) says: “As though to be baptized with water according to Christ’s precept were a contemptible thing, a benediction, or rather an incantation, was devised to defile the true consecration of water. Afterward a candle was added, with the chrism…I still have the right, together with all pious men, to reject whatever men have dared to add to Christ’s institution. How much better it would be to omit from baptism all theatrical pomp, which dazzles th eyes of the simple and deadens their minds” (IV. Xv.19);
I should quote John Leith (The Reformed Tradition p. 83,84): “Simplicity is a recurring theme in all of Calvin’s writings, and it was a characteristic of his practice. He opposed all redundancy. He was the enemy of the ostentatious, the pompous, the contrived, the needlessly complicated. His style was plain and direct. He opposed needless spending and consumption, but he also opposed other forms of waste. Simplicity is closely related to Calvin’s emphasis on authenticity and sincerity. Every activity or device that covers up reality must be rejected. Simplicity was a general principle with Calvin. He applied it to liturgy, polity, and style of life…and literary style. “
We live in a world that worships celebrities, encourages extra houses, extra cars, extra clothes for every occasion. Consumerism and materialism are driven by the idea of wanting more than we need for ourselves. Credit cards help us get more than we want without waiting until we have the funds to purchase them. The desire for more drives the desire for credit. Is it any wonder we have run out of credit at the beginning of 2009? For about six years I was getting credit card offers every day, wanting me to get a new credit card or write a credit card check. Now these are few and far between. I am glad that we’re not having to shred so much unwanted mail any more. Calvinists have always been mocked for their emphasis on simplicity and modesty compared to others. The picture in the blog today is a scene of Calvin and his wife, Idelette, walking down the street in black while the men in fine clothes ridicule them. A wise person is one who lives simpler than he has to in order to honor God.

Calvin and the Sabbath


January 11
Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work. (Exodus 20:8-10)
“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight,
The holy day of the LORD honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure,
Nor speaking your own words, 14 Then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa. 58:13,14)
The Sabbath

Calvin gave three purposes for the Sabbath: 1. “Spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them.” 2. “He meant that there was to be a stated day for them to assemble to hear the law and perform worship...and to be trained in piety” 3. “He resolved to give a day of rest to servants and those who are under the authority of others, in order that they should have some respite from toil.” (Inst. II.VII.29). For Calvin, the seventh day was changed to the first day of the week by the New Testament church in honor of the resurrection of Christ. The day was changed, but the idea of Sabbath was kept practically and necessarily in the church.

Calvin believed in working hard- as evidently the Bible does too (“six days shall you labor”). But Calvin also believed in moderation, pacing, and a check on greed and making money (or work) our God. Calvin emphasized the biblical idea of Sabbath. He said, “The Lord enjoined obedience to almost no other commandment as severely as this (Num. 15:32-36; Ex. 31:13; 35:2- Inst. III.VII.29). He wrote more on the Sabbath than any other commandment by far. Sometimes the Reformed folk were called out for their over-emphasis on the Sabbath. Today we have lost even a hint of a Sabbath in America. I believe we are paying a price for this.
The Sabbath has a tremendous economic impact upon our world and our lives. To purposefully not work one day out of each week maybe easy for the lazy, but it is difficult for those who value productivity, money, and the idea that we must always be growing in money and productivity. There is no doubt that Geneva under Calvin’s leadership grew greatly financially and in productivity. Schools, churches, a university were built. The whole middle class was formed primarily from the serfs and poorer people. Education was valued for everyone. This was despite and I believe in part because of his emphasis on the balance between work and rest.
In the classic work “The Over-worked American” Juliet Schor notes how the average American has lost leisure time. Time at work was gradually declining 1948. The average manufacturing worker works 320 hours more than their counterparts in Germany and France. We have not used that productivity to decrease hours. Because of overwork the average American is spending less time on their family (think marriage breakup, less time with children), less time sleeping, eating, and stress and depression are at epidemic levels. The only small debates happening in certain corners about work are concerning the Sabbath- and this is not taken seriously by most. It is no accident that where once almost every state had laws concerning rest on Sunday in America, every state now has few laws concerning it. It was once seen not only as a way to honor God (sacrificially for those who love to work and shop), but it also was seen as a way to instill community and neighborliness in the places where we live.
How did Calvin say the Sabbath should be used? He scoffed at those who said it was just for idleness. He considered it an important day for worship, for family, for doing the Lord’s work, as well as for rest.
I believe we are paying the price for not keeping the Sabbath. The price is found in our stress, our family break up (both women and men work hard, but work unchecked), and our rampant consumerism which has led to our over-extension of debt. In 2008, the mortgage and financial melt-down was caused in large part by a complicity of the government, banks, and consumers desire for more than they could afford. The amazing thing is God calls us to rest, peace, healing, community and we refuse to listen. We’d rather work and shop when we please. The Sabbath, in the end is a reminder that time is not our own- our time is a gift to us from God. So we give back to Him one day in seven.

Friday, January 9, 2009

So Help Me God

January 10- So Help me God
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? Our help is in the name of the Lord who made the heavens and the earth. “ (Psalm 121:2)

Calvin: “in the first place, we must state what an oath is. It is calling God as witness to confirm the truth of our word…Now the eternal God not only permits oaths as a legitimate thing under the law but commands their use in case of necessity (Ex. 22;10,11).” (Inst. II. 8.23,26).

John Calvin began most of his worship services with the verse above- “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.” If you’re going to study Calvin, then you have to know what was so important to him that he said it three times a week, and other people didn’t say it. The Roman Catholic priests didn’t begin their worship services with this verse. It was Calvin’s idea.
The headline on CNN.com today said, “Obama wants to invoke God during inauguration oath.” It’s first sentence says, “President-elect Barak Obama will invoke God when he takes the oath of office January 20, despite a lawsuit filed by atheist and non-religious groups.” I am shocked at the tone of this, as well as the intention to wipe any mention of God, and anyone’s personal preference to mention God at something so important to them. If God is a part of their lives, why not? If there is no God as some claim, then what’s the big deal? It is not proselytizing anyone just to mention God.
Calvin, on the other hand, would say that God is the King of kings and gives every magistrate, king (or president) power and ability, time and life to reign. Calvin said, “a good emperor is within the church, not over the church” (IV.11.4) But at the same time our help is in his name.
So help us all, God, to fulfill our oaths.
So help us God, by giving us the strength, courage, life, time, support that we need to answer your call of duty. And, yes God, please help our soon-to-be-president to call on you for help. May he find help available for you in this awesome task. Amen.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

January 9- Our Calling


JANUARY 9, 2009
All things work together for good to those who love him who have been called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And I said, “Here am I send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)
Calvin: “God inspires special activities , in accordance to each man’s calling. Many examples of this occur in the Book of Judges where it is said that ‘the Spirit of the Lord took possession’ of those men whom he had called to rule the people (6:34). ..When Saul’s consecration as king was foretold, Samuel said, ‘Then the Spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall be another man’ (10:6). And this was extended to the whole course of government, as is said of David: ‘The Spirit of the Lord came upon him from that day forward.” (Inst. II.1.17). “The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling. ..that no one may thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named these various kinds of living callings. Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post. So that he might not heedlessly wander about throughout life.” (III.X.6)
Today I heard a radio commentator on NPR say that Roland Burriss was crazy or at least kind of crazy for saying he was “called by God” to be a U.S. Senator from Illinois. In the next breath she said that the president of the United States was kind of crazy too because he said he was also called by God. I guess in that reporters mind millions and millions of people are crazy because they believe God calls them to do something with their lives. Maybe they are hearing something that she can’t hear? In talking about God’s calling them, Calvin was not talking about audible voices as much as God’s providential tug and placement on their lives. It is similar to a call to duty. Calvin believed God gives people gifts, talents, abilities, and providentially places them at the right place at the right time. I wonder if this announcer is “heedlessly wandering” as Calvin put it. So many don’t believe God can act, reveal, or act through creation. God is nothing to them, because God can do nothing. So those who think God calls them are a little bit “crazy.” For Calvin there is the call to salvation and there is a call to vocation.
I believe God calls us all to be saved (though we may not answer), and calls us all to serve him in certain ways.
This will be true in 2009.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

January 8- Gratitude

January 8- Gratitude
“In everything give thanks for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (I Thessalonians 5:17). Psalm 63:2-7: 2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. 3 Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. 4 I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. 5 I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. 6 On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. 7 Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.

Gratitude was an important concept for Calvin. He said, “We should be grateful most of all for our salvation. Our good works are done not to earn goodness toward us, but so that we may thereby stir ourselves up to trust, invocation and praise of Him.” Inst. 1:14:22 In Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 63:5 he spoke of gratitude as a way to strengthen our hope for the future. Calvin even said that it is because we do not think on the experiences that we had that we don’t grow in our trust in God (Commentary on Psalm 77:13).

Well, I’m still in the beginning of the new year mode. I have started my thank you notes for Christmas. I kept a list of the gifts, and I am truly grateful. I’ve decided that I will write down the gifts and keep them from year to year on my computer- because I tend to forget so easily. Maybe this will help me to think on the experiences and so elicit gratitude. Calvin is right- if you don't think on your experience, remember, and give thanks- we just wash over things for which we should be grateful. I also will try to keep up a summary diary. I have done this for years- writing down some of the important things that happen each year. I looked back on these in my smart phone’s memos. It did cause me to be grateful to God! The old puritans kept journals or diaries. They would look back and see how God led them through. I believe that too! I so easily forget the good things- and I don’t think I’m the only one.