Most evenings, when it’s time for the local and national evening news, my wife turns on the TV and I turn to John Calvin. I pour a glass of my favorite red wine, retire to the office/study/spare bedroom, and open up a little green book.
John Calvin was one of the great leaders of the Reformation, a gifted preacher and brilliant theologian. Being an unsophisticated layman, I have not studied Calvin’s Institutes, but about a year ago I purchased Calvin’s Little Book on the Christian Life. Only five chapters long, Calvin’s book outlines what the Christian’s life should look like and why it matters. Calvin states that he loves brevity, and in this we have something in common.
In five brief chapters, Calvin deals with Christian Living, Self-Denial, Cross Bearing, Meditation on the Future, and “How the Present Life and Its Comforts Should Be Used”.This last chapter is most intriguing because it deals with how we should use God’s good gifts while we live on this earth. Not only has God provided these as necessary , but even more he has made them for our pleasure and comfort. Here Calvin quotes from the Psalms:
“You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”
Psalms 104:14-15 (ESV)
Now, we have to use these gifts with care, in the way they were intended for our benefit. Two things we should not do. We should not use these gifts improperly or to excess, because that would cause us harm, and it would be sinful. On the other hand, we should not refuse these gifts when offered, because that would offend the giver; it would make us the judge of what is good or not. The Apostle Paul wrote:
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do
do all to the glory of God.”
1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
So every evening I avoid the drama and angst of the nightly news (of course I stay informed, but by reading) and instead immerse myself in scripture, good books, and my little green book on the Christian life. I enjoy God’s gift of wine and His Holy Word as they together gladden my heart.
After playing a round of golf a few weeks ago my feet hurt. “Time for some new golf shoes.” I said to myself. Found a nice pair of very light, comfortable golf shoes at a fair price at a local shoe store. They always have a “Buy one, get the second pair at half price” deal, so my new soft spike fairway walkers were fifty percent off.
Golf is the most normal thing I get to do these days. No masks required. Four or five guys giving each other space to tee off and putt. Our varied skill sets keep us apart on the fairways. Or off. Our usual group (all either Elders or Deacons in our congregation) consists of a couple of heavy hitters, a couple of average players, and me, the one markedly on the left side of the curve. When someone says, “Take a mulligan.” they are usually talking to me. Mostly, they’re just really quiet after I strike, or rather muff, the ball.
The great thing about golf though, as I have said before, is that we are all competing, not against each other, but against the course. Oh sure, there’s lots of trash talking, but in the end some guys score low, some average, and some (one), well, sadly, above average (or par, when the objective is to be below it). Even then, my rare accurate shot to the green, or the occasional one putt, receives from my friends sincere praise.
So on Monday morning I showed up in my new golf shoes. Immediately one of the guys noticed and brought it to the attention of the others. “Bob’s got new shoes!” On the first hole, I teed off last, as usual. However, my tee shot flew into the air, straight and true, and landed in the fairway. I don’t know who was more shocked, me or them. “New shoes!” was the first remark. To the fairway we walked. I approached my ball, took out a fairway wood and… It was another high-flying, on-target shot. The third shot was more of the same, a high soft-landing pitch to the green. Two putts, and I bogied the hole, which for me was like a birdie at least. “New shoes.” someone murmured.
On it went, hole after hole, playing real golf, enjoying each moment, and managing to card my lowest score of the season. But who got the credit? New shoes. Now when Rick hit an almost impossible shot from a side-hill lie in the sand trap, managing to get it to three feet, I said, ”Great shot Rick!” not “New glove!” When Harve got a one-putt par on the eighth hole, I air high-fived him and said, “Nice par Harve!” not “Nice pants!” But my stellar round was credited, not to my improved skills, but “New shoes”.
Never mind, I’ll take it. I wonder how well those shoes will play next week?
A commitment to blog every week seems easy when you make it. Knock out 400-500 words about something, funny or serious, that my six or seven followers might enjoy reading. But when I wait until Friday morning, and get up late, and my wife says we need to go grocery shopping, and it’s now past noon. it can be a bit of a challenge.
After nearly eight decades of life here on earth, looking back starts to feel like reading a history book. We realize, my wife and I, that some of our experiences would make our grandchildren go, “Wow! Really?” not because those things were so extraordinary, but because they are so different from today’s realities.
I remember feeling that way when my grandparents talked about the depression, or food rationing during World War II. In my book, I relate the routine experience as a kid of going to the local grocery store:
“Often, Mom would send me to the grocery store about four blocks away. The usual list would include a loaf of bread, sliced ham for sandwiches, and a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes.”
Our granddaughter Elizabeth, who edited the book for me, wrote a note, “You bought cigarettes?!” questioning how a child could legally do that. It was simple, I just told the grocer, “They’re for my Mom.” Nothing extraordinary, just different.
Another common event was the arrival in our neighborhood of various deliverymen:
“During the summer, the iceman would come, delivering ice to those who did not yet have an electric refrigerator. We kids would gather at the back of his wagon, and he’d chip off a chunk of ice for each of us, a cool delight in the heat of August.”
At the grocery store today, my wife and I took separate carts, (new rule), and split the list. She picks up the fresh stuff and I get the dry goods and dairy. We meet up at the checkout. Every time we go shopping like that, I’m filled with gratitude. The abundance and quality and variety of the food in all these store is amazing. Even with the pandemic-caused shortages there’s just so much to choose from (although there were some anxious moments several weeks ago about the absence of King Arthur flour).
So today, I’m choosing to be grateful for a lifetime of gracious provision from the hand of my loving and gracious God. Sure, there have been times of want and struggle and sadness, but always my heavenly Father was present, providing for me, carrying me and protecting me. It’s a good practice, every day, to find something to be grateful for. And then to give thanks to God from whom are all things.
In the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet makes a list of appalling demonstrations of God’s wrath. But then he lifts his eyes to heaven and says:
After serving three years in the Army, thirty-one months of which were served in France, I arrived home in New York the day before my twenty-first birthday. Here’s how it went:
“The skyline of New York City came into view early on Sunday morning, January 12, 1964.”
“Our battered ship, bound for a major overhaul we heard, docked at Brooklyn Navy Yard. They marched us to the processing center, and I began my long-awaited separation from active duty. There was a form to sign stating I had no lingering health issues. Eager to get out, I ignored the back pain that resulted from my jeep accident and checked the box that said “None.” Next we stood in line to get paid: final monthly pay (prorated), unpaid leave, and anything else we were due. I received one hundred thirty-five dollars and change. The last line I ever stood in as a soldier in the US Army was the travel pay line. Guys in front of me were getting plane tickets to Los Angeles, train tickets to Pittsburg, and bus tickets to New Jersey. When I stepped up to the window, they handed me a subway token. Clad in my class A uniform and lugging my duffle bag, I trudged out into the street in search of the nearest subway station. I was home.”
Those first weeks were hard, getting re-acquainted with my city, my country. I traveled to New Jersey that first weekend. My brother, John, was the star player on the high school basketball team and I went to a Friday night game. Before the game began, we all stood, facing the flag, as the national anthem was played and I cried. I love this country.
I cried again yesterday as I sat on the glider in back of the house. The day was cooling off some, and there in front of me was our tidy yard with colorful annual flowers, neatly mulched trees and newly-mown grass. I said to God, “How can you have given all this to me? I’ve done nothing to deserve it, yet here I live in this marvelous place, in the land of the free, where I can sit safely in my own backyard and worship you each week in the company of my fellow saved sinners.”
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits…”
As you know, we feed birds and furry critters. All different kinds of birds come to our feeders and dine and scatter food on the ground for the squirrels, chipmunks, and who knows what else. Mother duck has visited a few times recently. Since it is nesting and breeding season, there’s been high demand for seed, and I have to refill some of the feeders once a day.
There’s also a birdbath nearby, where birds drink and bathe. The squirrels can jump up for a drink too. However, we have noted the chipmunks walking around the base of the bath, staring up longingly at the water they cannot reach. So my wife said, “ You should build a ladder so the chipmunks can get a drink too.”
To the basement I ran, and started rummaging through the scraps of wood, looking for something of small dimensions that would work. Did some measuring, cutting, fitting, gluing, and nailing, dabbed on some old stain and here’s the result:
Now we haven’t seen a rush of chipmunks scampering up the ladder for a drink, but I feel confident that if they wanted too, this would work.
I call the ladder “Gospel.” The gospel: we are sinners, Christ died for our sins, and we are forgiven our sins by the grace of God if we believe. This is the gospel, the water of life, the good news that we need never again thirst. In Jesus, everything has already been settled. My task as a Christian is to make the gospel known, to put up the ladder so to speak, so that anyone can quench their thirst by the grace and mercy of God. I can’t make anyone climb the ladder of faith, that’s the job of the Holy Spirit. But I have to put it out there.
“For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” 1 Corinthians 15:3 (CSB)
Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” John 7:37-38 (CSB)
In the early 50s, my younger brother John and I would spend hours playing in the backyard of our rented home in Queens, New York. Ginny was a neighbor from two houses up the street who was about John’s age. One day we were playing in the yard when the following episode ensued:
“One of the larger trees had fallen over sometime in the past and now, with its roots exposed, it stuck out into space at about a thirty-degree angle.
The tree provided great fun. I would scramble up the base of the trunk and work my way up until I was straddling the tree high up in the air. One cold, gray day, John, Ginny, and I were playing back there. John was too small to make the initial climb up the trunk, so I put my young cowboy/space cadet mind to work and tried to apply the rudimentary laws of physics to get John up there with me. I got a rope and tied one end around John’s chest, under his arms, then threw the other end of the rope up over the trunk to a notch about six feet above the ground. Then, not having the strength to pull John up into the tree, I decided to use my weight advantage. I scampered up the trunk and tied a loop in the end of the rope and inserted my cowboy-booted foot into said loop. The plan was simple. I would let myself down on one side of the trunk thereby hoisting hapless John so he could share in the great experience of being up high. Then I slipped.
I fell off my side of the trunk, grabbing for something to hang onto and finding nothing but air. Gravity being what it is caused me to wind up, head down, suspended by one foot, dangling in the air. Meanwhile, John on the other side of the trunk was also suspended in the air, clad in his puffy winter jacket with his arms straight out on either side, the rope tight around his chest. Ginny was laughing hysterically.
“Go get my mom!” I screamed at Ginny. I can only imagine Mom’s first thought when she beheld one son dangling by a rope around his chest and the other upside down dangling by his foot. Years later, Mom would laugh at the memory of that sight.”
Excerpt From: Robert Frohlich. “Aimless Life, Awesome God.”
I was thinking about John this morning. He died in 2015 at the age of sixty-six after a bout with lung cancer. He always had a generous heart and a skeptical mind. He considered faith in God to be solely a matter of the heart, while he put his trust in his sharp mind and human reason. Through decades of long telephone conversations, letters and in later life our annual golf games on his birthday, John stoutly refused to put his faith in anything but his own reason. However, I kept on, trying to lift him in faith, much as I tried so long ago to lift him up that tree. Both efforts were futile, because my strength was insufficient for the task. But as he was facing death, and when I visited him the week he died, John let me pray for him. That last day, I read to him Psalm 103 which reads in part,
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Psalms 103:8-12 (ESV)
I pray that in his last hours, John, my brother, my friend, heard and received these words of comfort.
My wife and I were standing in the guest bedroom/office when we heard a loud bang. There were thunderstorms in the forecast, so at first we thought, “Wow!” that was really loud thunder. Then we looked out the window, and there in the driveway was the tree service company truck dumping ten years of mulch in front of the garage. I ran to the door and outside began waving my arms, “No! No! We didn’t order this load!” The driver was perplexed, he had a work order in his hand telling him to bring this truckload of wood chips to our address. And there was the pile, right on the blacktop, and he without a shovel.
Last week I wrote that we had ordered and received ONE load of free mulch, and that it had taken me two days to place it where needed and that the job was done. Now we had one more load of free mulch, when we already had all we needed. So I made a sign and stuck it in the pile, offering this free gift to my neighbors. My wife gave me her patented raised-eyebrow skeptic look. I even put out my big scoop shovel for use by whoever might come.
And they did come. One couple with a plastic-lined SUV made several trips. Then another couple came with a small trailer attached to their Ford Fiesta. They filled it several times. In two days not one wood chip was left.
Got me thinking about God’s grace. In the book of Ephesians, Paul the Apostle writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” Ephesians 2:8 (ESV). When God pours out His grace on you, He doesn’t stop until you’re filled, and then he pours out even more. The idea is that we should share this bountiful grace with others, not keep it to ourselves. We have been forgiven, adopted, and promised an eternal life with God that is beyond even our highest longings. For free. Jesus picked up the tab.
What always puzzles me is why anyone would refuse this free gift. Why would anyone be upset with me because I want to tell them about this free gift? Why would anyone not want to be unbound from sin and guilt and and death at absolutely no cost to them? Why is it easier to share mulch than to share the Gospel? Maybe I need a bigger sign; maybe I need to be more bold. You want grace? It’s free. Just ask God.
A few days ago, a local tree service delivered to my driveway ten cubic yards of free wood chips. Of course my driveway did not need mulching, the trees and shrubs in the backyard did. And since the “free” mulch did not come with two strong young men and a wheelbarrow, I had to do it myself. “Free” indeed!.
It took two days of sweating labor to deliver about fifty or more barrows-full to place the mulch where it was needed. Shovel, trudge, dump, rake, repeat. About every five trips my FitBit told me my heart rate was high enough, so I’d stop, drink water and rest until it got back down into the safe range.
There’s a reason wood chips are free. They’re all that’s left of dead or unwanted trees that have passed through a deadly machine called a wood chipper. Tree limbs and branches go in one end and tiny bits of wood spew out the other. You can tell by the shape and the fragrance what type of tree they came from, maple, oak, or pine. It’s fun to dig through the pile and try to determine what kind of tree was chewed up. But basically, the wood chips are useless, destined to rot and decay. Unless you use them for mulch.
With lots of time to think while trundling about the yard, it occurred to me that our society is being chewed up like trees in a wood chipper. COVID-19 has left us frightened. Millions are out of work. And just as we are getting ready to get together again, a bad cop kills a black man, and we all got to (had to) watch it happen.
Something is not right.
But it’s true that even four months ago, before COVID-19, before the shut down, before George Floyd, something was not right. In fact, there’s been something wrong for thousands of years. That something is sin.
Paul, in his letter to the Roman Christians wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Romans 1:18-23 (ESV)
The whole human race has been in rebellion, conscious, deliberate rebellion, against God since that day in Eden when they decided they wanted to be in charge. Sin has tainted everything since then, even the good things are less than they could be because of sin. Something is not right and you and I know it. We see it out there in the world and we feel it in ourselves. Things are not supposed to be like this. We are not supposed to be like this.
Romans 1:28-32 (ESV) “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
What is the answer? Dump mulch on everything and cover it up? No, we have tried to cover it up for too long now. Great efforts are being made to protect us from the virus, to restore our economy, and more steps will be taken to abolish racism. But the safety, prosperity, and peace we seek cannot be obtained by human effort and wisdom. Sin has to be dealt with.
Jesus Christ dealt with sin, once and for all. Now to all who will believe, forgiveness and new life are possible. That’s the good news. Oh, we will still struggle along the way, but one glorious day sin and death will be no more. Meanwhile, for those who do believe, our task is to spread this good news, and work to make things better. Transform the useless wood chips before us into a beautiful, life-giving mulch around the trees and shrubs of our lives. And wait until Jesus returns.
When I was sixteen, I bought a guitar. The Everly Brothers were very popular back then, and I wanted to be just like them. I quickly learned about five chords and figured out how to tune the thing. (Get the low “E” string to sound about right, then tune the other five off that string). There was a music book out called “The Real Fake Book” which purported to enable one to play any song with a minimum number of chords. Fingering the chords properly was key, and doing so made for a smooth transition from one chord to the next. I couldn’t quite get it right, so I made up some of my own fingering. This fact, along with a severe lack of musical talent forever doomed my chances of becoming the third Everly brother.
So I played, mostly to entertain myself. I had a whole repertoire of Everly Brothers and Kingston Trio tunes I could fake. Later in life, I faked some of the campfire tunes and popular Christian songs so that as a youth leader, I could inflict myself on the teens in my charge. A few years ago, even though I, by then, could finger about a dozen chords, I gave my guitar to my grandson. Never heard my guitar sound so good as when he played it.
It was one of the Kingston Trio, I think, who quipped during a pre-song tune-up “That’s good enough for folk music”, meaning that close is adequate if you’re not in a symphony orchestra.
Most guitars have six strings. The high “E” is very thin, and each string gets progressively thicker, and some are wrapped with a thinner wire. You put tension on the strings by winding them up on the pegs.
If there is no tension on a guitar string, when struck it will make no sound; it just kind of lays there like someone who has binge-watched fifteen seasons of “Midsomer Murders” on Netflix. If wound too tightly, the pitch gets way out of range, or the string might even break; like someone who has been petrified about going out to the store, who trembles at the sound of a cough, who feels a tickle in the throat is a precursor to certain death.
It is only when the tension is correct, will a guitar string sound its own clear note exactly as it was made to do. And when each string is tuned just right, and when all strings are properly fingered, and stuck together, a beautiful sounding chord results. Music happens.
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, we are slowing coming out of three months of isolation, and before we re-engage with other humans, it might be a good idea to tune up a little; it might be a good idea to check the tension. Some of us may need to take out the slack and sharpen up; for others, ease off the tension to get just the right note. If everyone does a little tune-up before we go out again, we might just make some beautiful music together. Or at least sound good enough for folk music.
Tuesday morning I felt numb. After reading, praying, reading some more, and sitting, even a third cup of strong black coffee didn’t help. Staring out the window at the water-soaked yard after seven inches of rain in the past few days, thinking about the dozens of things I wanted to do. Buy and plant some shrubs? No, I have to stay home and it’s too wet and I have to save money. Get a haircut? Three months since my last haircut and I look like a guy who’s been living on the streets. Or in a cave. But Sportclips has yet to reopen.
My wife walked into the kitchen, saw the blank stare, and asked what was going on. I listed the things I wanted to do but couldn’t.
(I must say God has been especially good to us during this time. My poor hearing and her soft voice combine to make for challenging communications. But in answer to prayer, we’ve been very gentle with each other, each trying to carefor the other.)
I decided to take a walk. Put on the walking shoes and a light jacket (with a hood in case of more rain), grabbed the walking stick and headed out the front door. It was gray, cool and damp, and my jacket was too light. The moist wind quickly penetrated my clothes, and my face got cold. Good! At least I was feeling something. It takes about thirty minutes to walk the subdivision, walk east, then north, then south around the cul-de-sac, back north, then west, now south to the highway, turn around and north to home.
There was standing water in the ditches. The sump pump drainpipes gurgled and spewed out more water. Some of the ditch bottoms were un-mowed, and the long grass lay flattened by the flowing water from last night’s rain. A wash-out in one ditch left tree roots exposed; two pine trees, one on each side of the ditch, their roots intertwined in the air. Looked like death.
Then I spied two women coming toward me on the opposite side of the road. They are among the usual walkers in the subdivision, most of whom I know only by sight. They gave a little wave and said, “Hi!” I waved back and for some reason said, “Hello fellow humans!” They chuckled and passed by. Fellow humans.
I miss people! I want to see their smiles, I want to bump into them at the store, shake their hand at church, and high-five my buddies on the golf course. I want to sit with some other old guys at the restaurant, have the waitress pour coffee and bring plates of eggs and bacon and toast, while we talk about the rain or the news or whatever. I want to sing in my loudest voice along with the whole congregation, in a sanctuary so full that I won’t even be heard, joining in a joyful noise lifted up to God, my creator and savior.
Ah! That’s it. That takes away the numbness and the lethargy. “Lift your eyes Bob! Look at me! I AM your God. You are safe in my hands; there’s a room waiting for you in heaven with me. Be patient; rest in me.” “He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Revelation 22:20 (ESV)