Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Icarus Revised

In Breughel's everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—W.H. Auden

Auden is referring to a painting by Dutch painter, Pieter Brueghel, based on Ovid’s Myth of Icarus, the story of a boy who flew too close to the sun. It hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.

If you look closely, in the lower right hand corner of the painting you can see Icarus with melted wings falling into the sea. Ovid's point was the danger of hubris; Brueghel had another idea.

In Brueghal’s version of the myth, Icarus falls and no one cares. Sailors on their ships, farmers and others are unconcerned, going about their own business, unaware of the calamity unfolding in front of their eyes. All are apathetic in the face of appalling tragedy and heartbreak.

Few of us are aware of the sadness all around us; we go our way inattentive and unmoved, too busy with our own business to respond to human need. Something amazing has happened: "a boy falling out of the sky"—right in front of our eyes—but we have "somewhere to get to and sail calmly by."

You don’t have to go far to uncover tragedy and heartache: a young widow, stricken with loneliness; an anxious parent concerned for a critically ill child; a frightened man awaiting heart surgery; a care-worn checker in a grocery store working at a second or third job to make ends meet; a young boy who's never had enough father; a single mother whose worries have washed her hope away; an old man who inhabits his bleak world alone; a needy soul behind our own front door—all right in front of us. Perhaps we don't have much to give, but we can see beyond what others see to the possibility of mercy, compassion and understanding.

I wonder how many times I've glanced at a grocery clerk, a bank teller, a waitress and failed to see the marks of woe, the drab, cheerless affect, the weary face, the downcast eyes, the mumbled response to my frivolous query, "How are you?" I hear the splash but miss the forsaken sigh, the deep sorrow in their response.  I turn away from the disaster. I feel no tug on my heart; I have somewhere to get to and sail calmly by.

John Newton said on one occasion, "If, as I go home, a child has dropped a halfpenny, and if, by giving another, I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this." Nor should I.

"Oh, how blessed are those who care," Israel's poet mused (Psalm 41:1). How rare and how happy they are.

David Roper

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Rugged Road

“He leads me in paths of righteousness...” —Psalm 23:3

Some years ago, a fishing buddy of mine told me about Louie Lake, an alpine lake located high on the north flank of Jug Handle Mountain here in Idaho. Rumor had it that large cutthroat trout lurked up there. He got a pencil and scrap of napkin and drew a map for me. Several weeks later I gassed up my truck and set out to follow his directions.

His map put me on one of the worst roads I’ve ever driven! It was an old logging road that had been bulldozed through the forest and never re-graded. Washouts, fallen timber, runnels, deep ruts and large rocks battered my spine and bent the undercarriage of my truck. It took half a morning to reach my destination and when I finally arrived I asked myself, “Why would a friend send me up a road like that?”

But the lake was magnificent and the fish were indeed large and scrappy! My friend had put me on the right road, one I would have chosen myself and patiently endured had I known what I knew at the end.

Here’s a faithful saying: God leads us in the right path (Psalm 23:3). Some paths are rough and rugged; others tedious and tiresome. Yet when we come to the end of our journey and know what we then will know, we will say, “God’s path was best for me.” 

He chose this path for thee;
Though well he knew sharp thorns would pierce thy feet,
Knew how the brambles would obstruct the way,
Knew all the hidden dangers thou wouldst meet,
Knew how thy faith would falter day by day;
And still the whisper echoed, ‘Yes, I see
This path is best for thee.’

He chose this path for thee;
What needst thou more? This sweeter truth to know,
That all along these strange, bewildering ways,
O’er rocky steeps and where dark rivers flow,
His loving arms will bear thee all the days.
A few steps more, and thou thyself shalt see
This path is best for thee.

David Roper

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wee Bairns

The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).

In my college years I worked as a trail guide in Colorado, leading boys on weeklong treks into Rocky Mountain National Park. On one occasion one of my hikers—a small, frail chap— lagged behind and took the wrong fork on the trail. When we arrived at our campsite he was nowhere to be found. Greatly alarmed, I backtracked to find him.

Just before dark I came upon him sitting on a rock by a small lake, hugging his knees, and sobbing. In my joy and relief, I gathered him up in a giant bear hug, hoisted him on my shoulders and carried him down the trail to our campsite. 

George McDonald, describes a young woman finding a “wee bairn” lost in the woods.  She gathered him up in her arms and carried the tiny infant home to her father, at which point she gained an insight that “was never afterward to leave her: now she understood the heart of the Son of Man, come to find and carry back the stray children to their Father and his.” When afterward she told her father how she felt he answered her “in just four words and no more: ‘Lassie, ye hae it!’“

So, I want you know that Jesus has been looking for you all your life. He came to find you, no matter how far you may have strayed and how lost you may be and to carry you home to your Father. God has “Love to seek and Power to save...” (John Greenleaf Whittier). You may not know much about God, but if you know that much, “Ye hae it!”


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sowing in Tears; Reaping in Joy

“He who goes out weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him”—Psalm 126:5

I’ve done time in two seminaries, one conservative and one liberal, but not one of my professors ever told me that serving the Church meant suffering. Jesus, on the other hand, told Paul plainly that he must suffer for the sake of his name (Acts 9:16), and so it is for us.

Certainly there are happy occasions when we are surprised by joy, when people hear the Savior’s voice and follow him, but these serendipities go hand in hand with intense and sometimes brutal opposition. Apathetic, hard-hearted congregants, implacable, mean–spirited critics, small-minded obstructionists are always with us. All ground is cursed and works hard, even holy ground.  Thus we “go out weeping” and we “sow in tears.”

Perhaps there’s a reason: Just as all other work fails to fulfill us, so, “God will not allow Love’s work to impart full solace, lest it steal the heart” (John Keble). We may try to find peace and satisfaction in the work that God alone can give. Failures, disappointment and loss accompany all that we do so that our hearts may be drawn ever steadily to Jesus.

And so we “go out weaping and we sow in tears”—it is necessary. But we should know that our labor is not in vain. Nothing we do for Jesus will ever be lost or wasted. There will be a bountiful harvest in the end: We shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing our sheaves with us!

David Roper

“Let us keep to the work of this present sowing time, and find strength in the promise that is here so positively given us. Here is one of the Lord's shalls and wills; it is freely given both to workers, waiters, and weepers, and they may rest assured that it will not fail: “in due season they shall reap....” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Goldilocks and the Two Bears

“Only by pride comes contention; but wisdom resides in those who listen and learn” —Proverbs 13:10

A number of years ago, Carolyn and I spent a few days camping on the flanks of Mount Rainier in Washington State. We were returning to our campsite one evening when we came across two large male bears brawling in the middle of a meadow.  They were mauling one another, snapping, snarling, tearing up the ground and making a frightful fuss.  We stopped to watch.

There was a hiker standing nearby and I asked him what the fight was about. “A young female,” he said.  “Where is she?” I asked. “Oh,” he chuckled, "she left the area about 20 minutes ago.” 

So, I mused, the squabble had nothing to do with the young sow; it was all about being the biggest bear.

It seems to me that most fights are “not about what they’re about,” if you know what I mean. They’re rarely about policy and principle, right and wrong; they’re mostly about pride. The Wise Man swings his axe at the root of the problem: The ground of all contention is hubris—insisting on our way, demanding our rights, defending our position, our turf and our egos. That’s something to remember the next time we find ourselves in a heated argument. We should stop and ask ourselves what the fight is really about.

On the flip side, “wisdom resides with “those who listen and learn.” (The Hebrew verb means, “to allow oneself to be instructed.”) Wise indeed are those who humble themselves—who set aside their own selfish aims and ambitions; who acknowledge the limits of their own understanding; who listen to the other person’s point of view; who allow their own ideas to be instructed and corrected. 

This is the wisdom from above that sows righteousness and peace wherever it is found (James 3:17,18).


Monday, September 8, 2014

Quiet Folks

“All the troubles of life come upon us because we refuse to sit quietly for a while each day in our rooms”—Blaise Pascal

“Be still and know that I am God” —Psalm 46:10

A fishing–friend of mine recently passed on a slim volume entitled, Fishin’ Jimmy. It was written in 1889 by New Englander Anne Trumbull Slosson.

Fishin’ Jimmy is about a man who lived in Franconia, that little valley in New Hampshire made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Great Stone Face. (Unfortunately, in 2003 the face crumbled into history.)

Fishin’ Jimmy was an angler who fly–fished the streams and ponds of that region for a half–century or more. I was intrigued by the story because some years ago Carolyn and I camped in Franconia Notch and I fished those very streams.

Fishin’ Jimmy was a genial, kindly, accessible man, a lover of men and women, boys and girls, a friend of publicans and sinners. He was simple man with a deep faith who walked with God in quietness and  confidence.

One thing troubled Jimmy, however. He wanted to become a “fisher of men.” That was what the Great Teacher had promised those first fishermen who left their boats to follow him.

“I allers try to think that ‘t was me in that boat when he come along.” Jimmy muses. “I’d make b’l’eve that it was out on Streeter’s Pond, an’ I was settin’ in the boat, fixin’ my lan’in’ net, when I see him on the shore. I think mebbe I’m that James—for that’s my given name, ye know, though they allers call me Jimmy—an’ then I hear him callin’ me’, ‘James, James.’ I can hear him jest plain sometimes, when the wind’s blowin’ in the trees, an’ I jest ache to up an’ foller him. But says he, ‘I’ll make ye a fisher o’men,’ an’ he aint done it. I’m waitin’; mebbe he’ll larn me some day.”

What Fishin’ Jimmy did not know is that the Great Teacher had “larned” him. Jimmy had walked a long time with Jesus and his ways had rubbed off on him. Fishin’ Jimmy had become a center of peace, a man who touched lives profoundly wherever he went, who left behind the unforgettable fragrance of Christ.

David, Israel’s poet, speaks of those like Jimmy who “live quietly” and yet deeply (Psalms 35:20). In every age God has his women and men who have withdrawn from life’s ambitions and jealousies and have entered into the secret of a life that is hidden in God.

This doesn’t mean that these folks escape life’s dangers and dilemmas, but it does mean they have the ability to live with tranquility in the midst of them. Though much trouble may remain, confusion, apprehension, instability and despair have begun to dwindle away. These are the “quiet ones” who show poise under pressure, who are unshaken by life’s alarms and who radiate wisdom and peace wherever they go.

Ordinary folks, unfamiliar with the hidden depths of God, necessarily live busy, fussy, care–ridden lives. They’re always fretful, always restless, always looking for that illusive “something more.”

But those who have learned to turn their energies toward knowing and loving God (and being loved by him) can be calm in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace as well as the tedium and weariness of the commonplace, quiet in the midst of life’s homeliest duties and demands.

F. B. Meyer says that most of us are like folks living in a one–room house located too close to the street. There’s no way to get away from the noise and commotion outside. But we can build a little sound–proof room within and make it our dwelling place—a secret chamber in which we ponder God’s word and talk things over with him. It’s in that quiet place that we learn peace and bring that peace out to others.

George MacDonald, that wise, old Scot, put it this way: “There is a chamber—a chamber in God himself which none can enter but the one, the individual, the particular person. Out of which chamber that man has to bring revelation and strength for his brethren. This is that for which he was made—to reveal the secret things of the Father.”

We’re distracted because we’ve lost that orientation, but we can learn to be quiet. We can take our anxious worry and nervous energy to Jesus. When people disappoint us we can confide in him. When storms sweep over us we can hide in his presence. When people jostle one another and jockey for position, when they compete for fame and fortune and their passions begin to stir us we can run to that chamber, shut the door and quiet our hearts again. We can be calm and strong…

Firm in the right; mild to the wrong;
Our heart, in every raging throng
A chamber shut for prayer and song.

—author unknown


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

No Spanking Zone

A wooden plaque hangs on our front door:

Papa and Nana’s House
Hugs and Kisses
No spanking zone
Milk and Cookies
Kids spoiled while you wait

It’s what we want our home to be for our grandchildren and for everyone—a place of happy, playful, care–free affection, a refuge of unconditional love. 
“Spiritually, if not literally, we can (all) love as grandparents,” Margaret Guenther says, “Parental love is weighted with concerns: Will this child learn the multiplication tables and state capitals? Know how to tie his shoes? Maybe earn a living some day? By contrast, grandparental love asks for nothing: no conditions are attached.”[1]
Assuming that we’re growing in grace as we grow up, we should all be becoming more “grandparental” in our love for one another, fretting less over other folk’s sins and shortcomings and letting them grow in God’s time and way, not dismayed or disillusioned by occasional bad behavior. We can enjoy God’s children and let them be.
God’s children are just that—His children, not mine—and thus they are His responsibility. I can be “irresponsible” in the literal and best sense of that word. I can point others to righteousness in a non-judgmental way, but I’m free from the heavy burden of trying to correct or control them. I can love and pray with calm detachment. I can be forgiving, merciful, lenient and kind-hearted, knowing that it is not condemnation, but the kindness of God that draws men and women to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Papa and Nana’s house—no spanking zone; milk and cookies; hugs and kisses. God’s children are welcome here!


[1] Margaret Guenther, Toward Holy Ground, p.46