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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Forever After

I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Last Sunday was our 57th wedding anniversary and for the occasion I sent Carolyn an anniversary card depicting two frogs, one of which says to the other, “I’ll love you till I croak.” To which I added my own scrawl: “And beyond!” 

I’m sometimes asked, “Will we know and love one another in heaven?” George MacDonald answers that question with a counter–question: ”Will we be bigger fools in heaven than we are here?” Of course we will know and be known, love and be loved throughout eternity.[1]

Love is a divinely designed, essential part of our joy. We are not designed to be solitary beings, but lovers like God himself. And just as God on earth loved every person in a special way, so we are designed to love people specially. (Jesus had special friends: his disciples, Mary, Martha and Lazarus.)

Love is one of the greatest of God’s gifts to us and God’s gifts are “irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Our family and special friends will always be our family and special friends. Heaven, thus, is just another place for love to grow. We never love well enough here; we will never be loved well enough. But in heaven we will love and be loved to perfection.

One of my favorite reads is George MacDonald’s novel The Golden Key, a tale of two children Mossy and Tangle, their love for one another and their journey together to find the door that can be opened with a golden key (Jesus). They love, marry and grow old together and then are lost to one another when Tangle dies. Mossy, old, lonely and foot-weary, finally arrives at the “place from which the shadows fall.”

He came to a great precipice of rock, up which he could discover but one path. Nor did this lead him farther than halfway up the rock, where it ended on a platform. Here he stood and pondered. It could not be that the way stopped here, else what was the path for? It was a rough path, not very plain, yet certainly a path. He examined the face of the rock. It was smooth as glass. But as his eyes kept roving hopelessly over it, something glittered, and he caught sight of a row of small sapphires. They bordered a little hole in the rock.
He tried the key. It fitted. It turned. A great clang and clash, as of iron bolts on huge brazen caldrons, echoed thunderously within. He drew out the key. The rock in front of him began to fall. He retreated from it as far as the breadth of the platform would allow. A great slab fell at his feet. In front was still the solid rock, with this one slab fallen forward out of it. But the moment he stepped upon it, a second fell, just short of the edge of the first, making the next step of a stair, which thus kept dropping itself before him as he ascended into the heart of the precipice. It led him into a hall fit for such an approach—irregular and rude in formation, but floor, sides, pillars, and vaulted roof, all one mass of shining stones of every color that light can show. In the centre stood seven columns, ranged from red to violet. And on the pedestal of one of them sat a woman, motionless, with her face bowed upon her knees. Seven years had she sat there waiting. She lifted her head as Mossy drew near. It was Tangle. Her hair had grown to her feet, and was rippled like the windless sea on broad sands. Her face was beautiful, like her grandmother’s, and as still and peaceful as that of the Old Man of the Fire. Her form was tall and noble. Yet Mossy knew her at once.

"How beautiful you are, Tangle!” he said, in delight and astonishment.

"Am I?” she returned. "Oh, I have waited for you so long! But you, you are the Old Man of the Sea. No. You are like the Old Man of the Earth. No, no. You are like the oldest man of all. You are like them all. And yet you are my own old Mossy!


[1] Jesus said, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30)—a verse Carolyn ascribes to a scribal error. But Jesus’ statement about marriage doesn’t say anything about love in the hereafter. It was made in response to the Sadducees that posed the question of multiple marriages and how a man that had seven wives on earth could sort them out in heaven. It was a trick question since the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection (that’s why they were sad, you see) and only wanted to show how absurd the idea must be. Jesus replied that the question was irrelevant because there will be no “marriage” in heaven for there will be no need for it. We will be like the angels that live forever, and do not procreate. (A cherub, despite Rubens pudgy, little munchkins, is not a baby angel. It’s the Hebrew singular form of cherubim.) Marriage as an institution will be passé, because there will be no need to conceive and nurture children, nor will there be any need to safeguard our commitment to one another. But we will love one another forever for “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Never Say Never!

"Na, na, I’ll never preach again!” whispered James to the soutar (shoemaker), as they  rose from their knees.  
"I winna be a’tegither sure o’ that!” returned the soutar."

—George MacDonald in Salted with Fire

"David mustered the army and went to Rabbah and captured it" (2 Samuel 12: 29). A brief report, a throw-away line…that celebrates God's amazing grace. 

Joab, David's commander, sent word to David that Rabbah, the royal city of the Ammonites, was about to fall. Joab had seized control of the outskirts of the city, but the acropolis was still standing and David was given the honor of capturing it. Accordingly, he gathered his army, besieged the stronghold and seized it. But here is the grace note: This conquest occurred very soon after David’s horrendous  fall (cf., 2 Samuel 11:1-27).

Treacherous, adulterous, murderous David! You would think that God would turn away from him, but this is not his way. God forgives, restores and reinstates repentant sinners. Thus Jesus met the apostle who denied him and gave him this commission: "Go feed my sheep." 

As soon as David said, “I have sinned,” Nathan said, ”The Lord has put away your sin," and David was given the task of conquering Rabbah, the principle city of the Ammonites, Israel’s archenemy.

Perhaps you think that God is through with you, can’t stand you any longer, will never use you again, but a broken and contrite heart brings full pardon, even if you have been very wicked (Psalm 51:17). In his everlasting love, God will have mercy on you and in his good time he will use you again. (His nature is forgiveness.) Awful sins are fully forgiven for his grace is equally “awful.” Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds!


Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Beauty of Holiness

What I hold in my mind will, in time, show up in my face, for as George MacDonald once pointed out, the face is "the surface of the mind.” 

If I cling to bitterness and resentment, if I hold a grudge, if I fail to forgive, my countenance will begin to reflect those moods. My mother used to tell me that a mad look might someday freeze on my face. She was wiser than she knew. 

On the other hand a generous and charitable heart, one filled with unselfishness and kindness, will find its way to the surface, for goodness cannot be hidden. In time it will show itself in kind eyes and a face that is gentle and wise.

So my task is to not to try to fix my face and make it good, for that would be hypocrisy, but to set about killing the ugly things that come out of my heart, "so ugly that they make the very face over them ugly also" (MacDonald). 

Yet, I know my heart, how hard it is, how disinclined to change. No one but God can drive its sullen self-centeredness away. So I must ask him by his power to fulfill every desire for goodness. Then, someday, my face may reflect the holiness he has put into my heart.

I have a friend, a Catholic priest, who served as Mother Teresa's translator when she was in the United States to address the United Nations. I was in his study one day and spied a picture of the two of them standing together on the streets of New York. I marveled again at her ancient, wrinkled, leathered, lined face, utterly unadorned, and thought to myself, "Is there anyone in the world more homely, and more beautiful?”,

Hers was the beauty of holiness. May it be ours as well.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

“Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” 

Our son, Josh, is a commercial salmon fisherman, fishing this summer out of Valdez, Alaska. He took this photograph and sent it to me this week. It reflects my voyage—an old fisherman, sailing into an uncertain future (note the gathering clouds), encircled by the faithfulness of God! (A rainbow, you know, when seen from above, is a perfect circle.)


Photograph by Joshua Roper: