Monday, August 4, 2014

Awful Grace

"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:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Scaret of Dying

Annie Trumbull Slosson, whose quaint and profound folktales give us a “glimpse of Joy beyond the walls of the world,” writes about a little boy that was “scaret of dying.”

Once there was a boy that was dreadful scaret o’ dyin’. Some folks is that way, you know; they ain’t never done it to know how it feels, and they’re scaret. And this boy was that way. He wa’n’t very rugged, his health was sort o’ slim, and mebbe that made him think about sech things more. ‘Tany rate, he was terr’ble scaret o’ dyin’. ‘Twas a long time ago this was,—the times when posies and creaturs could talk so’s folks could know what they was sayin’.

And one day, as this boy, his name was Reuben,—I forget his other name, —as Reuben was settin’ under a tree, an ellum tree, cryin’, he heerd a little, little bit of a voice,—not squeaky, you know, but small and thin and soft like, —and he see ‘t was a posy talkin’. ‘T was one o’ them posies they call Benjamins, with three-cornered whitey blowths with a mite o’ pink on ‘em, and it talked in a kind o’ pinky-white voice, and it says, “What you cryin’ for, Reuben? “And he says, “‘Cause I’m scaret o’ dyin’,” says he; “I‘m dreadful scaret o’ dyin’.” Well, what do you think? That posy jest laughed, the most cur’us little pinky-white laugh ‘t was,—and it says, the Benjamin says: “Dyin’! Scaret o’ dyin’? Why, I die myself every single year o’ my life.” “Die yourself ! “says Reuben “You ‘re foolin’; you ‘re alive this minute.” “‘Course I be,” says the Benjamin; “but that ‘s neither here nor there,—I’ve died every year sence I can remember.” “Don’t it hurt? “says the boy. “No, it don’t,” says the posy; “it ‘s real nice. You see, you get kind o’ tired a-holdin’ up your head straight and lookin’ peart and wide awake, and tired o’ the sun shinin’ so hot, and the winds blowin’ you to pieces, and the bees a-takin’ your honey. So it’s nice to feel sleepy and kind o’ hang your head down, and get sleepier and sleepier, and then find you ‘re droppin’ off. Then you wake up jest ‘t the nicest time o’ year, and come up and look ‘round, and—why, I like to die, I do.” But someways that didn’t help Reuben much as you ‘d think. “I ain’t a posy,” he think to himself, “and mebbe I wouldn’t come up.”
April showers bring May flowers. They also bring us the stirring of hope. Spring “posies, trees and creaturs” are hints of heaven, for God has planned it that way. But spring alone is not enough. It may only leave us with Reuben’s worry: “I ain’t a posy and mebbe I wouldn’t come up.” Spring’s hope can be an illusion, which is why T. S. Eliot, in his pre–Christian days, thought April was “the cruelest month.”

There is a surer word: Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25,26).

Who said this? One who actually rose from the dead. It’s one thing to make a bold assertion; it’s another to back it up, and back it up Jesus did by rising from the dead, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

“If you believe that the Son of God died and rose again,” writes George MacDonald, “your whole future is full of the dawn of eternal morning, coming up beyond the hills of life, and full of such hope as the highest imagination for the poet has not a glimmer yet.”

The Son of God died and rose again, and his resurrection is the guarantee that God will bring us up and out of the ground. A thinking, feeling, remembering, recognizable part of us will live forever.

Living forever means living out the thought of eternity that God has placed in our hearts; meeting one’s loved ones lost through separating death; living in a world without blood, sweat and tears; seeing our Lord who loves us and gave everything he had to unite us to him forever.

But there’s another meaning I see: since we go around twice we can live in broken and ruined bodies for time; we can endure poverty and hardship for awhile; we can face loneliness, heartache and pain for a season. We don’t have to have it all on this earth. There is a second birth.

David Roper

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Salty Sermons

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious, An easy commerce of the old and new, The common word exact without vulgarity, The formal word precise but not pedantic, The complete consort dancing together.” ―T. S. Eliot

"Let your speech always be with grace,  seasoned with salt..." (Colossians 4:5,6).
Paul's metaphor, "seasoned with salt" meant ‘witty’ in Classical Greek usage and suggests language that is pithy, interesting and well chosen. British theologian, G. B. Caird commenting on this verse suggests that every person we address should be "treated as an end in himself and not subjected to a stock harangue."
In context, the verse applies to “those that are outside," but it seems to me that the principle applies to preaching as well and argues for discovering new ways to state old truths and manuscripting our sermons so we don't fall back on clich├ęs and cant, worn-out phrases. That’s lazy thinking. As the “Preacher" would say, we should “search to find just the right words….” (Ecclesiastes 12:10).
Writing out our sermons makes us more responsible in our use of language. It helps us avoid shoddy thinking, evangelical argot, technical jargon. It makes our sermons more relevant and memorable. It makes us more exact.
With a prayer for salty sermons...


Wednesday, June 18, 2014


“The cosmos declares[1] the glory of God…”  

Nature is never spent. She daily manifests the truth, goodness and beauty that brought her into being. Every morning is a new and fresh declaration of God’s glory. Do I see Him through that beauty, or do I merely glance at beauty and shrug it off in indifference?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 18th century English poet and philosopher, observed two tourists looking at a magnificent waterfall. One said it was “pretty” the other said it was “sublime.” Coleridge thought the first response was silly, the second was exactly right, for sublime means “awe-inspiring,” and “worthy of worship.”

Worship is the only adequate response to beauty when we behold it, for creation’s glory is a reflection of the glory of God. “Glory” suggests an epiphany (a shining out or a manifestation) of God and is, or so I believe, the biblical word, for “beauty.” Theologian Herman Bavinek said as much: “For the beauty of the Lord, scripture has a special word: glory.”[2] God’s beauty is the penetrating light that shines out through all creation.

The word, “translucence” comes to mind. It suggests the capacity of all creation to take on something of God’s beauty and allow that beauty to “pass through” to our eyes. Our task, in turn is to grow eyes that look not merely at, but through the object to the beauty that lies beyond it and to think, “How beautiful must be He who made this beautiful thing?”

Thus, our response to beauty, when we behold it, should be worship, adoration, and thanksgiving—for the radiance of a corn flower, the splendor of a morning sunrise, the symmetry of one particular tree—for all nature declares the ineffable beauty of the One who made it.

C. S. Lewis was walking with a friend as they talked about worship and gratitude. Lewis wanted to know how to generate a thankful heart toward God, and asked, “Should we summon up all we know about God and his greatness?” His friend turned to a brook nearby (it was a very hot day) and splashed his face and hands in a little waterfall and said, “Why not begin with this?”[3] 

A little waterfall, the wind in the willows, a baby robin, a rosebud, the rose moles on a brook trout… Why not begin with this?

David Roper

[1] The Hebrew verb is a participle, suggesting a continuous action.
[2] Herman Bavinek, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Books, 2004) pp. 252-254.
[3] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Legacy of a Father

“Cornelia kept her in talk till her children came from school, ‘and these,’ said she, ‘are my jewels.’” —Robert Burton (1577–1640)

The Talmud, an ancient collection of rabbinic writings, says there are three things a man ought to do before he dies: plant a tree, write a book and have a son. In other words, he ought to leave something behind that prolongs his usefulness.

I’ve done all three with varying degrees of success. I’ve planted a number of trees, some of which have flourished while others have perished of drought, pestilence, or neglect. Despite the lofty Latin names we give them—semper vivere, for example—no tree lives forever.

I’ve written a number of books and a few of them remain, though it’s not likely that any of them will long endure. Like Carl Barth, I imagine myself entering heaven with a pushcart full of my books and hearing the angels laugh at me. “I shall be dump them,” as he suggests, “on some heavenly floor as a pile of waste paper.”

But, if you’ll allow me one conceit, I’m inordinately proud of our three sons, who have grown into strong young men. They are my most significant legacy.

There is a universal preoccupation among us to build something enduring. No one wants to drift through life and leave nothing noteworthy behind. That’s why we work so hard at our work and spend so much time and energy on our widgets. We spend ourselves building a house or a city, rising up early and going late to rest, “eating the bread of anxious toil,” (Ps. 127:1,2), busying ourselves beyond all common sense and human endurance to make our mark on this world, all the while overlooking the one investment that matters beyond imagination—our children.

A friend of mine, Bill Younger, wrote with this thought: “If we died tomorrow, the company that we are working for could easily replace us in a matter of days. But the family we left behind will feel the loss for the rest of their lives. Why then do we invest so much in our work and so little in our children’s lives?” Good question, I say.

“Behold!” Solomon declares, as though stabbed awake by the insight, “Children are a heritage from the Lord,” an invaluable legacy he has bequeathed us. They are “wages from the womb,” a priceless pay–off. Nothing is more worthy of our energy and time. “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth,” is Solomon’s striking simile. Our children are our most powerful and far–ranging asset. “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.” (Psalm 127:3-5).

Yet, for so many young men and women there is “not enough father,” as Robert Blye used to say. Young people have fathers, to be sure, but they’re mostly absent or distant for they’re much too busy making a living.
Nobody understands this better than Fredrick Buechner who weaves the tale of Godric, a Twelfth Century holy man, around this theme. Old Godric looks back to his childhood and struggles to recall the face of his father, Aedlward:

Aedlward’s face I’ve long since lost, but his back I can still behold. He held his head cocked sideways, and his ears stood out like handles on a pot as he strode forth from the smoke of our hut to work our own scant croft of leeks, parsley, shallots, and the like, or else my lord’s wide acres. Endless was the work there was, the seeding, the spreading of dung, reaping and threshing, cutting and storing. In winter there were scythes and plows to mend, the beasts to keep, roofs to patch until your fingers froze. It seems that he was ever striding off in every way but ours so I scarcely had the time to mark the smile or scowl of him. Even the look of his eyes is gone. They were grey as the sea like mine, it’s said, only full of kindness, but what matter how kind a man’s eye be if he never fixes you with it long enough to learn?

He had a way of whistling through his teeth like wind through wattle, and it’s like wind that I remember him. His was a power to thump doon, open and shut like wind, a grey gust of a man to make flames fly and scatter chaff. But wind has no power to comfort a child or lend a strong arm to a lad whose bones are weak with growing. If Aedlward and Godric meet in Paradise, they’ll meet as strangers do and never know.

It was fear kept Aedlward from us, and next to God what he feared of all things most was an empty belly…. It was his fear we’d starve that made him starve us for that one of all things that we hungered for the most, which was the man himself (Godric. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980, pgs. 9,10)

But, you ask, “How can I give my children what they hunger for when I must keep the wolf from my door?” Israel’s poet answers: there is no need for “anxious toil, for (God) gives to his loved ones while they sleep” (Ps. 127:2).

There’s something very significant about this psalm, something easily missed unless we understand that the Sabbath for Israel began not on Saturday morning but on Friday evening at bedtime. The Hebrew evening and morning sequence says something very important: God puts his children to sleep so he can get their work done. “Sleep is God's contrivance for giving us the help he cannot get into us when we are awake,” said George MacDonald.

Fatigue overtakes us in the evening and we have to stop working. We lay ourselves down to sleep and drift off into blessed oblivion for the next 6-8 hours, a state in which we are totally non–productive. But nothing essential stops. Though we may leave many things undone and most projects unfinished God is still on the job. “He gives to those he loves while they sleep.” The next morning his eyes sweep over us and he awakens us to enjoy the benefits of all that he has done and to join in a work in progress.

In other words God is at work when we are not. (Truth be known, he is at work when we are.) We can make time for our children and leave our work to him. They are our legacy, an investment we will never regret.

David Roper