Monday, October 5, 2015

Morality and a Dirty Shirt

"Some people think it is not proper for a clergyman to dance. I mean to assert my freedom from any such law. If our Lord chose to represent, in His parable of the Prodigal Son, the joy in Heaven over a repentant sinner by the figure of ‘music and dancing,’ I will hearken to Him rather than to men, be they as good as they may. For I had long thought that the way to make indifferent things bad, was for good people not to do them.” —George MacDonald

My mother, if asked, “Is this shirt dirty?” would almost always reply: “If it’s doubtful, it’s dirty.” That may be a passable theory of cleanliness, but as a moral premise, it’s deadly, a hypothesis that breeds paranoia and guilt for you never know if you’ve stepped out of line. 

The “Doubtful if Dirty” moral thesis poses this proposition: “Everything is evil unless I know it is good.”  The biblical theory of morality is the other way ‘round: “Everything is good unless I know it is bad.”  Paul puts it plainly, “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated (put to its intended use) by the Word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4,5).

Satan has never created anything. Not even sin. Evil does not exist as a thing in itself; it is parasitic. It fastens itself to everything beautiful that God has made and twists it into a base and ugly thing through improper use, motive or timing. His deceits are multifarious. Thus we need to prayerful, thoughtfully read God’s Word to discern good and evil. The New Testament (the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles) is our authority in all matters of conduct, a final authoritative answer to the question of the good life—this despite our culture’s insistence that morality is subjective. God draws very few line­s—there was only one forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden—but they are fine lines. What is prohibited is clearly prohibited.

But, what is not prohibited is permissible. Once again: Everything is good unless I know it is evil. 

Now, admittedly, a permissible thing may not be prescribed for me. I may, for good reasons, decide to lay a good thing aside. But the thing in and of its self may not be wrong, nor is it necessarily wrong for others. To insist that it is, is legalism. “Doubtful things” become rules and regulations that go beyond scriptural proscriptions and acquire the force and finality of “biblical” sanctions nowhere found in the Bible (Cf., Colossians 2:20-23; Mark 7:7). 

But the greater concern is that the Doubtful is Dirty premise is counter–productive of righteousness, leading us into greater unrighteousness, causing us to neglect the “weightier matters of the law—goodness, love and faithfulness.”[1]

Let me explain: 

When I was a young boy I was introduced to the “filthy five”: Thou shalt not drink. Thou shalt not smoke. Thou shalt not play cards. Thou shalt not dance. Thou shalt not go to the movies.

There was a sixth proscription, making it an even half-dozen: Thou shalt not engage in mixed bathing! At first I was unsure with what I was not supposed to be mixed. Then I learned it was girls. At summer camp, girls and boys swam at different times, ostensibly, to keep our thoughts pure. It didn’t work. We watched from afar. 

There was security in the system, I must say; I knew where I stood. And, it’s conceivable that in certain circumstances any or all of those sanctions might be valid. Yet even as a young boy I saw the irony in these vetoes: I could refrain from all of them and completely miss the point of authentic goodness! Goodness, like God, is very subtle. 

George MacDonald, in his novella Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood makes the case far better than I. 

He writes of a young cleric who went out to acquaint himself with a parishioner, an elderly Scot named Rogers. He had seen the old man walking through the village, clouds of smoke billowing from his briar pipe, and so purchased a tin of tobacco for him and offered it to him as a gambit: 

“You smoke, don’t you, Rogers?” I said
 “Well, sir, I can’t deny it. It’s not much I spend on baccay, anyhow. Is it, dame?”
 “No, that it bean’t,” answered his wife.
 “You don’t think there’s any harm in smoking a pipe, sir?”
 “Not the least,” I answered, with emphasis.
 “You see, sir,” he went on, not giving me time to prove how far I was from thinking there was any harm in it, “you see, sir, sailors learns many ways they might be better without. I used to take my pan o’grog with the rest of them; but I give that up quite, ‘cause as how I don’t want it now.”
 “Cause as how,” interrupted his wife, “you spend the money on tea for me, instead. You wicked old man to tell stories!”
 “Well, I takes my share of the tea, old woman, and I’m sure it’s a deal better for me. But, to tell the truth, sir, I was a little troubled in my mind about the baccay, not knowing whether I ought to have it or not. For you see, the parson that’s gone didn’t like it, as I could tell when he came in at the door and me a-smokin.’ Not as he said anything; for, ye see, I was an old man, and I daresay that kep him quiet. But I did hear him blow up a young chap i’ the village he came upon with a pipe in his mouth. He did give him a thunderin’ broadside, to be sure! So I was in two minds whether I ought to be on with my pipe or not.”
 “And how did you settle the question, Rogers?”
 “Why, I followed my own old chart, sir.”
 “Quite right. One mustn’t mind too much what other people think.”
 “That’s not exactly what I mean, sir.”
 “What do you mean then? I should like to know.”
 “Well, sir, I mean that I said to myself, ‘Now, Old Rogers, what do you think the Lord would say about this here baccay business?’“
 “And what did you think He would say?”
 “Why, sir, I thought He would say, ‘Old Rogers, have yer baccay; only mind ye don’t grumble when you ‘ain’t got none.’”

“And this is the man I thought I would be able to teach!” the young minister mused.

David Roper
October 5. 2015

[1] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: righteousness and love and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

Friday, October 2, 2015


I never knew her name.  I don’t know what she was thinking as she got ready for work that morning. I don’t know what joy or sorrow she left behind her front door as she set off for her job. I don’t know how far she had to travel or if she was weary or strong as she moved along.

I do know some of what lay in front of her as she stepped into the skilled nursing facility where she would spend her day. She would mop the floors, gather up soiled towels, empty trash receptacles, and collect and remove used dishes. She would probably face other assigned cleaning details I know nothing about. She was the young cleaning lady who went from room to room cleaning up other’s messes. She was also one who looked on many individuals in distressing situations. She looked and she saw.

Some patients were unresponsive. Some were there for a short stay and others would be there for the rest of their lives. All were in need. One woman in her 90s was there for a specific issue to be cleared up. She was more than a little confused at being moved from her assisted living. She did not understand the routine or how to get help one night as she took a tumble trying to get out of an unknown bed. She was fine but still in the dark and a bit anxious about much in this unfamiliar situation.

And then one day this cleaning lady came in. She attended to her job and greeted the elderly woman warmly. Then as she left, she raised the cheer level in one life tremendously. The young cleaning lady saw an opportunity and took it. As she left the room she said three simple words. She said, “God bless you!” This comment stuck with the needy patient, gave her hope, and made a huge difference in her outlook. I know because when I went to visit that day she told me.  She was my mother.

Today I am challenged to think of the opportunities that lie before me. The first opportunities are right inside my own front door. There will be others when I answer the phone, go to the store or respond to an email. Then there are the thoughts I entertain.  Certainly in my thoughts and in my heart there are many opportunities to think as Jesus did about others. His words will come from me then, as those of the cleaning lady did to Mother. For out of the heart the mouth speaks.

 Being, praying, and doing exactly where I am— these are all opportunities God has appointed for me today. I don’t have to travel abroad or have a big platform from which to speak. I don’t need “a challenge” to do great things. I can take advantage of the opportunities to really see people here and now, people with their needs (we all have them) and to let God bless them as I accept the privilege of letting Him use me. Right where I am.

That dear young cleaning lady never knew how she blessed Mother and gave her hope. We never saw her again. She never knew how God worked through her to bless me as she blessed Mother. But God knew. What an amazing and beautiful thing it is to use our opportunities to love others for His sake and by His empowerment. How beautiful is the Body of Christ!

God bless you!


I was blessed recently by listening to Twila Paris sing How Beautiful Is The Body of Christ. May you be blessed also:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Do Dogs Go To Heaven?

Now, about Rover, the dog—though for roving, I hardly remember him away from my side! ...I almost believe that at one period, had I been set to say who I was, I should have included Rover as an essential part of myself. His tail was my tail; his legs were my legs; his tongue was my tongue!—so much more did I, as we gamboled together, seem conscious of his joy than of my own! Surely, among other and greater mercies, I shall find him again! —George MacDonald, The Flight of the Shadow

We had to put our Westie to sleep last week. Partially blind, deaf, mentally confused and in pain, it was the kindest thing—but I do miss her.

In her last months she seemed bewildered, dogging our steps, never allowing us out of her sight. If I left the room she followed me and found a place on the floor near my feet. She was “an essential part of myself.”

I mentioned several months ago that while recovering from back surgery I exercised by walking up and down the hall. Dolly, though arthritic and in pain, trudged after me dutifully as though we are on our usual outdoor walk. Her loyalty and unconditional love tugged at my heart.

I wonder, will there be dogs in heaven? The simplest answer is: Why not? One day there will be a new heaven (sky) and a new earth  (Revelation 21:1). If a new earth, why a dead earth, like the moon, rather than an earth filled with trees, mountains, rivers, and flowers like our present world? Why would God allow plants and flowers and other aspects of this world, but not animals into heaven? Would He take from us there what He gives us here for our joy? I think not. C.S. Lewis’ speculated that in heaven we will be "between the angels who are our elder brothers and the beasts who are our jesters, servants, and playfellows” (That Hideous Strength).
More to the point, will my dog be in heaven? C.S. Lewis thought so. He believed that our animals are saved because of their association with us. They achieve heaven because they are caught up in our lives, an essential part of ourselves (The Problem of Pain). In another of his works, The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a woman in heaven surrounded by a gaggle of young children, angels, birds and beasts.
“What are all these animals? A cat—two cats—dozens of cats. And all those dogs... Why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
Would God, who created animals, who preserved them through the Flood, who promised to redeem them, who made us with the capacity to love them and grieve them when they’re gone—would he revoke his decision to put animals once again under our care? I think not. Perhaps then, among other and greater mercies, I shall find Dolly again!

David Roper
Sept 30, 2015

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Silenus and His Kin.

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you’re young. See that they look up to you because you are an example to believers in your speech and behavior, in your love and faith and sincerity (1 Timothy 4:12 J.B. Phillips).
In Plato's dialogue Symposium one of the participants, Alcibiades, compares Socrates to a statue of Silenus.

Silenus was a minor Greek deity, an unprepossessing, squat, middle-aged, companion of Dionysus the god of wine. Little statues of Silenus were sold as knicknacks and good-luck charms. The statues had doors in their pot bellies that opened up to reveal tiny, golden images inside.

Alcibiades comments: ''I once caught him (Socrates) when he was open like Silenus' statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within. And they were so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing that I felt I must do whatever he told me'' (216E-217A).

Socrates was famously ugly, but Alcibiades saw beyond the philosopher's appearance to the beauty of his character and deferred to him.

Charm, charisma, chutzpah (or lack thereof) count for little in the long run. What matters is the person you are becoming. “In a word, be a saint” (Balthasar).

Spurgeon said, “It is a common matter of observation that, so far as we can judge here below; the better is the life of the pastor, the greater fruit he bears, however small his rhetoric and however ordinary his instruction. For it is the warmth that comes from the living spirit that clings; whereas the other kind of pastor will produce very little profit, however sublime be his style and his instruction.”

David Roper
Sept 22, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

Twin Forks

 "I guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight (upright) paths (Proverbs 4:11).

One day Saint Francis and his sidekick Brother Masseo were itinerating through the Italian countryside looking for a place to preach. They came to a fork in the road, one path leading to Florence, one to Siena. "Which way shall we go?" Masseo asked. "The one that God wills," answered St Francis.

"And how are we to know the will of God?" Masseo replied, whereupon, Francis had Masseo spin around until he got dizzy and fell down. When he got up he was facing Siena. "That's the way," Francis said.

When they got to Siena they had no opportunity to preach, but did succeed in reconciling two warring clans and bringing peace to the region. Having finished their work they traveled on.

What's my point? Well, most of our choices throughout the day are willy–nilly. Will we wear this or that? Do we turn left or right? Yet Wisdom is always directing our steps. Certainly we should ask for God's counsel through the day, but, I must say for myself, I forget.

So then, it's up to God to get us to the right place at the right time-to do whatever it is he wants us to do.

Anyway... Who am I to think I can discern the right way? No, my business is to walk with God throughout the day and enjoy his love. He'll take it from there.

Carolyn says God's will is not so much the right way as the upright way. I think she's got something there.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

On suffering for the sake of the gospel...

It was on a winter's morning 
In the days of old, 
In his cell sat Father Henry,
Sorrowful and cold.

"O my Lord, I am aweary," 
In his heart he spake, 
"For my brethren scorn and hate me 
For Thy blessed sake."

"If I had but one to love me 
That were joyful cheer—
One small word to make me sunshine 
Through the darksome year!"

"But they mock me and despise me 
Till my heart is stung—
Then my words are wild and bitter, 
Tameless is my tongue." 

Then the Lord said, "I am with thee; 
Trust thyself to Me; 
Open thou thy little casement (window)
Mark what thou shalt see." 

Then a piteous look and wistful 
Father Henry cast 
Out into the dim old cloister 
And the wintry blast.

Was it that a friend was coming 
By some Angel led? 
No! a great hound wild and savage 
Round the cloister sped.

Some old mat that lay forgotten 
Seized he on his way—
Tore it, tossed it, dragged it wildly 
Round the cloister gray.

"Lo, the hound is like thy brethren," 
Spake the Voice he knew; 
"If thou are the mat, beloved, 
What hast thou to do?"

Meekly then went Father Henry, 
And the mat he bare 
To his little cell to store it
As a jewel rare.

Many a winter and a summer
Through those cloisters dim, 
Did he thenceforth walk rejoicing, 
And the Lord with him.

And when bitter words would sting him, 
Turned he to his cell, 
Took his mat, and looked upon it, 
Saying, "All is well."

"He who is the least and lowest
Needs but low to lie; 
Lord, I thank Thee and I praise Thee 
That the mat am I."

On the cold and footworn pavement 
Lies it still and flat,
Raves not if men trample on it, 
For it is a mat."

Then he wept, for in the stillness 
His Beloved spake,
"Thus was I the least and lowest, 
Gladly, for thy sake."

"Lo, My face to shame and spitting 
Did I turn for thee; 
If thou art the least and lowest, 
Then remember Me." 

Heinrich Suso  (14th century Dominican)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

“Rejoice with those that rejoice; weep with those that weep” (Romans 12:15).

In “The Divine Comedy” Dante and his guide Virgil descend into the lower regions of hell where they come upon a vast cemetery. Here the souls of heretics—specifically those that have denied the resurrection—are kept. (Having believed that their souls will die with their bodies, their souls are now forever buried with their dead bodies.)

As Dante stares at one of the coffins a figure rises, Farinata, who complains: "Your family has been bitter enemies to me, and to my fathers, and my friends.” Dante explains that his family tried on at least three occasions to redress every wrong, “but they could never get it right."

At that point Dante and Farinata are interrupted by Cavalcante, a friend of Dante’s who lifts his head above the edge of the same tomb and asks about his son Guido who was married to Farinata's daughter, Beatrice. Dante, using a past tense verb in referring to Guido, gives Cavalcante the mistaken idea that his son is dead. Cavalcante cries out: "What did you say? Is he not still alive? Does he not still carry the light of life in his eyes?" And falls back into his tomb, grief–stricken and weeping.

Farinata, oblivious to Cavalcante’s sorrow, without missing a beat, picks up his complaint where he left off: “… and if they do not ever get it right that hurts me more than this wretched bed…”

Oh my…

I think of those occasions when someone reached out to me in sorrow and I, preoccupied with myself, told my own sad story instead of listening and asking questions to draw out the other person’s grief—and missed an opportunity to weep with them.

Or those occasions when someone shared a moment of triumph with me and instead of sharing that persons’ joy and enthusiasm I trumped their story with a joyous moment of my own—and missed an opportunity to rejoice with them.

The wise man said, “If you start talking before you listen intently, you’re a fool and a boor!” (Proverbs 18:13).


David Roper