Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A Sabbath Mood

Whatever is foreseen in joy 
Must be lived out from day to day, 
Vision held open in the dark 
By our ten thousand days of work. 
Harvest will fill the barn; for that 
The hand must ache, the face must sweat. 

And yet no leaf or grain is filled 
By work of ours; the field is tilled 
And left to grace. 
That we may reap, 
Great work is done while we’re asleep. 

When we work well, a Sabbath mood 
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

Wendell Berry

Some years ago I took a liking to Wendell Berry, the old farmer-philosopher whose poetry I find both simple and profound. He often "speaks my mind," as Quakers say. I read his poem "This Day" today and it helped me climb out of a hole. 

To be old and crippled up is a pain—literally—and mornings are the hardest part of the day. Few things work and those that do work hurt and the day beyond looks impossibly hard. The ground is cursed; "The hand must ache, the face must sweat."

But Berry notes a oft-forgotten factor: the joy "foreseen" beyond each day's labor—the joy that comes from knowing that it's not by our efforts that leaf or grain come to fruition, but solely through God's grace. When "the field has been tilled and left to grace," we  will, in due time, reap the harvest of God's labor. "Great work is done while we’re asleep" ("He gives to those he loves while they sleep" 
—Psalm 127:2).

Thus when we "work well" (resting fully on God's grace), there is a "Sabbath mood that rests on our day, and finds it good." And so "though "hand must ache, the face must sweat," this day is a good day after all. 

David Roper

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Liar's Paradox

"One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars...' This statement is true" (Titus 1:12). 

If you've ever taken a course in logic you've encountered The Liar's Paradox. It appears in many forms, but the simplest way to frame it is to imagine a 3x5 card with a single sentence on each side. On one side you read, "The statement on the other side of this card is true." You flip the card over and read, "The statement on the other side of this card is false." You turn the card over and over until your brain shorts out. 

Paul could have had this paradox in mind (it was known in Aristotle’s time) when he quoted Epimenides, a 6th or 7th century B.C.  philosopher who wrote, in a work entitled Cretica that "Cretans always lie..." Since Epimenides was a Cretan and Cretans always lie can we believe Epimenides? Paul resolves the puzzle on this occasion with his terse assessment: "This statement is true." 

There’s a parallel truth found elsewhere in this letter. In the introduction Paul writes of the "hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies (lit: “the un-lying God”) promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior" (Titus 1:2,3). 

Here we have a rock-ribbed, iron-clad, unqualified, unmitigated, unrestricted, unequivocal, no ifs, ands, or buts promise of eternal life to those who have put their trust in Jesus (whom Paul preached). In the crucified, risen, glorified Christ we see the end for which we were made and the certainty that we shall attain it, based on the word of One who cannot lie. 

Jesus made the same assertion, using the strongest negation that the Greek language can supply: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never, ever, under any set of circumstances whatever die" (John 11:26). 

So, though we, like Titus, live in a culture of lies we have a promise from One who cannot lie: In Christ we will never die, a calming conviction as we pile up the years. There is a hymn which says, “For he to die is ready / Who living, clings to Thee.” 

And so I write tonight as I "lay me down to sleep.”

If I should die before I wake,
I know the Lord my soul will take.

David Roper


Monday, July 8, 2019

Doubling Down

"I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me... Guard through the Holy Spirit the good deposit entrusted to you... What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men and women, who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 1:12, 14; 2:2).

Would you rather be given a million dollars today, or a penny today and double the number of pennies each day thereafter for a month?

1st day: 1 penny
2nd day: 2 pennies
3rd day: 4 pennies
4th day: 8 pennies
 - - -    - - - - - -

I’ve never hit the long ball when it comes to math, but it's fairly easy even for me to to come up with the answer: To double something 30 times, you can either multiply 2*2*2... thirty times, or you can write it as 2^30 (two raised to the thirtieth power) and plug it into your calculator. Or you can ask Siri as I did. The result is a really big number: $1,073,741,824!

It's a no-brainer: take the pennies.

In like manner, would you rather be an evangelist with an audience of thousands today, or entrust the gospel to one person today who entrusts it to another tomorrow, who entrusts it to another the next day, who entrusts it to another…  Assuming an unbroken sequence, you would, in one month, evangelize (proclaim the gospel) to the population of the entire Western Hemisphere, give or take a few!

I’m assuming, of course, that the chain will be unbroken and everyone will do his or her part every day to pass the good news on and that’s a gratuitous assumption. And surely some math maven will find other flaws in my argument. But I’m just sayin’: one winsome Christian man or woman, filled with the love of Jesus, faithfully and prayerfully giving his or her faith away… Well, you just can’t imagine what the consequences would be.  

David Roper


Saturday, July 6, 2019

Flee These Things

"Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils... But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness" (1 Timothy 6:9,10).

One evening, several years ago Carolyn and I were making our way down a mountain trail to a local river, accompanied by a couple of friends. The trail was narrow and wound around a slope with a steep drop on one side and an unclimbable bank on the other side. 

Just as we came around a sharp bend in the trail I looked up to see one of the biggest bears I've ever seen shambling up the trail. He was moseying along, swinging his massive head from side to side and quietly huffing to himself. Believe me, he did not look like Winnie the Pooh!

Fortunately, we were downwind and he didn't detect our presence immediately, but I realized there was simply no place for either of us to go and he would soon be on top of us. 

The friend who was walking behind me spotted the bear and began to rummage around in her pocket for her phone. "Oh, I must get a picture," she said with great excitement.

"Uh, no" I mumbled, being less sanguine about our odds. "We must get out of here." So we backed up until we were out of sight, turned on our heels and fled—cheating death one more time, as the old saying goes.

What would you do if you came round a corner and found yourself facing a dangerous animal? Well, you would flee, of course. (Although, as you know, that's not good advice if you encounter a cougar or a grizzly.) And that's the way we should feel about the passion to get rich. It's not something to dither over for money-love is inherently dangerous. 

There's nothing  wrong with money, of course; it's just a medium of exchange. But those who desire to get rich "fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction"—a fact so obviously true it scarcely needs defending. Consider the tragic, unfulfilled lives of the rich and famous: Money-mad people "can't get no satisfaction," for wealth is only a goad to get more. 

On the other hand, Paul writes, we should pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience and gentleness and other traits of the god-like life. These attributes don’t occur by accident; they grow in us because we pursue them relentlessly, asking God every day and all through the day to form and shape them within us. This is the means by which we bring the life of the coming age into the present (vs. 12), as I've written before, and secure for ourselves the deep satisfaction that we seek.

David Roper


Monday, July 1, 2019

The Little Birds of God

A leper approached Jesus one day to everyone's surprise. The man had no business being in the crowd since lepers were banished from polite society. Dr. Luke described the man as "full of leprosy," a medical term for an aggravated, advanced case of the disease. He was all lesions and stumps, discolored and disfigured, shocking in his ugliness, a gross caricature of what a man was intended to be.

Lepers were hopeless back then. There was no cure for their condition. If they contracted the disease they were given a death sentence. They wore sackcloth and ashes, the emblems of perpetual mourning, and lived out their tortured, lonely lives in isolation--"cut off from land of the living."

Of all diseases, leprosy is the only one singled out by the Law and Prophets and linked with sin. It's not that leprosy was itself sinful or that sin necessarily led to leprosy. Rather the disease was thought of as a symbol of sin, sin come to the surface. If you could see sin, it was thought, it would look like leprosy.

Furthermore, the end of leprosy is like the end of sin: there is no earthly cure. Sinners like lepers are the walking dead: "myself, my sepulcher, a moving grave," John Milton said.

Leprosy was dirty business that required "cleansing." No other cure would do. But that's what Jesus was about--healing the sick, raising the dead and cleansing lepers.

This leper lingered on the outskirts of the crowd waiting for an opportunity to approach the Lord—not too close lest he offend and be rejected again. And then he made his request: "If you will," he said, "you can make me clean." It's the first instance of a plain request for healing, touching and profound in its simplicity.

Jesus was "moved with compassion." Sick and troubled people normally elicit sympathy from others, but not lepers. They're repulsive in every way—"disease-ridden men with moldy breath,/unwashed men with the ways of death…" 

Nevertheless, Jesus reached out to this desperate man, drew him in and hugged him. "Hugged" is precisely the right word. "Touched" is much too tame.

Did our Lord need to hug this man. You bet your life he did. It meant everything in the world to the leper. It was what "daughter" was to the unclean woman with the hemorrhage, what "neither do I condemn you" was to woman caught in adultery. No one else could or would have hugged this shockingly ugly, disease-ridden man. Only Jesus.

Then Jesus spoke the word "Be clean" and "immediately the leprosy left him." No hokus pocus, no mumbo jumbo, just "Be clean" and the leper was clothed in the flesh of a child, an entirely new beginning.

Jesus then sent the man off to the temple to show himself to the priest and "make the prescribed offering" for his cleansing. And here's where the story gets even better.

If the man obeyed (and I assume he did) the priest would most likely have drawn a blank and paged through his Law book to locate the proper procedure. In all of Israel's history no one had ever invoked this portion of the Law. When he found the place where the ritual was written he would have read these instructions, there in the book for 1400 years awaiting this very time.

These are the regulations for the diseased person at the time of his ceremonial cleansing, when he is brought to the priest: The priest is to go outside the camp and examine him. If the person has been healed of his infectious skin disease, the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the one to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the infectious disease and pronounce him clean. Then he is to release the live bird in the open fields (Leviticus 14:1-7).

The instructions were clear: the priest was to go outside the camp to the leper, examine him and declare him clean. Then he was to take two live birds in hand: one to be sacrificed, its blood poured out into an earthen bowl; the other to be bound into a bundle with a piece of cedar and a sprig of sage wrapped together with scarlet string. He was then to dip the living bird in the blood in the vessel, sprinkle the blood seven times on the one cleansed from leprosy, untie the little bird and set it free.

The first bird represents our Savior, washed and pure, then slain in the earthen vessel of his humanity, his blood poured out to take away our sin. He's the only one who could do it. "He himself," Peter insists, "bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24).

The second bird represents you and me, immobilized and frustrated by our guilt, our hearts beating for freedom like the wings of that frantic little bird, straining against the strings that bound it.

The little bird was powerless to free itself until it was dipped in the blood of the substitute and then set free, free from the entanglements of past failure and guilt, free to fly away home to God.

You may remember Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, a book about a little seagull that could, an earnest little bird that broke every restraint all by himself and grunted his way up to God.

Bach's bird looked good on paper. People bought the book in more ways than one. But self-effort never works no matter how hard we try. Not in real life. No one can take flight from their own sin and guilt and get free. There are too many strings attached.

God's little birds show us the way. It's the only way to fly.

David Roper

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Holiness and Lavish Love

"And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all, just as we do to you, so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints” (1Thessalonians 3:12,13).

Most folks, when they think of holiness, picture dour, off-putting weirdos, or fusty, finger-wagging prudes. But Paul has another take: Holiness is manifest in lavish, continuous, redeeming and reconciling love that bubbles up and flows out to one and all. 

Paul makes the same point about holiness in another text: "(God) chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love" (Ephesians 1:4). The words "in love" as you probably know, may be taken either with the phrase that precedes it (as above), or with the one that follows: "having predestined us (in love) to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ..." (1:5). Translators and commentators disagree and it's impossible to be dogmatic, but the position of the phrase, and its use elsewhere in the letter for human love, rather than God's love (3:17; 4:2, 16; 5:2), argue for the idea that personal holiness and love are inextricably linked and grounded in God's call. Paul's point, again, is that holiness of life is made manifest through love. 

1 Thessalonians 3:12,13, you may have noticed, is a prayer—by Paul for his friends in Thessaloniki. It can be turned into a prayer for yourself, family and friends: "That we may grow in love so that we may become holy and blameless before God my Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." 

Richard Foster says, “To pray is to change." That's how we grow. 

David Roper

Monday, June 24, 2019

Died and Gone to Heaven

"If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:1-4).

In general, folks who move to Idaho adopt our values and attitudes. They shrug off their suits and ties, pull on their 401 Levis, flannel shirts and hiking boots and get into our mind set and lifestyle. In the same way, Paul writes, you who are identified with Christ have died and are now seated with him in "Heavenly places" (Ephesians 2:6). So act and think like you’re living there!

This idea, or so I think, is the thought behind Paul's prayer, "that I may attain to the resurrection of the dead," i.e., "that I may live as though I have been raised from the dead and am now this day in Heaven" (Philippians 3:10). Furthermore, it is an essential part of our Lord's Prayer: that God's moral will may be done "on earth as it is in Heaven." 

Whether we understand this concept or not (probably not), the point is that we can and should manifest in this present age the attitudes—what Paul calls “setting your minds on things that are above”—and the behaviors of the age to come, bring Heaven to earth, if you will, something we can do as God “renews” us and daily informs us by his grace (Colossians 3:10). 

(The tense of the verb "renews" posits an ongoing process. The mood of the verb is passive and suggests something that's done to us and not something we do to ourselves. It is God who works in us, giving us the desire and the ability to do his will. Our "work" is to ask for it moment by moment.)

Imagine a household in which family members reflect the attitudes and actions of the age to come, where compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, tranquility, gratitude and love abound (Colossians 3:12,13). Would that not be Heaven on earth?

David Roper


A Sabbath Mood Whatever is foreseen in joy  Must be lived out from day to day,  Vision held open in the dark  By our ten thousan...