Friday, June 24, 2011


“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, we ought to leave something behind that prolongs our 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 pestilence, or neglect. Despite the lofty Latin names we give them—semper vivere, for example—no tree lives forever.

I’ve written a few books and some 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 stuff 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 sturdy 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 recently 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, pg. 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

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sour Grapes

Your vanity and greed and lust
Are each your portion from the dust
Of those who died, and from the tomb
Made you what you must become.

—William Dean Howells

Advances in the behavioral sciences suggest that there may be negative psychological traits that are genetically influenced. Individuals appear to be born with dispositions toward alcoholism, sexual aggression, erratic work habits and other personality disorders.[1]

It would appear, in fact, that everything wrong with us is “our portion from the dust of those that died” and make us “what (we) must needs become.” Whether we go back to our first parents or some other relative, whether we talk about major perversions or minor peccadilloes, it’s all the same: every one of us has been cursed to some extent by some ancestor, handicapped by his or her perversions, saddled with insecurities, insanities and sinful predilections. Wrong-doing resides in our DNA, without our creation or consent, demanding compliance.

It’s common these days to assume that wrong–doing includes only those behaviors that are voluntary and unforced. If it can be shown that some orientation is caused rather than chosen we render human choice irrelevant and remove that behavior from the realm of moral argument. “Our fathers have eaten sour grapes and our teeth have been set on edge.”[2]

“No,” Jeremiah would say, “Whoever eats sour grapes, his own teeth will be set on edge.” Regardless of the roots of our behavior we are morally responsible for the wrong that we do.

But here’s the good news: We are not stuck. The laws of heredity are not the highest laws. There is one higher. George MacDonald wrote, “Everyone is born nearer to God than to any ancestor and it rests with everyone to choose whether he will be of God, or of those who have gone before him....”

It does no good to excuse our bad behavior. The only way to rid our selves of an evil trait is to call it evil and bring it to God for his healing. He can then begin to bring about a cure.

The decision to bring our flawed temperaments to him may be nothing more than the end–product of a lifetime of failure. We may have struggled so long with our compulsions that we’ve given up in despair. But God does not despair of us even when we have despaired of ourselves. He assures us: “I will forgive your iniquity, and your sin I will remember no more.”

Some of us are difficult cases. Flawed by environment and indulgence as well as heredity, our personalities resist change. We have “a hard machine to drive,” as C. S. Lewis would say. Yet God can take the most difficult and damaged life and gradually turn it into good. He does not leave us in ruins. He is “watching over us to build and to plant.”[3]

The process is neither swift nor painless, but chaotic and often subject to agonizing delay. Progress is seldom made by quantum leaps, but by tentative steps and a number of hard falls. It is a gradual thing, better seen in retrospect than in prospect. Yet, every day God is at work “putting his law in our minds and writing it on our hearts.”[4]

For reasons God only knows, some of us may glorify him for a time through our compulsions. We’re so damaged that total healing awaits heaven. If you’re one of his children so afflicted you can be assured of his promise: there will be progress and someday, if only in heaven, there will be perfection. The God who started his great work in you “will keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.”[5]


[1] I have omitted homosexuality from this list because no certain biological basis for sexual orientation has been established. The most cited study is one published in Science by gay activist, and neurobiologist Simon LeVay. LeVay noted a small difference between homosexual and heterosexual males in a tiny area of the hypothalamus (INAH-3), but not all scientists accept his conclusions. Drs. William Byne and Bruce Parsons of Columbia University examined the evidence and concluded: “There is no evidence at present to substantiate a biologic theory of homosexuality,” though their study was never been reported by the press. (William Byne and Bruce Parsons, “Human Sexual Orientation: The Biologic Theories Reappraised,” Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 50, March 1993: 228-239.)

[2] Jeremiah 31:29
[3] Jeremiah 31:28
[4] Jeremiah 31:33
[5] Philippians 1:6, The Message

Friday, June 17, 2011


“The cosmos continuously declares the glory of God…” (Psalm 19:1)

I came across a single flower growing in a meadow today—a tiny purple blossom that was “wasting its sweetness in the desert air.” I’m sure no one had ever seen it before, and perhaps no one will ever see it again. “Why this waste?” I thought.

Nature, however, is never wasted. It daily reveals the truth and goodness and beauty that brought it into being. Every morning it offers a new and fresh declaration of God’s presence. Do I see Him through that beauty, or do I merely glance at beauty and shrug it off in shoddy 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.” 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?”

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


Putting Us Right “An’ noo, for a’ oor wrang-duins (wrong-doings) an’ ill-min’ins (misjudgments), for a’ oor sins and tre...