Saturday, March 23, 2013


“Nature is ever singing to a child a more exquisite song, and telling a more wonderful tale.” —Wordsworth

Sonja, our neighbor, came by the other day and saw me planting flowers. “Must be spring,” she said, “the Ropers are planting primroses.”

Primroses are inseparable from the season in our minds as well; they are harbingers of spring. But more than that, they’re “joyous, inarticulate children come with vague messages from the Father of all” (George MacDonald)

Ask a botanist, “What is a primrose,” and he will call it primula, the Latin word for “earliest.” He will dissect it and show us its parts and kill it by analysis. A primrose is a primrose is a primrose. Nothing more.

Ask a poet, “What is a primrose?” and he will answer: “Love’s truest language,” Here is a region far deeper than the findings of science, one known mainly to prophets, poets and little children and much closer to the truth of things. Flowers show us the face of our unseen Heavenly Father. Who but a loving and good father could think of flowers for his children?

“The appearances of nature are the truths of nature,” MacDonald said, “far deeper than any scientific discoveries in and concerning them.  The show of things is that for which God cares most, for their show is the face of far deeper things than they; we see in them, in a distant way, as in a glass darkly, the face of the unseen…What they say to the childlike soul is the truest thing to be gathered of them.”

C. S. Lewis noted that if I point at my dog’s food dish my dog will stare at my finger, not at his dish. He doesn’t understand the significance of the sign. I, unlike my dog, must look not at but through flowers and every other lovely sign to the one who created beauty and every beautiful thing.

My, how beautiful he must be!


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

In The Wrong

David Fay, Executive Director of USGA (regarding the US Open at Pebble Beach 2010): "I think two players used the word ‘awful’ on Thursday. Phil (Mickelson) said he putted awful. Tiger (Woods) said the greens were awful” (Sports Illustrated).

Theologians use two terms to describe the human condition: total depravity and original sin.

Total depravity means that sin and selfishness touch the totality of our being. If sin were blue, some would be bluer than others, but all of us would be some shade of blue all over.

Original sin doesn’t mean that we sin in innovative ways. (Most of my sins are dull and unimaginative.) It means that we’re sinful in our origins. As David put it, “I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). We are thrown into the world like a baseball with a hard spin on it and in due time we break down and away.

Sin, thus, is both extensive and intensive: We are, as Luther said, “dust and ashes and full of sin.”

I find that hard fact to be most useful when I’m in conflict with a brother. No matter what my friend has done or has not done, I have, in one way or another, contributed to the problem. The first step toward reconciliation, therefore, is repentance for, given the human condition, to some extent, I am always in the wrong.[1]

I came across a psalm the other day that underscores that notion: David begins his prayer with a complaint against his detractors: “Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; they are mighty who would destroy me, being my enemies wrongfully” (“I did nothing wrong!), but he quickly changes his tune: “O God, You know my foolishness; and my sins[2] are not hidden from You” (69:4,5).

This is how prayer works, or so it seems to me: We begin by justifying ourselves before God and blaming others and are led by God’s Spirit to examine our own conscience. We acknowledge the beam in our eye—“I putted awful”—the first step toward reconciliation with others (see Matthew 7:3-5). This is what Christian theologians regard as the “paradoxically auspicious (promising) nature of sin,” for only when I became aware of my true and unworthy self, can other, better possibilities emerge.

David Roper

[1] This is what T.S. Eliot called “an enduring sense of sin.”  But coupled with this is the enduring knowledge that we are fully and freely forgiven in Christ. "When a man or woman repents and humbles himself, there is (God) to lift them up and that higher than they ever stood afore!" (Old Souter in MacDonald's Salted With Fire. It’s the fact of eternal, preemptive forgiveness on the basis of the cross that enables us to freely admit our sins.
[2] Hebrew: ’asma (guilt)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Beautiful Mind

And soon, too soon, the wintry hour
Of man’s maturer age
Will shake the soul with sorrow’s power,
And stormy passion’s rage.

—Bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826)

We pray that we may serve God “in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives” (Luke 1:74,75), but things go wrong with us as we age and we may descend into dementia and darkness. Recently I read of a home for retired missionaries in which an elderly gentleman, long known for his saintly character, now in his final years, sits in his wheelchair and shouts obscenities at those who pass by. What shall we do with this absurdity, this cruel caricature of good old age?

Why our loved ones must suffer in this way is mystery, but we know that in time all things will be set right. Ruined intellects will be discarded and left behind. So Bunyan writes of Mr. Feeble-mind who, after long enduring his affliction, was told that his Master had need of him. “Then Mr. Feeble-mind called for his friends, and said: ‘As for my feeble mind, I will leave it behind me, for I shall have no need of it in the place to which I go: therefore, when I am gone, I desire that you, would bury it in a dunghill.’ This done...he went over to the other side” (John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress). “

So then, though we sorrow, we wait with love and large hope for what awaits our loved ones “on the other side.” There, they will be made better than ever before, with minds restored in stunning brilliance and beauty. There, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Taken In

    There’s a natural watershed in our lives. We reach the top and stand for a moment and then we’re over the hill. Everything is downhill from that moment on. But no matter: I’m headed for home.
    Home! That’s where my heart is. (Sometimes I wonder if it’s ever been anywhere else.) “I have come home at last!” shouted C. S. Lewis’ heaven–struck unicorn, as he stamped his right fore-foot on the ground. “I have come here at last! This is my real country!  I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”
    It’s not that heaven is somewhat like home. It is home. Our earthly homes are mere signs or reflections—primitive symbols of warmth, love, togetherness and familiarity. The ultimate reality is our Father’s house—where there is a father who never dies; who makes a home for the lonely; who treats us like family; where real love awaits us; where we’re included—“taken in.”
    We hear about Odysseus, the Flying Dutchman, Frodo and E.T. and we too want to go home—to that place where everything is impervious to change, where God will wipe every tear from our eyes, where we can cease “to break our wings against the faultiness of things,” where everyone has a friend, where love will never end, where everything finally works out for good.
    Everything goes wrong here; nothing will go wrong there. Nothing gets lost; nothing is missing; nothing falls apart; nothing goes down the drain. Heaven is God’s answer to Murphy’s Law.
    There’s no complete healing here. We are born with broken hearts and some sense of that brokenness stays with with throughout our days on earth. There will always be some measure of inner pain that co-exists with joy, some vague longing, some “homesickness” that will linger until we get home. We are may be somewhat satisfied here, but we’re never quite content.
    One of these days we’ll go home and then everything will be complete. Think of a world where there is no suffering, no sorrow, no quarrels, no threats, no abandonment, no insecurity, no struggling with sagging self-worth. Heaven is where everything that makes us sad will be banished. We will be delivered from everything that has defiled or disrupted our lives.
    It’s disturbing to look ahead and see the same impossible road stretching out in front of us, going on indefinitely. We’re driven to despair or rebellion when we think there’s no point to our misery and no end to it. That’s why we find comfort in the realization that it will not go on forever.  One day, everything that God has been doing in us and through us will be done. He will come for us and we will go home. We will live in our Father’s house forever.
    Ancient people took to analogy much better than we. One of the most convincing figures is that of God himself “taking us in.”
    The thought occurs in the biblical story of the Enoch, who walked with God for 300 years and then “was no more, because God took him in” (Genesis 5:24). It’s as though Enoch and God took a walk one day and got too far from his earthly home. The old patriarch was too weary to walk all the way back so God took him home to be with him.
    One of Israel’s singers saw himself and others as “destined for the grave,” but as he goes on to say, “God will redeem my soul from the grave; he will surely take me to himself” (Ps. 49:15).
    And then there’s that poet who learned God’s presence from his peril: “I am always with you,” he concluded. For now, “you hold me by my right hand; you guide me with your counsel and afterward you will take me into glory” (Psalm 73:23–26).
    “Taken in.” I like that way of looking at my terminus ad quem. It reminds me of something Jesus said, “I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2,3).
    That’s the fundamental revelation of heaven in the scriptures: “being taken in.”
    We can be left out. As C. S. Lewis said, “We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored….” If men and women do not want the love that brought them into the world, that sustains them every day and is offered to them eternally, God will let them have their way, though it would not be his choice. In an odd sort of way,  hell, thus, is a provision of God’s love: If we do not want his presence he will not foist it on us. He loves us enough to leave us alone.
    But we must understand what that means: Imagine God appearing and offering this arrangement: “I will give you whatever you want—anything and everything you ask for in this world. Nothing will be forbidden, nothing will be impossible; nothing will be denied (Pascal's Wager)—but you will never see my face again.” Not one of us has ever tasted such loneliness.
    Imagine, if you can, a world without a single friend, where there is no art, no culture, no civilization, no law, no love, no laughter, and nothing else that makes life worthwhile. God is the giver of every good and perfect gift and the source of everything good and true and beautiful. His absence means the absence of everything that gives meaning to our existence. If that’s what hell is, then, as C. S. Lewis has said, hell is exactly the right name for what it would be.
    We can start our own hell here on earth and preserve it for all eternity or we can be united with God now and forever. Through Jesus we can be welcomed, acknowledged, received, embraced, included. To those who have been “taken in” death is not bitter frustration, but culmination and transition into a larger and more permanent love—a love undisturbed by time, un-menaced by evil, unbroken by fear, unclouded by doubt, where “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).
    All God’s idylls end favorably; all God’s children “live happily forever after.” That’s the most cherished article of my creed.

Never again will they hunger
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them
    nor the scorching heat.
For the lamb at the center of the throne will be their Shepherd
    he will lead them to springs of living water
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”
            Rev. 7:16,17


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