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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Serious Business of Heaven 

“We know that you are displaying (authentic Christian character) because you have fully grasped the hope laid up for you in Heaven…”  (Colossians 1:5).

One of my favorite books is George MacDonald’s children’s novel, At the Back of the NorthWind. That may say something about my level of maturity, but it’s difficult for me to find a difference between MacDonald’s adult and children’s books because, as he himself said, he did “not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” I suppose, to some  extent, I qualify. 
At the Back of the NorthWind tells the story of a little boy named Diamond, a frail, sickly child, living in abject poverty and forced to exist in a drab, sparse home with very little to comfort or cheer him. Diamond himself slept in a cold, drafty, hayloft above a barn, his only companion an amiable old draft horse. 
Along the way, Diamond was befriended by the North Wind, a symbol of suffering and death and the cold, bitter austerities of life. On one occasion, the wind carried Diamond to a beautiful place “at the back of the North Wind,” and he learned he must pass through the North Wind to enter the world beyond our world where there is no sorrow or loss, where “everyone is happy and looks like they will be even happier tomorrow.”
One day Diamond’s mother took him to the beach where they found a book someone had lost in the sand, a book that contained a poem about a river, “singing in the shallows,” and about swallows that were “the merriest swallows of all!”  

"That is what the song of the river is telling me,” Diamond murmured. “I can be merry and cheerful, for I have been at the back of the North Wind—and that will help others!

Thereafter, when Diamond was sad, he thought of the song of the river and determined that hardship would not make him miserable. He would say, "This will never do! I can't give in to this. I've been at the back of the North Wind. Things go right there and they must be made to go right here!” Thus Diamond brought cheer to his family and alleviated some of the misery of his home.

Joy is “the serious business of heaven,” C. S. Lewis said (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer). What you were created to experience eternally is the joy you may experience in measure here on earth. You can, with God’s help, look away from present misery and look ahead to the joy that awaits you in heaven, where you will be happy and happier still with every passing day. You can take some of the happiness of that place and bring it back with you into your home and help others, for enduring bad things joyfully is a way of bringing good things about. You’ll see.

Therefore, “may you be strengthened by God’s immense power so that you may be able to pass through any experience and endure it with joy” (Colossians 1:11).

David Roper

Friday, May 23, 2014

Never Too Old

“David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep…” (Acts 13:36).

The opening phrase of T.S. Eliot's poem “The Waste Land” contains a poem by the Roman poet, Petronius: "With my own eyes I saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a bottle; and when young men said to her: 'Sybil, what do you wish?' she replied, 'I want to die.'" 

The Sibyl, according to Roman legend, was a prophetess, suspended in a bottle in the temple of Hercules near Naples, Italy. She was granted long life by Apollo, as many years as grains of sand she held in her hand, but she had forgotten to ask to retain her youth. As she aged she withered away. Now she only wished to die. 

Is this now your thought? Has strength and beauty so withered away that you’re only waiting to die?

Think of your longevity as God’s uncommon gift to you. We live in a world in which most people die young. (Life expectancy in the United States is 79 years. In Afghanistan it is 44.) It’s a marvelous thing to live in a society where, by God’s providence, you can grow old. There must be a reason for it; God must not be done with all he has purposed to do in and through you. View your aging as a gift, a gift to give back to God. Though old and gray you can declare His goodness to the next generation (Cf., Psalm 71:9-18).

I think of Anna, approaching Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, “to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Anna was 84! We’re never too old to speak to those who long for salvation.

Paul put it this way: “For me to go on living in this world may serve some good purpose. I should find it very hard to make a choice. I am torn in two directions—on the one hand I long to leave this world and live with Christ, and that is obviously the best thing for me. Yet, on the other hand, it is probably more necessary for you that I should stay here on earth. Because I am sure of this, I know that I shall remain and continue to stand by you all, to help you forward in Christian living” (Philippians 1:23-25, J.B. Phillips).

David Roper

Growing old but not retiring,
For the battle still is on;
Going on without relenting
Till the final victory’s won.  —Anon.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Happiness is…

"Present mirth hath present laughter…"

 —William Shakespeare, “Carpe Diem”

I was examining the magazines at our grocery store checkout stand the other day and concluded that happiness is firmness, fitness, prosperity, power, stardom, sex and pleasure. Bless my soul, we’ve forgotten that we do not live by bread alone.

Happiness, of course, is what everyone is seeking. That “end” was established long ago by the likes of Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers, who were musing on something we’ve always known: Regardless of the means, our end is happiness.

Human beings cannot not seek happiness. It’s why we do everything we do: It’s why we become tri–athletes or checker champs; why we speed–climb vertical rocks or turn into recumbent couch potatoes; why we become mechanics, machinists, mothers, fathers, doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. Masochists hurt themselves because they think that will make them happy. Murderers kill others to make themselves happy. Suicides kill themselves because they can’t stand to be unhappy. We are made to be happy and nothing else will do.

That’s why happiness is said to be our final end by philosophers and theologians, by which they mean that happiness is not the means to anything else. We don’t seek happiness so we can be rich. We don’t seek happiness so we can find love. It’s the other way around: We seek love, wealth and everything else so we can be happy. Thus happiness is our final end.

Happiness is not our chief end, however; that’s God. But even with reference to God, happiness is our final end. We don’t seek happiness to find God; we seek God to find ultimate happiness.

Our modern English word “happiness” normally means subjective satisfaction or contentment, usually the result of good fortune. A friend approaches me with a goofy grin on his face and I think: “Something good must have happened to him.”  Thus we think of happiness as happenstance. Indeed, our English word “happiness” is based on an Old English word, “hap” that means “chance.”

The word ancient Greek philosophers used for happiness, however, was eudaimonia, best understood by breaking the word down into its component parts:  The prefix, eu, means “good,” daimon is the Greek word for “spirit,” and ia suggests a “lasting state.” So authentic happiness is an enduring state of inner peace. It is knowing, despite all counter-indications, that it is well with one’s soul. For Jews it is shalom.

Here’s the crux: St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Since it is possible to be happy and there are certain acts that make us happy we must in due sequence consider by what acts we may be happy and by what acts we are prevented from attaining it.”

How eminently practical! It’s possible to be happy and there are certain things we can do that will make us happy. Should we not then, “consider by what acts we may be happy?”

Put simply, the way to be happy is to be good, something about which virtue theorists have agreed for millennia. Plato, in his dialogue, The Republic, said that happiness is elusive, but can be achieved though justice, i.e., doing the right thing. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, said, “Happiness is the reward of virtue” (Ethics 1.9). One of Israel’s poets said the same of his king: “You love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore (for this reason) God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness…” (Psalm 45:7). This is also the burden of Jesus’ beatitudes, his instruction on happiness. (The word “Beatitudes” comes from a Latin term beatus that means “happy.”) “Happiness is…” he insists, and then proceeds to give us a list of seven virtues (Matthew 5:3-10).

“Goodness is better than badness because it’s nicer,” Mammy Yokum said. “Nicer,” surely, but also more happifying. Happiness does not come from wealth, honor, fame, power, pleasure or any bodily good, as our popular culture would have us believe, but in doing the right thing. Should we not gain our understanding of happiness from the wise and not from fools?

[Here I add a parallel premise: If virtue makes us happy, vice makes us sad. Wrong–doing may awaken immediate, short–term, superficial exhilaration, but its after-taste is bitter. The Bible puts it plainly: we enjoy the pleasure of wrong-doing “for a season” (Hebrews 11:25).]
So, I ask myself, if I’m made for happiness and happiness comes from goodness why would I choose misery instead of joy? Wretchedness instead of happiness? Because I’m insane, that’s why. There can be no other explanation.

Now, it is true that neither you nor I will ever know complete happiness in this world. The best proof of that premise is that even in those moments when we’re supremely happy, we’re not happy. Something is missing. “This world is full of many miseries therefore man cannot be perfectly happy in this life,” Aquinas said,  “but a certain participation of happiness can be had in this life” (Summa 111,5,3). Perfect happiness awaits heaven and home

But, if I want to be as happy as I can be in this world, I must be as good as I can be—overcome my sensuality, immodesty, moodiness, irascibility and intolerance, among other things—something I cannot do unless I ask for God’s help every day. “Only God is good,” Jesus said (Mark 10:18).Thus any goodness in human beings must be the work of His hands. “What a labor He has with us all! Shall we ever, some day, be all, and quite good like Thee?” George MacDonald asks (Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood).

God help us.

David Roper

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Kuna Cave
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too often, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

—Alexander Polk

There’s an underground lava tube cave south of Kuna, Idaho that has gained a certain amount of local notoriety. The only entrance, as far as I know, is a 50’ vertical shaft that drops straight down into the tube.
The Bureau of Land Management discourages exploration—no one knows exactly where the tube leads—but as I crept up to the edge of that black hole and looked down I had an almost irresistible urge to explore the cave! I would go a little way, I said to myself, and climb back out again. Surely no harm could befall me.
Sin is like that: It draws us into the darkness. How often have I listened to men and women who have destroyed their families, reputations and careers through adulterous affairs that began with a mild flirtation—one small step away from complete fidelity that led to another, thoughts and actions that inexorably drew the participants into deeper moral failure and eventual ruin. Looking back they almost always say, “I never thought it would come to this.”
We think we can temporize with sin, but thats a fools dream. Childrens fantasy writer, Susan Cooper describes these dalliances as “channels into the dark,” the means by which the dark forces of the invisible world ride to power over us (The Dark is Rising). We know an action is wrong and yet we toy with it. Then inescapably, we are drawn into deeper and darker sin. Jesus put it simply: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin (becomes) a slave to sin” (John 6:34).
And so we pray with David, “Keep back your servant from presumptuous (deliberate) sins (however small); let them not have dominion over me (by giving in to them)! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression” (Psalm 19:13).

David Roper

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Souls That Fail

“And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:29)
History is unrepeatable, historians say, but it can be re-lived many times in one's memory. Our successes we like to savor; our failures we'd rather forget. I'm learning, however, to cherish the days that I fail.
I'm learning that blunders, mistakes and missed opportunities are means of grace and great blessing if I accept them as part of my call. "It came as a revelation. It was worth the price of the gale: To know that the souls that conquer must at first be the souls that fail” (George Matheson).
Through humiliation our strength is baffled, we're disabused of our illusions of grandeur and brought low. There, we learn to meet with the lowly. We’re able to get in touch with other people’s feelings. We can empathize with those that have fallen; we can accept and love them as no other can. 
But we must let go of regret. Brooding over past failure intimidates us and turns us away from love; feelings of inadequacy overwhelm and isolate us. We're afraid to venture ourselves again. But when we accept our failures as simple proof that we're utterly inadequate, God's strength is made perfect in our weakness. We have grace to turn outward to others and to do so with greater compassion, wisdom and sensitivity. Thus our mistakes are turned into good.  
Failure is not ruinous; we are called to failure and owe much to each day that we fail. The lessons that we learn there "are worth the price of the gale."

David Roper