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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bang–ups and Hang-Ups

Im sorry to say so
But, sadly its true
That bang-ups and hang-ups
Will happen to you.
—Dr. Seuss

I’m not a bird-watcher as such, but I like to watch birds at song and play and some years ago I built a sanctuary in our backyard to attract them. I put in bird feeders, birdbaths and places to nest and for several months I enjoyed the sight of our feathered friends feeding and flitting about…
…until this fellow showed up—a young Cooper’s Hawk that made my bird refuge his private hunting reserve.

Ah, such is life: Our safe places are seldom safe. Just about the time we think we’re past the hard stuff of life and settle down to take our ease, something or someone comes along to disrupt our cozy nest. Fractious families, financial losses, health problems, the frets of old age and a host of other predations assail us. And as an older, wiser saint once warned me, “Sometimes the harder tests are farther along.”

Having lived for a while, I must agree. Life is hard and sometimes gets harder. Any other outlook is ingenuous. Why, we ask, must so much of life be a vale of tears?

I think I’ve heard most of the answers to that old question, but lately I’m satisfied with just one: “All the discipline of the world is to make men children that God may be revealed to them” (George MacDonald, Life Essential). Sadness comes that we may become little children, resting in the love of our Father in heaven, seeking to know and to do his will and to be like him.

And we have this assurance: In a little while sorrow and sadness will come to an end; the path of sorrow will have led us to a land where sorrow is unknown. There, God “will wipe every tear from (our) eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain...” (Revelation 2:4).

English poet George Herbert put it all together in a poem describing a dream in which he saw a globe of the earth, “On whose meridian was engraven, ‘These seas are tears, and heaven the haven.’”[1]

Can we not rejoice in sorrow with such an end in view?

David Roper

[1] “The Size” (1633)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Mild He Lays His Glory By

I have a piece of old plaster on my desk at home. It comes from the ancient site of Herodium in Israel.

Herodium was Herod's summer palace, located on an artificially heightened mountain about three miles southeast of the little town of Bethlehem. There's nothing there but rubble these days, but at the turn of the first century it was the location of a lavish royal residence that served as Herod's summer palace, district capital, fortress, tomb estate, and monument to his penchant for self-aggrandizement.

According to Josephus and other ancient historians the palace was encircled by two concentric walls with four defense towers that soared five stories or more above the complex. Two hundred polished marble steps led from the bottom of the mountain through the walls and into the interior to a villa with opulent apartments furnished for the royal family and their prominent guests.

A lower campus, at the foot of the mountain, boasted a Roman bath with hot, cold and lukewarm pools, surrounded by colonnaded gardens. Not far from the bath was an elaborate banquet hall with frescoed walls (from which my piece of plaster came) and exotic mosaic floors. This was a home for the rich and famous.

Herod built his palace, we're told, to commemorate a victory over a Hasmonean prince in 40 B.C., but perhaps he had another purpose in mind. Herod was not a Jew (he was Idumean), but he knew the Jewish scriptures. He was aware that Israel's Messiah would be born in Bethlehem as Micah predicted: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times" (Micah 5:1). Perhaps he hoped the Coming King would be born in his palace.

God, however, is not so grandiose. He announced his birth not to glitterati but to lowly shepherds, the outcasts of Israel. He chose to be born, not to royalty but to poverty; not in a castle but in a cave. It was there in a hole in the ground that the little Lord Jesus was born, a helpless infant. An easy thing it was to love him.

All through the Old Testament we read that God has been doing his best to get next to us, humbling himself to make himself known. German theologian Gerhard von Rad, whose thinking has dominated Old Testament studies for fifty years or more, describes these efforts as "irruptions," a word that means "to break in." (It's the exact opposite of the more familiar word "eruption," "to break out.") Christmas, whatever else it may be, is God's supreme effort to "break in" to this world and show us the measure of his love. This is the humility of God, an aspect of his character we rarely think about these days. More’s the pity.

One writer, Fredrick Buechner, put it this way: "The child is born among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again. Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear, or to what lengths he will go, or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of mankind... For those who believe in God his birth means that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we would crack a baby's skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets too big for that" (The Hungering Dark).

Now I ask you: who can be afraid of a God like that? 

DHR

Monday, December 15, 2014

An Exceptionally Good Christmas

"I think we're going to have an exceptionally good Christmas."

If I had written these words I would probably have been thinking that our family would all be together for a white Christmas. I would probably imagine that well ahead of time all the cards had been mailed, all the preparations made and everything would be "just so." We would have a brightly lit tree and lovely red and green decorations, filling my heart with good memories. There would be the just-right presents to bring delight and joy to each one. There would be singing and laughing, playing games and a festive meal, with everyone decked out in their Christmas finery and caring for one another.  And I would find a fresh way to present the Christmas story at just the right time, which would be meaningful to all. There would be no worries, no loneliness, no health issues, no one missing from our family circle, either spacially or emotionally. At our house Evie would be singing "Come On Ring Those Bells" to welcome everyone in!

"I think we're going to have an exceptionally good Christmas."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote those words to his fiancée while he was isolated in a dark, cruel Germany prison as World War 2 was raging. He went on to explain:

"The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious, the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: "We're beggars: it's true." The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ's home on earth."
Letter to fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer, December 1, 1943

Because of God's priceless gift of His Son, may each of us have an exceptionally good Christmas, content with what is truly essential. Content whatever our Christmas looks like this year.

Carolyn Roper

The selection from Bonhoeffer comes from the work, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas; compiled by Jana Riess

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


WHAT CHILD IS THIS? 

 

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. —Micah 5:2

The birth of Jesus was no after-thought. Micah predicted that it would happen long before it occurred. 700 years before this announcement he predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: he would “come forth” from Bethlehem, though his “coming forth” is from old—from eternity. 

Jesus “began” in Bethlehem, but that was not his beginning. These are hard words to understand, until we know the whole story. Once we know the story they make more sense than anything else in the world. This was Emanuel—the eternal God “with us.”

Micah said that Messiah’s birth would be announced at Migdol Eder (“The Watch–Tower of the Flock”)—identified as the Shepherd’s Field near Bethlehem, where shepherds were watching their flocks. It was there and to them that the angels announced “good news.”

It’s significant that the announcing angels bypassed Jerusalem where the clergy of that day held court. They also passed up Herod’s palace nearby—Herodium, his villa near Bethlehem—and appeared instead to shepherds in the fields who were, as Luke says, tending their flocks. Shepherds got the word first of all; Micah saw it coming, 700 years before.

No one back then would ever have thought that shepherds would be interested in spiritual things. They weren’t religious men; they were more like Owyhee County Buckeroos than the sanitized sheep–men we associate with the story now.

It’s more striking also when you realize that God never wastes his words. He only speaks to men and women that want to hear what he has to say. It must be that these men, though not religious men, knew their need for God.  

The angel’s words were simple and memorable: “Today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”

A “Savior born for you.” That was the good news! “You’ll know him when you find a baby in a feed trough.” That was the sign.

And so the shepherds went off to search for the baby. They didn’t bother to look at Herod’s palace on the hill; there were no feed troughs up there. They skirted the resorts, the spas and the lodges of the rich and famous and went looking for a stockyard or a feedlot or a cattle pen or for one of the caves in ground into which shepherds drove their flocks at night.

They found the child near their field (They had no idea how near he was!) in a damp and filthy stable, where Joseph and Mary, having been turned away from the inn, found shelter from the cold.

And as they stood in wonder near the make–shift crib they must have asked the question that men and women, boys and girls have been asking ever since, “What child is this?”

Who is this child? This is Christ the Lord, Emanuel; God, up close and personal.

The Old Testament hints of the fact that one day God would himself visit the earth. C.S. Lewis quaintly describes those hints as the leaves of the Old Testament “rustling with hope.” The promise was fulfilled at his coming.

The revelation starts with a trickle of truth, the way the Salmon River begins, originating near Stanley as a tiny rivulet that you can jump across with very little effort, it soon grows into a sizable stream as the Stanley Basin tributaries—the Fourth of July Creek, Redfish Creek and others—flow into it. The Salmon flows on joined by the Yankee Fork and East Fork of the Salmon, then the Pahsimeroi, North and South Forks make their contribution until by the time the Salmon reaches the Snake River its a magnificent and powerful river.

So the gathering stream of revelation in the Bible grows wider and deeper as we trace it’s course through history until it finds it’s final form, not in a gigantic figure, but in the tiny form of a little child, whom the angels said was “Christ the Lord.”

We may unknowingly overlook the vast significance of that name. Christ we know—the Greek form of the Hebrew word for “Anointed One” or ”Messiah.” But the title conceals another gigantic truth: “Lord” is the word used by the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—for God himself. The angel was very bold: this child is not only the long awaited Messiah, the Consolation of Israel. This little one was nothing less than God.

What Child is this? He is the Eternal One. The Alpha and Omega—the one found at the beginning and end of human history.  “The beginning of the past and the end of the future,” as someone has said.

This is the one who created all things. The one who holds everything together, the glue that keeps the universe from another Big Bang. The one who stands at the end of time to receive the universe back, because, St. Paul said, it was made by him and for him.

Thus the Creator became a creature of time; the limitless one was contracted to a span. This one who owned the universe was crowded out of an inn. “The God who had been only a circumference was seen as a center and a center is infinitely small” (G.K. Chesterton). This one whose hands created the universe put himself in our hands, entrusted himself to the human race, made himself so incredibly weak and vulnerable—to bring us salvation.

Salvation! That’s the word in the announcement that got the shepherd’s attention—and should get ours: “Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born to you.” Here’s one for the likes of shepherds—miserable, irreligious, sinful men and women like you and me. Here’s a God who wanted to save so badly that he got down and dirty. Here’s the only God for you and me; the only God worth having.

The shepherds found the baby nearby—an easy thing it was to find him. I hope you’ve found him too. If not, I hope you’re still seeking. Wise men and women do.

If you’re seeking, I can tell you where to find him. He’s not in our culture, devoid as it is of any indication that a Savior was born. We've left him far behind.

Not to worry, however: he’s still very near: “You’ll find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

David Roper

Monday, December 8, 2014

Death Watch

"In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die (Isaiah 38:1).

I read this morning about a new gadget, the Tikker Death Watch, a wristwatch that ticks off the seconds until you die. The watch wearer fills out a questionnaire, inputs age and the countdown begins. (The watch employs a logarithm used by the federal government to estimate life expectancy.)

Swiss inventor, Fredrick Colting (interestingly, a former grave digger!) thought the device would encourage wearers to number their remaining days and live them fully. One potential customer quipped that he would "put out the trash, change into clean underwear, blast some Ethel Merman one last time while sipping latte."   

King Hezekiah of Judah had a "Death Watch" of sorts: he became dangerously ill and the prophet Isaiah revealed that the countdown had begun. The king, who was the only 38 years old at the time begged for additional days. God in his mercy gave him fifteen years.

Sad to say, Hezekiah squandered those years, exposing Judah's treasure to the Babylonians, a foolish decision that led to the Babylonian conquest some years later. He also fathered Manasseh, the most despicable king in Judah's history.

What would I do if I knew the hour of my death? Would I number my days and live them in wisdom or would I fritter them away in self-serving efforts to fill our a mythic bucket list?

Peter had his own countdown: "The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self- controlled and sober- minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace..." (1 Peter 4:7-10).

What should characterize our remaining years, however many God shall give us? Prayer, love, hospitality and the use of our spiritual gifts; or put another way, patiently and quietly doing those things that have eternal significance. In the words of a plaque that hung on the wall of my boyhood home:

Only one life will soon be past;
only what's done for Christ will last.
And when I am dying how glad I shall be,
that the lamp of my life has blazed out for Thee.

—C.T. Studd

David Roper

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Love That Surrounds Us



“Love surrounds us, looking for the smallest crack by which it may enter in.” —George MacDonald

Our neighbors' sidewalk boasts a peculiar sight: an ice plant growing out of a slab of concrete. Seeds from a plant next door have washed down the sidewalk and taken root in a tiny crack in an otherwise solid slab.

When I pass that way I think of the story Jesus told about the farmer that went out to sow seed in his field. Some fell on a hard, impenetrable pathway and could find no place to grow. 

Some folks’ hearts get to be that way: Trampled and hardened by wrongdoing—others’ or their own—there’s no place for God’s love to take root and grow.

But the hardest heart will be broken—“the rains fall, the floods come, the winds blow.” A child dies, a relationship unravels, a career founders, an incurable illness is uncovered, old age descends and the last illusions of life are torn away. Then tiny fissures begin to appear and the Love that has surrounded us all through our lives may find a place to enter in. That’s when we may be closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than ever before.

David Roper