Wednesday, December 30, 2015

PIE CRUST PROMISES

"Will you stay if we promise to be good?"
"That's a pie-crust promise. Easily made, easily broken!"

-Mary Poppins

I'm usually unsatisfied with my behavior no matter what time of the year it is. Nevertheless I make no resolutions for such promises, easily made, are easily broken. David learned that lesson well when, on one occasion, he resolved to hold his tongue...and couldn't do it.

David was angry with God, yet he knew he shouldn't vent his anger in the presence of God's enemies. (It's always wrong to speak against a friend, especially in the presence of his antagonists.) So he resolved not to speak. "I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin," he vowed. "I will put a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence."

For a short time he was able to restrain himself, but "the fire burned," David fumed, erupted...and lamented: "Show me...my end, and the number of my days. Let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath." Thus failed resolve leads us to consider the brevity and frailty of our existence. 

We are eternal creatures with perfection in our hearts, and the perennial desire to move toward that perfection. Yet we exist in time and space as imperfect, flawed human beings, utterly unable to keep our promises. "The Spirit is willing, but the flesh (our unaided humanity) is weak." That's why our resolve breaks down and we fall back to old habits and patterns of behavior.

There is but one way to make any real progress toward goodness: it is to know how frail we are. So David prays, "Cause me to know my end," literally, "my boundaries" (vs. 4). Change begins with humility and the awareness that our resolve is mere "breath" (vs. 5). We voice our resolutions and they dissipate like breath into thin air.

Enduring change does not come by vows, decrees, New Year resolutions and strong resolve, but solely by the grace of God. Our part is to earnestly desire righteousness and to pray for it. God's part is to bring it about in His own time and in His own way. "Man proposes; God disposes, an older generation of Christians used to say.

This David learned: "Now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you. Save me from all my transgressions... (Then) I was silent; I did not open my mouth, for you did it!" (vss. 7-9).

There is an echo in Paul's promise: "The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it!" (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

David Roper


Monday, December 21, 2015

Logos

“The lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song... Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction. Thus, with an unspeakable thrill, she felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) “out of the Lion’s head.” When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them” (C.S. Lewis Magicians Nephew p.126).

Plato, the Greek philosopher, reasoned there must be an “idea” (or “form”) in the spiritual world that stands behind every object in the material world, one that preceded its existence. And if that idea exists, there must be a mind that conceived it and spoke it into being. These three transcendent realities—a divine mind, an idea, an utterance—Plato combined into one absolute and named it the “Logos” (the Word).

Plato was very near the truth, so near, in fact, that early Christians referred to him as “one of our own.” But though he caught a glimpse of “the true Light that gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9), he did not fully comprehend it. Something more was needed, something tremendous, something yet to come, something the wisdom of man could not conceive: “The Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelled among us …” (John 1:14). The divine Logos and a mortal man together bore one name: Jesus. This is what Christians call The Incarnation, the final, irrefutable proof that God really, really cares.

American Theologian Frederick Buechner had this to say: “We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want — scientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all — would not, in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all. For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind to keep the whole show going, but that there is a God right there in the thick of our day-to-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.  It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want, but whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence.  That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get” (Secrets in the Dark, p.16).

All through the Old Testament we read that God has been doing his best to get next to us, humbling himself, condescending to make himself known, but nothing can match what happened that night in the little town of Bethlehem. It was there that the Logos became the little Lord Jesus, a helpless infant with unfocused eyes and uncontrollable limbs, needing to be breast–fed, swaddled, cuddled and cared for, “the infinite made infinitesimally small,” G. K. Chesterton said. That is indeed the miracle we’re really after and the miracle that we got: The Logos become Immanuel: God with us.

John speaks of the Logos in a most personal way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled—(this was) the Word (the eternal Logos)!” (1 John 1:1).

John was astounded by the thought that he had heard and seen Plato’s Logos, and held him in his hands.[1] The one who made up the universe “out of his head” and spoke it (or sang it) into existence was “pleased as man with men to dwell.” Why did He do it?

It was love—pure and simple.

David Roper


[1] The Greek word translated “handled” suggests something more than a tentative touch. It has the thought of familiarity and affection—perhaps a hug.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Baby

"O come let us adore Him: Christ the Lord."

I was making my way through a department store last week and thought of an old Doonesbury cartoon: Michael J. sits ensconced in his easy chair watching TV. After loud shouts and the sounds of gun fighting the announcer says, “This concludes our regular broadcast day. Stay tuned for film clips of the Marines, a story from the life of Jesus and our National Anthem.” Doonesbury gets to his feet and joins in the singing of the anthem.

There you have it: the good, old American way: Equal time for everything and everybody. Nothing is special any more, not even Jesus, who, if we acknowledge at all, we place in a cluster of traditions.

Especially at Christmas. We keep the Christ–child around to grace an occasional manger, but he’s merely one symbol among many: Rudolph, Scrooge, St. Nicholas and his elves, toy soldiers, little drummer boys, shepherds, angels, Christmas trees, Yule logs and Jesus, all vie for our attention; everything alongside everything else. The Son of God gets lost in the Yuletide clutter.

Melissa knows better. She’s one our grandchildren. She’s grown up now, but many years ago, when she was very small, Carolyn and I took her to the Festival of the Trees, an event here Boise in which businesses and organizations decorate Christmas trees, competing with one another in various categories. The display is magnificent.

We were enchanted by the grandeur of the hall as we moved from one tree to the next, pointing and exclaiming. But Melissa soon lost interest, surfeited by splendor, until she came to a small manger scene and there she paused transfixed.

Nothing else mattered—not the magnificently decorated trees, not Santa Claus who was nearby and beckoning and not even an incredible talking tree.  She was captivated by the Child.

We tried our best to urge her on—we wanted to see the trees—but she lingered behind, wanting to hold the baby, pressing closer to him despite the ribbon stretched around the cradle, keeping her away 

Finally, she agreed to leave, albeit reluctantly, looking back over her shoulder to get a glimpse of the crèche through the trees. As we were leaving the building she tugged on my sleeve and asked once again  “Papa, can we go see the baby?” We went back to the manger and waited while she gazed long and longingly at the Child. 

As Melissa adored Him, I marveled at her simplicity. Unlike her, I often fail to see Jesus for the trees.

“There are some things worth being a child to get hold of again,” George MacDonald said. “Make me a child again,” I prayed, “at least for tonight.”

David Roper

Monday, November 30, 2015

What Will We Do In Heaven?

“Surely both intellect and love are waiting for us there” —From "The Wow O'Riven" —George MacDonald.

What do people do in hell? Nothing. It’s the most boring place in the universe. Imagine, if you can, a world without God—without beauty, without love, without laughter. Nothing to live for, or die for… forever.

What do people do in Heaven? Everything! Our loftiest hopes and dreams will be realized! “In heaven, whatever delights you now is there in superabundance,” Aquinas said.

Personally, I’ve never taken much to the idea that we’ll float about on gossamer clouds and strum our harps all day. Those activities don’t interest me now; why would I find pleasure in them in Heaven? No, I think we’ll have more significant and satisfying things to do.

Carolyn thinks we’ll spend endless days in conversation with others about things that really matter and everyone will be taken seriously. Heart will meet heart and space and time will be forgotten, “and,” she adds with a sly grin, “men will have as many words as women do.” 
C.S. Lewis thought we might be given a portion of the universe to rule, but frankly, I’m tired of running things. I’d rather spend my time exploring—moving through tine and space with the speed of thought, mapping the outer regions of the cosmos. Most stars these days are given only numbers; someday I may give them names. G.K. Chesterton thought that God is still in the business of creation. Perhaps He, “moved by tenderness sublime, will unfold new worlds, that I, his child, might see.”
I’ve been an outdoorsman all my life, but no longer. I can’t climb and trek and do the things I used to do. But this is not forever: A few more years of frailty and then strength and endless days to explore the universe that God is making! Our stories do not end in this world: One day we shall “change the feet that have grown weary for the wings that never will.” 
And we will love. Love is our business now; why not in heaven? It’s the very best thing we can do in this life and the one thing that will fascinate us forever. We shall love beyond earthly existence, beyond death, for love is eternal. Faith will become sight and hope will become realization, but love will never end! (1 Corinthians 13:8). We shall love and be loved forever
Who could ask for anything more?

David Roper
11/30/15
Forgiven

“My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. But if [1] anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” —1 John 2:2

Carolyn reminded me this morning of a mutual friend who used to come home from work, walk through the front door and shout, “You’re forgiven!”

It wasn’t that family members had wronged him and needed his forgiveness. He was reminding them that though they had doubtless sinned throughout the day, they were, by God’s grace, fully forgiven.

Psalm 119 comes to mind, a poem in which the psalmist insists that he loves God and loves His word. Then I read the very last verse of the psalm, a text reminiscent of Jesus’ parable about a lost sheep:

I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
Seek Your servant... (119:176)

A man of God who has gone astray?

Then I thought of the tax collector in the temple who also characterized himself as a “lost sheep” and cried out for mercy, in contrast to the Pharisee who had it all together. Jesus said this man (the tax collector, not the self—righteous Pharisee) went home justified (Luke 18:9-14). 

John supplies this grace note: ”If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son continually cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin (no inclination to sin), we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9).

"Walking in the light" is a metaphor for our efforts to follow Jesus in the path of obedience. Obedience, John insists, is the sign that we have joined with the Apostles in the fellowship of faith. We are authentic Christians.

But, he continues, let’s not kid ourselves: We will go astray. Nevertheless, grace is given in full measure: We can take what forgiveness we need.

Not perfect; just forgiven! That’s my mantra for today.

David Roper
11/30/15




[1] The Greek conditional clause suggests inevitability

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bro Job

Beginning in January of this year, trouble began falling on me like bricks tumbling out of a dump truck one after another.  I won't bore you with the details except to say that I've had nine months of pain and aggravation and now enjoy a certain kinship with Brother Job.

Job is one of my patron saints. I see him—a man bereaved, humiliated and stripped of all this life has to offer; his skin is blistered and festering and his nerves are on fire. I ask, "How will this best of all men respond?" "What great truth can I learn from him?"

"After this Job opened his mouth and cursed..." (Job 3:3)

Job is my kind of man.

I haven't always thought that way. I stand in a long tradition that confused the Christian virtue of endurance with the pagan ethic of stoicism. I was taught to curb my emotions, or at least the outward expression of them, and to never complain. Ours was the virtue of the stiff upper lip. It's little wonder that I never took well to Job, his overmastering sorrow, his angry outbursts of frustration. Job was a whiner.

I've been told that stoicism found it's way into Western thought via the Renaissance and the notion that reason must override passion, but the Renaissance is not our mother. We go back to an older, richer, inspired tradition: The lament psalms in which Israel's poets pour out their emotions with groans and loud complaints.

Biblical endurance, the chief virtue in times of testing, is something quite different from stoicism. It has to do with steadfast trust in God's goodness and love despite all counter-indications, but it says nothing about our emotional state while doing so.

Job is no Stoic, striving to be pure mind with no passion. Job's was not the strength of stones or of bronze (6:14). The man is an emotional wreck. The Lord’s testing is not to find out if Job can sit unmoved like a block of wood, but will he continue to hope in God despite his suffering and the emotional turmoil that surrounded it.

The example of Jesus should forever silence those who criticize emotional outbursts and consider them to be sinful or signs of immaturity: ”In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears..." (Hebrews 5:7)

Jesus experienced the whole range of human emotions, yet he did not sin. His strongest desire, even in agony, was to surrender himself wholly to his Father.

We are drawn by our suffering to that same point of giving in to our Lord. Going through a wrestling match with God is not an indication of spiritual weakness, but of the intensity of our desire for wholeness. We have a God who lets us be angry at him and accepts our emotional pain as his own. It's okay to fume and fret o'er our troubles; okay to wish they were gone.

What I long for, pray for, therefore, is not bland, vapid, phlegmatic calm, but absolute and undoubting confidence in the love of God in the face of all my troubles—and someday to say with Job, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust him."

David Roper
11/22/15


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Where is Heaven?

Now suppose youre Paul, good at mixing your metaphors, and you try to say all those things at once within the biblical cosmology, which uses upstairs/downstairs language for heaven and earth, even though the writers know perfectly well that heaven is not a location in our space-time universe but rather a different kind of space that intersects with ours in complex and interesting ways.” —N.T. Wright

Recently Carolyn and I watched a movie in which two men were arguing about Timbuktu. One thought it was a “made up place”; the other insisted it was a real city, but neither man knew where it was.

So it is with Heaven. It resides in our thoughts like Timbuktu, Kuala Lumpur or Katmandu—far-away places with strange sounding names —a real place

But, where is it?

In ancient times when people spoke of Heaven they pointed up at the sky. Heaven was “up there,” way beyond the blue. But what if Heaven is not up there somewhere, but everywhere?

Studies in quantum mechanics support that thesis: Physicists argue that there must be an unobservable, parallel universe lying in and around our own. The theory is so weird and counter-intuitive that nobody understands it, but it’s the only hypothesis that fully accounts for physical phenomena, as we know it.[1] Could it be that this “unobservable, parallel universe lying in and around our own” is Heaven?

Consider the varied “appearances” of Jesus after His resurrection: In every instance he did not descend from Heaven but simply “appeared”…and then “disappeared,” or to quote Luke exactly, “became invisible” (Luke 24:31; 24:36). On the Mount of Transfiguration, while Jesus was talking to the Apostles, Moses and Elijah, long-time citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, suddenly “appeared” (Matthew 17:1-9). As Stephan was dying he saw Heaven “standing open” (Acts 7:56). In each case Heaven and all its citizens, though invisible, seems to be, well…next door.[2]

But, you ask, is there a point to this wondering? Indeed. Faith tells me that I’m not alone in the little study in which I write. The room is crammed with Heaven—Jesus, reaching out to me in lovingkindness and compassion; legions of angels watching over me;[3] and perhaps my family and friends that have gone on before me,[4] cheering me on, watching in anticipation when I’m tempted, bursting into applause on those occasions when the world, the flesh and the devil go down in defeat. I cannot see these heavenly helpers but surely they are there.

Faith is the means by which we gain access to this invisible world. It “gives substance to things that are not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It is, to the spiritual realm, what the five senses are to the natural: the means by which we grasp spiritual reality and bring it into the realm of our experience.

G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a reporter what he would say if Jesus were standing beside him. He is,” Chesterton replied with calm assurance.

David Roper
November 4, 2015


[1] See Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.
[2] Additionally, there is the story of Elisha and his servant in the city of Dothan (2 Kings 6). Surrounded by a massive Assyrian army, Elisha insists that there was a greater force on their side. Elisha’s servant eyes were opened and he “saw that the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around”—an angelic army of inestimable size, present, but invisible to human eyes.
[3] Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:13)
[4]Can our loved ones in heaven see us? I answer, “Why not?” Angels are watching the story of redemption unfold (1Peter 1:12). Why not the saints? Is there any compelling reason why they shouldn’t, or wouldn’t want to see how their loved ones are faring?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Seeing Beyond the End of the World

“For now they saw something not only behind the wave but behind the sun. They could not have seen even the sun if their eyes had not been strengthened by the water of the Last Sea. But now they could look at the rising sun and see it clearly and see things beyond it. What they saw—eastward, beyond the sun—was a range of mountains. It was so high that either they never saw the top of it or they forgot it. None of them remembers seeing any sky in that direction. And the mountains must really have been outside the world. For any mountains even a quarter of a twentieth of that height ought to have had ice and snow on them. But these were warm and green and full of forests and waterfalls however high you looked. And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them. It lasted only a second or so but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterward. Lucy could only say, It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy. No one in that boat doubted that they were seeing beyond the End of the World into Aslan’s country.” —C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Some years ago, Carolyn and I were flying to a pastors' conference in a mountain community in northern Idaho with that rare, old saint, Dr. Oswald Sanders. We were in a small plane and sitting knee to knee with Dr. Sanders, watching him scribble on a yellow legal pad.

"What are you doing?" I asked. "Writing about my next destination," he said. "Which is?"  I prompted. "Heaven," he replied with an impish grin. A few months later he reached his final destination and the notes he made that day found their way into a book entitled, Heaven, Better by Far (Discovery House Publishers).

Since I'm now much closer to the end of my life than it's beginning I too am beginning to wonder about my "next destination" and what awaits me there. In his dialogue Phaedo Plato gives us Socrates’ last words shortly before he drank the hemlock cup:Perhaps it most becoming for one who is about to travel there (beyond this world), to inquire and speculate about the journey thither, what kind we think it is.” What follows thus, in this E-musing and others to come, are some of the thoughts that have gone up my mind,” as Emily Dickinson would say, an inquiry and speculation about the journey thither, what kind I think it is.

I must admit it is difficult to write about Heaven.[1] The problem is twofold: (1) We have very little biblical data to draw on. The Bible tells us only a few things beyond the unambiguous assurance that Heaven exists. Other than that assertion we have only tantalizing hints and intimations. We must be content to see only a picture of it—a sort of vision of it—and only while you seem to be asleep,” George MacDonald said.

(2) Furthermore, we human beings have no categories to describe Heaven; human thought and language are inadequate to depict its majesty and joy. For that reason no Biblical writer, not even Paul who visited Heaven, supplies a literal description, for we could never grasp it. On the occasion that Paul reported his visit to Heaven words failed him. He saw things he could not describe (2 Corinthians 12:3,4).[2]

However, God, wholly aware of our limitations, has disclosed divine truth in forms we can grasp. The biblical writers use metaphors and draw analogies from things we know. Each of these symbols reveals some aspect of the greater reality to which they point. They are, however, at best, imperfect reflections. The danger lies in pressing these analogies beyond their limits and making them the reality they represent.

When we read about Heaven in scripture, therefore, we must not think that Heaven is "this"; it is rather "like this." That's the best we can do, although I do think it is entirely appropriate to use our God-given imagination to reflect on the implications of these analogies. When guided by revelation imagination can wake up thoughts and feelings within us that mere facts cannot do.  

There’s danger in using our imagination of course. We can go too far, like Charles William’s character, Lilly, who not only could tell you your future; she could make one up for you.” It is my hope, however, that these thoughts will not go beyond what is written,” but will be based on the facts of God’s word and used by His Spirit to evoke in us a longing for the magnificent future God has in store for us” (Romans 8:18, J.B. Phillips, New Testament in Modern English.)

David Roper
October 26, 2016




[1] In recent years authors have fallen into practice of writing the word Heaven” with a lower case h,” as though it’s a common noun like “sky.” But it seems to me that the word should be capitalized because it’s a proper noun and refers to a unique entity like Boston or Boise.
[2] Paul “heard things that cannot be told, which one is not able to speak.  The Greek word he uses, éxestin, means “to have the power,” and does not mean that it’s inappropriate to speak of Heaven, but rather that it’s impossible to do so.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Provenance

"I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well" (Psalm 139:14).

One afternoon about twenty years ago I received a mysterious package in the mail: a cardboard cylinder about four feet long. In it I found an aluminum fly rod case with a polished brass cap inscribed with my name. 

The case enclosed an exquisite, custom-made bamboo fly rod, hand-built by one of the premier rod makers in the United States. (For those of you who know about such things, the rod is a 2 piece, 2 tip, 7'6", 5 weight, built on a vintage Lyle Dickerson blank.) Included with the rod was a brief note: "You did something for me once. Now I want to do something for you." The note was anonymous. 

I fished the rod for years with the admiration and delight that comes from possessing a work of fine art until one day I broke off one of the tips and decided to retire the rod lest I damage it further. I hope one day to pass it on to one of our sons.

Recently, I found out that the insurance policy I hold on my fishing equipment covers breakage as well as loss and so contacted the rod maker that bought Dickerson's equipment to see if he could construct another tip, in the course of which I discovered that the little rod is now immensely valuable! Why? Because of its provenance—its source of origin.  

I've built a half dozen fly rods in my time, all of which are worth very little, but this rod has great value for it was made by a master craftsman and every rod that he made is a masterpiece.

Do you know that you too are a masterpiece, "fearfully and wonderfully made." You were conceived in your Creator's mind long before you were conceived in your mother's womb, and lovingly hand-crafted according to a master plan (139:16). Your worth depends on the simple fact that you were made by God. You are valued, not for your body, your clothes, your talent, your intellect, or your personality, but because God thought about you and you became you

If God did not think you worth making would he have bothered to call you into existence for all eternity? You must be immensely valuable indeed...which is why Jesus said we should never call anyone—not even ourselves—a "fool" (the word means "worthless").

David Roper

10/13/15

Monday, October 5, 2015


Morality and a Dirty Shirt

"Some people think it is not proper for a clergyman to dance. I mean to assert my freedom from any such law. If our Lord chose to represent, in His parable of the Prodigal Son, the joy in Heaven over a repentant sinner by the figure of ‘music and dancing,’ I will hearken to Him rather than to men, be they as good as they may. For I had long thought that the way to make indifferent things bad, was for good people not to do them.” —George MacDonald

My mother, if asked, “Is this shirt dirty?” would almost always reply: “If it’s doubtful, it’s dirty.” That may be a passable theory of cleanliness, but as a moral premise, it’s deadly, a hypothesis that breeds paranoia and guilt for you never know if you’ve stepped out of line. 

The “Doubtful if Dirty” moral thesis poses this proposition: “Everything is evil unless I know it is good.”  The biblical theory of morality is the other way ‘round: “Everything is good unless I know it is bad.”  Paul puts it plainly, “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated (put to its intended use) by the Word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4,5).

Satan has never created anything. Not even sin. Evil does not exist as a thing in itself; it is parasitic. It fastens itself to everything beautiful that God has made and twists it into a base and ugly thing through improper use, motive or timing. His deceits are multifarious. Thus we need to prayerful, thoughtfully read God’s Word to discern good and evil. The New Testament (the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles) is our authority in all matters of conduct, a final authoritative answer to the question of the good life—this despite our culture’s insistence that morality is subjective. God draws very few line­s—there was only one forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden—but they are fine lines. What is prohibited is clearly prohibited.

But, what is not prohibited is permissible. Once again: Everything is good unless I know it is evil. 

Now, admittedly, a permissible thing may not be prescribed for me. I may, for good reasons, decide to lay a good thing aside. But the thing in and of its self may not be wrong, nor is it necessarily wrong for others. To insist that it is, is legalism. “Doubtful things” become rules and regulations that go beyond scriptural proscriptions and acquire the force and finality of “biblical” sanctions nowhere found in the Bible (Cf., Colossians 2:20-23; Mark 7:7). 

But the greater concern is that the Doubtful is Dirty premise is counter–productive of righteousness, leading us into greater unrighteousness, causing us to neglect the “weightier matters of the law—goodness, love and faithfulness.”[1]

Let me explain: 

When I was a young boy I was introduced to the “filthy five”: Thou shalt not drink. Thou shalt not smoke. Thou shalt not play cards. Thou shalt not dance. Thou shalt not go to the movies.

There was a sixth proscription, making it an even half-dozen: Thou shalt not engage in mixed bathing! At first I was unsure with what I was not supposed to be mixed. Then I learned it was girls. At summer camp, girls and boys swam at different times, ostensibly, to keep our thoughts pure. It didn’t work. We watched from afar. 

There was security in the system, I must say; I knew where I stood. And, it’s conceivable that in certain circumstances any or all of those sanctions might be valid. Yet even as a young boy I saw the irony in these vetoes: I could refrain from all of them and completely miss the point of authentic goodness! Goodness, like God, is very subtle. 

George MacDonald, in his novella Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood makes the case far better than I. 

He writes of a young cleric who went out to acquaint himself with a parishioner, an elderly Scot named Rogers. He had seen the old man walking through the village, clouds of smoke billowing from his briar pipe, and so purchased a tin of tobacco for him and offered it to him as a gambit: 

“You smoke, don’t you, Rogers?” I said
 “Well, sir, I can’t deny it. It’s not much I spend on baccay, anyhow. Is it, dame?”
 “No, that it bean’t,” answered his wife.
 “You don’t think there’s any harm in smoking a pipe, sir?”
 “Not the least,” I answered, with emphasis.
 “You see, sir,” he went on, not giving me time to prove how far I was from thinking there was any harm in it, “you see, sir, sailors learns many ways they might be better without. I used to take my pan o’grog with the rest of them; but I give that up quite, ‘cause as how I don’t want it now.”
 “Cause as how,” interrupted his wife, “you spend the money on tea for me, instead. You wicked old man to tell stories!”
 “Well, I takes my share of the tea, old woman, and I’m sure it’s a deal better for me. But, to tell the truth, sir, I was a little troubled in my mind about the baccay, not knowing whether I ought to have it or not. For you see, the parson that’s gone didn’t like it, as I could tell when he came in at the door and me a-smokin.’ Not as he said anything; for, ye see, I was an old man, and I daresay that kep him quiet. But I did hear him blow up a young chap i’ the village he came upon with a pipe in his mouth. He did give him a thunderin’ broadside, to be sure! So I was in two minds whether I ought to be on with my pipe or not.”
 “And how did you settle the question, Rogers?”
 “Why, I followed my own old chart, sir.”
 “Quite right. One mustn’t mind too much what other people think.”
 “That’s not exactly what I mean, sir.”
 “What do you mean then? I should like to know.”
 “Well, sir, I mean that I said to myself, ‘Now, Old Rogers, what do you think the Lord would say about this here baccay business?’“
 “And what did you think He would say?”
 “Why, sir, I thought He would say, ‘Old Rogers, have yer baccay; only mind ye don’t grumble when you ‘ain’t got none.’”

“And this is the man I thought I would be able to teach!” the young minister mused.

David Roper
October 5. 2015

[1] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: righteousness and love and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

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