Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Moving away

Genesis 4:16 could be a summary of what humanity has been doing throughout history. It says that Cain went away from the presence of the Lord.

Cain has received judgment for the sin of killing his brother. His violence, which grows out of his self-centeredness, has uprooted him from every stability, every life-giving relationship. He has become a wanderer on the earth, yet God has marked him in some mysterious way to protect him from the violence of others. But now, Cain moves away from the presence of the Lord.

This is our natural tendency, our "normal" drift. We wander away like sheep (Isaiah 53:6) -- not in a headlong rush toward self-destruction, but grazing a little here and a little there, drifting from one appealing bit of grass to another until we are separated from the Shepherd and wandering dangerously close to the edge of the precipice. When things are good and peaceful and things seem okay, we wander off like Cain, away from the presence of the Lord.

The next few verses tell us that Cain built a city, which he named for his son Enoch. This is not the Enoch we'll meet later who is descended from Seth, who "walked with God". That story comes a bit later. But Cain, true to his name ("Cain" means "productive") is a builder, building up a city. He's busy with his efforts and his work.

I heard once at a leadership seminar a description of the difference between managers and leaders. If you have an expedition going through the jungle, managers are coordinating schedules, making sure the road gets built straight and level, scheduling shifts so that the workers get the maximum possible road-building done each day. Leaders are climbing the mountain miles ahead of the group, using binoculars and taking sightings and filling in the blank spaces on the map. The problem between the two occurs when the leader comes back and tells the group, "This is the wrong jungle!" The managers, at this point, are prone to say, "Don't tell us that -- we're making good progress here!"

Cain is like a good manager. He's building stuff, getting a lot done. But he has moved away from the presence of the Lord. He's working in the wrong jungle.

How often do we miss the fact that we're working in the wrong arena, that the big questions of life are being answered in the wrong way, because we're focused on the fact that we're making good progress? This is the road to hell. It is not a road for axe-murderers and psychopaths; they already live in hell, to some extent. No, this road -- what Jesus described as a broad road with wide gates -- is the road so many of us travel, constantly monitoring our speed and gas mileage without ever thinking about our final destination.

It's a bit of a chilling thought, isn't it?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Giving your best

We often hear about "giving our best." Graduation speeches, corporate motivation seminars, father-daughter talks ... all are laced with some form of the challenge to strive for excellence, to "give our best."

As Christians, we certainly want to be all about excellence. However, sometimes "giving our best" has a whole different meaning in the life of the Jesus-follower. We see a foreshadowing of it in this story about Cain, Abel, and Seth.


Seth was the "replacement" son -- the son God gave Adam and Eve to replace Abel, whom Cain killed. (See Genesis 4:25-26). The lineage of Jesus is traced through Seth, not through Cain or Abel. Seth becomes the carrier of God's promise, the reminder of God's presence, the agent by which God delivers the Messiah to the world. But Seth comes as the "replacement."

When I was about 20 years old, one of the character traits that I liked best about myself was that I was emotionally strong. By this I meant I was able to walk through any situation without getting emotionally entangled in it. I could preach or speak in the most grueling emotional circumstances without choking up. I could walk into the most gruesome stories of abuse or tragedy without getting hurt myself. So, I thought, I was best able to help others because I could be strong for them.

As God has grown me from what I was to what I have become (and I have a long way yet to go) one of the things he's done is to take many of those "best" things about me away. He has crucified my best on the cross and destroyed it so that he might replace what I thought was good with the very presence of Jesus himself, living in me.

So for example, God has worked for many years to tear down and crucify the invulnerability that I thought was so good. He has torn down my walls and allowed me to walk through tragedies -- both tragedies of my own and the tragedies of others, where I come alongside as a guest in their grief. These experiences have tenderized my heart.

In 2006 I worked to build a leadership team for Central Lutheran's Alpha ministry, and I faced a crucial question. Would I maintain a "professional distance" -- by which I meant keeping my walls up and maintaining my invulnerability -- or would I let these people become friends, dear friends, who had access to my heart? It was a tough question, and I wrestled with God for months over it. I became convinced God was calling me to open up my heart -- always, I hasten to add, making sure that appropriate boundaries are respected and maintained -- and let these people in. To be honest, it was a frightening process. As God brought what I thought was best about me -- my "strength," my invulnerability -- to death on the cross, he replaced that cool distance with a family affection for this amazing team of people. In the process he drew the members of this team into each other's lives as well so that they are in and out of each other's homes, kids run from one living room to the next with complete comfort, and this group of people tends and shepherds each other far better than I ever could. Oh, and by the way, they have done an AMAZING job of leading Central's Alpha ministry as well.

Last week we began the week with a prayer service for Amy, one member of this family, who was fighting cancer. That was Monday night. After the service we went to her home and prayed over her and her family. Holy moments. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning Amy met Jesus face to face. The rest of the week was a roller coaster of grief, leading up to her Friday funeral. This group of people who have become extended family to me and to each other broke my heart as I saw those I cared so much about grieving in such pain. The invulnerability was certainly long gone as I wept with them and for them.

Several times in the last few days members of this team have pulled me aside with some version of these thoughts: "Jeff, you know this is all your fault. If you hadn't pulled this group together and taught us to love each other, this wouldn't be nearly so difficult. Thank you. Thank you. You should be very proud."

I am not proud, for that would be like taking credit for something I got the privilege of watching the Holy Spirit accomplish, and I was as much in awe as anyone as I observed the bonds growing over the last several years. But I am so thankful in the face of this grief that God took the best of me to the cross, to give me something better -- to give me Jesus and his vulnerability, his love, in place of my own "strength."

So when God demands your best, give it to him. Let him nail it to the cross. Receive from him the brokenness, the emptiness, that feels so frightening, and let him grow you into the image of Jesus. What he will give you is so much better than what you would give yourself.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Life happens

Apologies to those of you who have been watching for an update to this blog. I have been a little overwhelmed this week just keeping up with life. A good friend of ours, Amy Harbaugh, passed away Tuesday morning after a battle with cancer, so we have been wrapped up in the company of many of our brothers and sisters, and especially doing what we can to care for her husband and daughters. Then today, my oldest daughter graduates from high school. This is not a traditional graduation but a homeschool graduation, so we are not only doing our own ceremony but also the more traditional open house, followed by what she calls the "bonfire and night o' mayhem" this evening. So I appreciate your prayers!

This week was much of what I saw coming in my last post about brothers and sisters and how we are called to care for each other. We are so blessed with many, many strong relationships with people who care for us.

I'm hoping to be back to Genesis next week. Thanks for your patience!


Sunday, May 16, 2010


"Let's go out to the field." It's what Cain said to Abel to set the stage for murder.

The story of Cain and Abel is that much worse because of this treachery, this evil plot, this premeditation in the context of a relationship between brothers. Brothers -- and sisters -- are supposed to watch your back, to defend your honor, to bear your burdens. As a younger brother, I imagine Abel's rush of excitement -- no matter how old he was -- when his big brother invited him to go along to the field. As an older brother, my stomach churns with the thought of betraying trust in this horrific way.

I think what my siblings and I have been through. My brothers and I hunt together. One night in the Colorado Rockies I was having trouble finding my way down a mountainside as night fell. I had stayed too long on stand watching for elk in a high meadow, and every trail I followed down brought me to the top of a 30-foot cliff. I knew if I couldn't get down, my brothers would be out in the middle of the night looking for me. Many times we have hunted bears together, and I can tell you there is great comfort in having brothers along on the trail of a wounded bear through thick brush in the middle of the night. We take care of each other.

It's what brothers and sisters do. We have cooked for each other and cleaned up after each other. We have worked together off and on most of our lives. We laugh together and tell stories and muse together to find the collective wisdom of where the deer are moving in the morning, or how best to work a herd of cows. We have sat in the pews together at worship services and at too many funerals. We pass on hand-me-down clothing and favorite books.

How can Cain turn on Abel? God tells Cain before the murder, "Sin is crouching at your door." Cain turns his back on his bond with his brother and turns toward his own desires, his own fears, his own insecurities, his own bitterness. This is what sin does -- it turns us from God, from our brother, toward ourselves. People sometimes ask how the Bible can teach that even babies are sinful -- they're so cute, so adorable. But have you ever met anyone more self-centered than an infant? When we indulge our sin, we become more infantile, more childish. The sin that crouches at our door demands a pacifier. In Cain's case, pacifying his own selfishness meant killing his brother. It's a dark story, one of the darkest in the Bible, which is full of unpleasant stories.

But it is not primarily a story of murder. It is primarily a story about selfishness. And if we see it in that light, it hits much closer to home. How often have I turned toward my own self-indulgence rather than stepping out of my way for someone else? How often do I not see the needs of another person because I am so preoccupied with myself? I am not much different from Cain.

There is a Jewish story about a rabbi who asked his students if they could define at what point night gives way to day. One student replied, "When you can tell a cat from a fox?" No. Another said, "When it is light enough to tell a chicken from a duck." No. Finally the students ran out of ideas, and the rabbi stated, "It is daybreak when you look into the face of a man and recognize that he is your brother -- for until that moment it is still night."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Grief and hope

After the death of Abel, we start to see creation disintegrating. Brokenness enters every human relationship. It's been happening since we disobeyed God in Genesis 3, but now we start to hear the cry of the human heart, alienated from God. Cain's lament sounds a lot like what my college profs used to call "existential angst." He's alienated from the ground, from his brother, from his place of origin, from a settled life, from God, from himself, and from other humans.

Existentialism is a philosophy which says basically that we are all alienated in this way. It is the ultimate individualism, in a sense, proclaiming that each of us is truly an island, each of us truly stands alone.

Death, which has been an unwelcome part of our story now since Genesis 3, is the final expression of this isolation. As the character of King Saul says at the beginning of the movie "King David," "in death we are all forsaken." Isn't this so much of what frightens us about death? We descend into this mystery alone, and though loved ones might stand around our bedside, they cannot accompany us. We are like children in a department store, playing peekaboo among the clothing racks, yet always checking to see if Mom or Dad is still close by. We want to dabble in isolation, we want to feel independent, but we don't want to be truly alone. Facing death is like that moment when the child looks around and no one is near. It's terrifying.

Instinctively, we shield our children from this as best we can. We don't talk about death, don't let them see death either in person or in media. We speak of the dying in hushed tones and arrange babysitters during funerals so the kids don't have to attend. Notice that we are not carefully considering what is best for our children when we do this; we are simply acting out our own fears and trying to protect our kids from the nightmare that scares us.

Culturally we act out this fear of death by producing ever more bizarre, grotesque, and horrific visions of death. Horror movies or shoot-em-ups where bodies fly across the screen are common fare in our theaters. I was driving my daughter and one of her friends home from school a couple years ago and the friend was describing in graphic detail a movie he'd seen the night before in which hundreds of people died gruesome deaths. After ten minutes of vivid description, I asked him, "Have you ever been with someone in real life when they died?" He gave me a horrified look and murmured, "That would be freaky. No way."

Given our almost insurmountable fears about death, dying, and loss, it's no wonder that so many people wander our streets with hidden reservoirs of grief, terror and avoidance regarding anything related to mortality. It's no wonder that our children are shielded to the point where we create a phobia about death in them before they know what it is. They learn what we live.

The Bible says that death is the final enemy. What Jesus did, giving his own life and rising from death, flies in the face of our fears about dying and loss. Jesus' death on the cross does not minimize the reality of death; quite the opposite. Studying what Jesus went through on the cross leads us deeper than we ever wanted to go into the reality of death and dying. That's the point of the cross. Jesus enters into our deepest horror, goes fully into the most grisly death. Are we afraid of death because it seems senseless? Jesus' crucifixion is more senseless. Are we afraid of violence? Jesus dies at the hand of carefully, intentionally violent men. Do we fear prolonged suffering? The torture of the cross was horrible. Does the suffering and death of those who don't deserve to suffer and die offend us? Jesus was more innocent, more holy than any other -- yet he suffered terribly and died in horrible pain. Jesus enters fully into death in all its offensiveness, in all its horror.

This is the heart of the Christian gospel -- that Jesus, God in human flesh, actually suffered and died. By entering into our death, he conquered death. By rising from death, he demonstrates for us the promise of God who calls us into life beyond death. When we face our own death or the death of those we love, we can stand squarely without flinching, because we know Jesus has gone before us. We do not understand fully what this means, but we know that he has been here before us.

I sat on the riverbank with my daughter and her friends after the suicide of another of their group, and together they wept out the grief of those who were new to this experience of laying a loved one to rest. It's hard. In her tears, my daughter -- knowing me and my work as a pastor, that I do a lot of funerals and have laid a lot of my own loved ones into the earth -- turned to me and asked, "How do you do this, Dad? How do you do this over and over again?"

The question surprised me a little bit. I hadn't thought about it much. "I guess you get used to it, a little," I said. "Grieving gets easier. Not that it ever gets easy. But it gets to be familiar ground. You learn how to grieve." But then I paused, because I knew that wasn't the entire truth, nor the deepest. "But the heart of it is that I know Jesus. And he's been here before -- he's been where I am, grieving for those he loves, but he's also gone into death itself. And he rose. He defeated death, and whatever happens, I know I can trust him to bring me -- and those I love -- out the other side of death."

So post-Easter, how do we deal with death -- for ourselves and for our children?

First of all, we grieve. We do not lipstick a smiley face on death and try to make it okay. As Jesus' followers we know the horror and the pain of death. We do not minimize it or say it should be okay. It's not okay. It's wrong. It goes against God's heart for his beloved creation. So we weep, like Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus in John 11. But as we grieve, and as we struggle with our own fears, we cling to Jesus. Amid all the flowers and weeping faces and clutter we place around death, we look for the face of Jesus, to look in his eyes and hear his voice. "Where are you in all this, Lord?" For we know he is there. He has been there, in death, and his promise is to meet us there. He does not simply come as the Comforter, though there is no greater comfort than the presence of Jesus. He meets us in the ambulance, at the hospital bed, by the graveside, next to the withering flowers at the weathered tombstone, as the Resurrection and the Life.

Second, in this as all other areas of life, we lead our children to know Jesus in the midst of grief, in the midst of fear, in the midst of death. So when my mother died without warning in 1994, or when my father died after a prolonged battle with cancer in 2000, or when my sister-in-law died after a medical procedure gone senselessly wrong in 2005, my wife and I were careful to sit with our children, to tell them in words they could understand about this death, about how grandma's body stopped working, about how cancer had taken over grandpa's body, about how sometimes -- not very often, but sometimes -- accidents happen, even to people we love. We listened to our children's grief and to their fears, we let them see some of our own grief, we cried with them while they cried, we remembered and told stories and kept them close. And above all -- above all -- we let them know that grandma, and grandpa, and Arlene, are with Jesus, and he takes care of them, and we will see them again.

This is why it is much more difficult for the follower of Jesus to deal with the death of those who may not know him. But even then we can say, "We trust Jesus to take care of them," and we do. We don't know what the specifics are in eternity for every individual, but we know who holds eternity in the palm of his hands, and he is trustworthy. When we know that our loved ones trust Jesus, we can proclaim their hope clearly. When we don't know, we proclaim Jesus and his faithfulness and his love.

But we need not -- we must not -- hide from death. This last enemy has been faced, and conquered. Jesus is risen, the victory won, as the old hymn says. Alleluia!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


We need to talk about something here. Reading these stories, from Genesis 3 onward, can break your heart. There's a deep sense of injustice in all this. Why are Adam and Eve, who were by definition innocent and unable to make an informed choice about sin, punished so severely when they disobey? Why did Abel suffer for Cain's failure? The stories will get worse as we go on, until sometimes reading the Bible is enough to make you throw your hands in the air and walk away. How can life be so unfair, especially to those who don't deserve to suffer?

Pay attention and you will find lots of people trying to address this issue with a variety of explanations of life, death, suffering, and all of it. Life is like a tapestry, one such idea goes, and we only see the backside of it. So what looks like a bunch of unrelated, ugly threads from our perspective, from God's perspective makes a beautiful weaving. What seem to us like unpleasant, ugly colors add life and texture and dimension to the picture. Or life is like a symphony, and the notes and chords that seem out of place to us add depth and beauty to the composition.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in the beginning of his masterwork The Silmarillion, tells a creation story of how Eru, the One, gave each of the Ainur -- his angels -- the gift of song, and then called them together to make a beautiful Music. But Melkor, the mightiest of the Ainur, had wandered long in the Void on his own and it came into his heart to fashion his song apart from the music Eru had placed in his heart. As he sang, others around him were drawn to shape their music according to his tones and it threw the Music into a great dischord. But Eru raised up a counter-theme that took Melkor's harsh notes and drew them into an even greater melody. After this happened again, and again, Eru halted the song and told the Ainur that all creation would find that though they might rebel against the will of Eru, in the end they would find that all they did "only redounded to his glory."

If this life is a symphony, the themes are sometimes too bitter to be borne. The notes of this composition break our hearts and drive us to our knees, and rightly so. We must resist the temptation to call evil good. We dare not stand on the shoulder of the highway where EMT's and police officers pick up the pieces and talk about the way God sees beauty here in this tragedy. Even at the foot of the cross, where we know so much good was accomplished for us (yes, God does redeem evil and bring good out of it, but that doesn't change the fact that it is evil to begin with), we need to be careful about dressing up tragedy and making it look like something good. We too often fall into the temptation to deny the reality of pain and suffering by looking too quickly toward the purpose -- real or imagined -- beyond it.

We take great hope in the idea that there is purpose in pain. It helps us to believe that at least from God's perspective, there is meaning in what seems to us so pointless and wrong. We long for a sense of security, a sense that in the end there is more than just a nasty, brutish, short life that winds down with less eternal impact than sands running through an hourglass.

There are two edges to reality when we come up against these questions. The first, and hardest, is that it's too easy to make an idol of our own need in this regard. We are all too willing to make our desires for security paramount and view reality through this filter. So we manufacture meaning and recreate reality in a careful, closed system. We take the great mysteries -- life, heaven, relationship -- and recast them in ways that make sense to us. We imagine our loved ones becoming guardian angels over us, or we picture them in a heaven that looks a great deal like a beautiful childhood memory or an indulgent fantasy of self-gratification. So sports fans talk about that Great Baseball Game in the Sky, or well-meaning, wounded Christians turn from worshipping God toward a cheap kind of ancestor worship in which they have conversations with departed loved ones instead of spending time in prayer. Neither of these pictures of an imaginary afterlife have any basis in a biblical faith. Of course there is grace here for the wounded spirit, and it is not helpful to chide grieving souls who need the comfort of a conversation with dad and a sense that even though he's gone, they can still connect with him at some level. But this is a practice of grief, not a belief rooted in biblical faith.

The second edge is that, confronted with our childish imaginings about death and the heaven, we sometimes abandon any sense of knowledge and we become, at least in practice, agnostic about the afterlife. For the reality is that the Bible is frustratingly silent on many aspects of what happens to us or our loved ones after death; but it does give us a great deal to hang onto. This biblical security is all rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. Where the Old Testament speaks hopefully about death, it does so looking forward to the resurrection of Jesus; the New Testament takes these shreds of hope and weaves them into a solid confidence that because Jesus is risen from the dead, we grieve with great hope -- not hope as the world gives, a sort of enthusiastic optimism (what my daughter calls the optimism of the rabbit who, seeing the shadow of the hawk overhead, says, "It's just a cloud ...") but Christian hope, which is the sure confidence that because Jesus is risen from death everything is changed and death is not the ultimate end of life. I believe the Bible is silent about much of what happens after death so that we will not trust the process, but rather trust in Jesus. I don't know the future, but I know who holds the future.

So while it is unbiblical to imagine heaven as my ultimate self-indulgence, it is also unbiblical to say we cannot know anything about heaven. The Bible gives us a clear vision of being gathered together with the saints around the throne of God. There is communication, there is fellowship, there is joy and peace and music and celebration. We see Jesus face to face.

So don't try to make Abel's death meaningful. Don't try to soften the blow of all the pain and suffering and tragedy in the biblical world or in our own. Part of the tragedy of Cain and Abel -- reenacted in our world thousands of times a day in physical murders, and billions of times a day when I turn from my neighbor and say, "I am NOT my brother's keeper!" -- is that this death, this suffering, this pain is unnecessary and pointless. It is meaningless precisely because it is contrary to God's desire. Abel's suffering is not part of the Grander Good. But in the face of Abel's meaningless death, in the face of unspeakable suffering, in the face of bitterness that drives us to despair, God intervenes. He does not undo evil, but promises that even in the midst of evil, even in the place of pointless suffering, even at the cross, he will be present to redeem and to heal. There is no tragedy so bleak that God cannot work in the midst of it. There is no suffering so dark that God is not present at the core of it.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Genesis 4:3-5 tells us that both Cain and Abel brought offerings as sacrifices to God. For some reason Abel's offerings received God's favor, but Cain's did not.

From a historical point of view, this brings up lots of questions. How did they know to start offering sacrifices? How did each know whether his offering had received God's favor or not? What cultural context surrounded their offerings? Did God prefer lambs rather than grain?

None of those questions gets at the heart of this passage. There are clues here we often miss.

First, look at the specific wording about each brother's offering. Cain brought "some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord." Abel, on the other hand, brought "fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock." Even in these two lines we begin to see a difference. Jesus taught that out of the overflow of our hearts we speak and act. So in the actions of Cain and Abel, we begin to see the nature of their hearts. Cain grabs a dipper and takes an average grain sample, as if he was going in to have the protein content measured. Abel, on the other hand, brings "fat portions" -- in other words, the best of the best, at least prior to our sedentary lifestyles and food pyramids. These fat portions Abel brings are selected from the firstborn of his flock -- so not an average sample, but the very first, the very best.

What does this tell you about each one's heart? Abel gave an offering, I think, out of a sense of delight in honoring God. Cain maybe gave out of a sense of duty or perhaps even resentfully. (This attitude comes through in spades in the next few interactions he has with Abel and with God.) Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks, said Jesus.

So what's the point? I still don't believe it's a story about what happened back then. It's a story about me. And maybe about you.

What's your heart like when you give? Do you love to offer your best, your first, your "fat portions" to God? (Yes, I know, most of us wish God would just make our fat portions disappear. That's NOT what I'm talking about, and you know it.) Or do you give out of a sense of have-to?

The trouble here is, our small-hearted giving bleeds over into other areas of our lives. If we are stingy in the face of God, we are also prone to be stingy and closed-fisted when it comes to relationships with others, and even with ourselves.

The deeper truth behind these brothers and their offerings is back to the truth of their names. As we said earlier, "Cain" means "productive" and "Abel" means "empty." When we see our treasures as something we've produced -- when we believe we deserve any portion of the credit for what we have -- we will be tight fisted and small hearted. But when we are empty of ourselves -- when we realize all we have and all we are is a gift to us, given so we might be a blessing to others, we can give generously.

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. What's in your heart? What overflows into your hands and your mouth? What spirit do you present to the world? Is it a pride like Cain's, expecting that your gift is going to earn you some respect, or is it a joyful freedom like Abel's, giving yourself away without strings attached?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cain's predicament

6 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

What a hopeless word this is! If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? This is harsh and hard to hear, but it is so true.

First off, it's true when I want to shift the blame to someone else. I don't want to be held responsible for my bad attitude, my irresponsibility, my laziness. Those are my negative reactions to other people's mistakes. My attitude is bad because people don't treat me well. I'm irresponsible because other people haven't held up their end of the bargain, so why should I try? I'm lazy because other people don't appreciate my work anyway. It's All Their Fault.

But God's word to Cain calls me on the carpet. "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? It's your call, brother. If you get it right, your right-eousness will be recognized. By God, if not by other people.

So I'm held accountable for my shortcomings. It's my fault, not theirs. They are, after all, MY shortcomings. And I hate that, but now I need to buckle down and get to work. So I start making to-do lists, planning my time usage, setting good priorities. And things get better in my life. But they don't get perfect. And when I see my shortcomings (STILL?!) I get frustrated. And God says to me, "Why are you downcast? If you do right, will you not be accepted?"

Then I resolve to work harder. To study more. To plan better. To manage more effectively. And things get better. But they don't get perfect. So I get frustrated. And God says to me ...

And I am broken, because I cannot do what is right. I can do some of it, but not all of it. I can be good, but not perfect. I fall short of the mark. Like Cain, I am an imperfect person.

So now I have an alternative. I can be broken, and my "self" -- the essence of all that I try to preserve, all of ME that I try to take pride in, leaks out and blows away on the wind. Or I can grab the duct tape and bind up my brokenness and try to keep it together. And try harder. And do more. And somehow make it work. And when it doesn't work, and I see others who seem to have been accepted by God when I fall short, I kill them.

Maybe not with a rock, but with my words. I gleefully spread malicious gossip about what they're really like. I take deep, evil joy in any misfortune that comes their way. These things make me feel vindicated, justified. But the blood of the victims of my unjust attitude cries out to God.

The basic truth at the heart of knowing Jesus is this: we can build our lives on the barren rock of ourselves, our accomplishments, our abilities, our resources; or we can die to ourselves and let our lives be based at the foot of the cross, on the stone of Golgatha, where Jesus bled out his innocent blood so that I might be accepted. Then whatever I have to offer is nothing at all, but I offer it anyway in gratitude for what Jesus already did for me. I am not proud, I am grateful. I am not resentful, I am joyful. I am not envious, I am delighted in the good God has produced in the life of my neighbor.

It's the difference between life and death.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The Old Testament -- and especially the first few chapters of Genesis -- uses names in a very important way. People's names mean something. Occasionally there's a pun involved or a sounds-like-something-different-than-what-you-thought (like when my friend was going to name his daughter Robin and I suggested Anna as a middle name ... just try it out loud). Adam, for instance, is built on the Hebrew word "dam" which means dirt. So Adam is the one who comes from the dirt. And by the way, "adamah" in Hebrew (I'm no scholar, but I've been told) means "blood" or "lifeblood." So there's this deep relationship in the name.

Usually, though, the names plain and simple mean something. That's what we run into in Genesis 4:1-2. Adam and Eve have kids -- two boys. And their names mean something that becomes crucial to the story, but we don't speak Hebrew (most of us) so we don't get this part of things. "Cain" means "produced" or "production." So Eve says "With the help of the Lord I have produced a man." It is interesting to note that this is the first time (after the little fig leaf incident, which doesn't really count) that humans have produced anything. Tuck that in your hat for the moment.

By the way, let's take a short detour. Just for the record, there is no basis for the often-cited argument that sex is somehow linked to Adam and Eve's sin, that in the garden prior to the fall there was no sex. A God-given relationship that includes physical intimacy is laid out very clearly in Genesis 2:24-25. We get ashamed about our sexuality not because it's sinful, but because so often we indulge it outside what God intends. Within the boundaries God sets for sexual expression, it is an amazing, wonderful gift.

What about this second son? Abel's name doesn't even get explained in the text. That's because in Hebrew, there's not even a joke being made -- it's just a Hebrew word. "Abel" means "Empty." Adam and Eve had two boys, "Productive" and "Empty."

Now before you start to feel bad for Abel, think ahead -- better yet, read ahead -- to the part where they both offer sacrifices to God. One of the mysteries in the Bible is why Cain's sacrifice isn't accepted. Is it possible that Cain is full of himself and what he has produced? That he brings an offering to God out of his productivity and thinks God should be impressed? What about Abel, then -- is Abel's offering accepted because he comes empty of himself?

Try this. First, take a look at Psalm 51:17 and see what it says about the way we bring offerings to God. And check out Isaiah 57:15 and dozens of other verses that talk about God's attitude toward those who are contrite, beaten down, humbled. Or read the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5. It's also interesting to do a keyword search through the Bible on two words. First do the word "empty" and see how often God has to empty out something with which we have filled ourselves. Our wealth, our pride, our self-assurance, our security, our arrogance -- God needs to empty us of all these things. Then look at the word "filled" and see what God wants to fill us with. Recognize that you can't be filled with the things of God if you're already full of yourself.

Sometimes the most simple lessons are the easiest to miss.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Loose ends

In Genesis 3:20-24, God ties up a bunch of loose ends. These verses almost never get examined in any detail; we think the story is over and done. Sort of like how after the crisis, after the emergency, after the blowup or the breakdown, we don't often pay close attention to what happens in the mopping-up phase of things. But the reality is, those after-action moments can be some of the most critical pieces of setting a foundation for the future. So let's take a look at a few details:

1. God clothes them in animal skins. We've commented on this before, but it's worth revisiting. To give them leather outfits, God has to kill animals. Blood is shed to cover their sin and to protect them from its consequences. This again is a prefiguring of Jesus. The book of Leviticus tells us that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness, and we see it acted out right here at the beginning. What does this say about the nature of forgiveness? First, it is messy. Forgiveness --whether God's or ours -- is not some neat and clean "oh-that's-alright" wiping the slate clean. Sin needs to be covered, not made as though it did not exist. Whether here in Genesis or in the sacrificial system described in Leviticus or in Jesus' death on the cross, the biblical solution for sin is not to make it go away, but to cover it with blood. There's a lot -- books' worth -- to be said about this, but we'll move on.

2. Adam and Eve get kicked out of the garden, specifically to keep them from eating of the tree of life and living forever. It's tempting to see this as a judgment on God's part but this is really an action borne out of God's broken heart and his hopeful love for us. God is looking ahead to the cross, saying, "I'm going to cover this sin, provide a way for sin to be dealt with on a permanent basis." The worst thing God can imagine here is that we should live forever in bondage to our broken, sinful selves. Reality is, the very best day you've ever had is still far, far, short of what God wants for you -- because that Very Good Day was still lived in the brokenness of sin, in the context of a broken creation. Someday God will fulfill what he began at the cross (see Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 13) and we will live in the fulness of God's hope for us.

3. We are cut off from Eden also as a way of helping us seek the God we are now alienated from. Ecclesiastes says God has set eternity in our hearts -- in other words, he's placed an emptiness in us that yearns for him. We are cut off from him but still yearning to get back to him. As Augustine said, "We are restless, O Lord, until we find our rest in thee." This again is part of God's grace, God's love for his creatures. We need that internal compass to draw us back to him.

4. The man is sent out with his vocation intact. He is sent out to work the ground, just like God told him to do before sin came on the scene. The two are sent out together -- in fact, almost in a reversion to the end of Genesis 1 where male and female look like two halves of a whole humanity or two sides of the human coin, God refers to them both by simply saying "the man." So both carry their vocations out of Eden. They are called by God to till the earth and keep it. The male focus in this vocation tends to be work oriented, the female focus in this vocation tends to be relationship oriented. But both keep their calling as they go out into a sin-broken world.

5. There are spiritual realities in this world that are out of our sight. We can't travel to the location of the Garden of Eden and see the impassable Cherubim guarding the way to the tree of life. Instead, in spiritual terms there are things going on we cannot see with our material eyes. We know that we are cut off from the life God intends for us, that this separation is rooted in God's love for us, and that the cherubim are beyond our sight. The goal is not somehow to get past this barrier; instead, we need to be asking, "What does God want for us now that we are broken by sin?" That's the question the rest of the Bible works to answer.