The Mark of Cain

IMG_0181

It’s the end of February, which to me means spring is imminent. OK, I know it isn’t. This is Chicago, after all. I know, in a way no one south of Highway 70 can possibly know, that spring is never imminent and always capricious.

But I’m a gardener, so waiting and hope intermingle here.

Gardening and theology go together like Frodo and Sam, and some of my best theological moments have happened out there amid the snap peas and sunflowers.

We’ve been talking about the Garden and its theology, and how it still matters in our lives today. No story proves that better than the one we’ll explore today.

But first—Recap time:

God gave blessings/commissions in the garden—two important ones that explain and define us in ways we probably don’t realize.

  • The first blessing/commission God gave in the Garden—Live in relationships. It’s not good to be alone. Care for one another. Be responsible for one another. Create community on this earth I’ve made for you.
  • The second blessing/commission God gave in the Garden—work, have purpose, live in partnership of doing good and spreading good on this earth I’ve made for you.

Then, of course, it goes all so wrong. Within one generation, we see the setup for generations to come, including our own. We see it in five angry, dismissive words that haunt us to this day.

mike-castro-demaria-hq0klnwdGFo-unsplash
Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

“Am I my brother’s guardian?”

We know those words. They come from Cain, the first son of Eden. Here’s the story:

Genesis 4.2-16 When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him.

Afterward the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?”

“I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”

But the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood. No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work! From now on you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain replied to the Lord, “My punishment is too great for me to bear! You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer.

You had one job

We don’t know why Cain’s offering fell short. We have no evidence, so any speculation is just that. All we know is that it did, and that God in his kindness gave him a chance to make it right. A chance to choose blessing rather than consequences.

He does not make the right choice.

matt-hardy-55NI4yEAas4-unsplash
Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

Cain kills his brother, and like his father before him, when questioned by God, he deflects. What? I didn’t do anything. Wasn’t my fault, whatever you think happened.

How am I responsible for that other person you put on this planet?

Cain violates the first blessing/commission we are ever given. He denies his blessing of relationship. He refuses to be accountable for the community he’s been given. As a result, he loses all his relationships. He is driven from the land and forced to wander as a landless, rootless nomad. He has no community, when such a rich one had been his to keep.

But he chose to turn away.

What’s a guardian?

The word for guardian, shawmar, means to keep, to guard, to protect, even to save life. It’s a  term of responsibility—the same one God gave Cain’s parents earlier—

Genesis 2.15—The Lord God placed humans in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.

So in answer to your question, Cain, Why yes, it is your one job to guard your brother. To protect and care for, to nurture life. It’s literally the first thing you had to do.

IMG_3448 (2)

He loses family as a result.

About that second blessing . . .

The second blessing, meaningful work, take a huge hit as well. It’s difficult to farm the land when you’re going to roam it constantly. It’s a challenge to produce enough to feed yourself especially when, “No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work!”

Work will be too impossible to even hope for meaningful. The scarcity mindset Cain already had—there isn’t enough of God’s blessing to go around—my brother is getting more than I get!—will worsen.

Hasn’t it?

Maybe the actual mark of Cain was a symbol on his forehead, but I think the real mark of Cain can be found in all of us when we’re certain we need to compete with our brother rather than care for him.

The real mark f Cain is in all of us when we're certain we have to compete with our sisters and brothers rather than care for them.

Mommy wars.

  • At least I work/stay at home. I breast feed. I use organic. I co-sleep. I babywear. (Is that a word?) I won’t put my child in a nursery/will have my child to church from day one.*

Where does it end? This is not a competition. But it is. Because Cain taught us all that there’s only so much “good on you” to go around, and we must have our share. “Our share” is always more than hers/his.

No, we don’t. There is enough to go around. There’s more when we decide to be our sister’s guardian rather than her competition.

Popularity wars.

You know it never ended. It’s just escalated to Instagram rather than 7th grade locker notes.

  • Her kids are dressed better than mine.
  • Her vacation is more exciting than mine.
  • Her house is definitely cleaner than mine.
  • Her Bible study habits are even better than mine.

Cain taught us all that someone has to be better—there isn’t any room for both their life and mine to be satisfying.

According to research, girls from a young age already isolate other girls who seem to be too powerful, courageous, or self-assured. They don’t want other girls to have that edge, so they “cut them down to size.” Adult women—have you seen it? I have. Sometimes, we’re the worst at holding back other women.

Cain taught us that if someone else gets ahead, we’er automatically behind.

We’ve been carrying the mark of Cain ever since.

B8A658C1-A614-4492-A7CB-19B53C73B7AB_1_105_c

Think about all that Cain lost in that transaction. We lose it, too. We lose relationships when we decide to compete rather than encourage. We lose the opportunity to work together when we push someone else back in order to move ahead. We lose all the things Cain lost—community and meaningful, cooperative work—when we choose scarcity and competition over being our brother or sister’s guardian.

What would change in our lives if we instead chose the role of shawmar? Keeper, guardian, protector, lifesaver?

It would be so good for us all to leave behind the mark of Cain.

 

*(PSA Insert: The only place this argument is acceptable is “I vaccinate my kid.” For the love of all that’s holy and ALL your brothers and sisters—vaccinate your child. The end.)

Redeeming Our Work

tim-mossholder-FH3nWjvia-U-unsplash
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Swinging open the kitchen door, I almost swung back out again. A skillet flew past my nose, and an answering saucepan flew a few feet farther in, lower and slower. The older brother had worse aim.

The two sons of the resort owner were fighting in the kitchen. Again. My first thought was to turn around; my second was that I had to get through this to pick up my order and get it out to the table warm. I ducked and ran. I was small and fast, and I needed the tip.

Though the volatile kitchen at the resort scared me, it was better than the summer I spent working at Long John Silver. Tips were good, when the diners were sober. At least there were no fryer burns involved.

Working my way thorough high school and then college meant restaurant work every summer—the only option in our small blue collar town.

I hated restaurant work.

Why don’t we like our jobs?

bethany-legg-75nbwHfDsnY-unsplash
Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

Less than fifty percent of Americans like their job. In our continuing discussion about the Garden, the Fall, and other words important enough to merit capitalization for theological purposes, work matters from the very beginning. Like relationships, it inherits one of the greatest consequences of sin. The two things we most often find our identity in—family and career—are dealt the greatest post-Eden blows. Funny that, huh?

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3)

Humans not only don’t like their work, they appear to be destined to that dislike. Most of us are far removed from a life of sweating and digging for our food, but the reality remains—if you want to eat, you need to work. And work, according to over fifty percent of us, is disappointing.

Why?

Work sometimes merits this dislike

There are, to be sure, rotten aspects of he current state of work in America. Young people, even with college educations, often cannot find jobs that offer them longevity, health care, or a fit with their actual area of study. The gig economy hits them the hardest, and not surprisingly, they more often consider their jobs to be bad ones than older workers do.

Racial and gender bias cause minority and female populations to be more dissatisfied as well, given that they do the same work for less pay and are hired less often based on their skin color or gender.

Dead end jobs haunt us more than they used to when people could expect to climb the corporate ladder and move steadily upward.

jordan-whitfield-sm3Ub_IJKQg-unsplash
Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

More people want and expect their work to mean something, not just put in time. That’s not a bad thing for a Kingdom-minded person to want and expect.

These are valid reasons to hate a job. I will not discount them with condescending statements like, “When I was your age,” “Just pay your dues,” or “Be happy you’ve got a job.”

We all long for our work to mean something, and there’s a reason for that.

Work as blessing

The first work was part of the first blessing, just as family and community were.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis1.28-31)

vadim-l-mRVsExtioQA-unsplash

Work for the first humans meant joy. God created the Garden as a temple of sorts, sacred space where we could live with him and do what fulfilled our purpose. Work served as an extension of our being, a way of living in God’s likeness. Take this land. Reign over it as I would. Tame the animals. Spread this good garden over the earth. Be as I would be in this place, and it will give you meaning.

Ruining that first relationship ruined our work, too. It’s been a battle since to find that meaning again.

Work redeemed

Yet if Christ came, as mentioned last week, to renew all things, work, the first thing humans were set to do, must be among those things. Renewal and restoration of our work life must also be part of the promise. But how?

I think it goes back to looking at that original and doing some detective work. What about it can we take away to find the blessing in our work?

The original blessing of work

First, God meant work to be a a partnership. Adam and Eve both received the commission to reign. They both heard the word to create a people who would work together to form the garden in the world.

alex-kotliarskyi-QBpZGqEMsKg-unsplash
Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Yet so much of our work today is done in solitude, or at least in self-imposed loneliness. We’re stuck in our cubicles, not considering that work could be more of a blessing if it was more of a community. But those boogeymen we talked about last week—fear and shame and pride and power—stick their noses up in the workplace as well.

  • We’re afraid to cooperate with others because they might steal our promotion.
  • We’re worried our ideas might get shot down and we’ll be ashamed, so we don’t offer them.
  • We’re intent on consolidating our own power and position and leverage so much that we miss the opportunities to listen and learn from others.
  • We’re fearful that there won’t be enough room at the table for us, too, if others succeed, and that scarcity mindset sends us into a spiral of self-fulfilling insecurity.

Second, work was done in the garden for the fellowship with God. That we could relate to God while we’re working seems foreign to most of our thoughts. Even more foreign, maybe, is the idea of bussing the table, typing the memo, or changing the diaper for His glory.

We’ve divorced God’s original intent and linked work to success, money, power, dreams—with the result that our identity is linked to our success and happiness and not our relationship with God.

Third, God intended work to spread blessing in the beginning. Does our work do that? How could we make it so?

brooke-cagle-g1Kr4Ozfoac-unsplash
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Now what?

Some of our jobs truly do stink. I can’t deny that. Yet in the middle of them, it seems we could still look at these three parts of the original plan and find a way to redeem them. Even as we plan and hope and pray for better.

  • If the work seems meaningless, maybe the purpose is to bless rather than be blessed.
  • If the work is boring, maybe the plan is to ask God into it, practicing his presence, as Brother Lawrence would say.
  • If the work feels lonely, maybe God meant for us to focus on supporting others’ work, refusing to believe the lie of scarcity, partnering with others outside of our tiny workspace.

It’s like evil to aim at the things most dear to our hearts and minds—family and work. It’s like Jesus to take them back for us and give us back the garden offer.

He can make work very good again.

Listen

IMG_5702 2

Here and at church, I have started a series on Christmas songs. Not Christmas carols or pop songs – not the ones we hear on the radio October through December—some of which grow increasingly sappy to me every year.

Not to mention the ones that are theologically troubling. (“So let’s give thanks to the Lord above ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight!” I think, I just, wait but . . . never mind.)

The Real Songs

I mean the songs of scripture. The ones sung by people right there, in real time, Ground Zero of Jesus’ birth. The ones that ushered him in. The songs that people couldn’t help belting out when they knew he was finally on the way.

We dealt with Mary first. Now, it’s time for her much older cousin-in-law.

Zechariah’s Story

Back story. Zechariah was a priest. The Bible says that he was chosen to go into the temple to light the incense and offer the prayers for the people. There’s a whole order here I didn’t know about. Three entire priests were necessary for this incense thing.

Seriously, the lack of efficiency is astounding. You’d think the Lord didn’t care at all about good, sensible time management.

One took away the ashes from the last time the fire was lit. One brought in the new smoking coals for the next offering. Finally, a third man came in to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, and while the beautiful smell rose up to tickle his nose and calm his head, intercede in prayer for his people.

kirill-pershin-ddmtkhqRQP8-unsplash
Photo by Kirill Pershin on Unsplash

This was Zechariah’s job, and it was the most important and most sacred. I believe the fact that he was chosen for this job says something more than we realize.

Surely, in all those prayers he lifted up, one of them was a desire that the promised Messiah would come. Zechariah woulds never have let the opportunity pass him up, when given this chance to pray for the nation, to pray for its salvation through their shared hope.

Zechariah loved his people. That much will become clear.

Don’t Blink

Suddenly—Surprise! An angel shows up at the altar, right in front of where he stands praying. Angels terrify those who see them. Sweet, lovely, harp-strumming angels do not exist in Scripture. Universally, they scare the heck out of people, and almost always they must first utter the words, ”Don’t be afraid” before they can say anything else to cowering, trembling humans.

 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.’ (Luke 1.17-19)

Zechariah had questions. He doubted Gabriel’s word. This was a very bad idea.

Then the angel said, ‘I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.’ (v. 19-20)

marek-studzinski-jxP73zMBruU-unsplash
Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

Zechariah ended up unable to speak as a result of his unbelief. Still, let’s not be too quick to judge him. The scripture also tells us, concerning him and his wife, “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” So no one can say he’s struck mute out of disobedience. God must have had other reasons.

He spends over nine months speechless. Let that sink in. I am a pastor myself, and I know what it would be like to carry out my daily work without being able to speak. I know how difficult it would be to care for people without being able to talk to them of their troubles. How does Zechariah manage?

One day, his one and only son is finally born—but the enforced silence is still not over.

When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, ‘No! His name is John!’ ‘What?’ they exclaimed. ‘There is no one in all your family by that name.’ So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, ‘His name is John.’

And he finds his voice.

What that voice says will be the subject of the next blog. Why it was silent for so long is my curiosity for this one. Why would God silence a man he himself calls good? Why is Zechariah punished for questioning an angel while Mary appears to have been blessed for the same behavior?

Here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s punishment. I think it, too, is a blessing.

Perhaps this was God allowing Zechariah some time to listen.

(Some assume from the verse about the people making gestures that he is also deaf, but this is unlikely. Probably, they simple raise their eyebrows or gaped open-mouthed, arms outstretched, signifying that he had better intervene immediately, speechless or not, because his wife is about to do something unheard of! In any case, ten months of observing the world, unable to speak or hear, would be no bad thing, either.)

Listen

IMG_5836

Can you imagine all that Zechariah learned during that ten months or so? What did he hear? What that he had never noticed before did he suddenly find fascinating? What people to whom he had never really paid attention did he finally truly hear? What did he learn from them?

Did he come to deeply appreciate the squealing laughter of children playing by the road, the passionate prayers of his friends, or the tender, quiet voice of his wife at night? Did he learn from the disenfranchised who rarely were able to catch the ear of a priest, but whose calls and cries he suddenly began to heed?

Did he open his eyes to people with whom he didn’t agree, since he had no choice but to listen and not immediately argue back?

Could an awful lot of us use that enforced silence?

He is a good man—that much has been established. Yet he has lessons to learn. For us, this is a hard but beautiful pill to swallow.

God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be

Maybe, God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be.

Zechariah has lessons to learn, even though by all counts be is plenty good enough already.

I do, too.

  • Sometimes it’s when we’re good already.
  • When we’re smart.
  • When we’ve followed a while and know the ways of Jesus.
  • When we’re pretty sure we’ve got this God thing down.

Sometimes it’s then that we trip up.We believe in ourselves more than in Him.

It’s then we find ourselves on a detour out somewhere, unable to speak or really listen, because we thought we could navigate it alone.

One thing we learn from Zechariah is that we must never believe so much in our own goodness, right intentions, best plans, or knowledge of truth that we aren’t teachable.

listen

What might we learn if we listen?

  • If we closed our mouths, cut off the quick reply.
  • Stopped thinking about what we were going to say.
  • Refused the defensive comeback.
  • Chose to hear what someone we don’t agree with feels.

What would we hear and learn?

I’m so fascinated by Zechariah’s silence that I’ve decided my word for 2020—Listen. I want to experience what this man had no choice but to do. I want to know the depths of other people’s hearts, and of God’s. I want to learn. If Zechariah at his age still had much to learn, certainly so do I.

Final Instructions

melissa-askew-642466-unsplash
Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Bold Living—Together

Coming to the end of Hebrews, one might expect the writer of such a epic letter of hope and instruction to wrap up with a flourish. To say something so profound, so inspirational, that generations to come will walk boldly forward in their faith with the words ringing in their ears.

But the writer does not. Strangely, s/he ends rather anti-climactically, with an encouragement and an admonishment to live together well.

“Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.” (Hebrews 12.14-17, NLT)

So, that’s the punch line? The final word? After all this?

Don’t Try This Alone

rawpixel-1054659-unsplash
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It is. See, the writer knows something Western Christians forget. The final truth is—we can’t do any of the amazing things in chapters 1-11 alone.

Bold Living prioritizes healthy relationships and cares for them with integrity.

The writer knows what looms ahead for these poeple.

  • Things are going to be hard.
  • Stress will threaten to fracture them.
  • Persecution will tempt them to betray one another.
  • Complacency will suck them back into their old life.
  • Some will want to pull up anchor and go.
  • Some will lose their hope and vision.

So this ending. This is how you hang together. Because to paraphrase Ben Franklin, you’ll hang separately otherwise.

This is maintenance for how to keep the fractures, cracks, and small roots from breaking it all apart. It’s not a sexy ending. But it’s a necessary one.

It’s still true, isn’t it? In marriages, friendships, and churches? If we let the small roots get in, they will crack it wide open.

Tiny Cracks

Lots of stresses from outside still pressures us. Time, competing values, money, other relationships, envy—it all gets in the cracks.

That’s how earthquakes destroy—they don’t break open bedrock. They follow where the weaknesses already are. Where the cracks already exist. Then they widen them and wreak havoc.

Ephesians 4.23 warns us—“Don’t let the devil get a foothold.” I know from experience with rock climbing that a foothold need not be a large thing. It can be a tiny crack. Anything the accuser can leverage and widen to climb into our lives.

tommy-lisbin-223879-unsplash
Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

What are those little cracks?

Bitterness

“Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”

The first sign of trouble in a relationship is always bitterness. Disagreement happens. Disagreements are healthy.  Churches that never disagree are unhealthy places where everyone has to fall in line and no one feels safe.

Marriage that never disagree mean someone isn’t being heard.

If any relationship has no disagreement, there’s a balance of power difference and it’s not a real relationship. We are free, and that means to not be alike.

In every dystopian novel or sci fi movie I’ve ever known, it’s the ones that are all the same we have to be scared of.

But bitterness isn’t healthy disagreement. It’s unhealthy resentment. It’s poison in the cracks. When we see that root, we know trouble is on the way.

  • He should know.
  • I always do all the work in this friendship/church/marriage.
  • How could they not invite me to do that?
  • I’m not appreciated, valued, heard.
  • All our problems are her/his fault.

We tell ourselves these stories until we believe them ourselves.

And then the relationship falls apart, and we blame the other party.

toxic

Bitterness  takes hostages, too.

Gossip

Bitterness becomes gossip as the words in our head become words on our lips. We start to believe our thoughts, and then we tell others. It does as the writer relays—it “corrupts many” as the infection of bitterness spread throughout the body.

  • Please pray for my spouse. You wouldn’t believe what she/he did.
  • I’m not real sure of their parenting skills. How could we help?
  • Do you think the pastor really is doing the best things for us?

The only cure for infection is to get it out. Someone has to go first in honest discussion of what’s happening. Someone has to be willing to lance the wound. Talk about your hurt. Be honest with your needs.

Someone has to pick up the trowel and start patching the cracks.

IMG_0302

If Christ has forgiven us, recreated us, made us witnesses, why not let it be us?

“So stop telling lies (to yourself as well as others). Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.” (Ephesians 4.25)

Then, choose to speak words of life.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4.8)

Perhaps an even bigger tree root, however, is the final one.

Apathy

“Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau.”

We are our brothers and sisters keepers.

Work together. Watch one another. It’s our part in the body to live like a body, helping one another toward holiness. Watching out that no one is left out.

Work at peace and holiness. They don’t just happen. We’re not supposed to be only friendly and fun. We’re supposed to help one another be holy. It’s our deep calling to help one anther cross the finish line. We are given the job of making sure we all are living in God’s grace. It’s a holy calling, this depending on one another.

It requires time and intention to be in one another’s lives—not intrusively like a Pharisee, but completely, like a brother or sister. We in the Western culture are not so good at this. We value our privacy. We idolize our time. We live in our bubbles. Yet I believe that one of the biggest dangers to living in Christ is simply being apathetic toward checking in on one another’s faith.

nicolas-hoizey-671418-unsplash

My older brother ran cross country in high school. I idolized him, and when he ran, I tried to run along, as far as the track coincided with the observers. I ran, though I couldn’t come close to keeping up, until the finish line. I loved my brother. I wanted to follow him. I wanted to be there when he crossed that line (often first).

I want to be there when my brothers and sisters cross the line. I want to cheer them on. I want to run beside them, pacing them, letting them know I’m there for the whole race, if need be.

That’s the kind of church the writer of Hebrews imagined. That’s what s/he wrote to hold on to. Those were the final instructions, and they were better and more important than we think.

What Are We Teaching Our Kids?

ben-white-197668-unsplash
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

In early April, we started a discussion between me and my daughter on the church, the generational divide, and world peace.

Not really that last one. But it sounded good. In a good lead-in to Mother’s Day, we then talked about what we appreciate about one another’s generation. Now, the saga continues.

What Are We Teaching Our Kids???

Jill: Let’s talk about the idea that we don’t really have to worry about the next generation returning to church. You will, as every generation has done before you, come back after a requisite season of rebellion. 

I’m a little concerned about that laissez-faire attitude for a few reasons.

jesus doesnt want you to be good. Jesus wants uou to be his.

First of all, church is increasingly not a core value in our society, or in your generation. Being a good person and showing love are what it’s all about. Unfortunately, those values are divorced from a foundation in knowing God, largely because we Boomers in the church have taught that being good is the goal. We’ve told you that Jesus wants you to be good, when really Jesus wants you to be his.

Rules versus relationship.

According to that flawed theology, “praying the prayer” and leading a good life are the elements of being a Christian. Not surprisingly, younger generations have latched on to leading a good life and largely dispensed with the praying the prayer part. It sounds like magical thinking to you, and there is therefore no need for it in your efficient, ethics-based world.

Will you really, like the Terminator, will be back?

Emily: Did they have children’s ministries when you guys were kids? When did Sunday School in the modern sense become a thing? I mean the time when it just became a place that kids were sent because otherwise they would be bored or would cause a disruption or wouldn’t understand what was going on. 

That’s where your “do good” stems from. “Be good for mommy, and daddy, and Jesus, too.” True and simplistic as it might be, it lacks action. It lacks depth. It lacks roots.

So, yeah, you’re right. Without the roots leading us back to the church, we can go off and do more than we ever got to in Sunday School (or Children’s Ministry, if it’s a hip new church) and without the restraints of the church to tell us who or what to do good for. It leaves us in control over how we use our resources.

feliphe-schiarolli-445578-unsplash
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Jill: Well, I remember my parents sending me up the street to Sunday School. I vaguely recall something about a guy in a blue robe involving lots of flannel.

According to Christian History, the original philanthropic Sunday Schools always had an aspect of religious education, as they used the Bible for learning to read and write. They also imported moral behavior into the curriculum. When the government established mandatory public education in the 1870’s, churches moved to teaching solely Christian doctrine and behavior rather than general education.

Given that Rational Theory (i.e., human society is perfectable through the use of reason) still coursed through the church’s veins at the time, moral education would certainly have been the focus. Be good for mommy, daddy, and Jesus, indeed, has a long history.

Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, laments the present disinterest in church among children she has interviewed:

“These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we turn a story into a moral lesson. When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us. . . . When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave no room for the child. No room for God.” –Sally Lloyd-Jones

Screen Shot 2019-05-10 at 8.17.00 AM

So she seems to be saying what you are. We need to start young to let children explore the Bible story — not simple or simplistic Bible stories, but the entirety of the Big Story. We need to let them ask questions, see how the smaller stories, and their story, fit into God’s big picture, and give them something to do about it now.

Emily: I mean, I wouldn’t recommend certain stories from the Bible told straight up to four year olds (Jezebel comes to mind). But when the Bible becomes a tool or vehicle with which to deliver a human-devised moral, it not only puts God in a box, it puts us into a box too. And that box can get kind of constricting as we grow, until finally we break out and, believing the box itself is religion, we walk away, refusing to ever be constrained again.

Jill: There’s this book by some lady where she says something like this.

“Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words, they don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point. 

What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.” –Jill Richardson, Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids

Emily: Blatant self-promotion.

Jill: Yeah. But I completely agree with you. Teaching kids to “do good” divorced from the grand story of why only creates people who know how to follow rules. Once they internalize those rules, who needs the church to continue doing good? You can cut loose from the strings now that you know the rules. Plus, you can create your own rules. Christian education has got to be about a connection to the story more than a moral to it.

dimas-aditya-546509-unsplash
Photo by dimas aditya on Unsplash

Emily: But the box isn’t God. I think we worry that if we try to teach kids God as God is, that their heads are going to explode. Or maybe our heads will explode if we have to start thinking of God as God is.

Jill: So if we want future generations to stay in church, we need to start connecting them to the whole gospel, and the whole God. We need to teach them how being Christian isn’t about rules and being good but about the entire creation to redemption story of why we are trying to do good things and what our role is in the story.

Emily:

Screen Shot 2019-05-10 at 8.26.48 AM

Pokemon GO and the Salvation of Western Civilization

jay-1167975-unsplash
jay-1167975-unsplash.jpg

As a prelude to what I hope will be a series on young people, and a follow up to last week’s discussion of Growing With–I’m retuning to a favorite of mine, originally run here on the Theology Mix blog.

I have to update–statements made in the first paragraph are now invalid. My daughter taught me to play a few weeks ago. And all my assumptions that I could get addicted were accurate.

Pokémon GO will save the world

Well, that could be an overstatement. Other things are doing their share.

Still, it’s a valid hope. I don’t personally play the game. It looks fun—and I do have an inherent passion for collecting things that is totally compatible with the idea of going around catching various creatures, indexing and organizing them like my junior high insect collection that took on epic proportions. My highest StrengthsFinder score is Input–ie, collector of things. Any things, really.

\So, really, best I don’t touch the thing. I know my limits, and with time an endangered commodity in my life right now, another way to spend it should not be on the table. I will stick with geocaching when I feel the need to hunt outdoors.

fullsizeoutput_818
Yes, this is actually mine. Yes, it’s fun.

However, I have trailed along as a cultural observer when others play. In the trailing, there is a tale to tell. Pokémon players are changing the lonely landscape for the better.

Fact: Millennials are the loneliest age group in America.

thom-holmes-525009-unsplash
https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/07/12/who-loves-pokemon-go-the-police

This as determined by researchers from the University of Cologne and the University of Chicago. They have eclipsed the presumed leaders in that race, the elderly. Their buzzword of choice may be community, but the reality is, they are finding it less and less. Blame social media, economic issues, mobility, competition, overzealous parents and ovescheduled lives, and fear of commitment. Whatever we blame, the reality is, our culture finds friendship and relationship disposable, and no one suffers more for it than the generation that learned friendship online.

Enter Pokémon. What I witnessed when accompanying my two Millennial daughters was nothing less than a modern social miracle. Dozens of young people wandered around the lakeside park. Some in groups, some alone, everyone staring at their phones. Suddenly, a random “Charmander!” rang out from across the field. Once, twice, three times. Strangers were calling others to come share the mecca of fiery creatures they had found. Other people who passed us offered up clues—“Dratini right over there.” “Go to that willow tree—there are Bulbasaur all over the place!” Everyone in the park was helping one another play the game. Something made them act as a team. Some sense of “we’re together here” permeated the area.

They are not becoming fast friends. They’re not walking away together linking arms and singing kumbaya or planning to be in each others’ weddings. But they are helping one another toward a mutual goal, with no personal gain at all.

david-grandmougin-123135-unsplash
david-grandmougin-123135-unsplash.jpg

In a particularly contentious and angry time in the US, a game on a cell phone is causing strangers to work together. This is nothing short of miraculous. We should all be standing and applauding.

Of course, we’re not. Instead, I read random rants about how young people are staring at their phones again/always and how this makes them self-centered. I see older people condescending to younger ones with broad assumptions like, “If they put this much effort into getting a job, they’d be out of their parents houses’.” Such assumptions bother me, since my children, and most players I know, are gainfully employed and/or full time students. But they bother me further, on a much deeper level, because they prove the speaker has never had a conversation with any young person. At least, not a mutually respectful one.

This matters in the church. If we care about the loneliness epidemic outside (and inside) our walls among the Millennial generation, we will care about ways to bring them together. We will want to understand how they form community and why it matters. Pokémon GO has a few things to teach us about our relationships with and continued learning from the next generation.

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials don’t think play and work are mutually exclusive.

Will our leadership accept that work and play often look a lot alike for Millennials, and sometimes they are doing their best innovating when they are having fun? Can we adjust our committees, classes, and teaching to reflect this?

Pokémon GO is a game. It’s also a community, a place to belong, and a network. It didn’t take players long to realize that a game can be used to meet people, learn about other cultures, find job opportunities, or shatter their Fitbit goals.

Cities report that police officers are joining the game to create relationships in their communities. People are using the social phenomenon to solve seemingly intractable problems—like racial tensions and law enforcement woes. While the lines are blurring between work and play, they are also completely blurred between fun and practical change. Will our churches follow suit, or will we retain our insistence on old methods of solving problems?

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials want to ask questions rather than be told where everything is and how it works.

Note Attention Road Sign Right Of Way Duplicate
Note Attention Road Sign Right Of Way Duplicate

Can our discipleship involve the kind of seeking that Millennials seem to prefer over the straight telling we have embraced for so long? Maybe we should ask more questions rather than give so many answers, so the search for being like Jesus can consume us like the search for Pikachu.

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials value relationships over formulas.

Can we encourage evangelism that’s more like playing games with a group of new friends than sealing a used car deal? Do all the right words mean less, ultimately, than being with another person? What would that look like in church programming?

Pokémon GO reminds us that Millennials want for a place to belong.

Will the church embrace that need and offer a balm for loneliness? Will we hold out the ultimate relationship rather than rules to live by? Will we invite them in regardless of their tribe or background or beliefs? Will we be the ones standing on the path calling, “What you’re looking for is over here! Come be with us. We understand the search. We’re with you in it. Let’s look together.”

It could save the world, you know.

Maybe It’s the Hands

IMG_1905 (4)

Those of you who follow me on Instagram (or read last week’s blog post) know I went to Scotland last month. Those who know me well know that Scotland was mere subterfuge.

Not that I didn’t want to go there—Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye, has hovered on my top five travel list for quite a while. The main reason for the trip at this particular time, however, lies about 500 miles southeast of the island.

Oxford

The holy Mecca of literary snobs, particularly Lewis/Tolkien fanatics, a title which I wear  without the tiniest shred of nerd shame. The Tolkien exhibit of manuscripts, paintings, and memorabilia was all this hobbit-loving heart hoped it would be.

This exhibit, as well as a morning visit to the British Library, made me ponder the future of writing. What, specifically, might generations to come of fanatics line up, or cross an ocean, to see?

Not what I saw.

IMG_1487 (7)

Handwritten

On this trip, I marveled at original drawings, schematics, and words from DaVinci’s sketch books. How have they survived so long? What fantastic theories flew through his mind as he penciled those sketches? What genius rabbit holes was he considering plumbing as he wrote?

I smiled at Jane Austen’s lovely, dense cursive on a page on her own writing desk. Thinking of her hand on the page conjuring those works brought her whole being alive, sitting there, smiling back at me, inviting investigation.

Actual tears came when I peered (I did have to peer, because the room was dark, and there were a zillion people) at Tolkien’s handwritten charge,

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

I saw it. I heard it. I nearly went to battle myself.

This is the power of the written word. More specifically, it’s the power of the handwritten word. Others of you stand on chairs to see your team score a touchdown. Some, like my husband, go agape at the sight of ancient statues and clay pots. Paintings will transport certain people to realms of imagination and joy.

Handwritten words make me cry. Especially when they are words I know and love.

IMG_0969

What are we leaving?

I realized, while I inhaled those manuscripts like am addict getting a fix, that we are not leaving written words to other generations. Whoever the great authors of our age are, is anyone going to want to stare at their Messenger notes in a museum one day? Is the sight of their emailed manuscript going to make anyone’s heart beat faster? Will anyone ever stand and peer at their iPad, on which they typed the thrilling battle cry for that climactic scene, and sob with the pure joy of it?

Will anyone cross an ocean to see their laptop?

Nope.

On a more prosaic level, handwriting doesn’t have to be famous. My daughter recently found photos of my husband in his elementary school years. They have his mother’s writing on their backs, carefully penned notes about who, what, where, and when.

The archivist in my daughter winces at the ink on the backs of photos. The word lover in her carefully  places the written-upon photos on the copier, wanting to preserve that piece of her grandmother’s hands, fingers, thoughts.

It’s the reason I have a Pinterest board of recipes, but I also have a tin box, rusted and creaky, with yellow legal paper and lined index cards and my mother’s writing covering them. I will never make the recipes—I do not have my mother’s taste in food. I will also never throw away those small reminders of her hands, moving across a paper, writing down something she wanted to use to nourish her family.

IMG_9383

Maybe it’s the hands

We can’t separate handwriting from hands, and hands are so intimate, so identity-sealing. They are such symbols of personal presence.

Scripture shouts this message.

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Isaiah 49.16

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . . and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10.27

“I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41.10

“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63.8

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64.8

“Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139.10

“My times are in your hand.” Psalm 31.15

Hands. Handwriting. They are presence. I sobbed at Theoden’s heroic battle cry because I knew the story, and I could feel the presence of the storyteller through the ink on the page.

Sometimes I sob at the beauty of the scripture. It’s not handwritten. Maybe it should be. Maybe we should have someone go back to the days of the scribes who slowly and carefully wrote out the words of God, illuminating letters to shine light in darkness.

But I cry because I know the story, and the storyteller, and the hands that created it are holding me, present, always.