The Mark of Cain

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

Final Instructions

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Where’s the Party?

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

I am not a party person. I am so far on the “I” side of the Myers-Briggs scale I nearly fall off it. I love being a pastor, and I love my people, but socializing with a roomful of acquaintances on a surface level feels like I imagine purgatory would feel, if I believed in it.

Nevertheless, I enjoy a well crafted party with people I love. We’ve had our share this year, with the youngest’s wedding right in the middle of 2019. A shower. A wedding. A reception back home. All of it. And all of it we crafted carefully, with their tastes and our budget in mind.

We planned themes, grew and arranged flowers, drilled holes in centerpieces and hand-letters signs that told people exactly where to put their cards and how to play the date night game. While we did much of the work ourselves, we had a dress, a caterer, and a photographer that knocked it out of the park.

We missed nothing. It was a wonderful day.

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Time to Party

As we’ve been walking through Hebrews, off and on, these last few months, we come to a passage that also knocks it out of the park. So far, Hebrews has been shopping, setting the table, making menus, crafting decorations, and sending invites. The writer has missed nothing.

Now—in chapter ten—it’s time to party.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10.19-25, NLT)

Verse 22 is the party—“Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him.”

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

Bold Faith

We are not simply to come to the party either but to come boldly. “Go right in” is the phrase people use when they know the person invited belongs. It’s what we say to friends—come on in, and use the side door (the one for friends). You know you can walk in anytime. We don’t offer that privilege to strangers. Only those who  have our complete love and trust get the “come on in.”

Other translations use the words “confidently,” “with full assurance,” or “boldly.” Literally, it’s “free and fearless.” It means the same—go toward God as you would anyone who invited you in like you belonged there. Because you do.

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For many, boldness is not our default. When it comes to any relationships, fear predominates. Fear that we will not be accepted. Fear that we can never be good enough. Fear that we don’t deserve forgiveness. Fear that our love will not be reciprocated.

Fear drives so much, and has since Eden.

God puts that fear to rest here. If we’re told to come boldly to the one who made us, who knows us best, whom we’ve actually offended the most, but who loves us everlastingly and unconditionally, then where is the place for any fear at all? If that relationship is restored, what is there to fear in any other?

What would it be like to live free and fearless?

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

  • Relationships fail us.
  • Spouses leave, or don’t fulfilled their vows to honor us, protect us.
  • Friends betray us to move up social ladder.
  • Relatives abuse you in ways no one talks about.
  • Coworkers throw you under the bus to cover their butts.
  • Your child screams swear words at you, and you believe growing up means breaking apart.

Trust is fragile.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

If the only metric we have to measure relationships is human ones, and we are human so it is, then we project all that on God.

  • God becomes the girl who wouldn’t let us sit with her.
  • The kid who bullied you.
  • The spouse who betrayed you.
  • The relative who abused you.
  • The father you could never please.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

Two years ago, I went to a friend’s home in London for a writing retreat (I know, rough), and two of the other women voiced their life’s dream to got to Paris. They begged me to go, too, since I’d been a few times and could be a guide. So we made a day trip, and our first stop (OK, after Laduree and Berthillon) was Notre Dame. Notre Dame was my first love of buildings, and I couldn’t wait to see my old friend.

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We saw a long line near one door. Very long. One of the other women nosed around and found another door on the other side. No one was lined up there. So, maybe the other line was for the tower? Because my friend is bold, and because she has an auto-immune disease that makes standing for a long time difficult, she decided to use the door with no line. Boldly, we walked right in.

We gaped round the altar, stood in awe at the familiar rose windows, and walked the checkered floor I love so well. Yes, we cut the line, we realized later. But the door was open. And we decided to walk through it without hesitation.

That was the last time I saw my favorite place in one piece. I’m so glad we chose to go through the door.

This is the exuberant, joyful, excited boldness God wants for us when he talks about us coming near to him. Without fear, with excitement, believing this is the best dream of our lives. Because the door was opened, and all we have to do is walk in.

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We do not have to measure God by the instability of human relationships. God invites us—and he invites us as He would a friend.

Maybe when trust is hard is the time we most need this party. Not a fake it, put up a front, false happiness party—a party that says what matters will stand.

A party that defies death, decay, rising smoke and tells it all—you do not win.

Because it is finished.

Death—you have no victory.

Despair—you have no home here.

Fire and smoke—you cannot take away what matters.

Restoration is beginning. Reclamation is here. New beginnings are ready—don’t despair—come to the party.

Come boldly.