Cause and effect – can we see it?

January 10, 2013

“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:3-7 ESV)

What do you think of that? God had regard for Abel’s offering, but no regard “for Cain or his offering.”

Our God is again demonstrating His role in accepting and rejecting human action – if approving, and disapproving. It seems to be a pattern, now.

What is our role in being acceptable and unacceptable? Cain’s offering doesn’t, unfortunately, shed much light on an answer to this question. But God had no regard… for Cain.

I guess the ensuing story of murder – which seems so often to capture our attention – ought to be a clue to guide us. If you’re reading this passage like I do, I tend to think in terms of cause and effect. That may be a fault of my own, but I’m searching the text for reasons “why”. Let us assume, for the moment, that is a useful course. I am, however, forced to consider turning my usual question upside down. My thoughts on the story have often led me to the question, “How can God disapprove of Cain’s offering?” Surely that disapproval led to Cain’s face ‘falling’. It simply mist be, that Cain’s perception of God’s disappointment leads to jealousy, which results in murder. The effect, in my observations to this point, was murder, and the cause – if not Cain’s offering – maybe it is God’s disapproval that causes this chain of wicked events.

However, why should we think of the causes and effects that way? It’s again a question of who the Protagonist is in our minds. If we read this account as a tragedy, the we see Cain as our main character, a character with a tragic flaw, that escalates to a climactic murder, and results in a denouement in which Cain begs for mercy, and receives it at the last.

If we read this account as a tragedy, however, we are forced to ask ourselves about the capriciousness of this not-so-off-stage God-character, who appears to be inventing crimes, so that He can solve them.

What if the cause and effect simply must be seen the other way around? What if Cain’s jealous, murderous heart is the cause, and focus, of God’s disapproval? What if Cain, the first-born child of God’s created family, has set his own heart against God, against his family, and against the curse upon the earth?

As an aside of pure speculation, consider that God had already named the earth – the ground – a cursed thing. God has explained that harvesting food from the earth will be troublesome, and produce both good fruit, as well as bad. What is Cain is not just an angry young man? What if he has set His heart against God, and set his life’s work to prove God wrong? I wonder – and I’m making leaps and guesses – but I wonder if Cain’s ‘offering’ was his way of saying, “There! You can’t curse my earth. I can make these things grow. I can tend them. I can harvest them, and eat. Take that, so-called God!”

Who is the main character of this account? Consider that twice, now, we are deeply questioning who this God is. What kind of a God plants a forbidden tree? What kind of God refuses one offering over against another? What kind of God approves one person, and rejects another? This is exposition. We are being introduced to Him episode by episode, story by story.

God Himself is the protagonist in these accounts. His character, His attitudes, and His thoughts are put on display. His motives and methods are revealed. He is the one, we must pay attention to.

And He alone has the authority to decide what is worthy of His own approval, and what is not.

How do we respond to this? How do we move toward Him? Do we put Him in the center of the drama that is our lives, or do we daily plan to take center stage?

Since He does have the authority to approve, we ought to pay attention. And if that rankles, maybe we pay attention, since He does show a desire to protect. He protects this family from Cain’s unacceptable attitudes and deadly actions. He protects Cain from the instinct for retributive justice, which that family may have had. He protects both Cain, and us – his readers – who wonder at His motives.

You see, God offers an explanation for what He does not accept. God says, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

This is His motive: to protect us from sin. We falsely assume that the character who remains off stage is inactive, simply because he remains off stage throughout this whole account. The enemy of God, the tempter, the one who lures to sin is desirous! Sin’s desire – this antagonist’s desire – is for Cain. Sin’s desire is for us, to overcome us. We must rule over it.

God protects out understanding, here, by explaining why He does not approve of Cain – it is because He does not approve of sin, or it’s work, or the actor behind it’s work.

God is unwilling to passively watch sin unfold in our lives. I think it a relief, to know that He will intervene! And when he does, I pray I recognize it for what it is. I pray that I see it.

What choice do I have?

January 6, 2013

Can you call to mind something that you, at once, condemn and find yourself drawn toward? Is there a thought, an act, an attitude that tempts you?

Well, do you then – at times – return to that thought? Though you would set it aside and judge it to be false, you nevertheless find that you choose to consider it, ponder it, even negotiate for it in your head.

How long will it take for you to choose that thing, which you call “false” or “wrong”?

If you have read the Bible story which contains Eve, the serpent, Adam, and the apple, you may have scoffed at it. I mean, it doesn’t go like we think it should. We recognize the antagonist pretty quickly as the serpent. But once we learn that our protagonist, Eve, seeks to obey someone else – someone off-screen, we feel a little distance.

I mean, we’re supposed to identify with the protagonist, to root for her. If this scene were drama, we’d call it tragedy. Her character flaw (pride), leads her to make a decision that we – the audience – are supposed to see through, and tacitly wish to warn her about.

We’re supposed to be watching this scene unfold with the anticipation of someone viewing a super-cheesy horror movie. “Don’t open that door, you idiot,” we think to ourselves. “Stay out of the basement!” Why don’t they ever turn on the lights in those cheesy horror movies, anyway?

The problem with the scene about the snake and the apple is, we should be rooting for Eve, and against the serpent’s trickery. But I wonder if we don’t, instead, get derailed by the off-screen character’s sense of morality.

We think, “What kind of creator would place something like this awesome fruit right in front of Eve, and then tell her she can’t have it? Why is she listening to that kind of rule-maker? That seems just wrong!

Where we at first thought, “Don’t listen to the snake! He’s a slick-talking trickster. Don’t fall for it! He’s probably getting all the benefit, and you’ll have to live with the tragedy. Watch out!” Upon hearing the rule, and the things that the serpent is tempting Eve with, this focus of mistrust shifts on us. As readers, we think, “That rule seems pretty stupid. Why should that even be a rule, in the first place?” We begin to distance ourselves from our protagonist, and wonder if she hadn’t already been fooled, poor thing. She’s following rules invented by a character, who had the ability to prevent this whole scenario from even coming to pass.

We think “A tree? Really? Forbidden fruit? Seriously?”

Well, substitute that thought, act, or attitude you brought to mind when you started reading for the apple in this scene. Now re-read this bit:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:1-6 NIV)

Now imagine that this story included you, as protagonist, and your temptation, at the center of the command “You must not…” Do the antagonist’s lines sound like something you’ve heard before, inside your head?

Did God really say…
Stop cheating people
Keep sex in marriage
Put away anger, bad intent, slander, gossip
Don’t let the cares of this world choke out my words

If it hadn’t been a tree in the middle of the garden… If it hadn’t been forbidden fruit… If it hadn’t seemed so capricious, or irrelevant, then maybe we might not have stumbled in our reading.

Of course there are thoughts, actions and attitudes that are really right, and really wrong – on a grand scale, at least – murder, rape, robbery. Wherever we can see a victim, we are sure to call it a crime.

Ouch.

Wherever we see a victim? There’s the rub.

This whole apple thing seems victimless, to us. Who really loses, if what the antagonist posits is true? Throughout the whole negotiation, I imagine Eve thinking, “I don’t seem to lose. I might get more awareness, more knowledge. That can’t be losing.” Adam doesn’t seem to lose. Eve doesn’t make herself queen, and keep Adam around for her amusement. She invites him “in”. The serpent seems, on these terms, to be neither losing, nor winning. He becomes either neutral, or actually a “sage”. That is, a side-character, to whom our protagonist can turn in order to sort their thoughts, or gain trusted insight. The one who appears likely to lose, in this process of making this particular choice, is the absent, and potentially unreasonable, rule-maker.

And there we are.

We, like Eve, have a choice based on our loves. Do we love God – whom we will, in some regard, “lose”, if we choose what is wrong? Or do we “love” ourselves, and our temptations?

This recounting of Eve’s choice is a cautionary tale. It may, if we choose not to hold it at a distance, reflect out own tragic flaws. Will we choose to let pride and a false love of self to choke out the nearness and love of Him who made us for Himself?

And, can our love for Him be displayed without our obedience and faithfulness?

Eve’s choices remind us that we have a tempter, and that we are prone toward distance. In my observation, it seems that we will – without realizing it, or working at it – end up more apart than together. I feel this is true for our relationships with each other, and in our relationship with our God.

A friend of mine once told me, the trick to getting away from the temptation to sin, is to become the kind of person that wouldn’t choose sin. He also said that we become that kind of person, when we draw nearer to the one who loves us and made us. Then our loves become the ones that always were His.

May we intend to, and put action toward drawing nearer to God. May it be true for each of us, that we increasingly develop – like a photograph exposed to more and more light – into the image of Him who loves us and made us. Amen.

With me in mind

January 1, 2013

“God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” (Genesis 1:5 NIV)

In case we are disposed to think of our world in a binary way – as a world full of things just good and just bad, just on and off, light and dark – the creation account offered by the Scripture includes for us, the words “evening” and “morning”.

Twilight is revealed in this bit. There is no particular reason why it shouldn’t make sense for the waxing light of morning and the fading light of evening to occur. I mean, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect things to function any other way. It’s not as if daytime even could begin with anything like the switching on of a light. Likewise, the end of each day’s light couldn’t be a simple turning off or an instantaneous blocking of the light source, from any individual’s point of view…

We all, from our schooldays recall why this is so, and can conjure words like rotation, axis, orbit, etc. to describe what is happening. But, I’m not interested, here, in the scientific, or even in clarifying the plot line (how do we get light and darkness, or evening and morning on day one before we have sun, moon and stars, for example). I am interested in the latent observation wrapped up in this oft repeated phrase, “And there was evening, and there was morning…” What’s interesting to me, is that there are times between.

Dawn and dusk are the times of poetry, of indistinct color and uncertain shape, of moments of recognition, of awakening, of deep breaths and of reflection. The person who lives without these things – preferring simple light over simple dark – loses something.

Oh certainly, the reader can see that I would not wish to contradict the metaphor of righteous living, full of light, with no darkness in it at all. Nor would I wish to set aside the simile of our Lord and His gospel being so like unto light in darkness, as to completely dispel its thought to conceal. These serve us well, in our plight to describe Him, who is indescribable – who is beyond language.

But the twilight, too, may teach us something of Him, who made it so.

Let us hold, for a moment, to the fact that tue Creator’s first act is to reveal. Light uncovers, puts on display, and shows that upon which it falls. Our God is a god of revelation. simply put – He wants us to see! This is a wondrous truth – not to be missed: our God reveals.

Second, if what He calls darkness was His dwelling for eternity past, as the atmosphere is for us on this planet, then darkness must not be seen only as an image of what is gone wrong in the universe. Day is not right, and night wrong. Day is not good and night evil. Day is not simply revealed, and night is not simply concealed. There is a process of change from one to the other that happens every day

The “evening” and the “morning” are enough evidence for this, I think: Our God is a god of process. Let us, then, say that the person who lives without twilight – preferring simple light over simple dark – is missing something.

We each have a daily reminder, that we are invited to see. To be a seeing creature. To let God reveal… to… us… It is incredible! Why should He not have created a world fully lit, with all things visible, and have burned our eyes with exposed glory? Certainly His glory is worthy of being fully shone! Oh, but Had me in mind – and you, too. And He has made His glory to be fully seen, through twilight, and dusk; through day and night, through women and men, through life and death. None of these things is without His glory – the reflection of His greatness, and His smallness. He is no contradiction. We must contemplate Him in these things, that we may truly see.

Lord, bring us through the indistinct, the shapeless, the colorless toward Yourself. Though unworthy, we receive Your gathering light unto ourselves, and look searchingly for that which You reveal.

Amen.

Walk, stand, sit

December 31, 2012

“Blessed is the person who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord , and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalms 1:1, 2 ESV)

What does it mean to avoid the counsel of the “wicked”? Who are they? How would I even come to hear their advice in the first place? My suspicion is that the writer means me to observe that there are people around me, to whom I might otherwise be dispose to listen, whose hearts are turned away from God’s heart. Not turned slightly away, but turned against, leading away from, utterly bent.

Now, I can’t think of faces and names of any of my friends or acquaintances, if I try to, but I suspect there is something in this implicit warning… What if the complex worldview I’ve been led to see, is not neutral? There are people to whom I must not listen. They simply hasten toward that which is broken and lost, without curiosity or appetite.

Who are the “sinners” from whom this text enjoins me to stand apart? If I may be allowed to speculate, it may be that this particular “sinner”, is the one who knows what is right to do, and chooses the wrong instead. Unlike the wicked, whose very thoughts and heart are misaligned, the sinner’s heart places itself on the stand, as the defendant, and willingly judges itself criminal.

It cannot be said, which of these poor friends is worse off! The sinner is caught. He is between worlds. He sees the path to freedom, and light and life – but he is slave to the path that leads to death. He steps neither forward, nor back. He stands stock-still – unwilling to choose his own rescue. Poor fool! His sensibility deteriorates because of his delusions. His deadly appetites betray him again, and again.

The scoffer – once curious, has not actually sated his desire to know and understand. Instead, he sits in condescending judgement of all that there is to see. He considers himself beyond the labor of action and aspiration. He longs for nothing, collects nothing, seeks nothing, observes nothing. He is intolerant of those yet “younger” than himself – who see the patterns of life, and try to derive meaning from them.

Simply say that you see a larger picture, and he will tear it apart. You have but to claim that your own experience may prove to be a representation of a reality that is common to all. He will deride. He will laugh and mock. He will look down on you, or politely – patiently – set your ideas aside. In his mind, you are no longer a fit conversation partner. Of the whole experience of human history itself – he makes nothing. It means nothing. In fact, it can only mean nothing…

But the one who looks deeply into the law of The Lord…
His order, not chaos
His meaning, not nothing
His incarnation, not passive
His invitation, not haughty
His providence, not stingy
His revelation, unclouded
His ways, high
His power, terrible
His mercy, great
His grace, overwhelming
His love, complete

For the person, who delights in this… Blessing! The protection, the guidance and the provision of the almighty, transcendent God flow unmeasured!

May we delight in His law! May we consider it deeply, look for the ebb and flow of His Spirit working. May our minds be made straight, where they are bent. May we incautiously and swiftly run after Him, Who is good. May our wills be fully strengthened in their resolve to choose what we know is right, and to be of healthy appetite alone. May our hearts be kept free of the cynic’s false and empty wisdom – free and open – that we may see the greater wisdom freely offered by the Most Wise.

Make us Yours, glorious Father.
Make us more fully Yours!
Amen.

Passion + Gifting = Direction

September 13, 2012

So, this concept is not novel, and not likely to bring a lot of comment, but a good reminder, maybe? The thing about our world that we simply cannot stand? That’s a place where our passion is brewing. If we can identify that spot, and explore what we think is wrong with the world, we may even hear the voice of Jesus, saying, “Hey! Me too! I can’t stand that. I want to turn it right-side-out. Will you help me?”

And if we hear him inviting us toward His God-sized revolution, we just need to ask Him and ask ourselves, “What do I have to offer?” What are my gifts? What’s my experience? What do I know? What can I give away?

Where those two things meet, is the place we can start. It’s a beginning to a journey. It may not be a journey we love or enjoy, but it is a direction – a good direction for us to go. We may not even get to see the journey through to the end.

Sometimes, we just need to get things started.