Advent Reflection 4: Barren

[Zacharias and Elizabeth] were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. –Luke 1:7

Barrenness is of course a fertility problem. Biologically it refers to a womb that cannot support embryonic life. Agriculturally it refers to a land that cannot support plant life. Metaphorically it proves to be a rather portable word with any number of applications. It was evidently a favorite of the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who spoke of barren efforts and barren shores and barren crags and barren lives and ultimately of a barren Death:

Wiser there than you, that crowning barren Death as lord of all,
Deem this over-tragic drama’s closing curtain is the pall.

Lord Tennyson is right. Barrenness finds its way into every nook and cranny of this world and our experience of it. And that is because theologically barrenness is the state of creation this side of exile, the world East of Eden. God’s good world of Genesis 1 & 2 had already gone to seed under the stewardship of his image-bearers in Genesis 3 (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). And now we live, it seems, in two worlds, God’s world and our world, a world of good and evil. 

The world is thus duplicitous in its barrenness and beauty, its grandeur and terror, its tranquility and violence, its capacity to provide for the unseen sparrow and its capacity to turn to ice. We can neither escape echoes of heaven or the shadows of hell. Creation is groaning in both labor and suffocation, new births and burials by the minute, a sign (that is more than a sign) that Mother Nature is ever losing her battle with Father Time. Every birth certificate already shares its name with a death certificate. We live in a world and in bodies and in communities that simply cannot adequately support life. 

Every home, so rich with memory, will slowly grow empty and eventually the nest will be left all alone. No more children giggling their way into the master bedroom on Saturday morning. No frenzy of life in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day frantically filling every dish and basket and platter with an attempt to keep the past alive. No one to say “Mom” or “Dad” or “You’re grounded!” or “Pass the jam”–-just the occasional “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when the phone rings. Then calls come only for “Mrs.”, with condolences. Then the phone just stops ringing. Life inside the walls gives way to a damningly exact proportion of grief. But soon no one is even left to cry. What was once home to a family will eventually house only an empty memory, maybe a few moths. The world is our womb, and it is barren, every life a miscarriage. 


But there is something hopeful in all this, because we were not created to live in such a duplicitous world and to be such duplicitous creatures. The world was made to be good and we were made to be like God (Gen. 1). Would we really want God to preserve everything as it is, when the world is full of evil and we are full of godlessness, when nature is amuck with “natural” disasters and we will all die of “natural” causes, unless something “unnatural” kills us first? Would we not rather God burn the evil away and flood the void with light? Perhaps the sign of the times, then, is not that death is the conclusion to all human life but, more precisely, that death is the conclusion to all human evil. Indeed, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 7).

But our sin and death has not deterred God from finishing what he has started. He is still committed to making the world to be good and making us to be like God. We just have to be emptied of life, such as it is, before we can be filled with life as it will be. Nobody plants flowers in a bed of weeds or a thicket of thorns. Before there can be new life, there must be death. In this way, barrenness is about new beginnings.


Barrenness is not only the state of things after everything dies. It is the state of things before everything lives. Indeed, a womb must be empty before it can be filled, just as creation was formless and void before it was filled with light. But God not only filled the void, he created it (Gen. 1:2). He did not just hurl the world into a space sufficient to sustain it. He created it as a barren womb, a space he would himself have to fill in order for it to be filled with Life. Apart from him this world would only inevitably return back to its original, all-consuming barrenness, but this world is not apart from him—because Christmas. Because God was born into this world, this world can be born again. Our barrenness is not a post-apocalyptic wasteland but the womb of new creation. Emmanuel—east of Eden.

I used to think, wherever you find Jesus, there you will find no misery. But I’ve learned over the years it’s just the opposite: Wherever you find misery, there you will find Jesus. He says as much in some rather harrowing words about the sheep in his fold and goats in high places (Mt. 25). Emmanuel means God has come to us in all the barrenness of our exile, not that we have gone to him in all the grandeur of his celestial paradise. We will never find God in heaven because God has found us on earth, and it is here that heaven is coming (Rev. 21-22): here, in barren places; here, with broken people; here, where God is. 


And it has always been so: God comes where the efforts are barren and the ground is chapped. Slaves in Egypt became a nation in the desert. God had come. Out of barren wombs the child of promise is born to Sarah, the child of prophecy to Elizabeth, the “Voice crying out in the Wilderness” born to a father who could not speak. God had come. Out of nowhere the substitute came to Abraham for his son on Mount Moriah. Out of the Virgin the Substitute came to Israel for all sons on Mount Calvary. God has come.

And God is coming again. Isaiah says we’ll know it is God because the cracked desert floor will begin blooming like a daisy field in springtime; the groaning ground of the curse will suddenly burst into song (Isa. 35). Scorched war fields will become spring-fed gardens (Isa. 58); swords and spears will be beaten into the shape of life and kept in the barn (Isa. 2). He said that lions and tigers and bears would go vegan and siesta with lambs and yearlings (Isa. 11). There will be life where there could otherwise be no life, peace in a world of unrest, a symphony filling canyon winds. Paul says we’ll know it is God because when he comes he will lay death down to sleep, pray the Lord its hell to keep. We’ll wake up one day without aching joints and pressing deadlines. We’ll see mirrors we’re not ashamed of (1 Cor. 15).

John says we’ll know it is God because of what happens to the brokenhearted. The little boy whose dad was sent home in the form of a flag, the young mother of that boy looking helpless at his searching eyes; the little girl who never wore white. We’ll know it is God not because the brokenhearted will suddenly stop crying but because their tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). They will be touched by a real Hand and there will be a resurrection of real hands. Those searching eyes will find what they never stopped looking for. It will be like a world ruled by the real religion that James talked about (Ja. 1:27).

John also says we’ll know it is God because it will be like a Bridegroom and a Father and a Son and like a world full of siblings (Rev. 21-22), like wedding reception and a family reunion all at once (Rev. 19:6). It will just be a mess of an overflow. Loneliness won’t even fit in a crack on the floor. There will be no storm shelters or panic rooms, no sirens or seatbelts, no temples or mosques, no shut doors or closed countries, no walls, no gun control, no guns, no abortions, no greed, no partisanship, no voting booths, no border patrol, no arrogance, no bumper stickers, no child soldiers, no fatherless children, no websites, no spam, no shrapnel, no midnight calls, no divorce, no mistrust, no shame, no shadows, no small caskets, no more goodbyes: only God, only Light, only peace, only joy, infinite joy drowning the void beneath the weight of the “glory of the Lord that fills the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14), and us—with a Table there at the center to keep the past alive for good (Rev. 21:21-23).

When Christ comes, he comes to dethrone the one called “barren Death” crowned “lord of all.” The crimson of his crown will touch every tomb and burst forth in a bloom of roses. For He is the “firstborn of creation” (Col. 1:15) and therefore the “firstborn of the dead” (Col. 1:18). And he will again descend into this barren womb of creation, this time to bring forth life in an unbound abundance. When “the Lord descends from heaven…the dead in Christ shall rise” (1 Thess. 4:16). And on that day, the world will be discovered as an ultrasound devoid of any dark, as we all are born again into the womb of eternal life, together with the eternally Begotten Son of God. No more miscarriages.

When he comes…

Advent Reflection 3: Liberation

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth” (Luke 1:5).

It is “In the days of Herod, king of Judea” that the Gospel narrative begins (Lk. 1:5). It’s a historical footnote for the modern-day reader, but for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds in the field and the sheep and the I-don’t-know-maybe-three wise men, as long as Herod was considered the king of Judea, the true King of Judea had not yet come.    

Herod was a king in the way Moses might have been king had he never met that burning bush who knew his name. Moses was born to a family of Hebrew slaves but through a strange series of events was adopted by a family of Egyptian overlords. In particular, the daughter of Pharaoh, who happened to be the wealthiest and most powerful man on the planet, took him in as her own at a time when all the other little Hebrew boys were being tossed out. So not only was his life spared, but he now stood line to potentially be put in charge one day of some region of grandpa’s empire, perhaps the region where all the Hebrew slaves were living, slaving. He looked like them, after all. In that case, he would have been a Hebrew “king” over Hebrew slaves but ultimately under the rule of Pharaoh. Herod was something like that: a Jewish “king” over a predominantly Jewish region but ultimately under the rule of Caesar.

But let’s just say Herod was one chopstick short of being a fully functional human. For example, of his many wives, Mariamne I was his favorite—until he murdered her. And when he was first appointed king over Judea, he made his most respected brother the high priest in Jerusalem. Makes sense. Then he had him drowned at a dinner party. Also, when the two sons he had with Mariamne I grew up, he promoted them to a track of royal succession. A redemptive gesture—until he had them both killed. He seemed to soften with age and so made his son Antipater the first heir in his will. Then, while lying in his deathbed, he decided, “Ah, what the heck…” and had him killed too.

Then he died.

But before that, there was also that time the [not so] wise men inquired to him, the so-called “king of Judea,” about “the King of the Jews” being born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:2). Needless to say, there wasn’t enough room in Judea for two kings, so Herod had every male child under the age of two executed (Mt. 2:16-17). And in so doing the “king of Judea” had, ironically enough, followed in the footsteps of the king of Egypt, an apple fallen not far from Pharaoh’s tree (cf. Exod. 1:22). You don’t have to be in Egypt to be in captivity.

So it’s hard to say: did Israel need liberation from Caesar’s captivity or from Herod’s? Was it the ruler without or the ruler within that posed the more immanent threat of freedom? Is it Islamic radicalism or is it American consumerism? Or, for that matter, is it American consumerism or is it my impulsive spending habits? Is it civil strife or the kind I find in my home, or the kind I hide in my heart? Is it sex trafficking in Thailand or is it the international pornography industry, or is it the iPhone industry, or is it the iPhone in my pocket?

The severest form of human slavery on the planet always comes in the form of the human will: “my will be done.” Luther called it “the bondage of the will.” We all, deep down, have a little bit of Herod in our heart. We all want freedom from sin, except that part of us that wants the freedom to keep on sinning. We want to be healthy, but we don’t want to not feed our habits. We all want people to just love each other and stop firing missiles, except I don’t want to stop keeping a ‘record of wrongs’ (cf. 1 Cor. 13:5) and firing back comments that cut, sarcasm that covers. We all want to do God’s will, except we never want “Not my will…” (Lk. 22:42).

Come give us freedom, Lord Jesus, from death and hell, from hopelessness and fear, liberate us from our enemies and our obstacles. Amen, hallelujah! But don’t save us from our pride and from our selfishness. Don’t offer us liberation from our throne of independence. But there is no other freedom the Gospel offers.

Liberation by means of a cross means the world needs liberated from me, and that I need liberated from me. I need to be raised from the dead, but I first need to be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20-22). But humans do not typically want this kind of freedom. We want control.

Control feels like freedom because control means “my will be done.” So it feels like freedom to the one who has it, but true freedom does not come at the expense of another’s freedom. Control does. Control is the kind of “freedom” Herod had. Control is the kind of freedom you can have by listening to your inner Herod. Pharaoh had freedom like that. And God had to rescue His people precisely from Pharaoh’s freedom, and now he would have to rescue His people from their own “king’s” freedom.

In Paul’s language, that inner Herod is called “the lusts of the flesh,” which always stands in opposition to the Spirit lusts within us (Gal. 5). You are home to a civil war. The inner Christ and the inner Herod are at war for your freedom, for everyone’s freedom. Paul says “It was for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). The yoke of slavery, or the lusts of the flesh, inhibits anyone from living in freedom (“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”), while the yoke of freedom, or the lusts of the Spirit, enables everyone to live in freedom (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”).

The Spirit lusts to give. The flesh lusts to take. The Spirit lusts to make us like Christ, so that others can be free of our tyranny. The flesh lusts to make us like Herod, so that others will live in our captivity, or wishful thinking at least. The Spirit lusts to free us from our slavery to self-service, the flesh lusts to “liberate” us from the freedom of self-control, which is the defining fruit of spiritual freedom. Self-control is the truest mark of freedom because the “self” is that little inner high-chair tyrant, Herod, that needs to die. Self-control starves your inner Herod. Faith in Christ means “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). Self-control in the Spirit means “I die every day” (1 Cor. 15:34).

So perhaps today we could dare to ask ourselves: Who is living under the burden of my control? Do people feel free around me or do people feel the need to live up to my expectations, my will? Does it feel like “the days of Herod” around me—or does it feel like Christmas?

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

Advent Reflection 2: Remember

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Lk. 1:1-4). 

Barney: “Have you seen my shoes? I need to put them on before I go home.”
Me: “You are home, Granddaddy.”
Barney: “No I’m not. This is just where I’m staying until I go.”
Me: “But… I see…”

[So I helped him find his shoes.]

—A conversation with my grandfather

My grandfather was a minister for 64 years. He began showing signs of dementia many years ago. Since my grandmother passed, his mind has been slipping more rapidly into the void. Watching his decline, I have learned that the world of humanity consists in memories. I’ve also learned that memories are married to names. When one is lost, so the other, and whatever piece of the world went with them.

Of all the names that have fallen into that inglorious abyss, mine included, it was saddest to see my grandmother’s go. Never again will I get to hear the story about the first time he saw her, standing on a sidewalk in a white dress: “She looked like an angel.” Never again will I get to see her memory become wet in his grieving eyes only to be consoled back into laughter by yet another moment shared still in his mind. She was always visible as a glow in his face, even under the hanging weight of his grief. But now there is neither glow nor grief. That part of his world and that part of his face are gone. And I suspect, were it up to him, he would welcome the grief back in endless waves if only to salvage a few glimpses of his long lost angel, forgotten at sea. But she is lost to him.

But she is not lost. And she is not lost to him forever. Because the one Name that still puts color in his face and fills his mouth like lead is the Name of the One whose hands first joined them together. And His grieving hands are as stubborn as nails that refuse to let go of the dead. So my grandfather may not have my grandmother’s hand anymore to hold, but he still daily folds his hands in prayer—and he has never forgotten in whose Name his prayers are made. That world still belongs wholly to him, and he wholly to it.

From this vantage, he has forgotten nothing. For those who remember where they are going, not even a single drop of the past will be lost. 


It was this insight that prompted Luke to compile the memories of those who had seen Jesus with their own eyes. He wanted to offer the world a composite memory of the Man who carries the future in his hands, indeed all time in his Person (cf. Rev. 1:1-8). So sharing a secondhand memory of Jesus can lead to a firsthand encounter with Him. All you need is his Name (cf. 2 Cor. 1:20; Mt. 18:20). Jesus’ Name is God’s #📞 (Acts 2:21). That shouldn’t be too hard to remember.

Jesus is the eternal Word of God who became flesh and blood in order for to speak in a language we could understand. The infinite and eternal God became finite enough to fit in a manger and temporal enough to die on a tree. But neither time nor space nor death could ultimately contain him, and upon his return His Father, our Father in heaven, the Spirit of God was poured out in a global flood, so that “whosoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Jesus stands between all time and eternity, holding all things together, calling all things to himself. So there is nowhere and no-when that God is not present in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Presence without which there could be no presence, the Being without which there could be no human being, the eternal reality in which we participate on borrowed time, and toward which time will eventually terminate, or consummate—“for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). Unlike every other person, he does not exist merely as a series of moments in time, each one dissolving into the next until all is dissolved into death. This is how we experience the world and the world experiences us. Over time, our memories fill our minds like a ghost towns, haunting us, taunting us, giving form to our voids and voice to our groans.

But a memory of Jesus is a memory of the One who is always and everywhere present. To remember anything about what Jesus has done in the past is to know something about the One who holds the future and is seated beside you, and God, at present. Reading Luke’s memories of Jesus’ is like children hearing their aging parents tell stories about one another, about the days “long before y’all were born.” They share memories from a past in a way that enables their children to know their parents just a little more, and perhaps better recognize the rippling impact of their lives.

So Luke sits at the foot of the bed like a child and collects all the memories he can get his hands on and then weaves them together to reveal to us, or remind us, “all the things that have been accomplished among us” (Lk. 1:1). And to be reminded of what the Eternal God has accomplished among us is to become part of the “us” for whom and among whom Jesus has accomplished all the things. And perhaps through these memories we’ll get to know Jesus just a little more, and maybe better recognize the present impact of his life—and his future impact on all things, on us. 

“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (Mt. 1:23).

Advent Reflection 1: Wait

The Christian Year

ad·vent / ˈadˌvent: the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event; to come to

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
     Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21).

The Bible concludes with this great historic cliffhanger. The first time Jesus came to this world he ensured us he’d come again to finish what he started. We are left on Scripture’s last page with two basic claims about the course of history and the fate of this world: Christ has come. Christ will come again. We are, at present, between the times. History has taken the shape of a promise and faith has taken the shape of waiting.

Jesus once said, “Be like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes” (Lk. 12).

Waiting is hard work. Jesus described it here as the kind of work that allows us to hear, the work of listening intently. It’s like children with their ears pressed against the bedroom door on Christmas morning waiting for mom and dad to get out of bed, (miraculously) quieting themselves enough to hear movement on the other side. The blessing in Jesus’ parable comes to those who proved to be waiting for their Master simply by opening the door at his arrival—they could heard the knock from the other side. This kind of listening is hard work because our kind of world is full of noise, and so often we become hard of hearing.


We live loud lives: wake up, screen on, eat and run, text and drive, bounce around, fast food, back home, screen back on, plate on lap, back to bed, earbuds in, wake up; rinse and repeat. We have one-click shopping. Pay phones have gone the way of the dodo. The Internet doesn’t make that intergalactic fax machine noise anymore. Now, it could be that all this on-demand efficiency is evidence of a culture that has discovered all that satisfies the longings of the soul—and made it all extremely available. Or it could be just the opposite. It could be an indication that we have found exactly nothing that satisfies our longings. It could be an indication that we’ve just resorted to an abundance of stuff that does not satisfy.
We are occupied and preoccupied with stuff that keeps us busy enough to never have to confront the hollowness we discover in the silence, when we quiet ourselves enough to listen for any movement from God from the other side. Perhaps we’re afraid to press our ear against the door, because the first thing you inevitably hear in the silence is silence. And it’s hard to have the faith of a child these days. It’s hard to believe that God will ever awake from his slumber. And so any encounter with the silence leaves us to anxiously wonder if, in fact, there is nothing happening on the other side, if there is no one coming from the other side. So we fill our lives with things do, places to go, a world to produce, a world to consume, a world to possess. And so in our efforts to consume an abundance of satisfaction we are consumed by an abundance of distraction–anything to avoid listening to the silence.
But shouldn’t the Church, of all people, have a different response to the silence? Shouldn’t the silence of Good Friday shape our longings more than racket of Black Friday?
The slaves in the parable who opened the door did so because they heard the knock, but the reason they heard the knock is that they were “waiting for their Master to return.” It’s no surprise that the secular world celebrates our Christmas but wants nothing to do with our Advent. But there is no Christmas without Advent anymore than their is Easter Sunday without Good Friday. Whatever else Christmas is about, Advent assumes it is about two things that our culture knows nothing about: having a Master and having to wait. Indeed, Christmas is only worth celebrating because Christmas is coming again. And if it is not, if He is not, we should simply find a new home where we can sleep in the master bedroom, so we can be comfortable as we grow old. 
But He is coming again. There movement on the other side. We just need to begin to listen to our deepest longings, and that takes a little peace and quiet so that the naive and childlike hopes of the Christmas promise can well up from within us without getting repressed by our inner scrooge or avoided through the remote control. We have to allow the grandiosity of the Christmas promise, and our longing for it, to move our ear against the door to wait for a movement almost too good to be true, so good that it no one could bring it but God alone—for universal peace, for eternal joy, for a family embrace across all tribes, tongues, and nations, for the reunion of all lost sons and daughters, for restoration of a broken world and resurrection of broken bodies. We have to allow that all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience to reveal its true from as the heartache of our eternal homesickness.
If we allow that, however, we are bound by our heartache to resign ourselves to hope, because we do not have the raw materials within ourselves to satisfy that longing, and neither does the whole world and all that is in it. The only comfort for an eternal homesickness is if an eternal Father is on the other side of the door. But that is the claim of our Master, who came to be our brother and lead us to listen at the door with an eternal longing:  
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore. 
~ Isaiah 9:6-7
So sit tight, sit still, and lean in to Advent this year. We need it just as much as we need Christmas, because without the waiting—the listening—of Advent, we may never hear Christmas when it comes.
Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

advent-wait-for-it

Dancing with Echoes: On Cain, Shame, & the Urban Devil in Disguise (An Excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from a book project I will probably never finish, in which case it is more properly called a fragment from an unfinished essay. So below is a fragment from an unfinished essay. Let’s call it Unfinished Essay 2. In a fragment from, say, Unfinished Essay 1, I discussed the familial nature of the image of God as the design against which all other forms of human relationality must be judged. The fragment below assumes familiarity with that argument from that fragment in Unfinished Essay 1. But you’ll manage.


The family project continues in the East. Eve’s title as mother of all the living is brought to fruition in the spread of Adam’s seed. Eve was formed out of Adam’s rib, but the rest of the world is formed out of Adam’s loin. Eden has been barred. The first guardian angels are sent to block the way back (Gen. 3:24). The men of the East would take their pens of dominion and plowshares of the Garden and beat them into swords. Gardening in God’s world would give way to nation building. Men would begin to scribble history with blood, becoming increasingly brute and uncreative with each generation, whose concept of good writing amounts to little more pressing harder with the pen. In the man’s world, the family would be thrust deep into the shadows to bring into the spotlight the warlords—it is hunting season in the East—battling one another for mastery over history altogether fighting in a world war against time. It was not good for Man to be alone, estranged from his feminine side. Human history, as we know it, thus begins with two brothers, the firstfruits of Adam’s seed.


The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is has clear intentions. It is a ground account of the bird’s flight to follow. In principle, it is the same story as Genesis 3 (as well as all of the stories of Genesis 5-11)—the story about the way sin divides the human family from one another and from God. But it does have a few significant differences. While Genesis 3 focuses on the first causes of sin in the parents of the human race, Genesis 4 focuses on the first effects of sin in the children. It is therefore naturally more empathetic to the world that begins outside the Garden, the world in which its readers find themselves, the world of Israel, the world of us. Genesis 3 also reveals the true faces of the family and its enemy, of the divinely ordered unity and the soulless search for divinity, the ignorance of which produces much strife in subsequent history. It is not trivial that it begins with two brothers and ends with an only child (Gen. 5:1b-3). Adam’s world was and has ever since been a world of brothers killing brothers and calling them others. If there are any illusions about the way of a man after Adam, any lingering hope of returning to Eden, this story sobers and severs. It exists to orient us to the long road ahead, a one-way easterly road that ever polarizes its travelers from the Garden way. The Garden gate and its guardian angels will grow smaller and smaller in our rearview memory.

Cain and Abel were born after the cherubim took their posts at the east gate. Adam’s seeds immediately begin to sprout out of the cursed ground of the East. Cain is a gardener, like his father. He spends his days with his hands in the dirt of a curse with sweat from the toil and blood from the thorns. Abel is a shepherd, and a butcher, like the Levites. No women are in the story. The Lord does not intervene. He gives space for the love of freedom, which men love to fill with control. It turns violent—quickly.

The brothers bring offerings to the Lord. The Lord does not regard Cain’s ground-grown offering. He accepts Abel’s first-born offering. It is too early to make sense of the Lord’s discretion. Speculations can be made about the parallels of the Garden garments or the kind of sacrifice needed in a condemned world, but they are only speculations. The Lord speaks graciously to Cain. He has not yet rebelled against him. He had only acted in ignorance. Cain was just like the child who offers his parents a ketchup and ice cream sundae. It was not that Cain had done anything particularly wrong with his offering. God did not condemn him for that. God just reserves the right to aesthetic judgments. It is good to separate the waters from the land and the ketchup from the ice cream, even if Cain prefers otherwise, even if Cain prefers red to cover white, for blood to flood the field.

At any rate, the story has nothing substantial to tell us about the offerings. It tells us, instead, about Cain, and therefore about ourselves. It does not draw our attention to a symbolic meaning of either offering, but to the way Cain reacts to his sense of the Lord’s rejection. Human history is unwittingly all about the creative and uncreative ways men handle that sense of the Lord’s rejection. Since men cannot find peace with the Father, they are wont to make enemies with others, even, and especially, with brothers.


Cain gets angry. A new emotion enters the Genesis narrative. Anger is a new way of dealing with shame. Shame, again, is the horizontal feeling of vertical guilt, the impulse to hide from we know not what, only that we must hide ourselves. Shame in the Garden sought a scapegoat, but in this world the scapegoat is ripe for the slaughter. It is much the same as what we have already seen. An obvious pattern emerges. Discord in the divine-human community finds first expression on the ground—on earth as it is in hell. God did not accept Cain’s offering, but he does suggest to Cain that Cain can still be accepted, “if you (Cain) do well. If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Sin crouches at our door. It now exists ‘out there’ like a cold front in the open-air or a snake hole in a gated neighborhood.

Or does it? Where is sin, or temptation, or the tempter, actually located in this story? Within or without? That is perhaps one of the questions this story is designed to answer. Regardless, its desire is for Cain. All it has to do now—all sin ever has to do—is exploit Cain’s shame. Sin has found its dance partner.

Shame has many reflexes. It adapts to its environment. But its goal is always the same as it was in the almost-beginning: to self-preserve. In the Garden, shame sought merely to find a worse offender to deflect the guilt. Adam points to Eve, Eve to the serpent, and the scale terminates at bottom with the devil. But this is a different environment. The serpent is missing. God has made a judgment about the brothers’ offerings. Cain is unpleased with God’s judgment. God does not condemn Cain but he does offend him. Cain does not need to repent. He needs only to stay humble. He needs only to accept that God’s judgments are good, even if that means God does not regard his offering good. Perhaps God is just real, and real Persons have preferences. And perhaps God is good and just to impose his preferences upon us. Perhaps it is good that God prefers we love our enemies and not cut off their heads, even when that means loving those who have cut off people’s heads. Perhaps the liberation any man from an Absolute good is inherently slavery of all men. Perhaps the power of the will to choose good aimlessly in its own eyes is always already only the will to power.

Regardless, Cain should surely not hold God’s preferential nature against God, and certainly he should not take it personally if God preferred Abel’s lamb to Cain’s durian. If I’m honest, I have no regard for my grandma’s offering of (yet another) three-pack of bright white Fruit of the Loom underwear every Christmas (she worked in a Fruit of the Loom factory, making loin coverings for men for over three decades). But that does not mean I have no regard for my grandma. That is why I lie to her. But God is not a liar, like me. God’s prefers truth-telling to ego-stroking. The whole world was lost in a single lie safeguarded in every ego, so it does no good for God to protect our egos and thereby preserve the lie that i am that I AM, that my preferences determine the absolute good.  

For Cain’s part, he only need accept that not all offerings are created equal, and that only means accepting God is God and he is not. But who is really willing to accept that? Who will not first have to accept that “no one is good but God alone”? Who will not first have to acquit all their enemies of their evils and throw their stones down in the dirt? Who will not first have to pardon others by crucifying the voice of the accuser in their own head every single day of their life? So, alas, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn after emerging from Soviet captivity in the Gulag, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every man. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It is far less painful to destroy your brother’s. 


Cain has not sinned at this point in the story, yet he behaves as like an escaped convict, as though living in the shadow of some past offense (like Harold), as though guilty before proven innocent. He is impulsive, rash, desperate. It is evident that there is more to the scene than meets the eye, like a subterranean fault line under immense pressure. The sequence in the Garden story was command, confusion, deception, disobedience. In this story, the two middle components are indistinct because they seem to be all that is there. The motivations for Cain’s actions are not part of the script. They seem, instead, to be encoded in the heart of the script, perhaps encoded in the heart of Cain.

The Lord announces that Cain can still be accepted, that he can rule over sin. But there is no response, no indication that an attempt is made to heed these words. There is, rather, an eerie sense that Cain is in constant consultation with an unseen third party, an invisible echo whispering into, or within, Cain’s ear: “Did God really say…” or “Who is God to say…” or “Are you not like God, of knowing good and evil?” or “You are God.”

But the serpent is nowhere to be found. He had returned to his hole. He apparently no longer needed to be present for his echoes to be heard. It behooved him to remain hidden. If blame terminated at him each time, as it did in the Garden scene, he would never accomplish his goal of instigating retaliation. The absence of a tempter makes guilt a far more slippery thing to hammer down—and guilt must be hammered down. A visible talking snake means there is an enemy of God, and it may not be me. But an invisible talking snake means there’s an enemy of God in my head. That is a terrifying prospect, rendering the experience of life to an ongoing whack-a-mole scenerio. If the serpent’s whisperings were now in some sense buried in Adam’s seed, his greatest strategy would undoubtedly be to never rear his head again—indeed, he never does again, at least not to ordinary eyes. In that case, the thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘I AM’, ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘he’ and ‘it’, all slide off the divide into a slurry of inner distances off the tip of that two-pronged tongue. The only thing more dangerous than a talking snake in a Garden is a talking snake in your head. That is the kind of thing that will drive a man mad. It drove Cain mad. 


In the Garden the serpent could encourage segregation, domestic violence and even divorce between the two-made-to-become-one. He did so from without, hurling grenades of deception to cause divisions and convincing them, as is his custom, to stop holding each other’s hearts and to start pointing their fingers and clinching their fists. But he could not yet convince them to embrace a segregation and begin to throw stones. He could not convince them to declare a civil war. But the conditions are different in the East. The serpent now begins by splitting a man at his nucleus. The family is divided because the man’s heart is divided. Cain’s pointing finger was not pulled away by some open-air attraction, looking merely for someone to blame and send away like a scapegoat. The projection was much more deeply seated. It grew out of the branches of his heart. As such, it was much harder, sharper and more prodigious than his parents’, their fingers merely meeting their targets through an invisible trajectory. With Cain, the trajectory materialized. His finger pointed all the way through Abel’s body. The brotherly community is now destroyed—nuclear fission in the nuclear family.

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:8)

The Lord had been gracious with Cain and given him another chance to offer an acceptable sacrifice—to another God. He led his brother Abel into his field, the place of his produce, like a sheep led to the slaughter. Cain waters the cursed ground with Abel’s blood, but his blood cried out to the God of the Garden (Gen. 4:1). The world that once sprouted with life expedites its process of decay. Everything is dying, plants and people withering into the brittle brown of dead leaves and dried blood. This was the work of two gardeners. Everything in the East is going the way of the dust. A man dies. A family dies. Cursed is every man who hides in the shadow of that God-damned tree (cf. Gen. 3; Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13).

Every man from Adam is born on the other side of yet another divide. With each generation the oneness of creation is more easily disregarded as a creative fiction, thus providing the distance necessary to embrace increasing degrees of separation that commensurately sever empathy with others who live at a distance. Eve was formed from Adam’s rib, that place that guards the heart. Man in the image of God was made to share heartaches. But men became islands unto themselves and took to the image of the beasts. As such, as long as a professional distance is maintained, stabbing another man, or a brother, in a field, or nailing another Man, or a Brother, to a cross, feels only like cutting into a limb with severed nerves. It doesn’t even hurt, even if he does bleed a common blood, unless indeed I AM my brother’s Keeper (Gen. 4:9). 

The Lord confronts Cain. “Where is Abel your brother?” he asks. As with Adam, he gave Cain a chance to confess. “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain has become a smart ass. He has his father’s sense of humor. In addition, he is a liar. He did know where Abel was. Lying is another pathetic form of sewing. It is the grammar of making garments in an attempt to hide our guilt from the one before whom “all are naked and laid bare…to whom we must give an account of our lives” (Heb. 4:12-13). 


Cain is sent to wander on the wide and aimless easterly road, a fugitive. Anger in community gives way to fear in isolation. His own internal sense of justice condemns him. Cain discovers his conscience, but we discover in Cain that our condemning conscience does not lead us to repentance but only deeper into a more permanent form of our modus operandi: self-preservation. Cain, like his father and like the first criminal in the crucifixion account, and like most every man, seeks sympathy from God, not forgiveness. He asks for salvation from his guilty conscience, not forgiveness for his guilt. He demands pardon from his punishment but is unwilling to confess that he deserves it. So he rejects God as a Person and constructs an eastern worldview indeed of an inescapable and impersonal karma: 

“Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:13-14).

He killed and knew what he deserved. But the Lord, even here, shows a deeper arrangement. It is grace for Cain while preserving justice in the world (Gen. 4:15-16). It is not an exacting arrangement, at least not yet, and it requires personal and preferential bias, intervention, indeed, Incarnation.

God marks Cain to protect him. He then sends him away from his presence. Eden continues to shrink. The Lord returns to his Garden. Cain builds a city. In God’s world, families are the center, in Cain’s world, cities. The partitions grow. The world apart from the presence of the Lord, from the Garden of the Lord, has nothing but the future in potentia. There is no model or microcosm for home, only natural resources for the limitless imagination. The world has lost its essence and all is reduced to utility. Men continue moving forward, telling themselves that the pot filled with gold is bigger than the emptiness they seek to fill. Those futile attempts to fill that inner infinite void, however, has only ever served to keep us “distracted from distraction by distraction” (T.S. Eliot). The soul made for rest has no recourse for restlessness from within because rest indeed only comes from without. 

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” ~ St. Augustine

This world knows nothing of true rest, though something called rest exists within the grid of utility. Utilitarian rest serves the function of efficiency. Rest is calculated to maximize production. Relationships, too, are calculated accordingly, subsumed within the crowd and therefore entangled in untruth (Kierkegaard). There is no time for eye contact, much less for reflection, contact with one’s self and its host of inner demons. Such is what keeps us so distracted. Men band together to run from themselves, to build cities, to hide. The world looks progressively less like a Garden. It is too painful to remember the trees, so they built, so we build, concrete gardens. 

 

 

Dying in the Womb of Triune Love: Mothers, Fathers, & The Faceless Pain of Miscarriages

The silence of the doctor matched the darkness on the screen. He kept moving the wand around but darkness looks the same from every angle. 

“I’m sorry. It looks like you lost him about three weeks ago.”

Keldy’s eyes started to well up. We held it together through all the formalities of getting the hell out of there, but the moment we stepped outside Keldy burst into tears, soaking my shoulder with her grief. We stood in a stale breezeway and fell into each others’ arms, trying to embrace the black hole between us but only ever arriving at infinite distances. No breeze ever came.

For Keldy, it was a moment filled with the pain I suppose only a mother can ever know. For me, it was a moment filled with emptiness. I was hollow. My soul was unmoved, absolute zero. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel. I inhabited a matter-of-fact nothingness that I’ve not known since before I was born. And it wasn’t that I was trying “to be strong for her” or anything noble like that. There was just nothing. It just felt the way that ultrasound looked. 

Until I called my mother. She answered the phone the way she always does.

“Hey Baby!”

I typically retort, “Hi Janice”, to reassure both of us that I’m not really a “baby” anymore. But I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. The moment I heard the weight of sincerity in her voice—“Baby!”—a wave crashed down my throat and into my lungs. The end of my sentence cracked into silence as an invisible hand wrapped around my neck, hot: “…a miscarriage.”

“Oh Jeremy…”

“Jeremy?”

I couldn’t speak. It was as if up to that point my eyes had been inhaling the world of that lightless void and only now found a suitable place to exhale. It didn’t come out as a matching silence but a wordless groan. It no longer felt like non-life. It now felt like death. It felt like all of life rushing into a single moment, the moment it all went rushing out. And that was a fullness too great to bear. Out came a river, like the big one with the dark red plague.


I think there are certain tears that can only come out in the presence of select people. Maybe they’re even directed toward those people. Perhaps there are levels of pain so great they don’t even register if the right person isn’t available to help carry it. I wonder how much pain in this world flies under the radar carried by people who feel it precisely as nothingness. 

I wonder if such people, those who seem most immune to pain, are those whose pain has found no one outside with open arms, no chest on which to lay its prickly head. I wonder if their mother still calls them “Baby,” or if she ever did. I wonder if they have dark rivers coiling up inside them, like a serpent under threat, with no one willing to share their pain, no one willing to be their Dead Sea. But pain, like water, is always pressing against the edges to find a way out. Pain that is not shared by others is likely to be projected onto others, pain with fangs. As Richard Rohr has said, “if you don’t transform your pain, you will transmit it in some form.” Or, if you like, Robert Plant: “If it keeps on rainin’ the levee’s going to break; when the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay” (Led Zeppelin). 

Human life is too big for its britches, a pinpoint in time with the capacity to take in “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19) but also to dish out “all evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Humans, as God’s image-bearers, are created in the overflow, so we can hardly help but splash around in the weeping and rejoicing and good and evil of others. But there are some who have yet to find anyone to share their puddle with them. Some men are islands.

With all exits dammed, death works it way upstream, sealing up any expression of sorrow and turning lifeblood into poison. If you can’t wet someone else’s shoulder with your grief, you will surely wet someone else’s bloodstream with your venom. Life becomes death and death needs motherly love to be brought back to life, a womb to receive it in order to bring light to its darkness and give form to its void. Alone, death begets death.


There is a kind of pain that, like love, has to be shared to be felt deeply, to be known for what it truly is. The pain of a child dying is just such a pain. And this happens to be the pain God shared with this world when he shared his love with this world. “For God has proven his love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8). Bitter is the sharing of God’s life with our particular brand of pain, of God’s love with those who invariably reject it and only thereby receive it for what it truly is—for heavy lies the crown of thorns. 

“Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done” (Mt. 26:39). 

The closest red-mud image we have to this kind of bipolar, self-denying love is the love of a mother. It is a love that must live for two at the expense of the one so willing to live. It is a love that knows pain personally, deep in the gut, and yet refuses to run from it, even when it has left the gut. It is a love that knows pain must be shared if life is to be shared—for life is wrought through pain (Gen. 3:16). A mother suffers, a child is born. Jesus suffers, a child is born again. 


It is no surprise, then, that the pain of my grief only found its exit at the sound of my own mother’s voice. She spoke—“Baby!”-–and commanded forth the death in me. She demanded to share in its pain. It only recently occurred to me that the strained sound of “concern” I could always detect in her voice toward me was actually only the sound of my pain. A mother’s voice is the sound of a life thrust into someone else’s future, someone with a life and will and death of his own. “If anything were to ever happen to you…” she would always say with a wince. Hypothetical scenarios in my mother’s mind produce unhypothetical agony in her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She was better prepared to feel this new pain than I was, because it wasn’t new to her. She had never lost any of her babies, but she had agonized over the thought of it, especially during that extended period of time I gave her plenty to think about.

I don’t really remember thinking any of this in that moment, so I can’t really explain the association between her voice and my pain. I just remember the moment I heard her voice, the dam began to leak and almost immediately burst wide open. “O Jeremy…”, she flinched, and up grief arose from the abyss and aimed itself squarely in the direction of my mother. For I had intuitively found a willing tributary deeper than the Nile is long—and I and my dead baby and my bleeding wife and our agony were all already there, where she would agonize over both the loss of our baby and her Baby’s agony. Our tears were hers; we wept, she wept. She wept, I wept more. I felt like a baby and a miscarriage all at once. 

“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:33-35). 


Until then I had been conceiving of this miscarriage simply in terms of absence. It didn’t feel so much like the loss of an otherwise presence beheld. It’s hard for a father to distinguish between the absence of an unborn baby and the loss of an unborn baby. Unborn babies are absent to fathers in that special way they are not absent to mothers, whatever that is. But the woman whose womb I had inhabited 30-some years ago as an unborn baby had just identified my own presence in a way that identified my baby’s absence, and I was at once struck with precisely what, precisely whom, I had lost: my Baby…

I had lost a name. I had lost the voice that would one day call me “Daddy,” and then another day call me “Jeremy” to reassure us both he was all grown up. I had lost the center of a shared universe, a life’s worth of an entire future, a spot at the table. I had lost the warmth on my chest in the rocking chair, the joy tackling my legs at the front door, the presence that is always present to me, even in its absence.

But my baby was no longer absent. He was dead. Kadence was dead, his presence now agonizing. 


“I’m coming,” she demanded. 

It’s the only thing she knew to say in response to my quaking silence. I suppose it’s the only thing worth saying in response to silence like that. It’s what God said to a nation of exiles breathing in the death of life and land and liberty, the death of their children’s future. Fathers say things to try to make sense of (or excuses for) this world’s misbegotten pasts, but mothers say things that create a future. “I’m coming for you.” They make the kind of words that can be made flesh. Out of the abundance of her womb a mother speaks. 

And she came. She packed her bags and drove 500 miles into the night to come and stand in the middle of all its darkness, a single candle to two black and brittle wicks, sharing her light by sharing our darkness. It didn’t feel better when she arrived. It felt more. She wasn’t there to take away the pain. She was there to help us walk into it headlong. She came as a pallbearer and crawled underneath the crushing weight of a death too small for a casket. And there, in the middle of that godawful night, my wife descended into hell with a husband and mother flanking her sides, trying their best to shield her, to absorb as much of the fire as possible, as the misoprostol-induced labor sent high volts of dark energy convulsing through her body. Not long before dawn, she finally gave birth to a terrible stream of death.


Once we had received Kadence’s death into this world, the three of us sat together in the large wake of a little life and remained, weeping, passing around the bitter cup he delivered to us. We drank as much of the moment as we could before the swell moved out from beneath us toward a sinking horizon, opposite the one we had to continue to face. It was hard to leave that moment, watching an entire future swept into a faceless past, but the moment had to be buried in our memory so that Kadence could begin to live in our memory. 

Many refuse to give life to the dead in their memory because they refuse to bury the moment of death in their memory. They live in the moment forever, forgetting life altogether, redefining the life they loved by the death they hate. Death haunts their memory, while the dead stand at the door and knock, carrying armfuls of shared stories in buckets of light, only wishing to be shared again, to shine again. But no son of mine is going to be left out for dead, homeless to my heart. His name is Kadence, not Miscarriage, and he will be remembered as he is, the image of the living God, the reflection of eternal life that continues to shine in the light of God’s love. 

We cannot run from death when it arrives, but neither can we remain in death when it departs. We drink all the bitterness of death but only in the name of life, only because death is the sharp edge of life. But life in God’s good world is not defined by its edge. Indeed, it is defined by the One who stands staked at its edge, stretching rays of life out to both sides, holding together memory and hope in one new horizon of promise. 


Kadence came into this world like a dying meteor tearing a wound in the night sky. But that wound has become sacred and the scar it left continues to glow in our memory. It is the memory of a misbegotten life that was never forsaken in death. It is the memory of a death that was cradled in a triune embrace of grieving love. It is the memory of a day that the God who hovers over the face of the deep descended into the abyss upon us and let there be light. It is the vision of this dying world as it truly is, groaning in the pains of childbirth, a tomb of history wrapped up in the womb of Triune Love.

And indeed, it is the memory of God’s motherly promise to us, to Kadence:

“I’m coming for you.” 

Dancing with Echoes: On Cain, Shame, & the Devil in Disguise (An Excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from a book project I will probably never finish, in which case it is more properly called a fragment from an unfinished essay. So below is a fragment from an unfinished essay. Let’s call it Unfinished Essay 2. In a fragment from, say, Unfinished Essay 1, I discussed the familial nature of the image of God as the design against which all other forms of human relationality must be judged. The fragment below assumes familiarity with that argument from that fragment in Unfinished Essay 1. But you’ll manage.


The family project continues in the east. Eve’s title as mother of all the living is brought to fruition in the spread of Adam’s seed. Eve was formed out of Adam’s rib, but the rest of the world is formed out of Adam’s loin. Eden has been barred. The first guardian angels are sent to block the way back (Gen. 3:24). The men of the east would take their pens of dominion and plowshares of the Garden and beat them into swords. Gardening in God’s world would give way to nation building. Men would begin to scribble history with blood, becoming increasingly brute and uncreative with each generation, whose concept of good writing amounts to little more pressing harder with the pen. In the man’s world, the family would be thrust deep into the shadows to bring into the spotlight the warlords—it is hunting season in the East—battling one another for mastery over history altogether fighting in a world war against time. It was not good for Man to be alone, estranged from his feminine side.

This, human history, as we know it, begins with two brothers, the firstfruits of Adam’s seed.


The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is has clear intentions. It is a ground account of the bird’s flight to follow. In principle, it is the same story as Genesis 3 (as well as all of the stories of Genesis 5-11)—the story about the way sin divides the human family from one another and from God. But it does have a few significant differences. While Genesis 3 focuses on the first causes of sin in the parents of the human race, Genesis 4 focuses on the first effects of sin in the children. It is therefore naturally more empathetic to the world that begins outside the Garden, the world in which its readers find themselves, the world of Israel, the world of us. Genesis 3 also reveals the true faces of the family and its enemy, of the divinely ordered unity and the soulless search for divinity, the ignorance of which produces much strife in subsequent history. It is not trivial that it begins with two brothers and ends with an only child (Gen. 5:1b-3). Adam’s world was and has ever since been a world of brothers killing brothers and calling them others. If there are any illusions about the way of a man after Adam, any lingering hope of returning to Eden, this story sobers and severs. It exists to orient us to the long road ahead, a one-way easterly road that ever polarizes its travelers from the Garden way. The Garden gate and its guardian angels will grow smaller and smaller in our rearview memory.

Cain and Abel were born after the cherubim took their posts at the east gate. Adam’s seeds immediately begin to sprout out of the cursed ground of the east. Cain is a gardener, like his father. He spends his days with his hands in the dirt of a curse with sweat from the toil and blood from the thorns. Abel is a shepherd, and a butcher, like the Levites. No women are in the story. The Lord does not intervene. He gives space for the love of freedom, which men love to fill with control. It turns violent—quickly.

The brothers bring offerings to the Lord. The Lord does not regard Cain’s ground-grown offering. He accepts Abel’s first-born offering. It is too early to make sense of the Lord’s discretion. Speculations can be made about the parallels of the Garden garments or the kind of sacrifice needed in a condemned world, but they are only speculations. The Lord speaks graciously to Cain. He has not yet rebelled against him. He had only acted in ignorance. Cain was just like the child who offers his parents a ketchup and ice cream sundae. It was not that Cain had done anything particularly wrong with his offering. God did not condemn him for that. God just reserves the right to aesthetic judgments. It is good to separate the waters from the land and the ketchup from the ice cream, even if Cain prefers otherwise, even if Cain prefers red to cover white, for waters to flood the field. At any rate, the story has nothing substantial to tell us about the offerings. It tells us, instead, about Cain, and therefore about ourselves. It does not draw our attention to a symbolic meaning of either offering, but to the way Cain reacts to his sense of the Lord’s rejection. Human history is unwittingly all about the creative and uncreative ways men handle that sense of the Lord’s rejection. Since men cannot find peace with the Father, they are wont to make enemies with others, even, and especially, with brothers.

Cain gets angry. A new emotion enters the Genesis narrative. Anger is a new way of dealing with shame. Shame, again, is the horizontal feeling of vertical guilt, the impulse to hide from we know not what, only that we must hide ourselves. Shame in the Garden sought a scapegoat, but in this world the scapegoat is ripe for the slaughter. It is much the same as what we have already seen. An obvious pattern emerges. Discord in the divine-human community finds first expression on the ground—on earth as it is in hell. God did not accept Cain’s offering, but he does suggest to Cain that Cain can still be accepted, “if you (Cain) do well. If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Sin crouches at our door. It now exists ‘out there’ like a cold front in the open-air or a snake hole in a gated neighborhood.


Or does it? Where is sin, or temptation, or the tempter, actually located in this story? Within or without? That is perhaps one of the questions this story is designed to answer. Regardless, its desire is for Cain. All it has to do now—all sin ever has to do—is exploit Cain’s shame. Sin has found its dance partner.

Shame has many reflexes. It adapts to its environment. But its goal is always the same as it was in the almost-beginning: to self-preserve. In the Garden, shame sought merely to find a worse offender to deflect the guilt. Adam points to Eve, Eve to the serpent, and the scale terminates at bottom with the devil. But this is a different environment. The serpent is missing. God has made a judgment about the brothers’ offerings. Cain is unpleased with God’s judgment. God does not condemn Cain but he does offend him. Cain does not need to repent. He needs only to stay humble. He needs only to accept that God’s judgments are good, even if that means God does not regard his offering good. Perhaps God is just real, and real Persons have preferences. And perhaps God is good and just to impose his preferences upon us. Perhaps it is good that God prefers we love our enemies and not cut off their heads, even when that means loving those who have cut off people’s heads. Perhaps the liberation any man from an Absolute good is inherently slavery of all men. Perhaps the power of the will to choose good aimlessly in its own eyes is always already only the will to power.

At any rate, Cain sure should not hold God’s preferential nature against God, and certainly he should not take it personally if God preferred Abel’s lamb to Cain’s durian. If I’m honest, I have no regard for my grandma’s offering of (yet another) three-pack of bright white Fruit of the Loom underwear every Christmas (she worked in a Fruit of the Loom factory, making loin coverings for men for over three decades). But that does not mean I have no regard for my grandma. That is why I lie to her. But God is not a liar, like me. God’s prefers truth-telling to ego-stroking. The whole world was lost in a single lie safeguarded in every ego, so it does no good for God to protect our egos and thereby preserve the lie that i am that I AM, that my preferences determine the absolute good.  

For Cain’s part, he only need accept that not all offerings are created equal, and that only means accepting God is God and he is not. But who is really willing to accept that? Who will not first have to accept that “no one is good but God alone”? Who will not first have to acquit all their enemies of their evils and throw their stones down in the dirt? Who will not first have to pardon others by crucifying the voice of the accuser in their own head every single day of their life? So, alas, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn after emerging from Soviet captivity in the Gulag, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every man. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It is far less painful to destroy your brother’s. 


Cain has not sinned at this point in the story, yet he behaves as like an escaped convict, as though living in the shadow of some past offense, as though guilty before proven innocent. He is impulsive, rash, desperate. It is evident that there is more to the scene than meets the eye, like a subterranean fault line under immense pressure. The sequence in the Garden story was command, confusion, deception, disobedience. In this story, the two middle components are indistinct because they seem to be all that is there. The motivations for Cain’s actions are not part of the script. They seem, instead, to be encoded in the heart of the script, perhaps encoded in the heart of Cain.

The Lord announces that Cain can still be accepted, that he can rule over sin. But there is no response, no indication that an attempt is made to heed these words. There is, rather, an eerie sense that Cain is in constant consultation with an unseen third party, an invisible echo whispering into, or within, Cain’s ear: “Did God really say…” or “Who is God to say…” or “Are you not like God, of knowing good and evil?” or “You are God.”

But the serpent is nowhere to be found. He had returned to his hole. He apparently no longer needed to be present for his echoes to be heard. It behooved him to remain hidden. If blame terminated at him each time, as it did in the Garden scene, he would never accomplish his goal of instigating retaliation. The presence of a tempter makes guilt a far more slippery a thing to hammer down—and guilt must be hammered down. A visible talking snake means there is an enemy of God, and it may not be me. But an invisible talking snake means there’s an enemy of God in my head. In that case, the thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘I AM’, ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘he’ and ‘it’, all slide off the divide into a slurry of distances off the tip of that two-pronged tongue. 

If the serpent’s whisperings were now in some sense buried in Adam’s seed, his greatest strategy would undoubtedly be to never rear his head again—indeed, he never does again, at least not to ordinary eyes. The only thing more dangerous than a talking snake in a Garden is a talking snake in your head. That is the kind of thing that will drive a man mad. It drove Cain mad. 


In the Garden the serpent could encourage segregation, domestic violence and even divorce between the two-made-to-become-one. He did so from without, hurling grenades of deception to cause divisions and convincing them, as is his custom, to stop holding each other’s hearts and to start pointing their fingers and clinching their fists. But he could not yet convince them to embrace a segregation and begin to throw stones. He could not convince them to declare a civil war. But the conditions are different in the East. The serpent now begins by splitting a man at his nucleus. The family is divided because the man’s heart is divided. Cain’s pointing finger was not pulled away by some open-air attraction, looking merely for someone to blame and send away like a scapegoat. The projection was much more deeply seated. It grew out of the branches of his heart. As such, it was much harder, sharper and more prodigious than his parents’, their fingers merely meeting their targets through an invisible trajectory. With Cain, the trajectory materialized. His finger pointed all the way through Abel’s body. The brotherly community is now destroyed—nuclear fission in the nuclear family.

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:8)

The Lord had been gracious with Cain and given him another chance to offer an acceptable sacrifice—to another God. He led his brother Abel into his field, the place of his produce, like a sheep led to the slaughter. Cain waters the cursed ground with Abel’s blood, but his blood cried out to the God of the Garden (Gen. 4:1). The world that once sprouted with life expedites its process of decay. Everything is dying, plants and people withering into the brittle brown of dead leaves and dried blood. This was the work of two gardeners. Everything in the East is going the way of the dust. A man dies. A family dies. Cursed is every man who hides in the shadow of that God-damned tree (cf. Gen. 3; Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13).

Every man from Adam is born on the other side of yet another divide. With each generation the oneness of creation is more easily disregarded as a creative fiction, thus providing the necessary distance necessary to embrace degrees of separation that increasingly sever empathy with others who live at a distance. Eve was formed from Adam’s rib, that place that guards the heart. Man in the image of God was made to share heartaches. But men became islands unto themselves and took to the image of the beasts. As such, as long as a professional distance is maintained, stabbing another man, or a brother, in a field, or nailing another Man, or a Brother, to a cross, feels only like cutting into a limb with severed nerves. It doesn’t even hurt, even if he does bleed a common blood, unless indeed I AM my brother’s Keeper (Gen. 4:9). 

The Lord confronts Cain. “Where is Abel your brother?” he asks. As with Adam, he gave Cain a chance to confess. “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain has become a smart ass. He has his father’s sense of humor. In addition, he is a liar. He did know where Abel was. Lying is another pathetic form of sewing. It is the grammar of making garments in an attempt to hide our guilt from the one before whom “all are naked and laid bare…to whom we must give an account of our lives” (Heb. 4:12-13). 


Cain is sent to wander on the wide and aimless easterly road, a fugitive. Anger in community gives way to fear in isolation. His own internal sense of justice condemns him. Cain discovers his conscience, but we discover in Cain that our condemning conscience does not lead us to repentance but only deeper into a more permanent form of our modus operandi: self-preservation. Cain, like his father and like the first criminal in the crucifixion account, and like most every man, seeks sympathy from God, not forgiveness. He asks for salvation from his guilty conscience, not forgiveness for his guilt. He demands pardon from his punishment but is unwilling to confess that he deserves it. So he rejects God as a Person and constructs an eastern worldview indeed of an inescapable and impersonal karma: 

“Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:13-14).

He killed and knew what he deserved. But the Lord, even here, shows a deeper arrangement. It is grace for Cain while preserving justice in the world (Gen. 4:15-16). It is not an exacting arrangement, at least not yet, and it requires personal and preferential bias, intervention, indeed, Incarnation.

God marks Cain to protect him. He then sends him away from his presence. Eden continues to shrink. The Lord returns to his Garden. Cain builds a city. In God’s world, families are the center, in Cain’s world, cities. The partitions grow. The world apart from the presence of the Lord, from the Garden of the Lord, has nothing but the future in potentia. There is no model or microcosm for home, only natural resources for the limitless imagination. The world has lost its essence and all is reduced to utility. Men continue moving forward, telling themselves that the pot filled with gold is bigger than the emptiness they seek to fill. Those futile attempts to fill that inner infinite void, however, has only ever served to keep us “distracted from distraction by distraction” (T.S. Eliot). The soul made for rest has no recourse for restlessness from within because rest indeed only comes from without. 

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” ~ St. Augustine

This world knows nothing of true rest, though something called rest exists within the grid of utility. Utilitarian rest serves the function of efficiency. Rest is calculated to maximize production. Relationships, too, are calculated accordingly, subsumed within the crowd and therefore entangled in untruth (Kierkegaard). There is no time for eye contact, much less for reflection, contact with one’s self and its host of inner demons. Such is was keeps us so distracted. Men only band together to run from themselves, to build cities, to hide. The world looks progressively less like a Garden. It is too painful to remember the trees, so they built, so we build, concrete gardens. 

 

 

Welcome to Lent: Remember to Die

desert

In ancient Rome, military generals returning victorious from war would be paraded through streets in a chariot to inhabit the praise of the people in celebration. But behind the general, in the same chariot, a slave was placed whose sole responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear sobering words that served to protect him from the delusions of grandeur that inevitably come to those who find themselves at the center of human praise: Memento mori. 

“Remember to die.” 

It seems like an odd reminder, considering the fact that none of us have much to say in the matter, and all of us will certainly prove equal to the task when the occasion presents itself. But of all the facts of life, death turns out to be perhaps the easiest to forget. Or perhaps all of life is oriented toward one long attempt to forget about death, because the moment we become aware of death is the exact moment we become aware of a uniquely human desire: not to die.[1]


Life begins with a desire to eat, to drink, to touch and be touched, but one day we wake up with the desire to be gods, that is, to not die. But since that desire proves to provide little practical counsel for the day-to-day task of being human, we busy ourselves with lesser desires in a pursuit toward satisfaction, expanding our kingdoms, our influence, our bank accounts, our progeny, willfully forgetting that all we value as treasure today the moth will value as food tomorrow. And eventually, even the moths will die. But we insist on willfully forgetting what we know to be true–that nothing less than immortality could possibly satisfy the most basic longing beneath all the rumblings of the human experience that drive us ‘to distraction from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). Where, after all, are the limits of our desire? When, after all, has anyone ever found enough? When has the satisfaction of desire not given birth to yet another, even if the it is simply the desire to remain satisfied, the desire not to die.

So we live our lives as though we will live forever, often using people likes steps on a Babylonian towers on an infinite trajectory, aimed squarely at nothing less than exactly ‘more’—in all its arbitrary finite forms. But ‘more’ turns out to never be ‘enough’. Desire is always stronger that satisfaction. The human soul is a bottomless pit, grounding our appetites in  a boundless, formless void. We are not like the burning bush Moses met on the mountaintop, whose fire did not consume; we are like every other fire burning up the world. So with every met expectation we discover an unmet expectation that lies deeper in the gut, farther from the heart.

“To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God“: that is Paul’s implicit diagnosis in the form of prescription. But the God-sized love we were created to be filled with has been has been infected with our love of so many lesser things. As the deer panteth for the water so my soul panteth after you, O God, and also after you, O sex, and you, O power, and you, O approval, O praise, O just about anything to distract me from the eternity God has stubbornly placed in my heart, in order that I won’t find anything this side of eternity more than temporary satisfaction (Eccles. 3:11)—in order that I might eventually become dissatisfied with temporary satisfactions. Until then, our pursuits will continue to tear us in two opposite directions, driven by two geometrically opposed loves. We love to be loved by God, but we also love to love our sin.

Every particular sin has the same genealogy. Every sin is begotten of (a) a desire (b) based on a deception (c) organized against love. The Bible calls such desires temptations and attributes deception to the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). Temptations are experienced as an appeal to freedom, but they are precisely the opposite because they ultimately function to enslave freedom to desire, not to satisfy desire through freedom. Such temptations are not an appeal to freedom but, ultimately, to pride. Pride always feels like freedom because pride always gets to say, “My will be done.” But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power: the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. It attends to an indefinite future without ever finding rest in the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the soul’s appetite for enough, for fullness, for God. 

This becomes more practically obvious as life in the body ages with the body. Eventually embodied life begins to feel like an endless pursuit of escalating goals, with each step up the ladder revealing more clearly only how high our Infinite desire truly is, and thus how low human striving gets us. Every promise turns out to be only half full because we are always left at least half empty. Youth are naïve; their grandparents are bitter. All are forgetful. To remember to die in the light of eternity begins by letting our desires die in the light of today.  

Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our essential reminder—the story of the God who became a backseat slave to whisper into the front of our chariots: Memento mori. The season of Lent, beginning today, is our annual pilgrimage into the desert with Jesus (Mt. 4), where our subterranean temptations to forget rise to the surface with the serpent who seduces us to rise up in war against our mortality. If you are the Son of God, pursue pleasure! (cf. Lk. 4:3) Pursue power! (Lk. 4:6-7) Pursue praise! (Lk. 4:9-11). It is the temptation of Son of God, because the Son of God became Son of Man. And this is the temptation of every man, woman, and child: the lust of the flesh (good for food), the lust of the eyes (delight to the eyes), the pride of life (desired to make one wise), indeed, the forbidden fruit—to be as gods—not to die (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Gen. 3:1-7).


And so we enter the desert today, where we confront the twisted shape of our two-pronged souls, fashioned after the forked shape of that tempter’s deceptions. We desire God, yes, but we confess too our other desires, splintering forth from the divisions in our soul. We do have a passion for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, but we confess there are other gasoline passions. We desire God’s will, but we confess we never desire “not my will.” We never desire to let ‘my will’ die, and so live into the eternal will of the Father. 

And so we must return to the desert fast to search ourselves for areas of amnesia, reminding our obstinate wills to die, to remind ourselves of the direction we are all headed, lest we continue to chase empty upward promises that only push the deeper side of the soul out to the surface, thinning it out, so that life just becomes a series of unexamined actions and reactions, like a restless pinball with an impenetrable surface—no stability, no connection, no depth, no anchors, no stillness, no reflection, no transparency, no exposure of the heart, no communion of the spirit, no deep crying out to deep (Ps. 42), leaving us in the end like a cicada shell clinging to that forbidden tree. 

By moving through this somber season of self-examination we are better prepared to see how fitting is the cross, not for Christ but for us. Indeed, as the thief at Jesus’ side confessed, it is our “just reward” (Lk. 23:41). In our unreflective world, fast-paced and on-demand, there is hardly a more urgent need for the life of faith than this kind of reflection, which inevitably leads us into repentance, since herein we discover no small attempt in our heart to rise up as gods—to live by pleasure alone, power alone, pride alone. Only then can our Good Friday Gospel penetrate to the level of the salvation we actually need—salvation from ourselves. We must remember to die, lest we succeed needing no life other than our own. Only then can we be properly prepared to utter the truth of our Sunday Morning confession: “I am crucified with Christ—nevertheless I live!

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

~ Son of God, Son of Man


Footnote

  1. Of course, all creatures instinctively desire to survive, but only humans desire not to die. That is to say, only humans can conceptualize death as such and in so doing cannot avoid, if even only for a flinching moment, contemplating their own death. Human consciousness is plagued with eternal dimensions. We can travel in our minds beyond ourselves, modeling universes and genesises and apocalypses. But when when we try to travel into the dark void of non-being, of our own non-being, we indeed discover “a bourne from which no traveler returns” (Hamlet). We become aware of the judgment this world is under, for we know that end of my consciousness is for me the same as having never had a consciousness, and that is the same for me as there not being and never having been and there never going to be anything at all (cf. Jenson, On Thinking the Human). And since there is no life apart from consciousness, the inevitability of death leads to the absurd conclusion of a pure and utter negation of being as such.

If I Should Go

Do not weep for me
Though I am gone
It was a strange visit in a strange land
Do not weep for me
For I am home
Save your tears for someone else
Don’t get lost in a slew of sorrow

I was caught up
In the twinkle of an eye
I was found
The twinkle in his eye—I was
He saw me and I was stolen away
Do not weep for me


Imprison my tear

Hold it captive
It belongs with my memory
Shut your eyes and catch it
Swim with me in yesterday
Please, never lose this
Keep it—let me live again in your mind
Lest you slay me each day, again
And again
I died but one day
Can’t you remember all the others?
Then let me live again
Hold a glare to the heavens

I can see me
In the reflection of your eye
Do not weep for me

But weep
Weep for beauty
For glory
Cry out for tomorrow
That we may meet again
Weep, ye grieving
Weep all who remain
But not for me
Only for beauty
For the day yet unseen

Let your tears roll like billows of the sea
Paint your face with tomorrow’s sunset
Let the dam burst and cover the earth
As the waters cover the sea  

Drink deeply in this hope
Go ahead and drown

Get lost in the horizon
You must there be found
Weep for love, wail
But for me—hold your tears

The moon whispers softly:
This light is not my own


[Found in old files I was sorting. Dated 2002.]