Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nodding Off

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it. (Genesis 4.7)

Worthiness Issues

How telling that Scripture’s first recorded human conflict isn’t a power struggle. It’s not about money. It’s not sex-related. Although it ends in murder, it’s got nothing to do with one party threatening the other’s wellbeing and survival. In fact, differing opinions, clashing personalities, or—as many presume—sibling rivalry don’t enter the equation. God’s acceptance is the problem, and the conflict resides entirely in one man. Cain, notoriously immortalized as the Bible’s first killer, is undone when disregard of his worship raises worthiness issues.

The story, as told in Genesis 4, doesn’t say what’s wrong with Cain’s offering. Here’s all we’re told. Cain is Adam and Eve’s oldest son. And it’s important to keep that top of mind, because he retains singular status as humanity’s first-born. He’s the first to discover how growing up works, even as his folks figure out how to raise him. We who’ve been first children or first-time parents know well the anxieties of learning by trial and error, despite caring people who helped us get through it. Cain and his parents manage without any practical advice and emotional support. There’s no one to assure them their concerns are typical. No one consoles them when naïve mistakes trigger profound regret. No trusted relatives and friends take their hands and say, “It’s not the end of the world.”

Although Adam and Eve benefit from experience when their next child, Abel, comes along, everything Cain encounters in life is new to him. He basically invents agriculture by learning to cultivate crops. Abel grows up to be history’s first rancher, herding sheep rather than working the soil. It’s a hard life for both men, as each gradually masters the mysteries of nature’s cycles and setbacks. It is Cain who first offers God a portion of his crop in gratitude for God’s goodness. Abel follows suit, giving God a sample of his new lambs. And here’s where the trouble starts. God honors Abel’s offering, yet disregards Cain’s. God doesn’t say at first why Cain’s gift isn’t accepted and not knowing the reason uncorks a deadly potion of rage, devastation, and self-hatred. The best Cain comes up with is he must lack something Abel possesses. He’s somehow inferior in God’s eyes, and since he and Abel are the first to worship God with giving, there’s no one to suggest God’s apparent disregard may have a higher purpose. Could it be that God wants to teach Cain an invaluable lesson he’s missed?

Regaining Control

So we add another “first” to Cain’s list. As well as Scripture’s first human offspring, farmer, and murderer, he’s its first person to feel blindsided by divine prerogative. Genesis 4.5 tells us he “was very angry, and his countenance fell”—reactions we relate to, as we’ve all felt angry and crestfallen when it seemed like God disregarded us, ignored our intentions, or unfairly favored others. And though the drastic measures he takes to rectify his situation turns his story into a cautionary tale, we still owe Cain a debt of gratitude, because his inner turmoil occasions another critical first. This is the first time we witness God reach for us when fears of inferiority and rejection overtake our thoughts and emotions.

We have no idea what comes of God’s regard for Abel’s offering. Whatever transpires between them doesn’t interest the Genesis writer, whose fascination with Cain alerts us there’s something highly significant in his saga. While we lock on his lame attempt to brush off Abel’s murder—the infamous “Am I my brother’s keeper” moment—I’m convinced the big message appears before the crime, in verse 7, when God urges him to wake up to his self-destructive impulses. “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” God asks, before warning, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

The problem isn’t Cain’s offering, and the issue isn’t his inferiority or God favoring Abel over him. It’s his reluctance to master ideas and emotions that give rise to flawed beliefs and behaviors. The question isn’t whether God finds Cain worthy. It’s whether Cain’s thoughts and actions are worthy of him. His fear of rejection is rooted in his refusal to reject temptations that endanger him and others. “Do right and you’ll be accepted,” God says. “Control your urges or they’ll do you in.” It sounds so simple. Yet Cain proves how hard regaining control can be when we’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. Nothing he’s told stirs him. He lures Abel into a field, kills him, and pretends nothing happened. Then he finds out that disregard for God’s guidance leads to irrevocable loss. He’s not rejected. He’s dismissed. God sentences him to a fugitive life among people who may want to kill him, yet refrain because he’s cursed with a “hands-off” mark. He ends up living in fear, in a land called Nod, far from God’s presence and everything he knows.

Nothing to Do with God

God’s love is unconditional—too priceless to earn and too pure to deserve. Knowing that moots the question of God’s acceptance. How would a Creator Who goes to inconceivable lengths to embody love—and then die for it—conceivably reject anyone? Doing so would undo all that Jesus achieved and, in John 6.37-38, He flatly says that’s not going to happen: “Everything that God gives Me will come to Me, and anyone who comes to Me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of the One Who sent Me.” So our debates and anxieties about who is or isn’t acceptable to God—who’s worthy of grace and who’s not—who’s saved and who isn’t—have nothing to do with God. It’s the same tiresome fear that consumes Cain and ultimately destroys two lives, the oldest human conflict in the Book. While we’re nodding off, conjuring reasons why God accepts some and rejects others, God’s already put the matter to rest with a question and caution that couldn’t be plainer: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Claiming our Scriptural right to active worship and participation in Christ’s body begins by honoring God’s desire that our lives reflect principles that please God. In Romans 12.1-2, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It’s Genesis 4.7 all over again, isn’t it? Do well and you’ll be accepted; present yourself as a living sacrifice. Master harmful urges; renew your mind.

Although Cain’s fields produced healthy crops, his life was unfruitful, and that corrupted his offering, which in turn loosed doubt in God’s justice and his self-worth. If only he’d woke up when God nudged him. If only he’d cleared away the clutter of dead-end attitudes and unproductive pursuits. If only he’d renewed his mind. Then he’d have known what God wants us to know. The matter of God’s acceptance has been settled since the dawn of time. Feeling inferior and fearing rejection are nothing more than symptoms of unhealthy thinking.

Wake us, O God. Bring us face-to-face with self-destructive attitudes and pursuits that destroy confidence in Your acceptance and our worth. Heighten our awareness that unhealthy temptations want to do us in. And give us boldness to defy them by renewing our minds in keeping with Your principles. Amen.

While we nod off, conjuring silly reasons why God should accept some and reject others, God’s already put the matter to rest.

Podcast link: Nodding Off

Sunday, January 1, 2012


She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the Child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2.37-38)

Weighty Words

Just before Christmas I caught a “Primetime” rerun of Diane Sawyer’s report on cloistered nuns. Unlike sisters who dedicate their lives to charitable service, these saintly women heed a monastic calling to denounce all worldly obligations so they’re free to pray for the world. What Sawyer discovered in their fortitude, discipline, and self-sacrifice was astounding. Along with a perpetual intercessory vigil within their abbey walls, they answer a congregational call to prayer every three hours. Eight times a day they forego their communal and personal needs to lift our needs before God. Sawyer’s awe focused on the physical and emotional havoc that must result from such a grueling regimen. The nuns’ selflessness elicited a different response on my part, however. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Somewhere, someone is praying for me.” Think about that. Right now, regardless when you read this, people tucked away in abbeys and monasteries around the world are bowed in prayer for you—for us.

The manner in which the nuns discussed their vows took Sawyer aback. They spoke of their symbolic marriage to Christ as if it were an actual union and described their relationship in intimate terms—not merely loving Christ, but being in love with Christ. Although their passion was startling, their commitment defused any skepticism about their sincerity. Their lives gave weight to their words. In Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 2.22-40), we meet Anna, perhaps the New Testament’s finest example of a cloistered, intensely devout woman. Like the nuns that Sawyer interviewed, her integrity precedes her. On seeing the Infant, she rejoices and bears witness that He is Israel’s Promised Redeemer. And when Anna speaks, people listen. They may be taken aback but, still, they listen.


Christmas’s majesty invites us to overlook a sad aspect of its tale. By necessity, it scuttles any dreams Mary and Joseph harbor about being newlyweds and first-time parents. What enthralls us surely disappoints them on many levels. Luke 2.19 suggests Mary comes to terms with it, saying when the shepherds depart, she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Eight days pass before things resemble anything Mary or Joseph may have dreamt about. Per custom, their Baby is circumcised and named “Jesus.” Like today, the bris is a private affair—a notable, yet not notably “big,” event. The big day that Joseph and Mary dream of comes 32 days later, when they go to Jerusalem, where Mary presents herself and Jesus to the Temple priests. That’s when Anna enters the picture, and grasping her importance requires fully understanding what’s going on.

Two essential rites are publicly observed. The first ends Mary’s purification—the 40-day period banning her contact with anyone outside her household. The second, designated for first-born sons, declares Jesus “holy to the Lord” (v23), with a sacrificial ritual that redeems Him just as Israel’s oldest males are saved when the Death Angel visited Egypt. The offering mirrors that of the first Passover: the blood of a lamb. But Mosaic Law makes exceptions for mothers who can’t afford a lamb. In its place, she offers a pair of turtledoves or young pigeons—one to seal her purification and the other a redemptive offering for her first-born son. Mary takes this option for many reasons. With pregnancy coming before her marriage is finalized, it’s doubtful her dowry has been transferred. Her 40-day confinement in Bethlehem has likely drained the couple’s resources. The costs of caring for a new mother and child have added to their burden. So we can assume they’re near penniless when they reach the Temple.

Putting practicalities aside, however, the presentation’s specifics are no less illuminating than the Nativity’s attention to detail. Once again, arbitrary factors combine to establish Jesus’s identification with the poor, uprooted, and those incapable of meeting the Law’s highest demands. More than that, it’s here that the substitution theme comes to the fore. The usual sacrifice is bypassed for a seemingly lower—nonetheless exceptional—offering that obtains astounding beauty in the nature of the exchange. It replaces an earthbound, dim-witted beast with a free and heavenly creature that lights on the ground yet lives in the sky.

Although we often call Jesus “the Lamb of God,” the avian substitution for His redemption more aptly presages His substitution for our redemption. The Lord of Heaven alights on Earth to save us. Our vantage from the far side of Calvary crystallizes the substitution’s meaning, but we can’t fathom anyone who witnesses the presentation perceiving its import. Yet two elderly prophets—Simeon and Anna—not only see it. They get it, because they’ve spent their lives looking for it. They glory in having the long-awaited Christ is in their midst.


Luke writes that the Spirit guides Simeon to the Temple, where he takes the month-old Child in his arms and praises God. He tells his Creator he’s ready to die, “for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (v30-32) He prophesies to Mary, foretelling Jesus’s death by saying He’s destined “to be a Sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (v34-35)

While Mary and Joseph marvel at Simeon’s words, Anna appears. Luke tells us she’s 84 and cloistered herself in the Temple after her husband of seven years died. Since women of her time marry in their teens, Anna has spent 60-plus years fasting, praying, and anticipating the Savior. To three generations of worshipers she’s a Temple fixture whose permanence and devotion endow her testimony with enduring truth. She enlarges on Simeon’s praise and prophecy by including everyone who wisely attends to her message. Verse 38 reads, “At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the Child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

A Breed Apart

No matter who, what, or where we are, trusting God’s Word transforms us from passive listeners into passionate lookers. Like Simeon, we live to see God’s pledges materialize before our eyes. Like Anna, we make great sacrifices to watch patiently for the joy and salvation promised to us. Like Mary and Joseph, we cope with the deferral of ordinary dreams and discover—to our amazement—God’s extraordinary purpose for our lives. As lookers, we’re a breed apart. We’re undaunted when what we observe conflicts with the vision God instills in our beings. We look for something better, purer, and truer than worldly favor or fortune—something so marvelous it can’t be mistaken as anything less than God’s handiwork. And we know it when we see it, because we know how God works. Material hardships result in spiritual windfalls. Periods of isolation bring us into the company of righteous prophets and people, fellow lookers one and all. When the best we can offer falls below traditional standards, faith magnifies our ability to see more than meets the eye. We view moments of inadequacy as new promises of greater things. Mary’s poor sacrifice activates Simeon and Anna’s vision to see the promise is bigger than they realized. The Christ Child’s symbolic redemption signals a New Order of inclusion God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples,” Simeon declares, “a revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” That’s incredibly big, completely unexpected and unprecedented good news.

How serendipitous that this passage finds its way to us on New Year’s Day, just as midnight resolutions start losing their fizz. The challenge at hand isn’t about resolving to do better in the coming months. It’s about mustering resolve to look for promises God wants to reveal to, in, and through us. Time is immaterial. Tenacious faith is what counts. Marching into 2012, our eyes fixed on God’s pledges, we’ll inevitably stumble on blind spots and momentary impasses of doubt and impatience. We’ll mistake harsh realities for hard-set impossibilities. Dim-witted, earthbound logic will present every reason to stop believing, praying, and watching for God’s Word to come to pass. In those moments, we reach for Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Promise of all promises, Who with infinite compassion and wisdom calls people we don’t know to pray us through hours when our vision falters. May Anna and Simeon’s examples light our way through the coming year and the remainder of our days.

Savior, Whose promises are ever true, we begin another year resolved to look for Your promises to be realized in us. Illuminate our understanding that each ordinary day brings us one day closer to Big Days, when we marvel at Your handiwork. Make us tenacious lookers. Endow us with trust to await the visions You instill in our beings. Amen.

When what we observe conflicts with the vision God instills in us, we look beyond what we see, viewing moments of inadequacy as new promises of greater things.

Postscript: New Venture for a New Year

For some time, Britt, a longtime S-F reader and friend, has urged me to podcast the posts in tandem with publishing them here. It took a while for me to grasp why she was so enthusiastic and confident about the idea. But I finally got it and I’m delighted to report today launches the audio version of Straight-Friendly. It’s not much—just me reading the post—but it’s a start. Currently, I’m posting the podcasts on S-F’s freshly minted podbean site. I’ve yet to solve the inevitable Apple mysteries embedded in making them available via iTunes. Hopefully, that will happen very soon. I ask your prayers for this new venture, invite you to listen, and pass the link along to others who might want to listen in too!


(Thank you so much, Britt, for your gentle insistence. It wasn’t as difficult as I imagined!)

Happy New Year, everyone! May God bless you richly!