“what’s your story?”

The following is the manuscript for a devotional I gave at the conclusion of my church’s week-long women’s Bible study yesterday morning. 

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I’ll never forget the first time I met her. I was a brand new staff member at her church, freshly graduated from seminary, and she was hosting a kids’ vacation Bible school at her gorgeous, historic Philadelphia home. And I’ll admit that I felt intimidated. She was outgoing and funny – clearly “the life of the party.” She leaned over after introducing herself and took me aback with her atypical first question, “So what’s your story?” She later told me that she intentionally asks this question rather than the more common, “So what do you do?” because she finds that typical opening question to be rather off-putting. You’re immediately put on the spot and labeled and categorized based on what you do (or you don’t do). And how many of us feel comfortable claiming our profession as our primary identity? Of course you and I are much more than what we do. The opening, “what’s your story?” captures this so much better.

So I want to pose the same question: what’s your story? My story this morning is of a mom who feels tired with trying to balance mothering twin daughters with the demands and privileges of a job I love as a counselor; and mine is the story of a woman learning to find my voice and seeking to explore my creativity through the art of writing. My story is of a daughter who misses her parents in South Carolina, of a sister who feels too far away from her brothers and their families, of a wife whose husband is a pastor and all the dynamics that this entails. My story is of a woman who longs for summer and spring with all my heart – who still associates summer with “free time” although having preschoolers at home means summer will be the opposite of this. My story is of a friend who wants to do more story-telling and story-listening than tasks accomplished and projects completed.

Studying Romans with my church’s women’s Bible study this year has given each of us a new angle on our story – a new way of understanding our stories – and this story is the best ever told. God’s story, or the shorthand Paul uses throughout the book “gospel.” Let’s think of the thesis in Romans 1:16-17 –

for I am not ashamed of [God’s story], for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in [God’s story], the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’

What’s your story when you’ve read and studied Romans? Maybe one of the following –

  •  the story of someone who’s trusted in your own goodness too much and so Romans is a story of being beckoned out of your self-righteous judgment and hypocrisy into the freeing grace of admitting your sin and your need for grace found only in Jesus and HIS perfect goodness
  •  the story of someone who has found grace and power for salvation for the first time – who has found God’s story of grace, forgiveness, and righteousness in Jesus to be THE story your life needs
  • the story of someone who thought your badness was too bad for God – that your rebellion was too much – and God’s story beckons you to come home. To be truthful with where you’ve wandered far from him and to find refuge in grace.
  • the story of someone who’s found Romans to be profoundly and deeply unsettling as you’re confronted with a God who is not as we would make him to be – a God whose character seems harsh or even capricious at times if what Romans says about him is true. So perhaps your story is one filled with questions that feel haunting.

There are parts of my story that fit with all of these scenarios, but I find myself identifying most with the story of my goodness and judgmental heart exposed AND the story of unsettling questions weighing heavy on my heart. Whatever has been stirred up in your story during Romans, don’t leave it here. Don’t end that for the summer.

Maybe you could find a few friends or people you connected with from your table and meet regularly throughout the summer at someone’s home or a park or a coffee shop for the purpose of sharing stories – either your own and/or the stories God tells in His Word. Perhaps you could find a book or resource to read on your own that will help you to grapple with your questions and your story. I’ve brought a few that I would recommend: Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid, The Prodigal God by Tim Keller, To Be Told by Dan Allender; Grace for the Good Girl & A Million Little Ways by Emily Freeman; Grace through the Ages  by William Smith and/or Out of the Spin Cycle by Jen Hatmaker as short devotional thoughts. For exploring some of the hard questions raised by Romans, these are two of my favorites: How Long, O Lord? by D.A. Carson and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J. I. Packer.

Although WBS ends today, your story doesn’t and neither does the community you’ve found here. Join us for Easter week celebrations – Maundy Thursday, 12pm or 6pm Good Friday service, 9am or 11am Easter Sunday. Help out with CAMP/Camp JR. (and send your kids!); join a community group that meets weekly; if you’re a mom, contact me to be added to the list to be informed of Nurture events and meet-ups throughout the summer.

Live into your story – tell your story – listen to others’ stories. That we may live out the truth of God’s story as seen in Romans more truly through stories of more grace and less judgment, more freedom and less condemnation, more acceptance and fewer barriers to love, more of trusting in God’s goodness for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and less of trusting in our own.

 

Returning to the gym

There is something about walking into a room like this that has struck fear into my heart since those horrible mandatory middle school physical education classes:

You will, of course, find it quite ironic that I married a personal trainer who practically lived in the gym during high school. Now he’s a pastor, and no longer wakes at dawn’s first light (or before) to train personal clients in their homes. He actually helped convince me to join a gym for the first time in my life (not counting the step aerobics classes I did in high school at my parents’ gym). But I’ll have to admit that the gym is never I place I relish or look forward to in the same way he does. 

When I went on bed rest while pregnant with twins, my gym attendance ended. And to be honest, I then let my membership expire with hardly a second thought. Until last week when I found out about a brand-new gym in our neighborhood with excellent childcare included (AND a monthly “parents’ night out” service on a Friday evening). And so I joined today. Do the math – yes, since I have almost-THREE-year-old twins, that means that I haven’t been to a gym in three years. There are many reasons besides my aversion to gyms. Like not getting sleep for the first 6 months of the girls’ lives; having to go to physical therapy to recover from the toll pregnancy took on my body; preferring outdoor exercise to indoor stale-gym-air any day; and of course that classic excuse, “not enough time.”

Today felt different. Better. It’s a less corporate feel and a more community feel kind of gym. I ran into a friend in passing. My girls LOVE the kids’ play area. And I loved dropping them off and getting 30 minutes to myself. I was even willing to use that time to exercise. (One of my favorite mom posts of all time is Glennon Melton’s on Momastery about how she’d use the two hours of free childcare at her gym.)

It did remind me of an older post from 2007, about my corporate gym experience and comparing it to church – “Gym and the Church.” And I’m including that below. All for free to my readers. Enjoy.

I have a gym membership that I had not used for at least 4.5 months until last Wednesday. I intended to. I really did. But I also go to one of those corporate “image-oriented” type gyms. Great for its breadth of equipment and quality of fitness classes offered, but amazingly intimidating for someone who hated the mandatory phys. ed. classes in middle and high school. I just have never really enjoyed physical fitness. It’s not been an area I ever excelled at, and so at some point I decided to stop trying. I’d rather read a book, write a poem, drink coffee, even go to the dentist. Really. And every time I enter my high-tech super-glossy gym, I feel like I’m in middle school P.E. again. Where everyone is staring at me, picking my physique apart (do any of us have a body we 100% accept?), or at least looking down at me because I haven’t invested a small life fortune in getting “cool” athletic gear.

I overcame my fear and walked in, silencing the imaginary voices sneering at me or the voice in my head condemning me for not being there for so long. And it felt good, once I bee-lined it to my Elliptical machine, sweated for the 25’ish minutes, and arrived safely back in my car. One of the reasons I had not been to the gym in so long is that I felt like I was out of shape. (how ironic, I know) So after walking for a few weeks, I felt more up to facing THE GYM.

It made me wonder if that’s what church is like for some people. Especially corporate, well-organized, high-image-conscious churches where everyone seems to have it together. People feel as if they must first “get it together” spiritually before coming to church. How ironic, isn’t it?

But is it? Do we who represent the Church universal help portray this image? Especially people like me who have been attending church since I was born. And so I know all the right answers, the right lingo, the right uniform. But I don’t naturally think about the person contemplating church who might have been abused by a church leader as a child and now hates anything God-related. Or the person whose “Christian” parents gave rules and law without grace. I think they would be even more reluctant to enter a church than I was to enter the gym.

What are we doing to welcome in strangers? To help present to them the Christ who says “Come, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” [not “Come and I will give you more things to do and rules to follow”]. To alleviate well-placed fears and insecurities about what to say, what to wear, and whether they want to have anything to do with Christians after a bad experience.

I don’t know, but I’m wrestling with it as part of a new church plant seeking to welcome in the stranger, the neighbor, the unbeliever, the nominal Christian. Grace must permeate everything we do. The way we greet them at the door, have a genuine conversation with them afterwards, and seek to follow up through building a relationship. They need to see it in the way WE interact with one another. No back-biting, gossip, chronic complaining, fake pleasantries. You can tell if love is genuine and real.

And isn’t that what Jesus said? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Thankful Thursdays

Want to join up with me for “Thankful Thursdays”? If so, copy this icon:  leave your blog address in the comments below, and link back to this post. I’m thankful for “Loved and Lovely” for such beautiful artwork that I’m using. No rules on this as far as how many “thank you’s” or that it needs to be profound and deep. Let’s practice together opening our eyes to the grace that we’re showered with daily.

{I’m thankful for} a church who loves mercy and justice enough to do something about it, and run a high-quality sports and arts camp for those who wouldn’t usually have access to it. By going to their neighborhood, not making them come to us [except for the youngest kids ages 3-5 who ride by a chaperoned bus to our church for “Camp Jr.].

{I’m thankful for} a children’s minister who is energized by this week and loves all of these kids so well.

{I’m thankful for} God’s grace and strength to love 4 and 5-year-olds when it’s probably a little outside of my preferred area of service/ministry in the church.

{I’m thankful for} a daughter who wants me to open the blinds as she’s falling asleep, “because I want to see the clouds, Mommy!”

{I’m thankful for} generous friends from church who let me loot their kids’ gear and clothes that they weren’t going to be able to take with them to their overseas military assignment. We are now having *so much fun* with princess dresses, board games, little people sets, tricycles, and – the highlight – a kids-size “Little Tikes” washer and dryer. You know who you are, so THANK YOU!

{I’m thankful for} coffee in the mornings, summer birds greeting the day, new picture frames for $1.99 from IKEA, and doing a job I love.

Ok, now it’s your turn!

 

the hidden glory of baptism

This past Sunday, our daughters were baptized by Seth. I was surprised only that I did not cry. I had a delayed response – all the emotions broke through Monday evening, which is a fairly typical emotional pattern for me. But what a moment it was! It has been good to reflect on the poignancy of their baptism – and I imagine that I will be doing so for quite awhile.

As an introduction, in the Presbyterian church we do not believe that baptism saves in and of itself, but that it is a sign that our daughters are part of the visible church because they were born to Christian parents. This means that they will  not be communing members of the church until they each make a step of faith for themselves – saying that they personally need Jesus to forgive them of their sin. As I was reviewing its meaning, I found this quote from “On Being Presbyterian” by Sean Michael Lucas helpful:

“The sign of baptism is rooted in God’s larger unchanging purpose in human history. From the very beginning, God has been redeeming a people for his own possession and for his own glory. While God certainly calls individuals to himself, he has, from the very beginning, especially emphasized the relationship of professing believers and their households, and their place within his larger and unchanging purpose of redemption. … [baptism] is  God’s act of initiating us into his visible people … because God’s promise is offered ‘for you and your children’ (Acts 2:39).”

Lucia and Alethia’s baptism seemed to be  as much about Seth and my promises to raise them in a gospel-saturated home as it was about their receiving the sacrament of baptism. Below are the vows that we made:

We acknowledge our child’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit.

We claim God’s covenant promises in her behalf, and we look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for her salvation, as we do for our own.

We now unreservedly dedicate our child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that we will endeavor to set before her a godly example, that we will pray with and for her, that we will teach her the doctrines of our holy religion, and that we will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring her up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

So with all of that said, below is a poetic musing on this past Sunday –

ordinary moments become
extraordinary
water, sprinkled, dripping down
the sweet innocent
baby skin

claiming the promise
that the sin hidden beneath
such innocence
needs a Savior
she who is yet unaware
will need the grace
poured upon her
like the water
from her father’s hand

she will need Grace
from her Father’s hand
coming through the
nail-pierced hands of
His Son
to save and to cleanse
like the water alone cannot.

the water does not cleanse
it sets them apart
by grace through faith
for grace
through their faith one day
in the Savior they need –
the One we need
to make such vows.

they smile
wriggle
look curiously
as the water drips down
“an odd time for a bath, Daddy!”
if they could speak
they will not remember
this moment
but we will
and all who witnessed it
we are to testify
to this sacrament
to fulfill our promises
to them.

as they are unaware
and receive this gift
unasked for
unacknowledged
I see myself in them.

This is grace: I accept
the gift I don’t know I need
I am unaware
as my Father pours his mercy upon me.

dressed in white
simple elegance
a picture of the Bride
awaiting her Groom
and we pray she will
know His voice
when she is old enough
that she will see
His love pursuing her
that she will say “yes”
“I do”
this is all we ask.

and I walk away
feeling as if I have
witnessed
glory
hidden
in a common
ordinary moment
taking on
eternal meaning
by the grace of a glorious God.

Sunday: reflections on worship when you can’t attend church

One of the hardest parts of strict bed rest has to be Sunday mornings, when I can’t go to church but my husband (our assistant pastor) spends half of his day there (8:00 am – 12:30 or 1:00 pm). I don’t think I can remember a time when I couldn’t go to church for such a long stint of time. Yet I am thankful that our God is one who comes to us, so that we can worship him wherever we are and that I don’t miss out on his grace simply because I can’t attend church right now. I miss church – don’t get me wrong – and it is a source of rich grace to be able to go, but God knows (and has arranged) the particular seasons of my life. And so he will also arrange another way for me to experience church on Sundays. So with this unique season comes unique opportunities. I get to be my own “worship director”, and so I try to make Sundays different from the rest of the days.

The church bells around the corner regularly call me to worship when their hymns begin at 9:00 am (lasting until 9:30 am). That’s a nice start to the morning. Then I choose a sermon to listen to online from one of my favorites: our pastor, Jack Howell; Joe Novenson at Lookout Mountain Pres.; Ruffin Alphin at Westminster Pres. Church here in Suffolk; Bob Willetts at Grace Pres. Church here in Chesapeake; or Andy Lewis from the church I grew up in, Mitchell Road Pres. Church in Greenville, SC. It’s been great to listen to these sermons and be taught by God speaking through them. It’s been great to see how God’s led me exactly to the right sermon I’ve needed each week. And really there are too many good ones to choose from, so I’ll probably be adding another one as my “Sunday school.”

I listen to some favorite worship music and sing along [but this part I think I miss the most about not being able to physically be present for worship at Trinity Pres.], trying to focus on the words and make them my prayer.

Another way I am seeking to tangibly engage in worship on Sundays is by spending time reflecting on what I am thankful for and then communicating that to various people who have loved and served us in the past week. Truly the list seems too large to recount, and when I begin reflecting, I am aware of God’s gifts in the church and the way that he is sending the Church to me when I can’t go to church. Seth and I have been so overwhelmed by the many who have helped us. I won’t list them by name, but I do want to list a few of the acts of service I’m thankful for today:

  • the friends who traveled from Philadelphia to spend last weekend with me and totally pampered me all weekend through their cooking, cleaning, creativity, laughter, and conversation
  • friends from church who have brought us meals, visited me for lunch, ran errands for us, went grocery shopping for us, helped Seth paint our home (a seemingly never-ending project), and even cleaned our house … wow. we are overwhelmed!
  • friends and family who continue to call or text to check in with me and see how we’re doing
  • thoughtful and encouraging cards we’ve received in the mail
  • two friends who threw their baby shower for me at our house – bringing everything with them, including serving dishes and utensils [since finding ours amidst the boxes could still be a bit dubious]
  • my parents who have made the 14 hour roundtrip yet again to come and help us get settled in, paint the nursery, etc …
  • and it goes without saying (but I should still say it!), my faithful and persevering husband who is not only assistant pastor, but also now home-repair project manager (a solo position now), chief chef, and home healthcare aide to a needy pregnant woman who can sometimes be cranky as well …

For all of these, and many many more, these verses Paul wrote to the Thessalonians come to mind: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3)

Remembering Beverlee

Yes, this might be another tear-jerking post, so consider yourself warned. But I could not let today go by without remembering Beverlee Kirkland. It was a year ago today that this dear friend and mentor passed away. What a woman of grace she was! She continues to be someone I remember and whose presence in my life I miss. She prayed regularly with me and for me, even while suffering from complications related to diabetes that left her home-bound and often hospitalized during the two years I knew her. A year later when I find myself in a similar place of being confined to home while on bed rest, she continues to be an example to me of faithful, selfless love even in the midst of suffering and physical limitations.

So in honor and memory of Bev, here are a few things she’s left behind as a legacy for me personally (and I would imagine for many more as well):

(1) Self-less love and concern for others while undergoing intense suffering. Whenever I would visit her, whether at home or in the hospital, she always began our conversations by asking me how I was doing. She would follow-up with specific things I had asked her to pray about and was always others-centered.

(2) The importance of putting on your makeup even when you’re sick. Laugh if you may, but this reflected her grace and style. She was a classy woman always, and she’d have her makeup on even when in the hospital. So during my brief stint  in the hospital a few weeks ago, I remembered this and put on my makeup and my pearl earrings as a tribute to Bev.

(3) How a cup of tea leads to rich conversation. Whenever we met at her home, we would first fix a pot of hot British tea. And somehow, that just set the tone for a more thoughtful and rich discussion. She was quite the hospitality queen, and I frequently ask myself, “What would Bev do?” when I’m preparing to have guests over. It’s really the little details that can make a big difference.

(4) The privilege of prayer. In her last months when she was feeling so weak and ill, she still prayed for me and many others. When her eyesight kept her from reading, she could still keep praying – and she did. She showed me what a privilege prayer is, and the real ministry it is to the church. She helped to build our church through her prayers, even when she couldn’t physically be involved.

(5) How Jesus bestows dignity and beauty to suffering. She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever known, and this is because of the Christ-like beauty that shone through her even more so as she suffered. Christ was her strength, to her last day, and her suffering was made beautiful because of Christ’s radiance shining through her. There’s a picture and an obituary at this site (scroll down).

I know that she is Home with Jesus now, and that gives those of us left behind great comfort and hope. Yet we still miss her. And I hope that one day I will leave a similar legacy. She is now in the company of one of the witnesses urging us on to run with perseverance this race marked out for us by our King, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-3).

a picture says a 1000 words

And so I give you the pictures that speak about this past weekend’s celebration of Seth becoming a “Reverend” as he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America. Our hearts are full from the outpouring of love from family and friends, both old and new, many of whom traveled to be with us in celebration. We feel like it was a glimpse of heaven. Thank you all! (or y’all or yous guys …)
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The ordination service as Seth becomes a Reverend through the laying on of hands

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IMG_4171My sister-in-law Nicole, “little” brother Jonathan, and nephew Caleb

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Caleb was the most excited of all for Uncle Seth …

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Family and out-of-town guests on a tour of Norfolk

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friends from Philadelphia & my parents

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IMG_4190 A few of our new friends in Norfolk

Seth’s family (parents, aunt & uncle) who traveled from New Jersey

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IMG_4164And we all know that no party is complete without my youngest brother Bryan!

Coveting & Murder: a lesson from Cain & Abel in Genesis 4

This morning I taught about Cain and Abel at our women’s Bible study at Trinity Presbyterian Church. And so during the process of study, I found some intriguing aspects of this story that I’d never seen before. Below is the rough draft of my talk … hope that you’re able to learn something new, too!

We as women are as familiar with jealousy/envy/coveting … the root of it being discontentment. When I was 14, I was jealous of all my friends who had cars and could drive. Then I got a car and I couldn’t wait to just get to college. And then in college, I couldn’t wait to have a real job. Before I was married, I was jealous of my married friends. After getting married, I can easily grow jealous of friends who have a bigger house – or beautiful children – or a nice job. There is never enough. And the marketing industry builds on this idea. In fact, I recently got a coupon in the mail from a store that I try to avoid if I’m sticking to our budget that actually advertises one of their new lines as the “covetables collection.”

And yet to be honest, I rarely think twice about my covetous thoughts. I don’t usually fight them, but rather I indulge them. That’s why I had to buy the silver shoes from Target. I saw someone in a magazine with cute shoes, and this image drove me to purchase them for myself. I could say that my coveting fueled my shopping (and often does). And then I went home and laughed about it with friends – but was reprimanded (mildly) by my husband. The truth is that I just don’t often think that my coveting/envy/jealousy is that big of a deal. Yet the truth is that it’s so serious that it’s the heart of murder. And that’s where our story of Cain & Abel takes us today: right into the heart of a murderer – and you might be surprised at what you see there. It just looks a little too familiar.

What’s this story about? It’s familiar to us and easy to skim over, but I want us to slow down and look at it closely together this morning. You’ll see things you’ve never seen before. I would suggest there are 3 main themes of this story:

(1) how sin brings forth death

(2) how a worship problem becomes a relationship problem

(3) why humanity needs a Savior to master sin

  • (1) how sin brings forth death

This story is a story that takes us deeper into the fall and the consequences of sin. Sin’s ultimate progression and consequence of death and murder is laid out in the first homicide recorded in human history. And it’s a brother killing his own brother. And what’s even more chilling is that it starts with something so subtle and so common to you and me: a bad attitude and an envious thought. It’s sibling rivalry taken to the extreme.

Yet this story begins with the first birth announcement in human history: Eve speaks with joy of Cain’s birth, saying “With the Lord’s help, I have produced a man!” Shortly afterward Abel’s birth is also recorded, with the telling introduction as “his brother” with reference to Cain. As I studied this passage, you’ll notice that “brother” is a key word – used 7 times in these 16 verses!  It is always used for Abel, as Cain’s brother.

And soon after this, we fast forward to Cain and Abel as adults in different professions who are making offerings to God from their livelihood. Cain brings fruit (as a farmer) and Abel brings a sheep (as a shepherd). Although Cain’s offering goes without further description, in Hebrews 11:4 we read that  Abel’s sacrifice is said to be “by faith” and so it is more acceptable than Cain’s. Abel’s heart must have been in it; Cain was merely “going through the motions” of worship and offering. Abel’s is given descriptive words that best answer why his offering was regarded instead of Cain’s: he offers the “firstborn” and “their FAT portions.”  There’s been much debate over why his offering is rejected, and one commentator Bruce Waltke summarized it well: “Cain’s sin is tokenism. He looks religious, but in his heart he is not totally dependent on God, childlike or grateful.”

At this point, Cain’s sin is still rather hidden from view as we read the story. But like any sin, as it grows, it will become more and more obvious – and its fruit will be borne in time. Like good fruit produced by a good heart, Cain’s evil heart will bear bad fruit.

The first major key is that Cain responds to God’s lack of regard for his offering with anger that shows up in his countenance. He’s having a pity party, which exposes his self-righteous tendency. He is jealous and envious that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and his wasn’t. He feels like he deserves better.

Does this sound familiar? Do you find yourself in this story? The parallel with the older brother in the story of the two lost sons (aka Prodigal sons) begins to show up here. Again, it’s an older brother who feels like he deserves more of God’s favor because of his hard work. Yet Cain is apparently blind to the fact of why his offering was rejected (that he was only giving “just enough to get by”). He, like the Israelites who first heard this story in the desert, was going through the motions of worship without the love for God. Their hearts were far from him.

But as his sin becomes more evident, so does God’s grace toward Cain. He confronts him, but not in an angry way nor an indirect way. He speaks to Cain with truth and love, coming to him with a question and a warning. This metaphor of sin as “crouching at the door” “ready to devour” makes us picture a predator waiting for its prey. And this is an apt picture of sin. James 1 speaks of the progression of our sinful desire – which “lures us away” and “entices us” – yet when its fully grown, it bring forth death. And we see in Cain’s response to God’s warning that this is exactly what happens. Instead of heeding God’s warning and finding hope in the promise that he COULD rule over sin (instead of sin ruling over him), the next verse rather tersely lays out Cain’s inward decision.

Cain murders Abel while they’re out in a field. There is no question of Cain’s sin at this point: he is a murderer and any person (Christian or not) would recognize Cain’s action as evil.

Yet we see God’s pursuing grace even still. God speaks again to Cain, asking him a question that hints of his question to Adam after their first sin: “Where is Abel your brother?” He shows mercy, yet Cain’s response shows how entangling sin can be and how deceptive. Cain must still think he can hide from God. And so not only does he lie about the answer to the question, but he denies all responsibility for his brother through his question as to whether he is his brother’s keeper.

God answers again with three verses saying that although Cain has not been Abel’s keeper, God has heard the cry of Abel’s blood rising to him from the ground. What a poignant picture of God’s concern for those who have been victimized by the powerful! Take great courage from this, that although none else may have seen or known about the worst evils committed against you, there is One who has seen – and who is a God of justice. If you have been abused, He wants to bring justice and also redemption. He has heard your cry.

God holds Cain accountable for Abel’s blood, and works justice for Abel through the judgment on Cain: that he will become a “fugitive and a wanderer” and that his work as a farmer will become even more difficult. Cain’s response to this, instead of being one of humble repentance and confession is one of proud complaint. He says that he’s being punished more than he deserves (he still maintains his self-righteous attitude here). And yet God’s grace still abounds: he listens to Cain and essentially does for Cain what Cain refused to do for his brother Abel: God promises to protect Cain’s life. And so against the background of Cain’s sinfulness, God’s grace abounds even more.

And yet we see the ultimate end of sin: being banished from the Lord’s presence into the land of Nod (literally – the “land of nomadic existence”). What begins with mere jealousy develops into murder and then the ultimate consequence of separation from God.

  • (2) how a worship problem becomes a relationship problem

As we step back to look at the context of this story, we see that it follows a similar pattern to the fall – when Cain’s parents introduced sin into the world (and their family) through breaking God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is God’s gracious confrontation of Cain – and even more, a warning before he murders Abel. And yet it’s even worse: whereas Eve had to be talked into sin by the serpent, Cain cannot be talked out of sin. Then there follows a curse because of the sin – and Cain’s became even worse than his parents’: the ground will be even more futile, and Cain will be banished not just from Eden but from the Lord’s paradise. He will now essentially be homeless – a wandering fugitive. The story has deepened in the level of sin and judgment.

And in the Fall, part 1 (with Adam & Eve), the relationship with God is broken. Here we see that the broken relationship with God has spilled over into broken relationships with fellow people – even to his own brother! This is the way of sin: it begins by breaking my relationship with God, and then it spills over into the brokenness of my relationships with those around me.

It shows that humanity is not essentially good. People, left to their own devices, do not become better but worse.

The key is to master sin – which God warns Cain that sin is “crouching at his door” – like a predator waiting for its prey – and that Cain must master it (or overcome it). But he does not and he cannot. This is the story of our world, isn’t it? For the next centuries, humanity will try unsuccessfully to master sin. And it proves impossible. We need more than a warning, we need one to rescue us.

  • (3) humanity’s need for a Savior to master sin

This story of Cain and Abel is our story: you and I are Cain. Over and over again, God warns us of the danger of sin, but over and over again I give in. The chocolate is too tempting; the new shoes would be so cute. I must have them. I cannot say no to sin!

And so this story of deepening evil that seems so hopeless actually points to the hope of Jesus Christ – it increases our need for Him. As we see sin’s progression in humanity and in Cain’s own heart, we are reminded of how hopeless we are without a rescuer – and how hopeful the gospel is to us.

We, like Cain, have murdered the innocent. My sin today is enough to condemn an innocent man to die – because Jesus is the only way I could be forgiven. Hebrews 12:24 says that Jesus’ blood “speaks a better word than Abel’s.” This intrigued me! What could that mean?

As Abel’s blood is said to cry out – and it cried out for Cain’s guilt and punishment and banishment away from God – Jesus’ blood (the only truly innocent man because he was God’s very own Son – fully human, fully divine) cries out not that you and I are guilty and deserve to die, but that the guilt and wrath of our sin has been removed. And so now Jesus’ blood does not incriminate us, as Abel’s blood did, but Jesus’ blood cries out “righteous! Holy! Mine!” and it declares this of all those who admit to their own sin and way of seeking to live life apart from God.

And so against the backdrop of the progression of sin in our own hearts, as we express the brokenness of our relationship with God in fellow human relationships, we see that we need rescue. And in this way, the story of Cain and Abel brings you and I who live in the era after the Redeemer great hope. Jesus reverses sin’s progression, restores our brokenness with God and one another, and gives us power through the Spirit to overcome (master) sin as it tempts us through our covetous desires.

We live in a new era, where Christ has mastered sin for those who trust fully in him (not their own effort or goodness), and so the words of Romans 6:12-14 become a hopeful promise for us:

12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

*SOURCES: I am indebted to the following commentaries that I used in my study, whose ideas have informed my writing: “How to Read Genesis” by Tremper Longman III, “Creation & Blessing” by Allen P. Ross, “Genesis: A Commentary” by Bruce Waltke, “Study of Genesis” guide by Tim Keller

why I go to church

I’ll be honest. This morning was one of those mornings when I felt like sleeping in would have been more valuable than going to church. Attending “Bedside Baptist” or “Church of the Holy Comforter” is what we termed it at my Christian college when we (or our friends) skipped church to sleep in. It makes sense, right, that I can meet God alone just as well as at church?

Yes, and no. In our individualistic society, we have the false notion that we can be sufficiently self-contained in ourselves if we try hard enough, read the right things, listen to the right people. But the reality is that God created us for community. In my own private worship time with God, there are glaring sins I miss because I’m blind to them. How can I see? Through people around me lovingly pointing them out in a way that points me to Jesus. My husband can see sins that I conveniently ignore (and vice versa). Even more so in church, I am drawn to worship God in a way that I wouldn’t be able to alone. Singing worship songs alone can minister to my soul, but it falls short of the awe found in worshiping by singing that same song with a whole congregation. Praying alone can be sweet, but I’m easily distracted and not nearly so focused as when praying alongside other brothers and sisters in Christ. Hearing their prayers focuses me and directs me to pray in ways I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. I love that during our church’s congregational prayer time, I hear different people spontaneously voicing their prayers — of thanksgiving, confession, worship, or request. When it comes time for the sermon, I always hear something that I wouldn’t have challenged myself with and I see a new way of reading a portion of God’s Word.

Why do I go to church? Because I need church. Even when I don’t know I need (maybe especially so then), I need it. I need my brothers and sisters in Christ to point me back to the gospel through their prayers, words of encouragement, sermon, hymn-singing, honest doubts and questions.

This morning as I was wrestling through why to go to church, I read a chapter in Eugene Peterson’s book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” that reminded me of all of this. He says it much more succintly and poetically than me, so I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did:

If we stay at home by ourselves and read the Bible, we are going to miss a lot, for our reading will be unconsciously conditioned by our culture, limited by our ignorance, distorted by unnoticed prejudices. In worship we are part of “the large congregation” where all the writers of Scripture address us, where hymn writers use music to express truths that touch us not only in our heads but in our hearts, where the preacher who has just lived through six days of doubt, hurt, faith, and blessing with the worshipers speaks the truth of Scripture in the language of the congregation’s present experience. We want to hear what God says and what he says to us: worship is the place where our attention is centered on these personal and decisive words of God.