I Am One With The Force

It’s All Saints. Depending on your perspective on saints it’s a commemoration of the lives of great servants of God from the past, or of all the people of God from all time, or something in between.

Rogue One is perhaps not the most obviously All Saints-themed film in the box, but I was rewatching it over the weekend and struck by the martyrological (if that’s even a word) perspective of the film.

Unlike just about any other film the Disney Corporation have ever had a hand in (since Disney bought the rights to Star Wars prior to The Force Awakens coming out), or to be frank, any American movie whatsoever, in Rogue One there isn’t a single major character from among the good guys (ie one with more than a single scene) that is alive at the end of the film. Everyone dies.

And yet the events of the film constitute a victory and a source of hope for the scattered Rebel Alliance.

Staring death in the face and seeing victory. This is sounding like what astonished the pagans so much about the early Church.

The mental connection finished forming in my head as we sang “A Mighty Fortress” at my church on Sunday. Martin Luther’s famous hymn is nearly inevitable in a traditional-type Protestant church on Reformation Sunday, but the hymn doesn’t really theologise much over the sola Scriptura, sola fide basis of what became the Protestant Reformation. Still, it’s the words of the hymn that tie in with what I want to talk about, not the fact that Martin Luther wrote it.

The lyric in question is in the third or fourth verse. I confess it’s not a hymn I’m intimately acquainted with from my growing-up; there are few Lutherans in Britain, my Baptist church didn’t really sing it, and the few times I’ve heard it at all in my home coutry it was with a different translation of the original German lyrics. Anyway, the third or fourth verse. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His Kingdom is forever”.

Rogue One seems to have drunk deeply from that same metaphysical well. Everybody dies, but hope prevails, bigger than any one life or person.

Every character has their part to play in the story of getting the Death Star plans to the Alliance, and only once that part is accomplished can they die.

Lena Erso gets cut down by Director Krennic’s elite Death Troopers, removing the possibility of her being used as a hostage to ensure her husband Galen’s obedience to the Empire, but not before she makes sure that Jyn gets away.

Saw Gerrera, the big black dude with the breather mask raises young Jyn Erso, and he’s the one to which Galen sends the message, by way of the pilot Bodhi Rook. He dies in the Empire’s test attack on Jedha, but only after Jyn Erso has seen her father’s message.

Galen himself dies at the Imperial research station on Eadu, but only after allowing Cassian Andor to redeem his imperiled soul by refraining from assassinating him as per his secret orders. Chirrût Imwe, the awesome blind near-Jedi ninja warrior, has his parts to play, his deeds to do, and only once they are accomplished is he allowed to die, but I want to talk about him more later. Bodhi Rook makes the connection with the besieging Rebel fleet in order to let them know what’s going on at the surface, then, the crucial information passed, he dies. Admiral Raddus has his part masterminding the Rebel attack on Scarif and in particular in disabling the planetary shield by slamming a paralysed Star Destroyer into it so that the transmission can be sent. His ship’s disabled and boarded, and presumably destroyed, but the plans gets out on the Rebel blockade runner Tantive-IV, famous from the opening scenes of A New Hope. Even the brave nameless Rebel soldier fulfils his last and arguably most important duty in passing the copy of the stolen plans into the departing blockade runner before being killed by Darth Vader. Everyone dies, but not until their heroic task is complete.

Not that I want to appear morbid or anything, but this is the same sort of heroic mindset I try to have in my approach to serving Christ. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “I sincerely hope and eagerly expect that whether by life or by death I will glorify God…”

The late ’80s/early ’90s film The Blues Brothers expressed this immortal-until-my-task-is-accomplished setup with the memorable phrase “we’re on a mission from God”.

There’s a lot that’s theologically questionable about that film, but in a sense they did get that much right. We’re on a mission from God for the establishment of His Kingdom in the earth as the waters cover the sea, and in His economy He will not let either the lives or the deaths of His servants go to waste. And just like Chirrût Imwe from Rogue One, both our lives and our deaths have impact and meaning; they are not lost. We are not faceless stormtrooper mooks who can be gunned down in job lots without significance.

Chirrût is probably my favourite character from the whole of Rogue One (with Jyn Erso a close second because I love strong female characters). Mr. “I-am-one-with-the-Force-and-the-Force-is-with-me”, he’s our first in-universe glimpse of a class of people who were presumably quite common in the Old Republic: non-Jedi who nonetheless believe in the Force.

Chirrût Imwe’s approach to the Force is essentially religious, and amazingly for Disney and Hollywood, it’s religious done with respect and even positive approval toward those who are ‘religious’ (ie people of faith) in real life. This is probably the closest equivalence we’ve yet seen in the Star Wars universe for the Force being God in disguise. Chirrût doesn’t use or manipulate the Force; he has faith in it and acts accordingly.

Where Luke, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Darth Vader’s Force is a neutral and impersonal supernatural substance functioning as a sort of wellspring of power to be used for whatever the one doing the manipulating decides, Chirrût’s Force is perceived as almost having a will of its own; it would almost be more accurate to say that the Force uses Chirrût than the other way around.

It’s a deep visual irony that it’s the character who looks most East Asian who has the most Western, Christian theology of the whole Star Wars cycle, but this is what we have here. And the fact that he’s a blind super-ninja is just icing on the cake. He has a leg up on learning the lesson that Luke so struggled with early on: trust not in what is seen, but in what is unseen. Don’t anticipate with your eyes; feel the Force.

Chirrût Imwe has multiple tasks in supporting the main arc of the story, but two of his most important tasks are the two that prove to be his final acts: the switching-on of the data console that let Bodhi Rook make contact with Admiral Raddus’ Rebel fleet, and the redemption of Baze Malbus.

The first of these he accomplishes by walking through a hail of blaster fire to a data console you can’t see, without even another person to get you started in the right direction. Technically I suppose that’s possible if he’s merely using sensitivity to the Force in place of sight, but it looks far more like the Force has a will of its own and wants the Rebels to get the plans.

The film has far too many leaps of probability to make sense any other way; Rogue One constitutes a sort of baptising of the standard Star Wars cosmology and reinterpretation of the universe along more overtly Christian lines.

With this in mind, Chirrût’s mantra of “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me” is a statement of faith.

How does Chirrût do the remarkable things he does? Not through any innate power of his own – he’s blind and not very muscly – or personal godliness – in a sort of Star Wars sense of being a Force-user – but through being “one with the Force”, in tune with the senses and abilities and will of the Force itself.

And only flowing out of his oneness with the Force is the Force “with him”, that is, manifestly present with power to aid. The Force is in charge, and Rogue One is a picture of what this sometimes looks like in practice.

This is way more Christian than Yoda. This is faith, more or less. The follower of Jesus’ relationship to her (or his) Lord.

I’m not saying that God is completely focused on His goal to the point that as soon as our part in that is done we’re “Bantha fodder”, as Jabba the Hutt so charmingly put it. I’m saying that there’s a real sense in which it doesn’t very much matter whether we live or die. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also”. All the things of this physical world that we cling to aren’t actually eternal. At the end of the day, only His Kingdom is forever.

The other main task of Chirrût Imwe is the redemption of his disillusioned colleague Baze Malbus, the really awesome black guy with the laser machine gun.

Baze is introduced to us as a former guardian of the Kyber temple, like Chirrût, but one who no longer believes in the Force like Chirrût does. Maybe the apparent victories of the Dark Side did it; maybe it was just the long slow grind of life in the evil galaxy-spanning Empire. Whatever, he maintains his disillusionment right up until Chirrût’s death.

It’s strange for us in the modern Western world to think of a death being “fruitful”, but it’s the right word here. Chirrût Imwe might have gone on and become a leader or soldier in the Rebellion, maybe even helping to shape Luke’s destiny, but maybe it was only by Chirrût losing his life that Baze Malbus’ faith could be restored.

Just like our God, this version of the Force seems to care about its followers. We who are followers of Christ know that death is not the end and that God really is the Lord of the Universe and sovereign over all powers and dominions. Whether this film’s version of the Force could ever be said to love, or to be Love, is not something I would like to speculate on, but Rogue One does seem to give a pretty good picture of how martyrdom works in God’s unfathomable economy. We don’t always get it, down here at ground level. So much of the time death looks like a waste; people taken out before their time, cut short from what might have been. I can’t and won’t pretend that there are easy answers for those of us who remain, nor that it would stop hurting if only we understood it from God’s point of view. But I have faith that there is a purpose beyond my sight. In the paraple universe of Star Wars, however, Chirrût Imwe lives and dies as a martyr, a witness to the power of God in the disguise of the Force. Blind yet able to see more clearly than any, shorn of his purpose as a temple guardian but having more innate sense of true purpose than any three other characters together, dying yet conquering, his faith brightens his world and brings hope to what would otherwise be a dark tale, and ends up bringing hope to the galaxy.

You never know what small deeds of yours will suddenly weigh heavy in the scales and tip the balance of the world. This is part of why we are instructed as believers in Jesus to “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of (that is, according to the authority and character of) the Lord Jesus…”, moment by moment depending on His Holy Spirit.

That’s how I want to live. The martyr’s crown wouldn’t scare me, if that’s what my Lord has ahead of me. I’m not foolish enough to seek it out, mind; I’ve got a family and I’m not looking to die. But I trust my Saviour to know what’s best, and I do hope that I fully trust that whether by life of by death I will glorify Him.

My other blog, the LEGO one, features as my latest post a model of a Roman gladiator under the title “Morituri te Salutant“: “We who are about to die salute you”. I wouldn’t want that as my epitaph, but in a sense it’s how I choose to live. This mortal life in the flesh is nice, but not as important as following Jesus. Let them kill the body if that’s what has to happen. I’m in the Kingdom still, abiding forever. To coin a phrase, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”.

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All Other Ground

“On Christ the solid rock I stand,” the old hymn says. “All other ground is sinking sand / All other ground is sinking sand”.

This is standard Christian doctrine. No surprises here on that score. Indeed, it’s pretty much common to every belief system that theirs is the only way that’s fully true or correct. Muslims believe the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ are blasphemous assaults on the nature of God. Buddhists believe their Eightfold Path is the only correct way. Hindus are firmly convinced that their pantheistic understanding of the cosmos is the highest understanding of reality. Atheists believe it’s all a fairy tale and that if we had any true understanding we’d embrace the nonexistence of any and every god.

The common accusation that it’s arrogant to claim that we alone have the truth seems a bit moot under the circumstances. We all believe we’re right and everyone else is wrong or mistaken insofar as they disagree with us. We’re all “arrogant” in that sense. Christians are not exempt, but we’re not unique in that either.

I’ve talked quite a lot on this blog about the idea of finding common ground with people of other belief systems. Faiths as conceptually far apart as Christianity and Hinduism share in common at least the basic understanding that the material world is not all there is. A fellow Abrahamic faith like Islam is far closer to Biblical Christianity, even if Muslims hold several major points of doctrine that we believe to be erroneous or untrue.

And yet, “all other ground is sinking sand”.

Am I compromising on the exclusivity of Christ?

We don’t build our faith on the lyrics of hymns (no matter how good they are) but on Scripture, but this is an accurate distillation of the Bible’s teaching on the subject. The Bible really does teach that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour and Mediator between holy God and fallen Man.

What that doesn’t mean is that everything anyone else believes is false in totality.

If nothing else, Satan’s too good a liar for that. No lie can hold up if it contradicts observable reality on all points. Even the most blatant, bald-faced lie has to hold enough truth be at least vaguely self-consistent, and when we’re talking about fundamental belief systems encompassing metaphysics and explanations for the observed reality, we must necessarily hold true to that observed reality on some level, even if that’s a claim that observed reality is ultimately illusory.

What the exclusivity of Christ does mean is that ultimately, none of these other belief systems is going to cut it.

Various politically-correct attempts to harmonise the different belief systems or say that they’re all “true for their followers” miss the point that Reality is what it is, and no matter how strongly we believe to the contrary or how true what we believe feels, if what we believe doesn’t line up with that Reality, then it’s actually false.

It’s all very well to make sweeping claims of how all religions are true, but we really do believe some vastly contradictory things as fundamental truths of our different faiths.

Hinduism accepts many gods. The “highest” (by their own thinking) form of Hinduism treats these many gods as fundamentally illusory, mere flawed manifestations of the impersonal cosmic All for limited minds to grasp. Jews and Muslims believe in one God who created the cosmos. Christians believe in one God, but He’s triune. Buddhists treat the question of whether there’s a God or not as basically irrelevant, but more or less piggyback on Hindu worldview the way Christians piggyback on a Jewish worldview.

But ultimately, Reality is what it is, and at most only one of these can match up with it.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, naturally I believe that what I believe is that which matches up with Reality best. I think there’s good evidence for both the existence of the God that the Bible describes and for the truth and accuracy of the Bible itself. I’m not going to open that massive and complex subject here; other people far more intelligent than I have examined all sorts of evidence at length, and the information’s out there if you’re sufficiently interested to track it down. It’s always possible we’re all mistaken in what we believe, I suppose, but as far as I can tell the evidence isn’t pointing that way.

But if the Way of Jesus really is true in the sense of matching up with how the cosmos actually really is, why am I so concerned to find common ground?

Followers of Christ have both a religious duty and a moral obligation to spread the word about what we believe. Not only are we commanded by our faith to do so, but if it’s true, if we’re correct in our belief of the truth of what we believe, lives really are at stake here. You may of course disagree, but if we believe lives are at stake and yet do nothing about it, doesn’t that constitute culpability?

A lot of the time we followers of Jesus certainly don’t act like we really believe that lives are at stake and that people who don’t believe are heading for an eternity cut off from the Source of all good, but that’s what necessarily follows from what we believe about the truth of our message.

But if “all other ground is sinking sand”, why look for truth in what they believe? Isn’t that sort of backwards?

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m faced with someone rudely saying that everything I believe is a falsehood, my instinct is to dismiss everything I’m hearing, argue and get angry. So I find I can’t really blame Muslims or Atheists or anyone else on the receiving end of this from sincere Christians wanting to fulfil their moral obligation to spread the word. No-one likes to be told they’re wrong, totally wrong.

But if we have a moral obligation to spread the good news about Jesus the Messiah, we have a corollary obligation to do so in a way that can be heard and received.

It’s not enough just to talk at people without knowing or caring where they come from or what they believe. What good is that, if people dismiss it out of hand? Especially if they might have actually accepted our message a bit if we’d have gone about our presentation a little differently.

I used to believe that evangelism, sharing the good news about Jesus, was scary and difficult. The Bible says the world’s default position is hostility to God, so I expected opposition, hostility and rejection. That’s scary stuff when you’re a teenager who already has a bit of a rejection complex. But I knew I was supposed to share the good news with everyone, and so every so often I’d guilt myself into doing some sort of “evangelism event”, deliberately going out to find targets for the Gospel.

Of course, it seldom worked very well. I’d end up with a bit of an adrenalin rush from actually going ahead and facing down my fear of rejection, but to this day I’m not sure how much good it actually did. I still hated and feared evangelism.

These days I believe that sharing the Good News is actually easy. Still a bit scary (Satan has a vested interest in making us afraid to tell others where the fire escape is) but actually easy.

Most people don’t want to be talked at by someone wanting to convince them that what they believe is the only truth, but most people are willing to talk about what they believe in. I look for common ground so I have some idea where to start. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet. The Holy Spirit can work with that; so do we. We believe He’s more than that as well, but let’s talk about Jesus’ prophethood and what being a prophet means and whether “prophet” alone encompasses all that Jesus is. Atheists believe the universe is rational and science can explain things. Great! So do we; let’s talk about the shape of the observed universe and whether undifferentiated chaos can organise itself, or whether the universe is moral or random, or whether what we believe determines what evidence we’ll accept, or something.

I’m happy to have a conversation about serious stuff. I always have been. My difficulty with the whole “evangelism” thing has always been that it feels false and disingenuous to start conversations with someone just to talk about what I believe.

What I believe isn’t the issue here. Let’s talk aboit what you believe.

I don’t ultimately believe that what a Muslim believes can go the distance between flawed mankind and perfect Godhead, but if talking with me is their first opportunity to actually talk with a follower of Jesus, it would be criminal to waste that by attacking their beliefs in a way that makes us look like the dangeous infidels they’ve always been told we are.

Whether or not (and in what way) Jesus is the Son of God may be too weighty a topic for a first conversation. Most Muslims I’ve actually talked to interpret that sort of language as us claiming Jesus is the son of God like Hercules was the son of Zeus, so they’re understandably put off by Christians’ apparent insistence on giving a blasphemous title to the one they consider sinless and one of their greatest prophets.

I’m not compromising on the exclusive claims of Christ. All other ground really is sinking sand. But I don’t believe it’s good enough to talk at other people in a way that virtually guarantees that they will misunderstand, either. We’re tasked with being communicators, and true communication requires understanding going both ways.

Because Jesus Christ really is the only Saviour.

Finished

It’s Labor Day weekend here in America.

Most countries that acknowledge a Labour Day-type holiday do so on 1st May, but that was way too Communist for the United States when the holiday was established, and I have a suspicion that these days most Americans don’t even know it’s any different overseas.

A day celebrating labour – work and workers – is quite appropriate to the latent workaholism of US culture; indeed, the minor irony is that it’s celebrated with a day off.

As I’ve mentioned before, Americans love the idea of hard work. “Working hard or hardly working?” my father-in-law will sometimes greet people; smugly boasting that you’re hardly working is not considered a normal reply.

In a lot of ways this is an excellent trait. The present administration notwithstanding, Americans normally excel at getting things done, and laziness is far from common due to its status as perhaps the cardinal cultural sin. It’s easy to forget in these days just how revolutionary the American Dream really was: with hard work and initiative anyone can rise to the top; you don’t need the titles, breeding or aristocratic patronage of the old autocracies of Europe. Amazing!

However, when it comes to the Christian doctrine of justification by faith and not by works, this cultural predilection can work against the understanding of the truth.

I comment almost every time my church starts a new published Bible study about the high profile always given to the matter of grace and works and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To me it seems a little odd; this is such a basic Christian doctrine that is it really necessary to rehash it every single time? We’re saved by grace, through faith. We understand. We understood last time.

It strikes me today, though, that perhaps I haven’t given the writers enough credit for knowing their audience.

My British-born cultural mindset gives far less pre-eminence to the idea of hard work. I’d never heard “Working hard or hardly working?” as a greeting or even a serious question before I came to the States, and the cultural acclaim given to entrepreneurs and businesspeople is something that just leaves me cold. Yes, yes, well done and all that. But not everyone can be an entrepreneur or be fortunate enough that their venture succeeds, so what about the rest of us?

In short, just because I don’t feel I need to rehash grace and works again doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people who might. This central tenet of American culture is working directly against the notion of grace. It’s rather like my instinctive “how is that fair?” question over God’s selection of Jacob rather than Esau. My own culture’s valuing of fair play and justice is baffled by the apparently arbitrary, unfair-seeming choice.

Americans value hard work, and the idea of receiving something as a gift and not being expected to work like an ox to make up the debt strikes at that. But such is the truth. It really is a free gift, not something you have to repay, not something you can repay.

I’m told that the only time the Bible ever tells us to “strive”, it’s “Strive to enter His rest”. And a lot of Americans aren’t very good at rest.

With the US’ excellence at getting things done and acclaim for those that do, however, I wonder whether you Americans might not have a greater appreciation, once you stop trying to earn it, of the effectiveness of Jesus’ finished work.

Here is a Man whose life-work really did get it done. He did the job, he put an end to the power and guilt of sin. He brought many sons to glory, as the song puts it. He destroyed the power of the devil, and snatched the keys of death and hell. He accomplished the task for which He came into the world: reconciliation between holy God and sin-stained humanity.

The work is finished. The book of Hebrews says that “having provided purification from sins He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven”. Secure in the knowledge of a job well done, He kicked back and put His feet up. It’s done. He completed the work.

So let’s hear it for getting it done.

The Better Sacrifice

I don’t often make our church’s midweek Bible study, due to conflicts between the time it starts and the time I get home from work.

I did last week, though, entering midway into a study of one of my favourite sections of the Bible: the early chapters of Genesis.

I’d missed the studies on the first three chapters covering the Creation and Fall, and jumped right in with the story of Cain and Abel.

I’m not going to comment right now on the actual historicity or not of this section of primeval history. Whether and how it should be harmonised with what most scientists tell us about Darwin’s theories and all the palaeontological discoveries we’ve made is a separate question, but in a sense, if you don’t treat these chapters as “real” in some sense, you’re going to miss the point of most of the rest of the Bible.

In short, God might have used evolution to create the world and even progressively stamped the Divine image onto increasingly manlike beings, but the theology of salvation and the very underpinnings of the Good News require a Fall of some sort from an original state of grace, otherwise they don’t entirely make sense. The Bible doesn’t tell us that humanity’s problem is that we’re ignorant of the right thing to do or that we need someone to show us the way; it tells us that knowing what is right, we do not do it.

For the Bible to make sense, the first few chapters of Genesis have to be true on at least a spiritual and theological level. Whether they are also true in the sense of being an accurate historical description of real events is a separate question.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to treat it as a factual account, even if there are some questions about precisely what genre these passages belong in.

The account of Cain and Abel begins some time after the exile from Eden, when Adam and Eve have started having children. The way Cain’s naming is written, Cain might have been their firstborn, but there’s nothing specifically written either way. Eve names him “Gotten”, saying “With the help of YHWH I have gotten (or brought forth) a man”. As an interesting aside, I find it fascinating that this is the first name-giving by someone other than Adam. Adam was the one given the job of naming all the animals in chapter 2, and Adam names Eve, both as to her kind (“ishah”, “woman”; “taken out of ish, man”) and personally (“Eve”, “Breath”, “Life-giver”). Up until this point, it’s been Adam that has told the rest of Creation what it is. Now the focus shifts, and it’s the one Adam calls Lifegiver that gives the names to the next generation.

Many traditions have portrayed Abel as Cain’s younger twin, but all the Bible says is that he was born “afterwards”. There could have been years between them for all we actually know.

Anyway, there’s time in between the notification of their birth (important in the light of the Divine command to “go forth and multiply”) and the rest of this account for them to grow up and become at least young men, and given how much fun God designed sex to be, I don’t expect Adam and Eve were hanging about on the going forth and multiplying. This will become important later, but undoubtedly Cain and Abel had numerous siblings; even without multiple births a pregnancy a year over 100 years of life (Seth, Abel’s “replacement”, was born when Adam was 130) gives 50 offspring from Adam and Eve alone, and those children can potentially start having their own kids at 15-20. This is no Western-style nuclear family with only the named individuals in it.

Simply put, we aren’t told how many years elapsed between Cain and Abel’s birth and the first murder, but it was enough for Cain to grow up and become a farmer and Abel to grow up and become a shepherd.

This is the central tension of almost every preindustrial agricultural society there’s ever been, encapsulated right here. Growers of seed and keepers of livestock. I hesitate to say that this is where all the tension comes from, but it’s an interesting observation that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, not the Good Farmer.

There’s an awful lot in this passage that isn’t said, including the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God, but so long as we keep in mind that we are speculating, it’s perfectly ok to read between the lines a little.

“In the fullness of time,” the Bible says, Cain brought some of the produce of the ground as an offering. This may just mean that in the course of things once the seed was ripe and the harvest was in, but the Bible does often use this phraseology for Divinely-ordained times, appointed times for an aspect of His unfolding rescue plan for humanity. And if that is the intended sense, it might imply a time that God had set for them to bring an offering.

The priestly sacrificial system and Law wasn’t formally codified until Mount Sinai, but this isn’t the only foreshadowing of aspects of the Law’s requirements. Noah had to be able to differentiate clean and unclean animals somehow so he would know how many to take into the ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and made sacrifices, and even God Himself had to kill something to provide the “garments of skins” with which He covered Adam and Eve.

It doesn’t especially matter whether this offering was a spontaneous gift or a commanded requirement, but the difference between Cain and Abel goes deeper than what they offered.

If this is a commanded sin-offering, God had established the pattern that something has to die for your sins to be covered, but the Sinaitic Covenant prescribed other kinds of offering than sin-offerings alone. The short answer is that we don’t know.

However, the language used in each case shows an important difference in attitude between the two brothers. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the earth”; the tone suggests that he didn’t take much time or care over its selection. At best, this reveals a jobbing, good-enough attitude which is going to fulfil the letter of what’s required but will do no more. At worst, it’s a surly passive-aggressive resistance to doing what God has asked for, possibly a heart greedy for “his” possessions that “he” had produced from the ground, perhaps an ugly mistrust of God’s goodness, care and provision.

Abel, by contrast, brings “fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks”, the best of the best. If his offering is a token of the attitude of his heart, Abel is a man whose relationship with God is of the highest importance. Who gives to God first, trusting Him to meet his needs.

Cain’s offering looks like the response of a man who thinks he’s really giving something to God. Here, Lord, have some of this grain that I made grow out of my own land with my own two hands. It may be significant in more ways than one that his name is Gotten. I did it; it’s my stuff; I’m doing God a favour by letting Him have some of what I earned. Cain, we might say, is the original self-made man.

Abel, on the other hand, gives like someone who knows that everything is the Lord’s anyway. He’s unstinting, his is a relationship of trust in God’s ability and willingness to take care of him. The firstborn of his flocks, and fat portions of it – the best part, in a time before the current Western obesity epidemic – coming before YHWH with blood on his hands because he knows he doesn’t have any right on his own merit.

And now we’re foreshadowing Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The one came to God proudly listing off all the things he’d done to earn the favour of the Almighty, the other not even looking up to heaven, pleading for mercy because he’s a sinner.

And just like in Christ’s parable, it’s the man with blood on his hands that is looked on with favour. The one who trusts not in what he can do or bring, but in God’s merciful character.

And Cain gets mad.

Offended that God wouldn’t favour the offering that he’d worked so hard to produce, he reveals the legalistic religiousity of his mindset. Obviously God ought to be pleased, right? He said to bring an offering, and I jolly well brought an offering. I’ve done what He said; I deserve to merit His favour, right?

Sorry, Cain, but grace doesn’t work that way. We’re all flawed, imperfect, ungodly, sinful. We all fall short, and not one of us has anything to offer of our own. God’s favour is unmerited, otherwise grace is no longer grace. It’s gratis, free, not to be earned. God cannot be bought off and will not accept the fruits of the red earth (“Adamah”, ie Adam, that is, man). Truly, “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it.

And so God lovingly challenges Cain. “Why is your face downcast? If you do well, won’t you also be accepted? But if you choose not to do well, sin is crouching at your door like a demon. It wants to possess you, but you don’t have to give in to it. You must be its master, not be mastered by it.”

Cain, you know I’m not interested in the offering for its own sake. It’s you that I want, not your stuff. Do well, offer to Me what bears My image, and you will be accepted with love and mercy. The offering’s not because I need it, but because I desire relationship with you, and that’s been broken by the sin that came into My world when your father Adam chose to disobey. Something has to die to cover that sin, Cain, and Abel understands this. Come back, Cain. It’s not too late; you don’t have to walk any further down this dark path.

And Cain hardens his heart.

This often seems to be the response of the religiously legalistic when confronted with the righteousness of faith. In a foreshadowing of every act of persecution and religious violence from the Pharisees to the Taliban, via the Crusades and Stalin’s purges, Cain decides that his righteous brother is the problem, and no more brother = no more problem.

And even after he commits the first murder, still God comes after him. Like His incarnate Son, God seems to like asking leading questions; the faux-innocent “Where is your brother Abel?” allows Cain a moment to decide whether he’s going to face up to what he’s done or try to wriggle out of it.

Adam and Eve pointed the finger of blame everywhere but at themselves, but at least they did not contest what they had done. Cain goes one worse. He lies, trying to pretend that not only did he not do it, but that he’s not even sure what’s been done.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve got enough to do being responsible for me and my righteousness, now you think I can be responsible for my brother too? He’s an adult, let him be responsible for himself.

But YHWH pierces this self-serving smokescreen, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!” I know what you did; I’m not asking because I don’t know, I’m asking to try and help you.

Cain fails even where Adam does seem to succeed. Adam accepts his punishment, watches meekly while God kills something to cover the nakedness of his sin. Cain’s still trying to argue with God, like he knows better than the Omniscient One. “You’re driving me away from my livelihood, I’m going to be a restless vagabond, and anyone who finds me is going to feel no compunction about killing me!”

And so once again, the Lord in His patience and mercy reaches out, putting a mark on Cain so that no-one would kill him out of hand, lest they suffer the sevenfold vengeance God decrees. The form this took is not clear, but the consequence is. God is even concerned not to let anyone else take Cain’s life, just in case he should repent later.

And yet, we see that even then, Cain’s still trying to squirm out of the consequences of his sin. God told him he would be a homeless wanderer on the earth, but not four verses later we read that Cain is building a city named after his son Enoch.

Now, various people have famously fluffed the answer to “where did Cain’s wife come from?”, because “he married his sister” is incest in our modern world and we don’t like the implications.

But this is one of those times at which it only makes sense if you consider all the implications of an act of special creation.

In the beginning, God did not create mankind with a whole host of genetic defects. This is why incest is so categorically a bad idea; it’s one of those commandmemts that has a solid biological basis. Having children with a close relative is so terrible because it doubles the chances of all of the various accumulated genetic weaknesses and defects producing something really catastrophic.

Biologists call this “genetic load”, and it’s one of the subtle problems caused by any population bottleneck.

But Adam and Eve had no genetic load. In all likelihood, incest didn’t become an issue until the Israelites were in Egypt, and the accumulated damage of centuries upon centuries of harsh solar radiation, chemical damage and just general mutational effects was sufficient to make it deadly.

So yes, Cain, and Seth, and their brothers and sisters and offspring, married close family. It couldn’t be any other way, and it wasn’t the problem many people seem to think it was.

Cain’s descendents seem to have become worse and worse, until Lamech, seventh from Cain, becomes the first polygamist and is so ruled by the idea of revenge that he’s prepared to kill in response to being struck.

And yet there’s hope. “In the fullness of time” Eve bears another son, which she understands as being a sort of replacement for Abel, who was killed. His name is Seth, which means “Granted”, or “Given”.

And that right there says it all, really. The offspring of Cain are the lineage of Gotten, of I-did-it, of humanistic pride and self-righteousness and religious legalism. Seth’s line are the children of Granted, of He-did-it, of the righteousness which is a gift of God and is by faith.

Heart

“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they lose heart” -Colossians 3:21

It being Father’s Day, this verse was the text preached on at my church on Sunday. The NIV that I often use puts it differently: “exasperate” and “so that they do not become discouraged”, but I think I prefer the older language in some ways. Losing heart seems so much deeper and more profound than mere discouragement.

I started to think about the implications of this verse. The instruction is clear enough: don’t go out of your way to rile your kids. Be a Good Dad.

But the reasoning is interesting: “so that they do not lose heart”.

Discouragement and losing heart is so easy in this world. All around us there are attacks on our worth, our self-image, our value. Temptations to believe that only if we look or behave in a certain way are we valued and productive. We call a lot of these “advertising”, but they aren’t what I want to focus on right now.

No, what struck me on Sunday was the idea that a large part of a father’s role might be summarised as creating heart in your children.

If “losing heart” is more than just discouragement, building heart is more than just being an encourager as we normally think of it.

I sometimes believe that the spiritual gift of encouragement is the gift most misunderstood by all the various spiritual gift inventory questionnaires I’ve seen; to a one they all seem to envision a middle-aged woman whose gift finds expression in the sending of cards.

This isn’t very cool if you’re a young woman, and even less helpful if you’re a man. By and large, most men don’t express the gift in that prissy sort of a way, if they have the gift. In some cases it can lead to a lot of misapprehensions about encouragement and what it really is.

Creating heart might be a more useful way of expressing what I’m talking about; it has at least the advantage of not having any baggage of which I’m aware.

So what do I mean by “heart”?

Heart as I’m meaning it encompasses a number of different qualities, foremost among them courage, conviction, integrity, hope, fervour, compassion and faith. It’s a valorous blend of characteristics embodied in every true hero, a blend that enables them to slay the monsters, face down the odds, oppose the tyrant, stare death in the face and spit in his eye. It’s also the blend of qualities that reaches out with compassion and aims to make the world a better place, looking beyond oneself to others.

This is what I want for my daughters and son.

Courage has been described as “the first of qualities, because it guarantees all the others”. I’m not sure this isn’t going a little too far, but certainly courage is important, and a vital part of what I mean by “heart”. In the Colossians verse, losing heart is expressed in the NIV as “becoming discouraged”, and courage is at the heart of that word. Many spiritual virtues take courage: it takes courage to show faith, courage to love, courage to show compassion in a world where it’s thin on the ground. The quality is never listed in any Biblical list of spiritual fruit or character qualities, but perhaps that’s by design, because so much of the time we reduce courage to the physical exigencies of the battlefield and the toughness of mind and body that calls for, when much of what I’m talking about here is moral courage.

Conviction and faith are part of what I mean by heart, because unless you have your heart involved then your “faith” isn’t true Biblical faith at all, merely a sort of cold mental assent. Unlike believing in the Loch Ness Monster, simply acknowledging the existence of the Godhead isn’t enough if your life doesn’t change as a result. As a father, I pray that I’m raising my children to be men and women of conviction, knowing what’s right and pursuing it with vigour.

Integrity goes along with this, because heart encompasses the unification of the inner and outer person. It’s the opposite of wearing masks and hiding: knowing who you are as well as Whose you are, living out of your deep inner self with the courage not to hide and the conviction that there is a purpose for which you were created that will take all your God-given powers.

All of this takes Biblical hope. Not the wishy-washy vague feeling we’ve demeaned it into, but the strong certainty that God has plans and a future for me, to prosper me and not to harm me. That if His purpose takes my life, then it’s not the end, but in His economy some things are worth dying for.

Fervouris involved, because you can’t have all of these qualities and not live with passion. And compassion, because unless it’s directed outwards into the service of the Lord and the blessing of other people, what good is it all? No-one wants to be around a fervent, courage-filled person of conviction who hates other people.

A lofty task and a worthy goal, but how do we do this? I hope I’m building heart in my children, but I’m not always very intentional about it.

I guess it begins here, with this verse. Don’t provoke your children. Don’t exasperate them. Don’t aggravate them. Be reasonable, able to be reasoned with. When you have to lay down the law, do so with grace. Set the example you wish you’d had; everyone comes from an imperfect family and a father’s care that had holes in it, but you need not reproduce all of that.

At its most basic, building heart in your kids means not tearing it out of them. We fathers are often considered the disciplinarians, but correction needs to be delivered in a way that makes our kids want to get it right and which builds into them the ability to do so. That means not tearing into them for trifling offences, but it also means bringing correction when it’s due. Our kids aren’t perfect either, and we who might have had harsh parents need to be careful we aren’t becoming so permissive that our children have no boundaries at all.

Something it’s taken me a while to learn is that my kids respond to different things. One of them, physical discipline just makes her stubborn. If you want to get through to her, she needs to understand why. Another of them, the prospect of reward works wonders (ok, so I bribe my kids sometimes. It seems to work). As their father, I have to tailor my engagement with each of my children, knowing that what encourages one may exasperate another, and yet trying to be even-handed in my approach to them. Nothing poisons family relationships like favouritism (look at the book of Genesis); that would be provoking them.

I’m not trying to claim I’m there or that I do it perfectly, because I’m painfully aware of just how far I fall short. I hope I’m building heart in my kids more than I’m making them lose it, but I expect they’ll have their individual hangups from well-meaning mistakes I made. Hopefully none beyond the grace of God, though.

Eyes Off The Waves

It’s already five days into 2017, and I’m still not ready for it.

Christmas was our first Christmas in our new home, and while I was concentrating on that, New Year sort of snuck up on me.

Most years I’ve spent some time in prayer and have some idea about a direction for the New Year, but this year, nothing. When my wife asked me on New Year’s Eve what I wanted from the upcoming year, I thought about all the craziness of 2016 and said “to survive it”.

Surviving is a pretty low bar, though. And if I’m honest with myself, I want more than mere survival.

But as for more precise direction? Not a clue.

The New Year feels a bit like standing at the top of a precipice; political weirdness in both my country of origin and my country of residence make the future a decidedly uncertain and unresolved thing. Hope seems in short supply. All bets are off; anything could happen. Look at the past year.

Maybe that’s the focus. Developing the sort of Divine confidence and expectation of God’s goodness that really does laugh at circumstances.

It would be easy to get disheartened. The less said about current politics, the better, but I have to say that I worry about the anti-reason, anti-fact, anti-truth nature of what appears to be current politics. And it’s conservatives who claim to believe in absolutes like truth I mean at least as much as liberals who claim to believe in relativism.

As someone who places a high value on truth, I find this disturbing. Fact is the least form of truth, and if we can’t even agree on what the facts actually are, then Pandora’s box is standing open and all the demons that have ever troubled Mankind are loosed upon the world.

In that kind of environment, Biblical Hope is a powerful weapon. The confidence that God is still good and hasn’t dropped the ball, regardless of my personal situation.

Like the Apostle Peter, here we are in the unnatural position of standing on the water in the middle of the storm. The winds are howling, the waves mount up like jagged cliff-edges. The other followers of Jesus are back in the limited safety of the boat, afraid of the storm themselves and even more afraid of doing what Peter did. The invitation to fear is everywhere. It’s reasonable to be afraid; that’s what reason tells us to do.

But there’s Jesus, holding onto my hand as I call desperately for salvation. Eyes off the waves, son, back onto Me. I’ve got this. I’ve got you.

The One who raises up kings and dethrones them – as messy as that gets when rule is for life and dynasties matter – is still Sovereign of the universe. The One who promised to build His church with no people or empire on earth to provide shelter and support for us – and then did so – is still Lord of all the earth.

These aren’t even very big waves compared to what the early church experienced. The persecution still hasn’t begun in America, despite the occasional rumour to the contrary.

I talked a good line through 2016 about God’s Kingdom being our paramount concern, about how these light and momentary trials reveal how small our view of God is, about how vital it is for us to act like followers of Jesus towards Muslims and other people who do not trust Him for salvation.

Now it’s apparently time to prove it.

I need to keep my eyes off the waves and on the Lord enthroned over the flood. I need to act with kindness and grace even to those believers who I deep down think are bringing the name of my God into disrepute. I need to have a large enough and Biblical enough view of my God that it puts these momentary troubles into proper perspective.

That Thou Art Mindful of Him

The one thing I insisted on in our wedding ceremony that I might do differently now was that I wanted to be pronounced “man and wife” rather than “husband and wife” like the pastor preferred to pronounce.

At the time, I was coming out of a long process of trying to understand my manhood and what it means to be a true man, and I thought it was a significant reflection of that struggle to be pronounced a man.

These days, I wonder if I wasn’t feeding one of the many cultural lies about what it means to be a man. The Man Gets The Girl is a subtle one, because there is something powerfully attractive in a man being a true man, but if that’s what you’re using to define your manhood and masculinity, I’d suggest you may be missing it.

The subject of what makes a man is one I’ve looked at before from time to time, but it’s an important one because our culture doesn’t have good answers. I sometimes wonder whether some of the rise of modern homosexuality may be a reaction to these bad answers about what manhood is all about, but there’s probably more to it than that, and I’m no expert on that subject. I’m relentlessly straight and I find the idea that (for whatever reason it is that people turn out as homosexuals) in a different universe I might not be… disquieting.

Anyway, in this post I want to start to unwrap what it might mean to be a true man in God’s sight. To try to begin to answer the question, using the old King James language, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”

The American culture of my experience (Texas over the last 10 years or so) is far more gender-segregated than I consider normal. For the record, I’m a Brit, specifically an Englishman (they aren’t the same) but I’ve been out of the UK for at least that long, and a decade is long enough for memory to start playing tricks. In Texas, there are very definite “men’s areas” and “women’s areas” of activity and social interaction. Women cook, men grill. Men watch and play sports, women chat and interact over the preparation of meals. Weddings are almost entirely Woman’s Domain, with male input reduced to providing labour and the slightly odd custom of the “groom’s cake” – an excuse to have chocolate cake at a wedding that’s traditionally decorated to showcase the groom’s personality or interests. I found about weddings being designated female territory when I tried to relieve some of my wife’s pre-wedding stress by doing some of the phoning-around inquiries about the flowers. Florist after florist gave me short, abrupt treatment and I was left with the distinct flavour of “I don’t want to talk to you, you interloper!”

My wife calls the same florists – instant helpfulness and charm. Like it wasn’t even the same people.

Utter foolishness, particularly in sales representatives, but this is Texas.

My land of birth doesn’t have a lot of these unmarked zones of gender-based interdiction (not that I remember encountering, anyway) and I was caught totally unprepared.

To this day I consider these unmarked zones to be the adult equivalent of cooties. Hedged about with social opprobrium bordering on shame, they seem to define masculinity and femininity based on arbitrary cultural standards that have little to do with Biblical values.

I’ve learned (the hard way, sometimes) that if we build our lives and our identities on relative human standards and values, we are building on shifting sand. I’m far more interested in what God thinks a Real Man ought to look like than in what the cowboy-derived Texan culture has to say about it.

The “masculinity culture”, if I can use that term, around me places a high value on machismo, separated gender roles, strength and hard work. By “masculinity culture” I mean the cultural expectations that get used to define what being a Real Man is about.

Personally, I think machismo is juvenile, most if not all separated gender roles are arbitrary limits on the breadth of diversity God has created, and hard work is a particularly American cultural value. And strength need not be defined solely, or even mostly, in physical terms. If I hadn’t sorted out my sense of identity as a man before I got married, I’d be in a world of hurt over the issue right now, because there seems little for me in the general Texan expectations.

It’s not just in the secular world, either. In the church, too, we have our ideas about what proper manhood looks and acts like, and even some of those seem like they owe more to the surrounding culture than to the Lord. For example the idea that “women need love, men need respect”. This idea is fine up to a point; men and women do tend to perceive their relational needs differently and respond to different things. But beyond that point it can become a self-serving lie that encourages men to be out-of-touch with their own emotions and desires (men need respect, not love) and disrespectful of their wives (women need love, not respect). Unfortunately I’ve seen it happen.

I may touch on this some more in a follow-up post; for the rest of this one I’d like to return to the issue of machismo.

We all know what machismo looks like, whether it’s opening beer bottles with your teeth or biting into the ghost pepper or flexing in front of the mirror or the trophy buck heads on the wall. It’s swagger. Brag. A constant drive to prove that you’re worthy to be called a man.

And yes, I did use the word “juvenile” earlier.

You see, it looks to me very much as though machismo is based almost entirely on fear: fear of what other people think.

At best, constantly having to prove you’re a man looks insecure. At worst, I’ve lived according to fear of man, and it’s a pretty worthless way to live. It’ll suck dry everything of value and leave you an empty shell full of other people’s expectations. I don’t want any part of it.

To me, one of the signs that you’re a real man – an adult, not a boy in a grown-up’s body – is that you don’t have anything to prove.

Forget trying to prove you’re a man; just be one.

Of course, to do this we have to come to a place of security in our God-ordained identity, not just as a human being but as a man (or a woman, but I’m talking particularly to men here), and not just as a man but as me.

And therein lies the difficulty, which is why so many of us men get stuck in the endless insecure loop of having to prove ourselves over and over again.

The Real Man doesn’t need to swagger and brag. Does an iceberg keep leaping out of the water to show everyone how big it is? A true man goes through life without the swagger of insecure arrogance. Head up and shoulders back, as my wife puts it, not compromising or downgrading who they are either, but strong where it counts: in their character and inner sense of self.

For me, one of the big things has been getting my heart around the idea that God doesn’t think I’m junk. I’ve talked about this before, but being told (as we are so many well-meaning times) that “you may think you’re junk, but God loves you and paid a high price for you” did little to squash my inner conviction that I was junk. Junk that God happened to love and was willing to pay an outrageous price for, but junk nonetheless.

I needed something extra, and it came in the realisation of some of the implications of God’s omniscience. As I said before, the implication that God is all-seeing means that He sees everything as it really is, without camouflage or falsehood or mistake. So if He says I’m worth the price He paid, that is my true value. Jesus loves me, this I know. Do not be afraid.

How can I possibly need to prove anything?