Monday, 3 August 2015

Cain and Abel Build a House

What do we know about Cain and Abel?  The Bible doesn't tell us much.  We know they shared the same genetic material, being brothers.  We know Cain kept animals while Abel grew crops.  And, of course, Cain killed Abel out of jealousy.



This is the story of a modern day Cain and Abel.  Their father had plenty of land, enough for Abel to farm and Cain to graze his herds.  But as young men they wanted their own place, distinct from the family home.  So they planned to build a house together.


Cain, the eldest, always took the lead.  Abel had pleasant enough features and they were both healthy young men.  But Cain was strikingly good looking with a confident charm the girls found irresistible.  Abel was married first, though.  Cain attracted people who were forever aspiring to bigger and better things. Meanwhile, Abel tended to be content, whether he had much or little.  He got on better with people who understood that "good enough" was, actually, good enough.

So Cain chose the site.  They had camped there as children.  It was a patch of raised ground in the shelter of a wood, within sight of a brook that wound downward through the valley.  It was a good place and Abel wanted to live in their new home from the beginning.

Cain thought Abel was stupid, putting up his tent right on the place where the house would be.  How could he make a comfortable home there?  He would have to move it as soon as they started building the foundations.  And so it proved.  The plan Cain drew up had a load bearing wall going through a corner of Abel's tent.  It was the best place for it, so Abel and his girlfriend were happy to move.  They were just glad it was actually going ahead.



Building took much longer than they thought.  Farming is hard work.  So they could only work on the house in their spare time.  While the stone walls grew slowly around Abel's tent, months turned into years.  They both married and tents were extended as children came on the scene.  Cain was proud of his now extensive pavilion, with all the comforts of home.

Abel simply added extensions to his tent as needed.  The canvas was spattered with mortar, covered with muddy footprints and stained where a bucket had fallen on it.  They kept only necessities so they could easily move from one place to another.  For they had to keep clear of the focus of work as it shifted around them.  Abel's family were literally living in a building site, so they spend much of their time getting on with building their home, while Cain and his family spent most of their time at home in their comfortable pavilion.

There was surprisingly little animosity between such different families.  Abel was never able to articulate what he felt, and his brother couldn't understand why anyone would want to live that way.  For Abel, being at home meant being where you belong, however uncomfortable that might be.  Cain, on the other hand, saw home as a place where life should be easy, all problems were sorted out and you could feel safe.  So both brothers were happy because each felt they were creating the home they wanted. 



The turning point came for Abel's family when the roof was finished.  The house was without timber floors, windows or plumbing, so Cain still thought of it as a mere shell.  But the first night Abel and his wife went to bed under canvas that had a roof over it, they burst out laughing.  Cain probably thought Abel's lot were mad as their children ran in to join the celebration.  That night the walls rang with laughter as, despite draughts and dirt, they sang and danced throughtout their new home.

Eventually, every room had windows, central heating and decor that met with Cain's wife's approval.  Cain chose the best rooms and moved their abundant possessions into more than their fair share of the house.  Abel's family weren't envious.  They happily accepted Cain's need to be superior and didn't need as much room.  Besides, they too were living their dream.  They'd had space for a while.  Now they had warmth, running water and best of all, others to share it with.

Unfortunately, Cain, who had chosen to live detached from the construction, could never shake the feeling of being an outsider in his own house.  Abel did nothing to antagonise him, even going out of his way to make him and his family welcome.  But Cain was unable to get passed the fact that Abel's family had grown up in this house while Cain's had moved into a home that already existed without them.  That festering sore turned to jealousy then murder.

After Abel er, died, his family feared for their lives too.  So the house because Cain's family's home from one generation to the next.  But genetics will out.  From time to time, a misfit was born into the family.  Someone who felt no need to strive and saw things from the inside. While those around seemed more aware of the surface of things, these descendants of Abel's father knew the joyous treasure within as the most natural thing in the world.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Its Not About The Money

Jesus told a man seeking eternal life to sell all he had, but he went away sad for he was rich (Mark 10:17-25).  I don't suppose he dropped down dead at that point, so what did he go on to do?

The gospel indicates he was a good man: he fell on his knees acknowledging Jesus as "good Teacher" and had kept the commandments since he was a boy.  It is not surprising his face fell and he went away sad when Jesus told him to do something this insane: utterly unreasonable according to his understanding of the world.

We can probably assume he was a businessman, or had been brought up to take responsibility for the family wealth.  It is likely he prepared for this encounter.  He sought out the Teacher because he was ready to change his life.  He was willing to do anything (within reason) to serve God.  Giving away all his wealth would be stupid.  But he could use it to create a Charitable Trust for the benefit of those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own.  Yes, that would be better.  The Bible always speaks well of those who go out of their way to help widows and orphans.  And this way, they would be cared for after his death, too.

However the encounter with Jesus would have also humbled him.  Ever after he would know that he himself was unable to be truly good.  But perhaps he could employ people to do good for him.  He could look after them and make sure they were always able to do what God commanded.  Surely a worthy life?

But no. There is little doubt about the point of this passage. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Surely that is harsh, utterly unreasonable? Who can believe in a God that asks such ridiculous things?

Its Not About The Money
What if the Trust's workers were truly good – servants of the same God who wanted the rich man to relinquish his wealth?  They would tend to give away the money themselves, in the face of so much need.  And the rich man has a second chance.

Unfortunately, I suspect he would want to "educate" them: "Stop, you don't understand.  Benefiting the poor cannot be the principal objective; first the Trust must survive.  If the Trust is squandered how can the poor be helped?"  And so the real issue finally comes to light.

He would not be alone.  Everyone gets it wrong. The process goes something like this...
  1. God reveals something of Himself.  Usually in terms of His purpose for us.
  2. We say, "I get it!", and put it in terms we can understand.  But as we try to squeeze it into the concepts available to language, much of God's original purpose is lost.
  3. We try to carry out what we believe was meant.  But by now more than God's purpose has gone.  His activity is now superseded by our own efforts.  We have taken a short-cut that bypasses God altogether.
  4. God is a gentleman and always steps aside when we assert ourselves.  So we are left to our best intentions and our own devices.
  5. Trouble happens, but God has withdrawn.  We can only respond from our own resources, dominated by our small needs, limited capabilities and faulty understanding.
  6. Things get too bad and we cry out to God for help.  Though we are rude and stupid, God is merciful.  When we truly turn from our ways and return to Him he forgives us and rescues us from the mess we have made.
From the Fall in Genesis to the plight of the churches in Revelation, the same story is repeated again and again.  God rescuing His people is the story of the Bible.

Being Reasonable
The rich man's problem began with his knowing.  That is, the belief that he knew – a mindset where his view of the world was correct and serviceable (see Perfectly Unreasonable).

[To use an internet metaphor: when you first visit a web site, a local copy of the page is stored on your hard drive.  Why go to the trouble of fetching it from the server again every time you want to look at it?  The trouble is the "server" (God) is continually active, ever new, and it only takes a moment of looking elsewhere to become out of step while believing you still have the true page.]

We like to make God in our own image; to imagine his ways are like ours. [Or worse, like some internet server!]  But they are not and thankfully, never will be.  We will only incarnate True Being (be Christ's body on earth) as our ways become His.  It is not enough for our ways to be like His ways.  We must truly believe we don't know.  It is not enough to consult Him in every little detail; that way we are still using our logic, our thinking.  The thinking must be His.

Our part in that is to maintain a certain empty-headedness.  Not looking beyond what is immediately in front of us this moment, and certainly not making mental comment on it.  (See step 2 above.)  Once we begin referencing concepts rather than reality, we are lost; condemned to chewing on the menu instead of savouring the meal (see The Parable of the Restaurant).

Being Capable
The rich man's problem continued with all the things he had learned to do by himself, growing up.  There is all the difference in the world between autonomy and independence.  We are, and should be, autonomous. We were never designed to live separate from others, or God, but that is what we learn as we grow up.

Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.  Unfortunately, the more we have, the more capabilities we command also.  This is basically what money does.  Money in itself is nothing.  People desire it because they want to be able to do what they want when they want.  Wealth insulates us from the world around us.  We can control more of our surroundings, making them as we want (unwittingly cutting across others in the process).

If we can do something, why do we have to wait for God?  Even if we could consider every possibility and act perfectly, we would be missing the point.  Getting ahead of God is to step beyond Reality. "Being unknown of God is altogether too much privacy", as Thomas Merton once said.

Just as knowing too much is a stumbling block (see Meekness), being too capable is also more than simply misguided effort.  It is trouble in the making, for any skill learned without God means we are skilled at being without Him.  Conversely, any skill learned under His training means He will always be a part of us whenever we use it.

Its About What We Value
Rich families accrue wealth because it gives them power to insulate themselves from unwelcome changes.  They want to decide what is good and what is not, and have the power to construct their reality accordingly.

Many of us think that's a good thing, and try to live that way too, even though it is a counterfeit of God's way.  Is it surprising we struggle to find God, hear Him and continue in His grace?  As soon as God finds us we make every effort to reassert our preferred "security by control".  It is as if the approaches were two boats that naturally drift apart, yet we try to have a foot in each – an incredibly uncomfortable position.

Poor families, on the other hand, live exposed to the chances and trials this world throws up.  They are powerless to defend themselves, so they have to learn to live with it.  Some recognise God and turn to Him for refuge.  If they are content to trust Him, they learn what it is to live and work in faith; that God is in charge and things will be OK.  Living like that is often uncomfortable too, but turns out to be considerably simpler and more satisfying.

Jesus was offering the rich man a place in His School, but he couldn't see it.  He wanted the idea but didn't want the reality.  Jesus only deals with what is Real.  There is nothing wrong with being reasonable, but only God's reasoning is true.  There is nothing wrong with being capable, but only God's capability lasts.

The only way I know to be a part of that is to be poor.  Being despised by those who "know what they're doing" and "get things done" is helpful feedback: we are probably on the right track. God is our strength only when we have no other.  Hence the "eye of a needle" comment at the end of gospel story.

The kingdom, the power and the glory are His.  Not because things "come right in the end" when we get our reward in Heaven, though.  Thinking like shows we have the same values as the rich man (and are looking for the wrong reward).  The kingdom is His because He rules us now, here.  The power is His because its His power we use in every little act.  And the glory is His because we don't do it, He does.  Its all about Him, not about us; at no time if not the present.

There Is No "Should"
Finally, let us look at the first step, for every step is just like it. It is tempting to read passages like this and say, "I should ... (do whatever)." But if we "should", that indicates we are not doing it: we are standing on the wrong ground, have the wrong values. Having to "try" reveals the same.  Doing anything from the wrong position has already missed the point.

To be part of Jesus' kingdom we have to just do it.  He is Life, Being.  We were baptised into His life; its His responsibility, not up to us now.  Provided we don't step off this bottom line we are there.  As soon as we think about it we are lost.

If all we can do is small stuff then [blow the Bible] that's the only place we can start.  Knowing that we don't know, abandoning the skills we have, leaves room for God to show us how He works in us.  But if we step in because we "get it", He will let us get on with it alone (step 2 above). [Later on we can look back at the Bible.  We will probably discover we've done something that was there all the time; only now we understand what it means.]

Breathing, walking and listening are good places to begin.  My experience has been it doesn't look or feel anything like what I was led to believe from "Bible teaching".  Many "Christians" will despise you for not "doing what the Bible tells us to".  But if their approach is that of the rich man setting up his Charitable Trust, they are safely ignored.  St. Paul had it right:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters.
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.
My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words,
but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,
so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5

The most important thing is to value (love) what is Real (Matthew 6:33).  What we think are real – money, morality, even discipleship – are just thoughts, illusions.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Winter

Trees without their leaves is an archetypal image of winter.  They give us some insight into that dark season – the time when creation is at its height; most strong.  Not the usual way of seeing things, I know.  But it is winter that produces lasting results; the growth each of the other seasons contributes largely falls away again and is lost.

I used to think that for the trees, losing their leaves must be the hardest thing.  During autumn the tree appears locked in a struggle that it loses little by little as the sap lessens, eventually failing to sustain the leaves.  Too weak to cling on, the leaves are lost to the bitter wind.  Winter begins and the tree seems to sleep until spring awakens it again.

That view is what we see when looking at a tree from the outside, as it were; as beings that are not-a-tree.  From the 'inside', things look rather different …
Spring
Sap rises: the natural consequence of being fibres connecting earth below and sky above.  The warming earth stirs the root system into activity just as the sun fosters sprouting where it can amongst the branches.  The leaves that form need the rising sap; cleaning and re-oxygenating it in return.
Summer
Summer is like a down-hill run.  Plenty of rain, plenty of nutrients in the soil, plenty of daylight: how can there not be growth?  This may look like a time when the tree is growing – its most fecund period.  However as in spring, the tree in summer is doing nothing special: it is simply responding naturally to the abundance surrounding it.
Autumn
Surely autumn must be the most creative time, for this is when the tree bears fruit?  Seeds of new trees are formed and released to grow into new trees.  But the seeds are not lasting results either.  Spring buds open into leaves and flowers.  Summer growth blooms but inevitably fades again.  The nuts that are formed are static offerings, made as a consequence of growth at its peak, with nowhere else to go.  They fall.  Some die, some sprout new shoots.  But their fate is quite independent of the tree that completed its part when the nut fell.
Winter
The fallen leaves are no loss.  As the strength of the sun fades and the ground cools, the sap rises less strongly and can no longer sustain the leaves, now as large as they will be.  Processing nutrition is no longer necessary once the nuts have formed, so the oxygen once provided by the leaves is wanted no longer.  It is a relief when their demand for sustenance diminishes.  And a release when the wind takes them; for the tree suffers less from the gales and dying foliage will grow mould and decay well away from branches that bore them.
However, not all of the new growth has been blown away. There are new shoots amidst the branches and buds on the older wood, too.  They are not ready yet.  Winter has yet to make them what they will become.

The role of winter is to turn the fruits of the rest of the year into a real tree: to 'true' or test what is, nearly to destruction, until it is as it should be, without weakness.  Winter dessicates the new stems: forming an exterior crusty enough to protect future sap.  It toughens these new branches so that not only will they be able to stand up to the gales but they will have the internal structure needed to bear spring's new growth.

Spring and summer provide the raw material and autumn strips away what is no longer needed.  But it is winter that forms the tree itself.  It makes roots and branches that will endure, strong enough to bear roots and branches of their own: the structure that we call 'a tree'.