Cain and Abel

So many of the stories in the Book of Genesis leave me wondering.

What is wrong, for example, with humanity gaining the knowledge of good and evil?  Isn’t that the very thing that separates us from all of the rest of creation?  We know good and evil.  We can tell right from wrong.  Seems like half of the Bible is about refining that sense and putting that knowledge into practice.  Why is that a curse?  I think I may have a better sense about this now, after having read Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I may blog on that story later.

Today I want to talk about the story of Cain and Abel.  Everybody knows this one – the first murder story.  No doubt there are many lessons that can be drawn from the story and no doubt there have been thousands of sermons preached on this text, but the thing that always struck me about this story – that left me kind of cold and unsatisfied – is that the text gives us no explanation of why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God.  It always seemed to me that such a story in such a book should at least tell us why God acted as He did in rejecting Cain’s offering.  I’m sure that preachers and scholars along the way have come up with a thousand theories in answer to that question, but I think it is fair to say that the text itself does not give us an answer and, it seems to me, is deliberately obscure or dismissive of the issue.   Here is the text:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

The omission of any mention of God’s motive or reason for rejecting Cain’s offering bothered me till now.  It bothered me because it made it seem that God was acting arbitrarily and capriciously.  Unjustly, even.  It seemed to me that there must have been some just motive or reason and that the story would have been much better as a moral lesson if we had known that reason.

But now I believe just the opposite.  I now believe that the story is more true to life and better as a moral lesson because it does not explain why Cain’s offering was rejected.  Again, I have Mr. Peterson to thank for this.

In 12 Rules, Peterson spends quite a bit of ink talking about sacrifice.  At the most profound and fundamental level, writes Peterson, sacrifice is the forgoing of some immediate pleasure or gain in the hope of a greater, future benefit.   Under such a definition, work is sacrifice!

That brings the whole matter a lot closer to home for me.  I have always viewed the sacrifice rituals in the Old Testament as a forerunner or foreshadowing to the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, I still believe exactly that.  But the idea that sacrifice – other than ritual sacrifice – is a fundamental part of every human life, including mine, made me think harder about that dynamic and gave me a different slant on the Cain and Able story.

When we go to work we are giving up immediate freedom and pleasure and involving ourselves in something that, although it may be meaningful, takes something out of us.  It absorbs our time and energy and strength and in doing work a part of us gets used up.

We do this because we have an aim or goal in mind.  Cain, ostensibly, had the goal of directly pleasing God.  This would have led to his own good – the blessing of his efforts on the farm; the growth of his family; that kind of thing is what he probably hoped for.

By the same token, we hope that our efforts – our sacrifices – will lead to God’s blessing, too.  We may have a very specific kind of blessing in mind.  We may meet and fall in love with someone and accordingly make sacrifices for them.  Our time and our effort are focused on pleasing them with the goal of winning their love.  We may have vocational goals.  And so we practice and plan and study and make decisions in favor of the pursuit of that goal that take us away from other avenues that might have led to pleasure or gain.

We may have such goals and we may work toward them and yet so often we find that our sacrifices are not accepted.  We are not blessed.  The person we fell in love with and made sacrifices for rejects us.  The medical school that we sacrificed our youth to get into rejects our application.

And when these things happen it is more common than not that we really don’t know why we have been rejected.  At least it is not obvious at first.  If the reason for our rejection had been obvious, then we would have made a different kind of sacrifice.  The common experience is that we’ve laid what we thought was our best on the line and it has simply not been enough.  The blessing we so desired is denied us.  Our sacrifice was rejected and we, like Cain in the story, are not told why.

That makes the Cain and Abel story seem true to life and something that we moderns can relate to, but what is the moral?  So Cain is rejected – no reason given – and we are often rejected in the same way.  Interesting.  But what instruction or insight for living does the story give us?

I think it is this: faith is patience in the very face of what appears to be unfair and unexplained frustration and disappointment. Faith is that which does not rebel or give up when rejected but instead waits in the humility that says that maybe I don’t know everything I thought I knew.  Maybe there is something else; something more.

This is extremely difficult, particularly when your brother’s sacrifice – which did not seem all that different from your own – was accepted.  He gets the girl.  He gets into med school.  And here you are with nowhere to go and no one to run to.  But accepting such a judgement – such a verdict – and continuing to listen and to wait and to work, that is faith.


Tell The Truth

For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about telling the truth.  We’ve looked at a couple of passages in Paul’s letters where he admonishes the believers to stop lying.  We might chuckle just a bit when we read these verses, since such advice presumes that the saints in Ephesus and Galatia were in fact lying and probably doing so habitually.  If they were anything like we are, we have no problem imagining that this was the case and that Paul’s warnings were quite justified.

Our own tolerance for the “little white lie” is evident from our discussions in class.  Let us leave aside for the moment the questions whether a “little white lie” can ever be justified or whether one who is hiding Jews from the Nazis is justified in telling the would-be murderers that he or she does not know the whereabouts of any Jews.  Let’s take away the absolute extremes and work from the proposition,  amplified by Jordan Peterson in his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,  that we – most all of us, really – are far too casual about lying and far too willing to ignore the effects of lies – both on the speaker and those to whom the lie is spoken.

Peterson writes that we have a long list of reasons for telling lies.  We may twist the truth a little bit –or a lot – to make ourselves look better; to avoid the shame for what we might have done or, the reverse, to give ourselves credit for the good work of others.  We might lie because we are lazy – because it seems to us in the moment that telling the truth would require more work and more explanation than we are willing to give.

Peterson writes that telling the truth may often cost us something.  That truth telling may be a kind of sacrifice: we give up something immediate – our present peace or rest or reputation in the mild cases, perhaps even our physical or financial security in other cases – for the hope of some future benefit.

Peterson writes that there are lies of commission – out and out statements that are deceitful and deliberately misleading – and lies of omission.  The lies of omission are those where we remain silent about something when we really ought to speak.

He argues that the lies of omission are every bit as morally destructive as lies of commission and that the lie of omission might be the more common and more devastating in the modern world.  He says that it is the willingness of the common man to keep silent in the face of wrongdoing that has allowed the great tyrannies of the twentieth century to flourish and that it was the willingness of a very few brave men – Alexander Solzhenitsyn among them – to stand up to the tyrant and speak the truth  that actually began the process of loosening the grip that communism held on half of the world in the 20th century.


With all of that in mind, let’s go back about three thousand years and examine a social and governmental situation that existed in the empire of Persia during the period of the exile

Little White Lies?


In yesterday’s class it became obvious that most if not all of us subscribe to the idea that a little white lie never hurt anybody.  Hiding the truth or inflating things a little bit can keep others from being hurt, we think.  Sugar coating a response in a tense situation can avoid violence, we say.

It also became obvious – at least I hope it did – that Jordan Peterson, in his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos takes just the opposite position.   He says that lies – even those we might consider innocent – are like living things and that their effects are unpredictable and may be long lived.  We may mean well, but when we don’t tell the truth we can set dynamics in motion that we did not foresee and may be powerless to stop.

Peterson contends that speech itself is far more powerful than we generally think it to be.  He points to the Biblical truth that God “spoke” the universe into being:  “And God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”  He reminds us that “In the beginning was the Word.”  He could have taken the Biblical theme further and mentioned that the life-changing force of the gospel is transmitted – is effective – through the spoken and written word.  Speech, Peterson argues, is a creative force.  We speak things into being.

So the lies we tell may have unfortunate and unpredictable effect in the world, but Peterson also emphasizes that one principle effect of a falsehood is actually on the speaker.  The lies we speak affect ourselves.  Once again, I am struck by the symmetry or harmony between what Jordan Peterson is saying and the way Eugene Peterson (I don’t think they are related to each other) translates the New Testament.  Here’s Eugene Peterson’s translation of Galatians 4: 25:

What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.

Now here is Jordan Peterson, from 12 Rules:

. . . hiding from others also means suppressing and hiding the potentialities of the unrealized self . . .  If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself.  That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it also means that.  It means that so much of what you could be will never be forced by necessity to come forward

When things fall apart . . . we can give structure to [life] and re-establish order through our speech.  If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out and put them in their proper place . . . and navigate

Recap of Yesterday’s Lesson



Old Testament Lesson:  Psalm 16: 4

Gospel Lesson: Mark 4: 24

Epistle: Galatians 5: 19-23


What is the most famous line from the movie “When Harry Met Sally?”





When we ended last week we were talking about the Peterson brothers, Eugene and Jordan.  Actually, they are not brothers.  Jordan Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto and a clinical psychologist.  Eugene Peterson is a Presbyterian pastor and a theologian.  They do have this in common:  both of them are well known for what they have written.

Jordan Peterson has published two books, the most recent of which was released only weeks ago and is now one of the top selling books in the country.  That book is called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.  Eugene Peterson has been around much longer.  He is over eighty years old and has spent his life pastoring various churches around the country.   He has written a score of books, including the interpretation of the Book of Revelation that we studied here years ago, Reversed Thunder.  But Eugene Peterson is best known for his translation of the Bible.  It’s called The Message, and it has been around for more than a decade now and we’re referred to it, time and again, in this class.

The first chapter in Jordan Peterson’s book is about lobsters.  He tells us that extensive research has taught us that lobsters are territorial animals.  Like so many other animals, they fight for the best real estate; the best niches for their safety and well-being.  Not much news there, but what is interesting is what happens to the lobsters – inside the lobsters’ brains – after they tussle over the best rock to hide under.

Winning the fight gives the dominant lobster a real shot in the arm, so to speak.  When he wins, his body releases a chemical called serotonin and that makes the world a rosy place for him.  His posture and stature changes.  He stands straight with his shoulders back, like – as Jordan Peterson puts it – “Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western.”  He is more likely to win his next fight and – no surprise here – he becomes more attractive to female lobsters.

“Them that got shall get, them that’s not shall lose.  So the Bible says, and it still is news. . .”


It’s all downhill for the losing lobster.  In fact, after losing a fight his brain disintegrates.  He grows a new brain – the brain of a subordinate, a subservient.  He rarely, if ever, wins another fight, even against a weaker opponent.  He’s banished into shallows and miseries.

Why is this business in the world of crustaceans of any more than novelty to us?  Why does it matter?  How can it be relevant in a book that tells us how to live?

Well, anybody who has ever won or lost a fight will not find this next proposition surprising: what happens to lobsters also happens to human beings.  With humans, we are not necessarily or usually talking about physical altercations, but we are talking about the overall competition of life.   Jordan Peterson tells us that there is a sort of calculator at the base of our brains, so deep below consciousness that we are not aware of it, which measures our social rank; where we fit in the world around us.

Our calculators measure social position by making note of how we are treated by others.

If our calculator finds that we are treated poorly, it adjusts the chemical flow to the brain to increase our alertness.  After all, life at the bottom of the scale is dangerous.  This hyper-alertness has another name: stress.  And it does all the things we’re heard about before.  It depletes the energies that might have been used more productively if life were a little more secure.  Life is not much fun, so, as Jordan Peterson puts it, low-serotonin people will:

Jump . . . at any short-term mating opportunities, or any possibilities of pleasure, no matter how sub-par, disgraceful or illegal . . .

And now, back to cousin Eugene and his translation of Paul.  This is from the fifth chapter of Galatians:

19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.



On the Other Hand


If we rank highly, our calculator permits the release of serotonin – the same stuff that the lobsters release – and, accordingly, our world becomes a rosier place.   According to Jordan Peterson, your brain is assured that:

Your niche is secure, productive and safe, and that you are well-buttressed with social support.  It thinks the chance that something will damage you is low and can safely be discounted.  Change might be opportunity instead of disaster.


You don’t need to grasp impulsively at whatever crumbs come your way, because you can realistically expect good things to remain available.  You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever.  You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.

How about them apples?  Now let’s look at what the Apostle Paul – as translated by cousin Eugene – has to tell the churches in Galatia about the life in Christ:

what happens when we live God’s way?  He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity.  We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart . . we find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely . . .

I’ll have what she’s having . . .

Meditation on Psalm 63


Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice. . .

Psalm 63: 7


In his very helpful book Reflections on The Psalms, CS Lewis makes some allusion to the fact that many of the psalms are “attributed to David” and that some of them, particularly Psalm 18, are actually from David’s pen.  This, of course, suggests that many of the psalms that are attributed to David were actually written by someone else, perhaps long after David lived, and are aimed at capturing the drama of David’s life and the essence of his spirit.

I owe CS Lewis a great deal.  I don’t know of any other writer quite like him.  He seems to have read everything ever written and he can explain complex things clearly and precisely.  His book, Mere Christianity, found me at the right time, answered many of my questions, and changed my life.  I know that Lewis would not have made a statement like the one about the authorship of the Psalms unless he had scoured sources.  He may be right, but this is one time I don’t want to believe him.  I want to believe that the Psalms attributed to David are actually the work of his hand; his imagination; his heart.

That is particularly true of the Psalm I read this morning:  number 63.

David is a great romantic figure whose life is marked by fantastic acts of heroism and courage and horrible, deliberate actions that plagued his house down to and even after David’s own dying day.  We might think of him as a kind of rock star.  Not only was he a great military man, he was a poet (while scholars may debate which of the psalms now in the canon were actually written by David, no one denies that he did write poetry) and a musician.  Kind of a mixture of General Patton or Lee or Grant and Jackson Browne.

Psalm 63 is an intensely personal psalm, full of emotion. If we think of it as something written about David and not by David, it loses some of its punch.

This Psalm is the confession of a man who has known God personally.  So personally, in fact, that he “remembers” God as he lies awake at night.  So personally that he speaks of communion with God as the deepest satisfaction.  In worship, David’s “soul shall be satisfied as with the richest of foods.”  And this Psalm suggests that David’s knowledge of God is not based on what someone else told him about God, but rather on immediate, personal experience.  David the warrior has, time and again, acted on God’s command in the face of great odds and has been saved from his enemies, even when surrounded.

Time and again in the psalms we see reference to the protection of “the shadow of [God’s] wings.”  One is tempted to imagine how David looked at the desert landscape before him as he traveled with his band of troops.  How David may have “seen” the shadow of God’s wings covering him, protecting him, allowing him rest.

Meditation on Psalm 91

Psalm 91 is one of the more famous psalms.  Particularly that first verse:


He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.


I’ve got to admit that I do appreciate the majesty, the poetry, the feel of the language here.  It’s like a phrase you would hear shouted from some holy mountaintop or echoing in an ancient cathedral.  Very high church.  And that kind of thing is not lost on me.  There is a lot to be said about the poetic feel or lift of language used in worship.  It’s inspiring.  It gets your attention.

My problem with the passage has been that I didn’t really get what it meant.  I did not see in it the depth that others around me – others whose judgements I do trust – obviously relished.  To me, the verse was almost a tautology.  It looked to me like you could have translated the verse into lower key language by saying something like: “He who lives close to God shall live close to God.”

There has to be more to it than that.

I’ve looked in the lexicons and concordances to try and find some meaningful distinction between the verbs in the verse.  What is the difference in the Hebrew words that are here translated “dwelleth,” and “abide?”  I did not find much.   They are two distinct Hebrew words, but so far as I can tell, they may be sued almost interchangeably and are in fact both translated “abide” in other places in the Bible.

What then is the difference between “the secret place of the most High” and “the shadow of the Almighty?”  Could it be that the secret place of the Most High is the place of personal devotion of the degree that is so complete and so personal – i.e. “secret” that it is known only to the worshipper?  Kind of like the name God gives to his servants whose faith has endured testing?  The name that is on the white stone and is known only to that individual and to God?

If so, then does “the shadow of the Almighty” refer to the security that such trusting saints will know?

Meditation on Psalm 40


We Evangelicals are criticized for using the phrase “personal relationship with the Lord.”

No, maybe that’s unfair.  Maybe I should say that we are often criticized for abusing that phrase.  Perhaps the notion is that some of us take this to ridiculous extreme.  Every traffic light, every chance meeting, every trip to the store, all is a part of God’s wonderful plan for our lives and we know it and we might even let folks know that we have a pretty good idea how it’s all going to “work together for the good.”

A little of that goes a long, long way.

Oh, but we can err on the other side of this, too.  We can forget that God is involved in our lives and that He is working for the good in all that we do; in all that happens to us.  It is so easy to lose sight of that.  One reason, I guess, is that we are so turned off by those around us who just know that God prevented them from getting a parking ticket this morning.  But maybe the more dominant reason is our dogged penchant for self-sufficiency and self-reliance.  That is, we want to see ourselves in control of our lives.  It’s not as scary that way and it makes us feel better about ourselves, I guess.

And for many of us much of day to day life goes smoothly.   There is food on the table; we have enough health and strength to get through the day’s tasks and then there is plenty of entertainment around to keep us occupied.  We may be settled enough in our lives to have forgotten some of life’s rough passages.  You know, those places in life where we felt lost or helpless or threatened.  Alone and powerless.  Where we called on God and He delivered us.

It may even be that we lose sight of our desires.  Instead of hoping and dreaming for beauty and delight and fulfillment, we dismiss it all as so much adolescent fantasy and settle in and settle.  Rather than continuing to hope that God will “make the justice of our cause shine like the noonday sun,” we simply forget that we had a cause at all

One great curative to all such self-satisfaction, all such pride, and all such surrender are the Psalms of David.

You want to see someone who had a personal relationship with the Lord?  Well, David is the archetype for that.  For David, life was an adventure. Reliance on God was a matter of life and death, literally; daily.   For David, life’s rewards were from the hand of God and were abundant and fulfilling.

Many, oh Lord my God, are the wonders you have done

The things you planned for us no one can recount to you

Were I to speak of them, they would be too many to declare

For David, life’s failures and disappointments could not be ignored or assuaged or supplanted by distractions and diversions.  No, David took his disappointments and frustrations not to the local pub and not to any man cave, but to the Lord.  He did not engineer ways to buffer or numb himself to the frustrations of life, he remembered them, he agonized over them and he laid them before God:

I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined unto me and heard my cry.  He brought me up out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.

Likewise, David did not minimize his own failings.  He did not ignore how his own blindness had led to his trouble:

Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head; therefore my heart faileth me.

Look at the heart of this man!  How unabashed he is in his confession and grief!  How total his reliance on God!  How complete his memory of past deliverance.  How the hope for vindication rises in him!  He can taste it!

Would we be better men if we knew David’s desire?  Would we be less likely to dismiss or dilute our own desires if we had even a half-measure of David’s trust in God?  That is, trust in His power, His righteousness, and in His love for each one of us:

But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me