When God Says, “No Thank You”

Poor Cain.

We remember him as the world’s worst brother and its first felon. Over the millennia, he has been portrayed as arrogant, deceitful, vengeful, stingy towards God and nothing less than the son of Satan. To me, he is a tragic figure, the star of a cautionary tale of what can happen when we offer what we have to God and He says, “No thank you.”

Cain was a farmer in a land East of Eden, where his parents had been exiled after The Fall. His work was hard and painful, but still produced enough that he could bring some of his crops to God as an offering. God looks favorably on his brother’s offering, but not his. He isn’t told why and neither are we.

We don’t like it, but sometimes God is like that. In His perfect freedom and sovereignty, God can act in ways we don’t understand, and He doesn’t explain.

And so Cain reacts as most of us would. He is angry at God and at his brother, God’s favorite. He is a bubbling stew of envy, resentment, shame at his own rejection and offense at his sense of fairness and justice. Unable or unwilling to turn down the heat — even after God cautions him — Cain lets it all boil over into murder. He is exiled, a marked man. Poor Cain.

Poor us. Cain is the spiritual ancestor no one wants to claim. His protest of “It’s not fair!” springs as easily from our lips as from his. Whenever someone else gets the blessing we think is ours, our envy can burn as hot as his did. (Joseph Epstein put it best: “Of all the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”)

And sometimes, we know the pain and confusion Cain felt when God does not seem to want the gifts we are offering.

Hang around church long enough, and you’ll hear talk of identifying your spiritual gifts. There are spiritual gifts inventories, Myers Briggs tests and Enneagrams that are used to reveal our unique gifts and abilities. God will open doors for us to use those gifts, and He watches with great pleasure as we flourish and His kingdom grows. Frederick Buechner is often quoted to illustrate this:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And yet, there are times when we arrive at those places, gifts in hand, and find the door shut.

Where once we found the Lord had regard for our offerings, where our gladness meshed perfectly with the world’s deep hunger, now the way is barred. Like Cain, we are left wondering why. Cain is the object lesson of what not to do in this situation. So, what do you do when God says, “No thank you”?

Do the opposite of what you feel

Feeling hopeless? Pray hope. Feeling angry and slighted? Pray thanks. Feeling envy? Pray blessing on the one you envy.  You probably won’t mean it (at least not at first), but that’s ok. Do it anyway. It is a powerful defense against the sin that “crouches at the door.”  I find the Psalms are perfect for this.  No matter how despondent, frustrated, angry, or baffled the Psalmist was, these prayers always contain praise and thanksgiving to God. They are reminders that for every time you feel abandoned, forgotten or rejected, there are 10 times that God has rescued, remembered and welcomed you. 

Consider that God may be using “closed doors” to draw you to Him.

Cain is angry at God for overlooking his offering, but he sulks in silence. It is God who pursues him and wants to talk about it.

“God spoke to Cain: “Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7 The Message)

Knowing all the ugliness that lurks in Cain’s heart, it is possible God wants to bring it to the surface and show him how to deal with it. It is possible that God hopes in his pain, Cain will turn to Him. It could be that God wants Cain to recognize sin when he sees it, and having recognized it, resist it.

If you’re knocking and the doors aren’t opening, you could be in the wrong hallway.

Spiritual gifts inventories and personality tests are all well and good, but make no mistake: they don’t bind or constrain God. God could have something else in mind for you. Sometimes God invites us to places we feel we don’t belong, to a far country where the gifts and talents we use to define ourselves are a worthless currency, an offering that is unwelcome.

You may be happily using your gifts teaching Sunday School, but that doesn’t mean that God might not call you to pick up a hammer with Habitat for Humanity — even if you’re all thumbs. It may not make sense to now (or ever) but we have to be ready say, “I’m willing.”

Look beyond yourself
Maybe it’s not about you at all. As hard as it can be to imagine, God’s “rejection” of your offering it might not be about you at all. God’s ”no” to you could make “yes” to someone else possible.
In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the meaning of Cain’s story hangs on the translation of one word in verse 7 of Genesis: timshel. In most English translations, it is rendered must as in “Its (sin’s) desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” This is a command, and it can seem as if it is up to us to white-knuckle it and rely on our own strength and will. But timshel can also mean may, as in “you may rule over it,” which gives us a choice and a responsibility. To me, it also leaves room for the grace of God to help me to do what I can’t do on my own.

Sometimes we offer what we have to God and He says, “No thank you.” What we do next will lead us in the way of Cain — wandering in exile, far from God — or in the way of God’s sometimes surprising will for us. 

timshel-thou-mayest

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Imagine That

Photo credit: Laura LaSpalluto

With the late afternoon sun at just the right angle, the Creation of the World, rendered in stained glass, had never looked more beautiful. I have worshipped in this space many times, with many of the same people that are here today for an interfaith worship concert. I know that this institution and the people in it believe the church is a force for good in the world, a light in the darkness. That’s why I was so unprepared for what happened.

In this sacred space, a lampstand of the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., people got to their feet and cheered the notion that what was wrong with the world was religion.

The song that elicited this Standing O was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The soloist invited us to “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” How we ache for that, when the city of Aleppo is reduced to rubble and its citizens dead, starving or in exile. Dare we hope for a world that “will be as one” when terror and mayhem are striking ever closer to home? We wake every day to a cacophony of political distrust and acrimony. It’s no wonder we hear hope in Lennon’s words and we stand and we cheer. Yes. This is what we want. This is what we hope for. We want it so badly that it’s easy to only hear the words of love and peace.

But there are other words that get lost in the sentimental haze of this beloved anthem. They are the words that show us Lennon’s way to this utopia:

Imagine there’s no heaven …
Imagine there’s no countries …

And no religion, too …

We can have the peace we long for if we could just be free from the corrupting forces of political and religious institutions. No countries, no religion, no possessions: this is how we can be selfless, loving and living in pure harmony. This is the thoroughly modern worldview that says people are basically good, and if they’re not, we can blame the government, or the church, or economic systems.

The Christian worldview is very different. Humans are a paradox. We are created in the image of God and declared good by Him, as depicted in the stained glass windows that were the backdrop for this afternoon’s exercise in irony. Yet at the same time, we carry within us the potential for rebellion, selfishness, violence and greed. In other words, we have the capacity for sin.

In this view, we can acknowledge that political and religious institutions have brought pain into the world. Yes, greed keeps some fat and happy while other starve. But these are the result, not the cause of human depravity and violence.

There is disorder in this world that political and religious institutions neither foster by their presence, nor prevent by their absence.

There is disorder in this world because there is disorder in us, and when that disorder is allowed to flourish, we have Aleppo and Orlando. We have modern day slavery and gun violence and every form of suffering a depraved mind can invent.

Ironically, “Imagine” — Lennon’s paean to basic human goodness — reached #1 in the U.S. after his death in 1980. The sources of violence and discord Lennon cites in his song — country, religion, greed — are not what motivated his murder and their absence wouldn’t have prevented it.

No, for that we have to look beyond the easy answers of oppressive systems into the human heart — even into our hearts.

The Christian worldview says that there is a persistent force of evil at work in the world, a force we can either resist or surrender to. To contend that the only obstacles to the peace we long for are political, economic and religious systems leaves us dangerously vulnerable to the most formidable obstacle of all: Sin.

Like John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of a world without conflict and pain. Unlike Lennon, in Isaiah’s vision, the root cause of all the world’s pain will be dealt with by a savior with the power to do what we cannot. Our savior, in his life, death, and resurrection began the work of making us selfless, loving and able to live in peace with one another. And in his return, he will complete that good work he has begun.

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
 
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
                                               (Isaiah 11:1-7)

Imagine that.

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The Potter, the Clay and the Stone

 

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The potter sits at his wheel with his ashen hands cupping a squat chunk of clay. It looks unremarkable, giving clues neither to its potential for beauty nor the obstruction hidden within.

He plunges his fingers into the center of the spinning clod and the walls of a vessel begin to rise. As it grows taller and its walls thinner, a small stone emerges, like a mole on an otherwise smooth and flawless complexion. The jar spins and spins and the stone surfaces, distorting the shape the potter is now laboring to maintain. With each revolution, it becomes ever-more lopsided until finally, it collapses onto itself. If this vessel is ever going to be beautiful and useful, that stone will have to go.

This is a story about hidden stones.

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The first time it happened I was kneeling at the altar with my hands outstretched to receive the Body broken for me. By the time the cup was passed, the bread I dipped in it was already wet with my tears. I was surprised, but I figured if you weren’t moved to tears every once in a while by Holy Communion, you probably weren’t paying attention.

Then it happened again and again — during holy moments when I keenly felt God’s presence, and during less transcendent ones, like the church announcements. It would rise up suddenly, like a summer squall. One minute I’d be sitting there listening to the sermon or happily passing the peace and the next, I’d be struggling to tamp down racking sobs. These were not ladylike tears that could be daintily dabbed away by a lace hankie. They were gasping, snot-nosed keening.

I had cried like this before, when grieving or in deep distress. Now, I was neither; I was just crying like I was.

The embarrassment was bad enough; to not even know what all the tears were about was excruciating. My husband pronounced it all a beautiful mystery. I was not convinced. I prayed day after day for God to make it stop. He did not.

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I turned to the mystics, who knew a thing or two about holy tears. In fact, the desert fathers and mothers talked of the gift of tears as something to be greatly desired. They saw it as purification, a recognition of your brokenness and need of grace. Evagirus said this gift would “soften the savage hardness of your soul.” Others compared these holy tears with baptism.

My prayer changed from “Thanks, but can I return this gift?” to “Please show me what this means. Show me what you want me to see, help me to do what you want me to do.”

Months went by and nothing changed. I settled into a weary resignation about the whole affair. I continued to worship. I continued to cry. I continued to pray for revelation.

Revelation came one day through a song. While absentmindedly singing along to a favorite tune, the tears came. And for the first time, I knew why.

“I’m so sorry for things I have done,
I’m so sorry for what I’ve become
I’m so sorry for how I behaved
I’m so sorry for acting this way

If you take me back, I promise to seek your face“

These words that I had sung so many times had finally revealed a hidden stone. More than a stone: a stumbling block in my relationship with God.

Since becoming a Christian, I had asked for God’s forgiveness for many things. But never for the years I spent mocking Him, rejecting Him, secretly accusing Him of abandoning me. True, I had left all that behind me and turned towards God. I acknowledged Him as my Creator, my Father, my Savior. But I had never asked for forgiveness for my rebellion. This small stone stood between me and God. 

All at once — and finally — I saw my hidden and unconfessed sin. I asked for God’s forgiveness and in that moment, felt the mysterious burden I had been carrying for months lift. The tears left just as suddenly as they came.

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Hidden stones. We all have them. They can be hidden sin or old wounds, disordered thoughts or unrecognized idolatry. They are invisible to us, either through familiarity or willful blindness, and it is God’s longing that we see them for what they are and how they have hindered us.  And if we are to be beautiful and useful, they’ve got to go. Uncovering them and removing them is hard and often painful. And if you’re hardheaded like me, it can take a while. (I often think that for me, God’s “still small voice” just isn’t enough. With me, He has to SHOUT. )

But I also know that we can become more sensitive, softer-hearted, more attuned to what God is trying to do with us, in us and for us. I like to pray these verses from Psalm 139:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is a prayer of preparation, allowing me to be formed true and straight and strong by purging my impurities.

It is a prayer for revelation, asking to see in myself what God sees in me.

It is a prayer of absolute trust in a God who wants to remove my “stones” and get on with the work of making me beautiful and useful to his purposes.

 

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