26 November, 2014

My Brother’s Keeper

Based on Genesis 4

You’ve probably heard this story before.

An old grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, “Let me tell you a story…”

“I, too, at times have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do…It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.

But the other wold, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so grewat. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.

The grandfather continues, “Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

The boy looked intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”

The grandfather smiled and and quietly said, “The one I feed.”

They had a crazy childhood. Just after Adam and Eve got kicked out of Paradise, they had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain grew up to be a hunter. Abel grew up to be a gatherer. They were as different as daylight and dark.

But surely you understand their differences. Cain was the first born, born just after Adam and Eve were kicked out of Paradise. Adam and Eve must have been traumatized. Trying to find a place to live that was safe for animals. Trying to understand how to hunt, and how to gather. Trying to figure out how to build some sort of place to live.

And surely, while Eve was pregnant with Cain she worried. Cain was the first child ever born. She and Adam must have had no idea how pregnancy worked. Not to mention the fact that she had just been cursed with pain in childbearing. Do you know that stress pre-natal stress hormones affect our whole lives? You know that current trauma studies believe that what happens in the womb creates our beliefs about the world.

Abel, on the other hand, was conceived when his parents were working hard on the land. They were used to life out of the Garden. Perhaps he was more settled than Cain was. Calmer.

What does trauma do to the brain? Many of you know this… but here is a layperson’s understanding:

The traumatized brain responds to stress moments in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. When triggered, either by external or internal stress, a part of your brain gets activated that sends out messages to your entire body. Your heart rate increases, your knees become weak, you begin to sweat. I know you’ve felt this way—think about the last time you were pulled over by a police officer for speeding.

And when you feel that way, you do one of three things. Fight, flee, or just stop. And note that I said internal or external stress. Cain’s stress was internal—a feeling of now being good enough, again. It set him off and he fought. Viciously. Until he killed Abel.

Let’s look at the text again:

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Why do you think the writers would have said that God was unhappy with Cain’s offering? I believe it’s because they needed to understand, just like we do, someone’s bad behavior. We tend, all the time, to come up with a reason that someone behaves badly. In the Ancient Near East, the reason could be that God was displeased. In our times, it’s because the person has stress triggers that made his brain behave badly.

And perhaps Cain believed that God did not love him as much as God loved Abel. Perhaps Cain believed that he had never measured up. Perhaps Cain always felt like the bar was just a little bit away, just out of reach, and he never reached it. Perhaps felt like Abel easily surpassed people’s expectations, but he always fell short.

But let’s look at God’s response after Abel’s death:

hen the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks. And God’s response, in so many ways, is YES! You are your brother’s keeper. Pastor Charles Ewing, uncle to the slain Michael Brown asked this question, too. Am I my brother’s keeper? And the response is still a resounding YES! We are our brothers’ keepers. And we are our sisters’ keepers. And it is our responsibility to… hmmm. Well, it’s our responsibility to follow God’s admonition to Cain, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Now I know that talking about sin is not one of our favorite things. But let me give you a definition for sin in this context. Sin is bad behavior toward another person. And if we do not tend to the violence of our own souls, we will act out that violence as sin. But we have the ability to master the sin.

And our own violence is created by trauma.

Many of you know that I worked in a transitional home for women exiting prison. Their charges ranged from petty theft to embezzlement, to armed robbery and drug charges. I would say that 99% of them had faced violence in their lives, if not prior to being incarcerated, certainly after.

So we had a program full of shell-shocked women. Loud noises could set people off. Heck, a clap could set people off. Not to mention someone yelling at them. Or someone requiring them to do something that they didn’t want to do. Or asking a difficult question. Or just feeling like someone wasn’t listening to them. Anything could set them off. Sometimes it made no sense.
Short of padding the room, it was necessary to give the women (and ourselves) some life skills in not getting hooked into their past by something that was happening today.

And the reality is, we live in a society where everyone needs these life skills. We live in a time that is anxious. I believe it’s because we’re in a hinge moment where the world is making a substantial shift, and we’re in the middle of it. We’re learning that capitalism and democracy don’t make everything perfect. We’re losing a sense of privacy as our nation is become more militarized. There are more and more things that we don’t know about what’s happening in the world, all the while we’re inundated with violence on our TVs, computers and gadgets.

This is where the ancients have it right, and didn’t even know it. There’s a way to return your body to even at any given moment. There are ways to relieve your stress response.

Breathe. When your amygdala goes crazy with a fight, flight or freeze response, there’s one way to tell your body that everything is okay. You breathe. Take a deep breath with me now. Remember to make it a belly breath.

But breathing doesn’t come naturally. We have to practice it. And whether you practice it through meditation, prayer, or yoga, you have to learn to breathe. And in moments when you feel your hackles coming up, you remind yourself, BREATHE.

Second, we have to practice sitting in discomfort. I’m reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark right now, and she talks in there about “Entering the Stone,” or going into unexplored caves. This is what she writes about being in a tight cave space: “Learn to watch your thoughts…Notice how your mind leaps from thought to thought, creating emotions as it goes. Pay attention to which thoughts give rise to which feelings, and what causes them to recede again.” I like to call this “only noticing.” Not acting, just watching.

Let’s go back to our text:

And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Was Cain unloved? This, too, is where the writers of the Bible seem to miss the mark. Was Cain unloved? Absolutely not. We know from our perspective of God as a loving God that Cain was loved. Did Cain face the natural consequences of his actions?Absolutely. Exile, broken relationships, exclusion. Yes, they are natural consequences of his actions. But did God stop loving Cain? Absolutely not, as it’s proved by God’s protection of Cain’s life. Cain went on to have a wife, children, build a city.

We know that God didn’t abandon Cain. We know that God didn’t stop loving Cain. And we know that God forgave Cain. We know because of Matthew 18:21-22 says:

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

And you heard me right. The Greek says “my brother” which, of course, would be inclusive of sisters, too. Not church member, like it says in the New Revised Standard Version, although it has a broader scope, too. If my brother or sister or friend or neighbor, or fellow church member, or mother or father, or anyone else sins against me, how often should I forgive? And, by the way, the Greek also says seven times seventy times. Not seventy seven times. But 490 times.

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Every human interaction offers you the chance to make things better or to make things worse.” Forgiveness is how you make things better. Kindness is how you make things better. Respect is how you make things better. Humor is how you make things better. Love is how you make things better.

And, frankly, love is hard to do. Because our brains have survived trauma, too. Our bodies go into a fight, flight or freeze response, too. We put up our dukes, say “feet don’t fail me now,” or we stop, drop and roll. And it’s exhausting.
Now you know there’s a different way. Let’s feed the right wolf together.

Let’s pray:

Loving God, there are two wolves scratching at our hearts. We are at once Cain and Abel. Help us to feed the right wolf. Teach us to love. To forgive. To be kind. And to laugh about our foibles and other’s foibles, too. Most importantly, let us remember how much you love us. You love us deeply, perfectly, and wholly. Thank you. Amen.

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