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All Things New

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Aging takes place at a pace that makes so many changes imperceptible. When you are a child, every experience is new. You don’t crave novelty because novelty is all you’ve ever known. Nameless feelings well up within prompted by intense sensations. Plain bread is exciting. Primary colors are a thrill. You hear upper harmonics in the music your parents listen to, and it either irritates you or enthralls you, and you can’t understand why your parents don’t respond the same way. The front lawn is a vast landscape of adventure and possibility. You love to hear the same stories over and over, so much more often than adults are willing to tell them. All your senses are sharper than they will ever be, yet you lack the vocabulary and experience to appreciate their sharpness.

As you age, your senses become duller. You learn to appreciate complexity. You are no longer satisfied with plain bread. You want a range of flavors and textures in what you eat. You learn to appreciate art. The upper harmonics fade, and you keep telling your kids to turn the bass down. You travel and find the world more strange and wonderful than you had ever imagined. You get bored with the same stories and begin to crave novelty for its own sake. Your experience and vocabulary have grown, but you sense that you have lost something ineffable, something fleeting and good like a distant flash of lightning at the periphery of your vision.

Memories begin to crowd into your mind, distant and dim memories covered with a patina of re-imagining and reinterpretation. You become less sure of the formative experiences you’ve told and retold to friends and family, especially when a brother or sister contradicts what you vividly remember. You begin to long for something new, but every purportedly new experience, every supposedly new development, begins to feel like a recycled version of something you already know. You come to realize that as much as your memories define you, they also limit you, pulling you back inexorably into your own past.

You don’t want something new.

You want all things new.

You want to be a child again, to experience the world with wonder and awe, to be free from your own experience while retaining the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

The promise of eternal life, an unending consciousness piling up more and more memories and experiences, has come to seem truly dreadful to me. To live and live and live and be unable to die sounds more like hell than heaven. Of course, no living thing welcomes death, except as an escape from intolerable pain, so it’s hard to imagine relinquishing life as long as the pain of living is tolerable, and if we know anything of heaven, it is that it is tolerable. But a tolerable existence cannot last long, surely cannot last forever. Eternity wears down everything. Joy, excitement, delight, pleasure—all partake to some degree of newness, and eternity must surely drain the newness out of everything.

So God promises, “See, I am making all things new!” It is this promise that restores hope in an eternal life. The universe is vast. If there is adventure among the insects and blades of grass in the front lawn, then surely there are untold wonders throughout the universe. Perhaps we will live to see them.

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First Murder

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The story of the first murder found in Genesis 4:1-16 has got to be one of the oddest murder stories in history. Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve forgotten it.

Cain and Abel were the two oldest boys born to Eve after she and Adam were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Cain grew up to become a farmer, and Abel grew up to become a herdsman. Cain brought produce from his farm and presented it to the Lord. Likewise, Abel also brought animals from his herds and presented them to the Lord. The Lord looked with favor upon the offerings Abel brought but not on the offerings Cain brought. Because of this, Cain grew angry and frowned. God said to Cain, “Why are you angry and frowning? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if not, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out into the field.” Once they were in the field, Cain attacked Abel and killed him.

The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Cain replied, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Wandering, east of Eden.

Let’s start with Cain’s motive for murder. It appears to be jealousy or envy of his brother. Yet it is not envy of his brother’s success or of a woman they both love. No, it is envy of God’s favor. Cain resents the fact that God accepted Abel, but didn’t accept him. Of course, the story is sparse. We know nothing of their possible sibling rivalry, nothing of the resentment Cain may have felt at seeing a younger brother preferred over the first born. We don’t know how God showed his favor, whether he appeared as a man as he sometimes does in Genesis, or whether his favor took the form of blessings on Abel’s endeavors. The events related could refer to a single instance or to an ongoing pattern of preferential treatment for Abel. What we do know is that God places responsibility for this state of affairs squarely on Cain himself: “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted?” Both brought offerings to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected because he was not doing right.

God also warns Cain that if he continues going his own way, then his life is in danger from a croucher at the entryway to sin. God tells Cain he must subdue or master the croucher. The language recalls God’s words to Eve when he pronounced punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Like Adam and Eve, Cain goes on to sin despite God’s warnings. When God pronounces judgment on him, though he bemoans his fate, he does not repent.

Later on when God provides civic laws for the Israelites to follow, he institutes the death penalty for murder (cf. Numbers 35: 16-21). Clearly, if God were determined to be just and teach the new human race a lesson in justice, he would have put Cain to death. Instead he sentences him to banishment. Cain complains that once his crime is known, anyone who finds him may kill him. Instead of saying, “Too bad. That’s what you deserve,” God does something extraordinary. He puts a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him. The mark of Cain, far from being a sign of sin’s shame and God’s displeasure, is a sign of God’s grace and protection. God goes even further, threatening a sevenfold vengeance on anyone who dares kill Cain. Consider, therefore, the amazing mercy God shows toward the first murderer before insisting that God favors the death penalty for murder.

In both Genesis 3 and 4, though God threatens those who sin with death, the actual punishment is banishment from his presence. Life is in the presence of God, and death is exclusion from his presence.

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Early Memories – Part 1

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Much of my earliest childhood memories form a mosaic of images and places unconnected by any narrative or larger meaning. There are some that have no distinct chronology at all, more like snapshots found in a shoebox, jumbled and confused.

My dad was a Marine. I don’t remember ever seeing him in dress uniform, but I recall being on base at least once and seeing tanks which I believe he worked on. Before I was born, he shipped out to Japan with Korea as his ultimate destination. It must have been 1953. He never made it to Korea. His orders were changed, and he spent his entire tour in Japan. His tour included support for at least one nuclear test on a south Pacific island. He had photographs of the mushroom cloud formed by the explosion. He also had a black-and-white photo of my mother colorized by a Japanese artist. That photo, treasured by my mom, hung in the great room at Walcutt Road. My dad was an accomplished marksman and had several awards from Marine Corp competitions. He always said that never drinking alcoholic beverages gave him an edge because he could hold his gun steady and take aim without any tremors. All his Marine Corp paraphernalia and photos were lost in the fire that destroyed our Walcutt Road home.

I remember being small enough that when my mom was folding laundry and put one of my dad’s undershirts on me, it hung down to my ankles. My dad was my hero.

Because my dad was in the Marines, we moved so often that I can’t even count the number of places we lived. I know that we lived in several places in California, at least one place in North Carolina, and at least one in Hawaii. My only memory of Hawaii is an indistinct impression of the Honolulu Zoo. They had crocodiles (or maybe alligators) in a big open pit. I’m told I ate the large garden snails that could be found in our yard. Perhaps “ate” is not quite the right word since my mom managed to get them out of my mouth before I swallowed them. Two of my sisters, Lani and Kathy, were born in Hawaii. Lani’s name is Hawaiian and means heaven or sky.

I have a few distinct memories of North Carolina. We lived in a house on stilts on the beach. While we lived there, a hurricane came ashore and we had to evacuate to a nearby city. The only thing I remember about it was seeing house roofs sticking up out of the water. It struck me as highly unusual. In advance of the hurricane, there were public service announcements on the radio advising people to put valuables and linens on the highest shelves to be out of reach of flood waters. My mom dutifully did just that. Our house did not flood despite being so near the sea, but the gale-force winds drove rain under the eaves. Everything she put up high to keep dry got soaked.

Due to a pay mix-up, my dad didn’t get paid for several weeks when we moved to North Carolina. A buddy of his who worked in the mess hall would leave a sack of potatoes and cartons of milk outside the back door for my dad. We ate a lot of potato soup. I still love potato soup to this day. But it was also in North Carolina that I acquired a distaste for fish. I don’t remember the details, just that we had fish sandwiches that tasted very fishy indeed. After that I could not eat fish for many years.

Another incident from North Carolina was told and retold in our family so often that it became family legend. Once when we were sitting down to eat, my mom sent me and my sister, Marsha, to wash our hands. I washed my hands, but I saw something move in the shower, so when I returned to the table, I announced, “There’s a bug in the shower.” Marsha came back a few minutes later and dissented. “It’s not a bug,” she said; “It’s a worm.” My dad went to have a look and found a rattlesnake! Our shower drain emptied out on the sand underneath the house. The snake had slithered up the drain and into our shower. My dad drove it out of the house with hot water, then crawled under the house and killed it. Did I mention that my dad was my hero?

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