When a Child Dies

I’m treating these two verses (Genesis 4:25-26) separately because there seems to me to be a pastoral issue. In these verses, Eve and Adam have another child. This child is named Seth which means “God has given me another child.” Sometimes when I child dies or is stillborn, there is a tendency to want to offer comfort by suggesting that they could have another child. Replacing a child in this way devalues the life that was. The implication is that children are interchangeable. In reality, each child carries a special place in a family. While there might be other children they do not replace the one that died.

person carrying infant

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In these verses I see Eve struggling to figure out why Abel died and where this new child fits in the family. These questions are not easily answered and will be different for each family and each circumstance. When a second child lives with the knowledge that they were a replacement, they carry the weight of living up to that child’s perfect memory.

In offering comfort when a child has died it ,is important to acknowledge the uniqueness of each child. Often there is no satisfactory reason as to why a child has died and it’s ok not to have an answer. Acknowleging that the child is loved and remembered is important. The death isn’t God’s fault—sometimes bad things happen. God doesn’t cause the death but God is present as family and friends surround with love and compassion.

God is present as families struggle with everyday life to find a way of coping. God is present in the unanswered questions and anger. God is present as a new normal emerges and the pain eases a bit. God is present in the memories that linger a life-time.
Families change over time through death, birth, new relationships and broken relationships. In the midst of these changes seek support from family and friends and a faith community. Allow God’s spirit to create something new and different that offers life and hope.

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Breaking the Cycle of Violence

This installment of the un-lectionary focuses on Genesis 4:23-24. In this passage, there is a song attributed to Lamech. Very little is written about Lamech. What we do know is based on this passage and a few further genealogies.

So far in the biblical story universe is created and it is good. But the goodness has been tainted by the murder of Abel. Cain left his community and built a city. It seems his descendants have continued on the path of violence. In this song, Lamech appears to be defending his actions. He says, “I have killed someone because he hit me.” It seems to me that whatever led up to these events, Lamech over-reacted. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill someone—perhaps they got into a fight, he pushed too hard, and the other person fell.

In the story of Cain and Abel, remorse finally caught up with Cain. He was certain that he would be killed in revenge for Abel’s killing. If Cain’s community had indeed followed through and killed him, it would set in motion a cycle of violence which would be never-ending. Instead, God promises to punish sevenfold anyone who harms Cain. It becomes God’s responsibility to see that justice is done for Abel and to protect Cain from revenge.
A similar pattern is at work here. Lamech realizes he has killed and knows that his community could exact revenge by killing him. Lamech’s strategy is to announce that God’s punishment on anyone who kills him will be even worse than what it would be for killing Cain. We know that Lamech lived a long life, so his threat of God’s violence worked to deter anyone from taking revenge.

human fist

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It is sometimes instinctive to want to punish violence with more violence. I believe that this continues to escalate the violence. These early stories of violence and the role God plays in the stories suggest that the cycle of violence is not the way forward. In the stories of Lamech and Cain, God is at work to break the cycle.

If we are to follow faithfully, we must also work towards breaking the cycle of violence even when the instinct for revenge is strong. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t’consequences for violence. It means that the consequences are not more violence. It can be challenging to create something good out of the anger that violence often creates. It can be challenging to love when the instinct is to hate. The biblical story attests over and over and over again the power of loving enemies and doing good to those who hate you. (Luke 6:27) This is a call and a challenge to all of us.

The Invisible Becomes Visible

A reflection based on the healing of Naaman.

“No one remembers my name. They couldn’t be bothered to learn it in the first place. No one remembers my face. I’m just known as the foreign slave girl who helped Naaman find healing.

My life was torn apart when the Aramean army arrived in my village. Most of my family was killed or captured. The village was burned down. I was brought here. I serve Naaman’s wife. She too is a woman with a name no one remembers. They treat me as they would any slave girl. My role is to serve: to do what I am told. When I do it quietly, without fuss, they don’t notice me, but at other times they beat me. Naaman had a skin disease. It bothered him greatly, and there was nothing that would give it relief. He kept it well hidden, but I noticed. It’s easy to see things when you’re invisible.

I went to Naaman’s wife and spoke to her privately. I told her there was a healer in Israel that could help Naaman. She talked to him. He spoke to his commander who spoke to King Aram. King Aram sent a letter, silver, gold and ten sets of clothes to the King of Israel.

When he came back, Naaman was telling the story to his wife. No one noticed I was listening. Apparently, the king was scared of Naaman. He thought that Aram was using Naaman to start a fight with him. He didn’t let Naaman in, and he didn’t take the gifts. I know Naaman was unclean but by not taking the gifts, Naaman was shamed, and there would be cause for a fight. I guess the king just didn’t know how to handle the situation. It show’s he’s human just like the rest of us.

So Naaman camped nearby and waited to see what the king would do next. In the meantime, Elisha the prophet got word of what was happening. He said, “king, what are you doing? Why are you making this situation so complicated? Send him to me and let me deal with him.”

Naaman travelled to Elisha’s tent in the wilderness, and then Elisha sent a servant out to Naaman. The servant told Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven time. Naaman had a temper tantrum. I can just imagine it. “Who does he think he is that he can send a servant to give me instructions? Why isn’t he going to cure me? If all it required was a bath, I could have done that at home.”

Naaman’s advisor suggested he do what Elisha said. I imagine Naaman grumping about it even as he stepped into the river. All I know is that when he came back, the disease was gone. If it hadn’t been for me, Naaman never would have found his way to Elisha, and he would still be walking around with that disease.

No one remembers that I had anything to do with this story. I’m just one of the nameless multitude of history.”

close up photo of woman wearing leather jacket

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There are so many people who don’t have names and who appear invisible. Maybe it’s the person living on the street that we don’t make eye contact with. Maybe it’s someone on work crew who only comes once or twice and that we don’t really talk to even though they work hard. Maybe it’s the shy cashier who doesn’t chatter to you while you hurriedly get your groceries. Maybe it’s the person at the Tim Horton’s drive through that you see for 10 seconds while you get your coffee. But these people all have a story to tell.

The thing about the servant girl is that she was ahead of her time. She did something that Jesus was preaching hundreds of years later: she loved her enemy. She could have hated Naaman for destroying her family and community. She could have hated him for enslaving her. Instead, she chose to love him by offering him a chance at healing.

How many invisible people carry deep wisdom within? Will you listen to their story? Will you see them as a person? Will you learn from the invisible people around you? Will you make the invisible visible?

A Celebration of Diversity

In the next instalment of the un-lectionary, Genesis 4:17-22, Cain leaves his family for the land of Nod. Once there, he has a family and build’s the first city. I wonder about this life that Cain creates. Does he learn to manage his emotions and become a leader that people want to be around or is it brute force that encourages the establishment of a city around him? We don’t know very much about Cain beyond these few passages.

As the genealogy unfolds, we read that Jabal’s descendants live in tents and have livestock. We learn that Jubal’s descendants are musicians. We learn that Tubal-cain’s descendants make tools. All three brothers have names that share a root which translates as productive. It is also significant that there is a daughter named: Naamah which means pleasant and lovely. The implication seems to be that the male descendants will create and build while the female descendants will be decorative. In the creation story, we see genders being created as equals to help and support each other. In this passage, there is a move towards patriarchy as the norm. A reading of this passage (and many passages of scripture) needs to be attentive the tension between who we are called to be at our best and who we become when we touched by the lure of power or wealth. Scripture holds up both sides of this tension we always to seek what is life-giving.

The descendants of this family have diverse skills in arts, creativity, tools, invention, agriculture and beauty. Humans recognized that we need a wide variety of skills simply for survival. We couldn’t survive if all of us were musicians. We couldn’t survive if we all only raised cows. We couldn’t survive if we were all blacksmiths. The raising of animals necessitated a nomadic culture to find enough food for the animals. In this early time, there is a need for both urban and nomadic people who develop their own cultures and traditions. This split between urban and nomadic implies a difference between being settled and movement. This very short passage lifts up many examples of diversity. In Genesis 11 we find the story of the Tower of Babel which continues this theme through the diversity of language. As the various groups in Genesis find their way, it seems to me that a variety of cultures, languages, traditions and skills are developing. Perhaps these stories developed to help people understand how the diversity that they saw around them came to be.

My community of Yorkton has changed significantly in the few years I have lived here. There are some in the community who lament the days when this was a small rural town where it seemed most residents were white, Christian, English (or maybe Ukrainian), straight and everyone farmed or was somehow related to a farm. There seemed to be a homogony that was comfortable for many folks.

Now, this community includes a large Indigenous community, significant immigrant communities from Africa, Asia and the Philippines. This diversity of race brings a variety of languages and spiritual traditions to the community. There is a growing visible queer community. Some residents are permanent and put down deep roots. Others are here for only short periods of time.

The diversity that is evident now may be challenging for some, but I believe it more accurately reflects who God is calling us to be. We are called to be our unique selves and to yet to live in community with each other. Diversity has existed since early in human history, and our scripture attests to that diversity. Rather than see diversity as something to be minimized or eliminated we need to embrace it as part of the gift the creator gives each of us. No one gift is more highly valued than another.

As humans, there is sometimes a tendency to want to give more value and worth to certain gifts just as the author of this passage did in describing all the men’s gifts as productive and women as pleasant and without a specific gift. I invite you to reflect on your gifts and the gifts of those around you. How do you see the diversity? Is it something to be feared and eliminated? Is it something to be tolerated as a change to your world or community? Does your reaction change depending on what diversity is being noticed? How will you embrace and celebrate the diversity given to us in creation?

Bathsheba and David and Me Too

So here’s another dark story from the Bible—another one we might not want to hear but in the age of the Me-Too movement, it seems appropriate and fitting.

The story of Bathsheba and David goes like this. David is spying on Bathsheba rather than leading his army—which is where he is supposed to be. He decides that he wants her and so Bathsheba is brought to him.

I want to be clear about this—she doesn’t have a choice. Depending which translation you look at you will find that he lay with her or slept with her or took her to bed. There is nothing to suggest that the this was anything other than consensual. It sounds much better when we can create this as a romantic story. David rapes Bathsheba and gets her pregnant while her husband is off fighting the war that David supposed to be leading.

Then the coverup begins. David tries to get Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to go home and sleep with her so that he can pass the child off as Uriah’s. Faithful Uriah refuses because there were strict rules for soldiers about not having sex before battles. David has to go to plan B. He arranges the next battle in such a way that Uriah will certainly be killed. With Uriah dead, Bathsheba is then forced to marry David.

Now if it weren’t for Nathan, the prophet, the story would end there and no one would ever know what happened to Bathsheba. Nathan accuses David of killing Uriah so that he can have Bathsheba.

Over the last year, we have watched the Me-Too movement unfold. As I was reflecting on this passage I was struck by the similarities between this Bible passage and many of the stories we’ve heard. One of the more recent stories centres on U.S. Judge Kavanaugh and Christine Ford. There are a number of similarities between these stories:

  • The stories are about much more than just consent
  • There are cover-ups
  • They call into question the character of the men involved—are they fit to be leaders? And then the stories become about the men. And the men involved get to keep their positions regardless of their behaviour.
  • The women involved are mostly ignored except as they relate to the men

I wonder if Bathsheba told anyone about what happened to her? The guards who brought her and David’s household servants presumably knew but there’s no mention of anyone looking out for or caring for her. The story doesn’t tell us about Bathsheba’s experience—her physical or emotional pain, her anger at the violation, her grief over her dead husband or her despair at being forced to marry her rapist. Within her culture, Bathsheba didn’t have options and some of what she experienced may even have been considered normal. Many Bible commentaries portray Bathsheba as a seductress who taunted and lured David. She gets the blame for distracting David from his duties as leader and for trapping him with the pregnancy. But the reality is that David is at fault here.

When we read the story of Bathsheba and David we should be outraged that David was allowed to continue being king and is still held up as the ideal biblical king. This story of Bathsheba and David creates a theology that excuses abuse and gives permission for powerful men to abuse their authority with God’s blessing. It shouldn’t be this way.

I believe in a God who creates all of us in the image of God. Sexual violence does not respect the image of God in another. It breaks and potentially destroys the people God calls us to be. Both Bathsheba and David were harmed by David’s violence. Bathsheba was violated and David did not live up to what God expected of him.

Who is going to believe the survivors of violence? I suspect that when Bathsheba returned home, the women around her knew what had happened but were powerless to change the situation because it was just the way the world worked. Many of the women who have come forward during the Me-Too movement have found themselves facing threats of violence or death and on the receiving end of hate mail. Why would anyone tell their story when they can expect to be blamed and be faced with the threat of more violence. It even happens in churches. Sometimes, it’s a comment that we find uncomfortable, sometimes its unwanted touch, sometimes it is full-fledged violence. We live in a time where we think there are options, where we believe that it should be safe and yet many people live in silence with domestic violence or sexual assault. When it happens to you, find people you are comfortable with to tell your story, to seek support and access resources.

My prayer is that no one lives with the silence or cover-up that Bathsheba and so many others have experienced. If you need to talk, reach out. Trust that there will be people to support you and walk with you. Trust that you are still created in the image of God and that God holds you gently in compassion and love. Amen.

Truth and Reconciliation

This reflection is based on Joshua 24:1-13. It is a disturbing passage. It tells the story of how Israel came to take over the land of Canaan. This is sometimes known as the promised land. We sometimes breeze over or skip this passage because it is a brutal and honest retelling of Israel’s history. Israel didn’t just walk into an empty land and live happily ever after. Israel systematically destroyed all the people who already lived in the land. It’s much easier to think that the land was empty. We don’t have be horrified at the destruction of communities or ask questions about how the people who were already in the land were impacted.

What would you say the families of those who were killed by Israel as they arrived in the land? Would you pretend those communities never existed even though you could see signs of previous inhabitants? What would you do with the few people who escaped death and destruction?

Here’s the passage again with a bit of a twist.

Joshua gathered all the Christians of Canada and gathered all the ministers and lay leaders together before God. Joshua said to the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Christians: Long ago your ancestors—John Cabbot and Jacque Cartier lived in Europe. I took them from Europe and led them to Turtle Island and gave them many descendants here. I gave them Upper and Lower Canada. I gave them Rupert’s land and New France. The land was hard and you spread through the wilderness of this land. I brought you to the land of the Iroquois, the Cree, the Ojibwa, the Blackfoot, the Assiniboine, the Dene peoples. You destroyed their communities by stealing their children and taking their land for yourselves. You became wealthy from the land.

In this passage, there’s not much difference between the history of Israel and the history of Canada. We recognize traditional territory at St. Andrew’s United Church. Canadian society is at a crossroads as we wrestle with the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. One of the ways this is happening is through the Truth and Reconciliation Process. The process of reconciliation involves all those who have been part of Canadian history and all those who are now a part of Canada.

As you will know there were many recommendations come out of this process and some of them are directed specifically at churches. One of the key recommendations for churches asks us “to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” (48/49) The Doctrine of Discovery comes from Papal bulls written the 1400’s. These decrees “called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery, and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs.” Terra Nullius is Latin and it translates as “nobody’s land.”

Put these two concepts together and you have a situation where the church gave its authority for North America to be settled by Christian Europeans without regard for the people already here. The first contact Indigenous peoples had with Europe was based on “Christian” principles which set us on the path that led to the Indian Act, treaties, reserve system, residential schools and the 60’s scoop and continues to shape relationships and policy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

You might say but it’s history, and we should be over it and move on. But how do we move on when the racism that fuelled these policies continues to be alive and well in our communities? As Christians, we have an extra responsibility because the founding concepts come from our religion. We need to remind ourselves regularly that whether we were actively involved in this process or not, we benefit from the policies that allowed the land and resources to be taken from Indigenous peoples.

We don’t like to think about ourselves or our history in this light. We like our Christianity to be all about making us feel good personally or at the very least showing us how we can make the world better. It may be difficult to be reminded that Christianity has a history of very destructive practices.

Truth and Reconciliation asks us to be honest about this history. Indigenous communities continue to struggle with the outcomes of residential schools, reserve system and treaties that have not been honoured. As Christians, we need to struggle with what Christianity says about and to Indigenous peoples. What does our theology say? What does our scripture say? An Indigenous person might hear this scripture as justifying the destruction of their communities. We don’t want to see ourselves as that warring nation that destroyed everything in its path.

indigenous children

Image: Rabble

This scripture was written by the people who are the invaders and conquers of the land. Of course, they believe God was on their side and that God gave them the land. Don’t most of us have a bit of that in us as well? We often give thanks that we live in Canada, that we have enough. Some of us are lucky to be well off, but there are many reserves in Canada without clean drinking water, education continues to be underfunded for Indigenous children, access to health care is limited, and the rates of Indigenous children in foster care and adults in the corrections system is way higher than for non-Indigenous people.

We need to be honest about the history that has gotten us into our current situation. We need to be honest about Christianity and our own church’s role in this mess, and we need to commit to doing better. That’s why we recognize traditional territory. The purpose is not to make people feel bad, but sometimes our discomfort (if we can stay in it for a bit) is the place we learn most. Recognizing traditional territory is, in some ways, a confession of sin for our church. It is recognition of collective sin. This sin reminds that we missed the mark in our relationship with Indigenous peoples. When we confess sin, we also need to take some responsibility for it and make amends. Because the sin is collective the responsibility for it is also collective.

That’s where we are now. As St. Andrew’s worked through the visioning process one of the things that came up repeatedly was a sense that we need to build relationships with the Indigenous community in Yorkton.  We know that many of the Whitespruce work crew from the provincial jail are Indigenous who spend time helping us around the building are Indigenous. Many of the folks who access the food and clothing shelf are Indigenous. These are ways that we are starting to take some responsibility for the current situation. Truth and Reconciliation is the work of Canadian society at this moment in time. It is our collective work.

I believe in a God of love and compassion. I believe in a God who calls us to lives of love and compassion for our neighbours and ourselves. I don’t want the guilt of this history to weigh us down and keep us from living faithfully. The words reminding us of the traditional territory are a reminder of who God calls us to be and an invitation to live faithfully as Christians at this moment in time by sharing the love and compassion God has for us with our Indigenous neighbours.

Cain and Abel: Is Violence Inevitable?

Some years ago, I wrote my thesis on this passage: Genesis 4:1-16. It just happens that this is the second passage missing from the lectionaries. You can read my full thesis “Cain and Abel: Reimagining Stories of Violence.”

As I was writing the thesis, I wanted to challenge the assumption that violence is normative and inevitable. The gist of the story is that there are two brothers. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a herder. When they make their offerings, Cain becomes jealous because it seems that the younger brother hasn’t had to work as hard and has become wealthier. Cain sees the wealth and the supposedly easier labour his brother and assumes that God favours his brother over him. It isn’t necessarily that God rejects Cain but that he has projected his own feelings of inadequacy onto God.

It is up to Cain what he will do next. He has responsibility for how he responds to these feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. In his jealousy, Cain is unable to control his emotions kills Abel.

Once Abel is dead, God arrives on the scene and asks Cain where his brother is. Cain is unwilling to offer a direct answer and instead responds by asking whether he is his brother’s keeper?

According to Kristen Swenson, the verb translated as keeper is used both in keeping the garden (Genesis 2:15) and keeping the brother. Keeping has to do with being a companion. It implies care, concern and responsibility. [1] No one in the Cain and Abel story answers the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain doesn’t answer, and God doesn’t answer. It is a question each of us needs to answer. Are we keepers of other humans? Are we keepers of the creation? Are we companions on life’s journey?

Not only does Cain kill his brother, but he also avoids taking any responsibility for the death. It is the earth that accuses and curses Cain for his violence. This moment reminds us that we are connected directly to the rest of creation and with each other. The violent death of one person has a direct impact on the earth as well as the community. For any of us to thrive, we need to be keepers for each other and the earth.

Cain is afraid that because of his violence, he will be killed. If Cain is killed the cycle of violence will be maintained, but instead, God ends the cycle of violence by offering Cain protection. God is concerned with preventing violence, and the antidote to violence is keeping or companioning other people and the earth. Perhaps, violence is not as inevitable as we sometimes think. Maybe we are created with a desire to keep and companion at our core. Violence is what happens when we are disconnected from ourselves, our emotions, our spirit, our creator. What would the world be like if all of us lived with the intent to be companions?

[1] Kristen M. Swenson, “Care and Keeping East of Eden: Gen 4:1-16 in Light of Gen 2-3,”
Interpretation 60 (2006): 374-75