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How to avoid 'The mark of Cain'

One of the biblical stories that has always fascinated me is an early one- that of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). We will recall that after Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil , He sent them out from the Garden of Eden, and in time, they had children the first of which were Cain (the eldest) and Abel (the second born).

Now Cain became a farmer whilst Abel was a shepherd, but the trouble started when they presented offerings to God, and He preferred Abel’s sacrifices to that of Cain. Lack of faith may have been the reason but we don’t know for sure, but what is important is what happened next. Cain was angry and jealous at his offering being less well regarded than that of his younger brother, and he went into the fields and murdered Abel. So, we are early into the Genesis story and we already have the first murder and the first murderer – Cain.

He lied to God when asked where Abel was (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) and Cain became a cursed man. God banished him from the kingdom and Cain became a “a fugitive and vagabond” (Genesis 4:12), but to protect him, he was given what has become known as the ‘Mark of Cain’, and it is believed that his family line perished in the Great Flood.

In so many respects it is a very sad tale. God must have been so disappointed with his creation of humankind at that point- Adam and Eve had let Him down, as had their first born Cain and His new world which was so good, was already being spoilt and we know that in time things got much worse, so much more that God felt He had to start again with new people such as Noah.

For me though, there is a really important lesson here which Cain refused to learn, and it is something that is still a critical message for us to take on board. When God could see that Cain was unhappy about His reaction to his offering, He told him:

If you had done the right thing, you would be smiling; but because you have done evil, sin is crouching at your door. It wants to rule you, but you must overcome it” (Genesis 4:7). Cain was so jealous and angry that he could not see what was right, and that if he had, then he could have had peace. But he couldn’t, so Cain allowed sin to overtake and rule him.

Anger is of course a negative condition, but we can allow it to descend on us whether we are stuck in traffic, being irritated by something that is happening (or not happening) or when we just get ‘bogged down’ in “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

I think as Christians though, the story of Cain teaches us several important lessons for life:

  • Worshipping God is serious business and that although we can pretend that we honour Him, you can’t fool God with what you bring to Him;
  • We need to learn how to control our anger before it takes us into sin;
  • It is not for us to vent our rage by taking the law into our own hands -leave that to God;
  • Learn from our mistakes – if our offering to God is not acceptable, find out why and get better in honouring Him- Cain could have sought help from his brother rather than murdering him

The wiser way is to listen to and act out Paul’s great epistle:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

Keeping Christmas

I was rather tickled by the large sign in the main Harvey Nichols’ store in London recently which simply said “Bah, Humbug!” (although it did also say “Roll on 2021!”). Why? Well because they perhaps didn’t realise it at the time, but what the store was quoting was part of one of the greatest pieces of Christian discipleship- the novella ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The phrase “Bah, Humbug!” is of course one of the classic catchphrases of a certain Ebenezer Scrooge and was his mean view of what Christmas meant to him. It is widely recognised what Charles Dickens published on 19 December 1843 hugely influenced what we now take for granted at Christmas - families gathering together, seasonal food and drink, fun, and games, and what could be described as a “festive generosity of spirit”.

However, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is more, much more, than just a hugely entertaining and moving tale of an old miser’s redemption on Christmas Eve, that changed how we celebrate the season of goodwill in modern times. Dickens wrote it as a Christian allegory (in the same way that CS Lewis did in his ‘Narnia’ books) because his Christian faith was deep and sincere. He once told his family:

“My dear children, humbly try to guide yourselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of its letter here and there”.

At its core, ‘A Christmas Carol’s message is that of the New Testament- that even the worst of sinners may repent and become good men and women. Its impact on Victorian society was huge. One writer said of it:

“the book is unique in that is makes people behave better”.

There was more. Following its publication there was a very significant upsurge in people giving to charitable needs, families did open their doors to those less well off, and in the USA there was one businessman who on reading it was so moved that he gave all his workers Christmas Day off (it was still not a public holiday there) and gave each of them a free turkey. That was the power of Dickens’ Christian fable.

A Christmas Carol’ though is no fairy tale. It was set very much in the reality of some peoples’ experience of Victorian Britain. Dickens had toured the country and had been moved and greatly upset by the numbers of street children living rough, ending up in workhouses or working down tin mines. He wanted to open readers’ hearts and social consciences to those people struggling to survive and to encourage those who could, to be benevolent towards them.

Its 79 page tale is of a man (Scrooge) who started out in life with great intentions but allowed himself to be beaten down by the world- his mother died giving birth to him and his father resented him for that. His beloved sister died too young, and he rejected the love of a good woman and replaced it with love of a new idol -the love of money. He had forgotten who God had created him to be- and turned himself into the cold, heartless monster that at the start of the story we know him to be.

Dickens though knew, that in life we do have chance after chance to be redeemed, to be transformed and ‘born again’-only if we take it. That is what Scrooge finally does – the 3 spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future show him the impact of his behaviour (treating his staff poorly, not helping those in need, and of course the potential premature death of poor Tiny Tim. Spoiler Alert: he did live!) but more importantly, how different the world can become if he repents and becomes anew.

The message of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is as vibrant and urgent in 2020 as it was almost 180 years ago. We should celebrate Christ’s birth by gathering together (but please make it ‘Small, Short and Local’!) and opening our hearts and if possible, our wallets, purses or time, to those less fortunate than ourselves. I can do no better than echo what Scrooge’s nephew (Fred) teaches him of Christmas:

“I have always thought that Christmas… as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable pleasant time, when men and women seem to open up their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as fellow travellers to the grave. I believe Christmas has done me good, and will do me good, so I say God bless it!”

Happy Christmas all!

Binge on Jesus

Even before COVID-19 started to change our lives, people binged. Here I am not talking about binge eating but the more recent phenomenon of watching episode after episode of a particular tv series or show we are into at one sitting-  a kind of TV marathon. It could be ‘Game of Thrones’, or Netflix’s brilliant ‘The Crown’.

Now there have been some serious concerns raised recently about this kind of addictive viewing, with evidence emerging that those people who binge watch TV are more likely to become depressed, lonely, and obese- this would make sense as quite often the bingeing can be done when we are on our own, perhaps self-isolating and in need of a pick-me-up.

I have been binge watching myself in the last few weeks, but I have hopefully done it responsibly but this time it has been different from normal TV viewing as I have been ‘binging on Jesus’. Now, I don’t mean by that reading the New Testament cover to cover in one marathon sitting (although that is an idea!), but rather I have been doing something that nearly 65 million people in 180 countries have also been doing.

‘The Chosen’ if you have not heard of it is simply a phenomenon. It is the first ever multi- season TV series on the life of Christ, and I believe it is the most inspiring, lifting, moving and transformative version of the Christian faith ever made. OK, that is a big call when you consider the likes of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ with Robert Powell and Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’, and there have been hundreds of Christian series/films telling different aspects of Jesus’ mission over the years, and to be frank, most of them have been  pretty poor. Quite often that is due to the programmes or films being more concerned about evangelising rather than entertaining, and the result is that they only tend to appeal to Christians, rather than the general public- how can you further the Kingdom of God if you are only ever ‘preaching to the converted’? To disciple, we must get out of our Christian ‘bubble’!

This is where ‘The Chosen’ is so different. It has gained hugely impressive reviews from secular as well as Christian reviewers and audiences have been watching and re-watching its initial 8 episodes (Series 2 is currently being filmed). It is also unique as it is the most successful Crowdfunding project in entertainment history, as it was funded by 16,000 people who between them pledged more than $10m.

But why is ‘The Chosen’ so different from previous series and films that have come before? I think the answer lies in the fact that perhaps for the first time on screen, we learn more about the personalities in the Gospels- were the disciples married and how did their families react to them following Jesus?, how did Mary Magdalene become such a beloved disciple- what was her story and why did some follow Jesus but others turn down that incredible invitation?

‘The Chosen’ is also rich in something that most Christian shows lack – humour, fun and joy. Jesus laughs and he dances with his friends-he did not come here to make us all terribly serious about our life but “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The performances from the top line cast (Elisabeth Tabish as Mary Magdalen and Erick Avari as Nicodemus will pull at your heart strings) are outstanding-I predict that you like me will be moved and inspired by what you see. I truly feel that it is transformational – the aim if for 1 billion people to watch the series around the world and a great start has been made as the intention is that it will run to 7 full seasons.

The series is very keen to show that it- like any show -is never a substitute for the Gospels and some characters and dialogue have been added but the makers have been keen to show that they have taken historical and spiritual advice for the storylines in the show so that the truth and intention of the Scriptures remain (an ‘extra’ on the App is a biblical roundtable on the choices they made).

One other thing-it is free. You do not need to take out an expensive subscription to ‘Netflix’, ‘Amazon’,  or SKY to watch it. Because of COVID-19 the makers made it free for all to view on their App, or you can watch it on You Tube. People are encouraged to ‘Pay Forward’ the show – that simply means that, if you are able, they ask if you would donate money to allow others to see it. There is no pressure as everyone can see the series free if they want.

The trailer for it is below and at the end it guides you how to watch it- the App is free on both Apple (iPhone and iPad) and Google Play (Android)mobile phone systems.

Let’s binge on Jesus!

How to lead

Good leadership is something that is essential to us all at this time- we seek that in our Government and its politicians, we ask that of our scientists, and all those in power.

Fortunately, we are blessed at St Mary’s with excellent leadership from a range of individuals who come together as a team to allow people to grow spiritually and for us to truly ‘share the love of Christ with all’.

But what exactly is leadership and what makes a genuinely great leader? The example of what a Christian leader should be that we are given in the Bible is “The one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8).

In my time there have been some inspirational leaders like Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King and both of them used oratory and the art of public speaking to empower others.

If I was forced to give a more recent example of great leadership I would turn to someone that a lot of you may not have heard of. His name is Colonel Tim Collins. In 2003 and on the eve of the Iraq War, he commanded the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment and gave a speech to his men and women who were about to go to war.

It is put simply, a magnificent example of what I regard as true leadership- I know of soldiers who were there when he gave this eve of war speech and even today they are moved by the example he set for them. Listen to some of what he said:

We go to Iraq to liberate not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them. Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread, tread…lightly there”.

What Tim Collins is saying here is that although his team were going to war, that they should show respect to that country and those in it and understand where they are going- they are going into Holy land and they should revere that.

“If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves.”

Here the Colonel talks about the need to show compassion to those who may die and that they should again be shown true respect and dignity.

“It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts, I can assure you they live with the Mark of Cain upon them. If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest for your deeds will follow you down through history. We will bring shame on neither our uniform nor our nation.”

Tim Collins was born and raised in Belfast and grew up in ‘The Troubles’ and had personal experience of the impact it has on someone who takes another life. He talks well when he refers to people living with the ‘Mark of Cain’ on them forever more when they take a human life. He was keen to impress on young soldiers that real war is not like the movies- it is not fun, it is not glorious, it is not something to be proud or boastful of- sometimes it is necessary, but it is always regretful.

“As for ourselves, let's bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there. Our business now is north. “

Tim Collins ends his inspirational speech by making it clear to all those under his command what they are there to do- and to get on with it.

You get a flavour of just how impactful Tim Collins’ speech was on people with the clip below where Richard Branagh (also born and brought up in Belfast) speaks his words in the TV drama ’10 Days to War”.