Thursday, June 29, 2006

Returning from The Far Country

I just wanted to write a post to explain the series I've written in the past few weeks. A few people have asked me about "The Far Country," things like "Did you write that?" and "What made you think of that?" So I wanted to set the record straight on my motives and my inspiration for putting my own spin on the Fall of Man.

As I sat in a pew at Morningside Baptist Church about a month ago, Bill Shorey preached on Hebrews 11, a chapter known by many Bible-believers as the "Hall of Faith." Some of the great names of the Old Testament and their exploits are listed there, and the gist of the chapter is that these influential people of faith got their strength by realizing that their home was not in this world. This world, in fact, is a far country, a place of exile from a God who was too holy to stand by and watch his children disobey him. This world is a broken system, outwardly a botched experiment, a mirage that promises to satisfy the ungodly but leaves them parched and thirsting for living water. This is a world of toil and labor under the Curse of sin, and although redemption can be achieved through Christ, we still await his return and the restoration of all things that will accompany it.

And since we know our true home, the Eden that awaits the faithful, we should look and act differently than the world. The warriors listed in the chapter sacrificed earthly comfort for a heavenly reward which they did not receive in this life. They did not receive the promise, but were content to look forward to "the assurance of things hoped for and certainty of things unseen" (verse 1).

All this was swimming in my head, and then I started reading "Safely Home" by Randy Alcorn, who heads a ministry called Eternal Perspectives Ministries. It's a fiction book, but it talks a lot about the persecuted house churches in China and their resemblance to the ancients in Hebrews 11. They truly have an eternal perspective that allows them to live out their faith authentically.

So what's my point? In Bill's sermon, he talked about how Adam was the first man ever to teach his child how to walk with God. I started thinking about that conversation, how it must've been to explain to your child that his mother and father were ultimately responsible for the fallout between God and man. And how Adam managed to raise a eternally-minded son even after sharing the nasty truth about his failure.

Hebrews 11 mentions Abel, God's first martyr, who was commended by God for his righteous sacrifice amid the opposition of a world marred by the Curse. Because his father taught him, he knew that this world was not his home, that he should "find the spring," as I put it in the story. He should wait for the fulfillment of God's promise, for the return to paradise that awaits those whose sin is dealt with by the blood of the lamb.

Basically, I wanted you to get the fact that Abel learned to recognize that the present is not reality at its fullest. He learned to look both backward and forward. Backward at the paradise his parents lost. Forward to the paradise and freedom from sin that a merciful God would restore. May we all recognize that, like the Andrew Peterson song says, "This is a far country, not my home." May we live like we are "longing for a better country--a heavenly one" (v16).

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Far Country-6

"'Where are you?' God chose his soft, inviting voice rather than the booming one that spoke the world into existence.

"The question seemed unusually loud in the deathly silence of the garden. Eve and I were still hidden behind a bush, afraid to move or breathe, idly hoping that God wouldn't find us, but knowing deep within us that he would. In fact, he already knew where we were, but he was giving us a chance at a little redemption, an opportunity to come clean, to allow ourselves to be exposed and to renege on the agreement we had made with the serpent.

"After awhile, I could bear the silence no longer. God had been here for eternity. I didn't think I'd be able to outwit or out-wait him. So I decided to answer his question, still lingering in the air even though a considerable time had passed since he had spoken it. He didn't force a confession; I offered it freely. We can't really hide from him anyway."

"So, let me get this straight. You ate of the only fruit God told you not eat, and he still didn't use his thunderous voice with you?" Abel asked. He'd always been led to believe that because God banished his parents, he was an iron-fisted tyrant ruling from somewhere beyond the western mountains.

Adam can't believe Abel is still enraptured by the tale. A good child, Abel pays attention to detail, especially when God is the topic. He takes seriously his role in the great drama that is their lives. If only Cain was so interested. Adam would rejoice if Cain even thought about God at all.

"Well, the story's not quite over, son."

"What did you say when you confessed? What was it like to be standing ashamed before God?"

Adam looks out into the distance and runs his hand over the back of his neck, leaning back, stretching and sighing before returning Abel's gaze. Abel's tone hadn't revealed the least hint of malice, but simply to hear his son vocalize his worst failure pierced his heart. He hesitates again before answering, as if trying to figure out the combination of words that could convey the tragedy of his actions without forever losing his son's respect.

"I don't know any other way to put this, son. I told God that we hid from him. When he asked how we knew we were naked and whether we had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, I blamed it on your mother," Adam says, fighting back tears unsuccessfully as a droplet slips out of the corner of his eye. Adam cannot bring himself to look back at his son. Abel is definitely not perfect, but his heart is good, and Adam feels exposed before him. Abel's soft response surprises Adam.

"Well, father, she had a part in it too. She did eat of the fruit first. She was deceived by the serpent. Yes, you should have stepped in to prevent it from happening, and you shouldn't have eaten the fruit yourself. But you can't blame yourself for everything," he says.

Adam looks up hopefully. Maybe his son doesn't consider him a completely pathetic excuse for a man. Voice faltering but gaining confidence from his son, Adam continues the story.

"Apparently God felt the same way. While he had asked me to give an account, he held both of us responsible, and he condemned the serpent for his role in the incident, and--"

"That's why we're here," Abel says, interrupting his father for the first time.

"Yes, that's why we're stuck in the far country," Adam confirms. "But it's more than that. You know that sinking feeling you have when you have to get up and go to work in the fields? Your brother knows this a little better, but do you know the disappointment you feel when the ground will not produce, or when one of your flocks is wiped out by a deadly disease? All that frustration, that lack of productivity, that toil that produces the sweat on your brow and the callouses on your hands; that is the Curse. And it doesn't end there. Albeit slowly, I know that I am aging, and one day I will return to the dust from which I was made."

"And that's it? That's what happens when our lives are over?" Abel feels that sinking feeling father was just talking about.

"Like I said before, I don't understand everything completely, but I do know this: The thing I miss most here in the Far Country is the companionship with God, the walks and talks in the garden, the face-to-face camaraderie rather than the long-distance relationship we experience now. We may love each other, son, but that love is nothing compared to the love God has for us. You will never understand in this life, but that was perfect love, the kind that does not fear and has no other agenda except the good of the beloved. Ever since that day God spoke to us harshly (and I cannot get his stern voice out of my head) I've been thinking about our purpose here. I've come to realize that our physical exile from our garden is only the outward representation of something going on within me. Without God, our souls are wandering in a dry and dusty land, thirsting for water only he can give, but lost and unable to find the spring."

Adam pauses. Just as Abel is about to give up hope, his father begins to speak again.

"But I believe that God is good. He loves us too much to let us wander forever, and although I may never see the day, I believe there will be a time when God brings us back. And that is what you must do, son. You must believe. You must sacrifice to God, and do everything you can to please him in this foreign land. You must find the spring."

Abel nods. He had never seen his father so impassioned. Could this be a glimpse of Adam's former glory? Then Abel follows his father's eyes and turns to watch the beautiful swirling colors of sunset in the west, a remnant of paradise lost, giving hope that redemption will one day bring this world back to life.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Far Country-5

"I froze," Adam looks toward the ground as he recounts the most shameful part of the story. This was where he had failed, where he had not lived up to his promise to rule with blamelessness over God’s creation.

" I had never felt that feeling before, the helplessness that comes with fear. Your mother bit into the fruit, and the deep reddish-purple juice burst out from the corners of her mouth, staining the ground next to where she was standing. I think something within me wanted to save her from disobedience, but we really felt like we were doing the right thing. We were trying to be wise and independent, like God."

"But still, something didn’t feel right," Abel said with a low voice as if he knew all too well of the inner battle against temptation.

"Right, but like I said, I was frozen, and your mother looked so blissful in that moment…I…I just couldn’t resist. I took, and I ate.

"The fruit was sweeter than all the rest, and I gobbled most of it down quickly. In the heat of the moment, in an unbridled wave of desire, I lost my senses. For the first time in life, my focus was on the fruit’s taste and not the God that made it taste so good. When I came out of the trance, the conniving serpent had slid back into the woods, taking our innocence with him.

"Only…we didn’t know it was our innocence that was gone. We just felt strange, a nagging sense within us like something wasn’t quite right. Before we could get a grasp on what was happening, we looked down at ourselves. We suddenly noticed that we were completely naked."

"Naked?" Abel asks.

"Yes, son. We wore no clothes in our homeland. This may sound weird to you, but back then, the thought of covering yourself would have been like masking the glory of the sun with a huge cloud.

"Again, you can’t begin to understand what it was like. It’s like the fruit triggered some part of our brains that had been dormant ever since God breathed his life into me. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m naked.’ No, the knowledge was much deeper than head knowledge. My floundering heart told me that not only my exterior, but the deepest part of me--an unthinkably bad part that existed only in a world of potentialities until this point--had been exposed.

"So what did you do?"

"Well, your mother and I both panicked. It was like we were completely different people, and we had to meet ourselves and each other all over again. I couldn’t help but notice what seemed like an unhealthy sense of self-importance and self-preservation welling up within me. Until the fruit, I had always looked out for your mother’s and the animals' needs and depended on God’s protection. Now, I just wanted to meet my needs, and I felt like I had to do something to protect myself from my Father’s rod. I guess that’s why I grabbed your mother’s arm and drug her into the bushes, where we instinctively covered ourselves with leaves there.

"Then we heard rustling grass and soft but steady footsteps. I was paralyzed. I knew it was God.

"I looked up at the sun, the time-keeper God had given us, and I realized it was about time for his evening walk through. Instead of running to him, Eve and I crouched down lower, as if we could hide from his gaze.

"He didn’t call us. He never needed to before. Every day we ran to him like the cows to a newly filled feeding trough, but this time we knew better. We weren’t coming out."

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Far Country-4

"What did he say?" Abel scoots to the edge of the stump where he sits. This is the explanation of his existence, his story of origins. He doesn’t want to miss any details.

"Well, like I said, son, the serpent was a crafty creature, and he had his plan all laid out. But first I want to tell you about his voice. I can still hear it clear as the cooing of the morning doves at sunrise. The way the legless serpents hiss these days, you would think his voice would have been be raspy and deep, oozing with rage and hatred.

"But it was quite the contrary. The serpent’s voice sounded almost like God’s, except with considerably less force. He spoke in a sort of sing-song chant that was very pleasing to the ears. He was polite and inviting, as if we’d just stepped into a party in his living room, and the forbidden fruits were hors d’oeuvres. The first time we heard him speak (or sing), we thought God himself had joined us in the garden for a midday walk.

"As your mother ventured closer to the center of the garden, the serpent noticed her. At first, it just seemed like he was lonely, like he hadn’t had any conversation in a very long time.

"He began talking to Eve about God--his goodness and love, his majesty and grandeur, his willingness to bless us--and then he asked a strange question:
"Eve, does it ever feel like God’s holding out on you?" asked the serpent, trying to make his voice sound genuinely concerned.

"What do you mean?" Eve replied.

"You know, that God’s not really giving you as much as he could," said the serpent, doing his best not to let his tone show how annoyed he was at her naivete.

"I guess I’ve never really thought about it too much. Adam and I have always had everything we need, and we enjoy God’s company daily. What else is there that he could give besides Himself and his creation?"

The serpent looked pensive before he launched his next question.

"Well, he could allow you to eat the fruit of the trees in his ‘creation,’" he said, unable to hide the scorn in his voice. "Isn’t it true that he doesn’t allow you to eat fruit from here?"

The question was outlandish considering the fact that the serpent had been watching us pick and eat all kinds of ripe fruits from the trees on the outer limits of the clearing. We had only stayed away from the center where the forbidden trees stood. For some reason, as the conversation went on, their fruits looked bigger and juicier than ever.

"Of course we can eat fruit from the trees in the garden. How would we survive otherwise?" Eve was as close to annoyed as she had ever been up to that point in life. You see, arguments and annoyances as we know them now did not exist back in our homeland. They subtly crept in later. "The only trees we can’t eat from are right there."

Eve pointed to the imposing trees in the center of the clearing. Her gaze lingered there longer than it ever had before. Seeds of desire began to form in her heart, even though she still didn’t quite understand where the serpent was going with this conversation.

"Oohhh," said the serpent, as if he was surprised. "So what’s the big deal with those trees? Why not them?"

"I’m not sure, but I don’t want to die finding out," Eve said.


"Yes, God says we will die if we eat of those trees," Eve said. I felt so proud that I she remembered the only rule we ever had to learn. I had taught it to her the day she came forth from my side and we had recited it every night before going to sleep.

"That’s simply not true. If you died, God’s whole experiment would be a failure and all the heavenly beings would laugh their heads off for eternity," the serpent said sarcastically.

Eve’s blank stare told him that she wasn’t up to speed on the unseen realm, so he rephrased his comment.

"God loves you too much to let you die. He just knows that you’ll be able to discern good and evil like him if you eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge."

"Like Him? We can be like God?" Eve was awestruck at what she had heard. God was the most admirable being in the universe, and if wisdom was what it took to be like him, she would love to get it.

"Just like him," the serpent said with a sly smile. He nodded toward the tree as if to say, Go ahead; try some.
By this time, I had overheard everything and had walked over to see what was going on. I arrived just in time to see my wife reach up and use both hands to pluck a large fruit from the drooping branches of the Tree of Knowledge.

She looked at me, and then at the serpent’s pasted grin. Then she raised the fruit to her mouth…

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Far Country-3

Adam clears his throat and looked at the ground, as if reliving the shame in his mind. Emotionally, it is almost too much for him to talk about, but he knows he has to pass this on to his son. Now that death has entered the picture, he can’t assume that he’ll be around forever. The tradition of walking with God, something that only he and his bride have experienced, must be passed down if there is to be any hope for their race.

"Your mother and I don’t know the whole story, at least not yet. All we know is our part in the drama, which from the looks of it, must be a pretty big deal. Before we broke our pact with God (which I’ll get to later) we really weren’t too concerned about much other than enjoying the home that God made for us and pleasing him with our lives. But that serpent, curse him, was right about one thing: once we had messed up the relationship, we were keenly aware of right and wrong--or at least wrong."

"Wait a second…serpent?" the son says quizzically. "How can a serpent be right or wrong about something. Doesn’t that imply that he could think? That he could have an opinion?"

"Yes, son, the serpent could talk, and he was the most cunning of all the thinking animals. I know it’s hard for you to understand here in the far country, but the world was much different back then.

"As I was saying, we don’t know the whole story, but I can tell you our part. It’s hard to talk about, so you’ll have to make do with the short version:

"God told me about the Tree before your mother was crafted from my side. He made sure to emphasize how important for me it would be to obey. He didn’t tell me the specifics, only that eating of the tree—or even touching it—was serious enough for him to take our lives.

"I made sure to relay the message to your mother. How could I not if it the matter was so grave? But as I said, we really didn’t think about the question of obedience too much. The other option—disobedience—was never really presented to us."

"Until the serpent came along," Abel says to show that he was paying attention.

"Right," Adam says. "So we were walking along in our garden and your mother was looking for something good to eat." A wave of nostalgia sweeps over him, and for a moment his eyes brighten. "Son, you should’ve seen it. There were so many colors, so many delicious options to choose from, all ripe and ready to be plucked from the vine, nothing like the dull and dry stuff we’ve been eating during this drought.

"In fact, because there were so many choices, we couldn’t decide what to eat. Wide-eyed, but with empty stomachs, we were getting hungrier by the second, so we searched deeper and deeper into the garden until we came into the clearing where the two trees—the Tree of Life and the Tree of Good and Evil--stood.

"And there was the serpent, like a lion waiting for a deer to walk right into its den. I was a little nervous at first; this was the first time I’d even seen the trees God had told me about. But they were beautiful, more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen. They were tall, but not imposing, and the branches sagged close to the ground, laden with the weight of the large red fruit. They were big enough to look filling, bright and dew-kissed, inviting enough to make you want to eat forever.

"At first, I praised God for such beauty, and went on foraging in the other trees. I paid no attention to the serpent. Animal sightings were common in our garden, and we weren’t afraid of serpents back then.

"But then, he began to speak to my wife."

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Far Country-2

At this (see previous post) the son’s ears perked up. He had often seen his father downcast, gazing wistfully into the west, but never with such conspicuous tears welling up in his eyes. The son’s longing to know about his heritage has finally broken the dam to his father’s heart, and the floodgates—the stories of good old days—are about to open.

As the father begins to speak, the elder brother saunters into their arena. He has been tending the fields all day, and he smells of sweat and a hard day’s work. Without saying a word, he throws his basket down at his father’s feet, and the day’s harvest, a meager portion of bitter herbs, spills out onto the ground.

He smirks at his little brother, who’s sitting at his father’s feet, anxiously waiting for him to resume the story. Ever since that kid was born, he’s been relegated to second best. So what if he doesn’t hang on every word his father says? There’s work to be done, and as the elder, he does more than his share. Since when was wistfulness valued above utility? With the way the crops have been lately, there needs to be less talking and more plowing.

"I was just about to tell your brother about your homeland. Care to join us?" his father says, interrupting the awkward silence.

Homeland? The elder brother just shakes his head. He can’t believe his father had the audacity to completely ignore the weak batch of crops set before him. Has he lost his mind? He really must be getting old if he can’t see that their livelihood now is more important than fantasizing about some far-off wonderland.

"I think I’ll pass, father. I’ll go see if mother can make something of these despicable roots."

With much huffing and puffing, he gathers the herbs and tromps off into the distance toward the thin grove of trees where they make their temporary home.

The father lets out a sigh. He’s sad that his eldest son can’t use the eyes of his heart to see beyond the arid western hills, but as a farmer, he knows there’s no use trying to cultivate a plant where the soil is hard as rock.

"Well, son, I guess it’s just you and me," he says.

The son nods knowingly. He too wants his brother to stay and hear, to understand what life was like before the Great Exile. But his brother had never been one for stories. Funny, he is always worried about making a living, but he’s never truly lived at all.

All thoughts of the bitter elder brother dissipate as his father begins to speak again.

"Well, you know about the day I woke up and began to breathe. You’ve heard about how your mother was provided for me, and how I was called upon by God to take charge of our whole estate. You’ve seen with your imagination the land beyond the western hills, the beautiful greens of the trees in our garden, the sweet fruit and the fresh springs of water that flowed as clear as the blue sky on a summer day and as quickly as the gazelle across the grassland. You know about how we walked elbow to elbow with God, how he professed his love for us and regaled us with stories of eternity past and shared with us his desires for our future.

"But what you don’t know, Abel, my son, is how we lost this paradise of ours, and why we won’t be able to get it back, at least not in this life."

The Far Country

This is a far country, not my home. -Andrew Peterson

Exhausted from the day’s toil, the man leans against a tree to rest. Its knotty trunk makes an uncomfortable recliner, and the scant canopy above offers little protection from the scorching sun. With sweaty brow and squinted eyes, he can’t help but think of the place where he grew up, an idyllic and spacious plot filled with lush trees, fresh orchards, and four rivers, all crisp, cold and clear enough to cleanse down into his soul.

But all that is gone now.

It is a sad life that is lived most fully through memories, through echoes of and longings for things that can never be regained. At times like these, when the hardships of his predicament are more evident, he feels the gravity of the situation more strongly. But there is never a time when he doesn’t bear the scars of past decisions or when the subtle ache doesn’t occupy his heart.

In former days, back in his native land, he walked in cool shade with soft grass beneath his bare feet. The sun was a soft and pleasant companion, not the relentless antagonist he now knows. Food was abundant, and even when he worked the land, it seemed like a hobby rather than manual labor.

Companionship with his God and with his wife was easy. Intimacy was a way of life, and honesty in relationships was the unfailing standard. Everything, especially interacting with one another, seemed a whole lot simpler.

But all that is irredeemable past. All because of one lapse of judgment.


Coming in from the pasture, the man’s youngest son calls him out of the dismal daydream. Enraptured in reverie, he hadn’t even heard his son approach.

"Yes, son?"

"What was it like?"

This son had always been bright and insightful. He thinks differently than his elder brother and has the uncanny ability to ask questions that pierced straight to the heart of the matter, even when he doesn’t know what the matter was. This instance is a perfect example.

The man knows fully what the son is asking. It is the same question he always asks, with that same expectant gleam in his eye. Each time, though, the man tries to keep from answering. Recalling the memories of his youth, although sometimes therapeutic, is usually heart-wrenching as well.

"What was what like?" the man replies.

"You know, your home growing up." The son, the keeper of the family flocks, had heard stories at the dinner table about the succulent fruit, the verdant pastures and the wild hiking trails where his mother and father had romped during their younger years. He wants to pack up and move there, but his parents tell him that it’s too far, beyond the edge of this world even, so he settles for whatever tidbits of information he can get out of his father.

The man, who’s getting on in age, furrows his brow as he ponders his answer. This time he’s going to tell the whole story. His son is old enough to know where he comes from and where he truly belongs.

"Well, son, I’m sorry you’ve had to grow up in a foreign land," he says with a tear in his eye. "But I’m going to tell you about my true home and yours…"