Have you noticed how our society seems to be turning farther away from righteousness and into greater denial of any moral compass at all? We are less likely to label anything as right or wrong and certainly less likely to feel guilty about anything. If someone does try to make us feel guilty, we have the wonderful spiritual retort that ends all conversation: “Judge not.” Jesus said it, so no one can do it. Is this new? Have we stumbled into a spiritual abyss never before known or experienced?

The short answer is, “No.”

Let’s go back to the beginning, the first man and woman. Adam and Eve committed the sin of eating from the one prohibited tree in the world. They could’ve eaten from any of the other trees, good fruit on all of them, yet they fell for the one thing that was off limits. We’ve examined their sin in depth over the years, but I want to look specifically at their response. When you read Genesis 3:7-10 there are several things that stick out in the aftermath of sin:
1. “they knew they were naked” – Suddenly Adam and Eve had a knowledge beyond the mere facts. They had been naked, but there had been no shame. Suddenly they saw things differently, sewed fig leaves together to mask the shame they felt and hid in the bushes from God. An instant earlier, they were naked, but without shame, without sin.
2. “they hid themselves from the Lord God” – The context seems to indicate that Adam and Eve had freely walked with the Lord through the garden, enjoying creation and spending time together. Now the relationship has been broken, there is something amiss and Adam and Eve know it. They hide, not wanting to face the Lord.
3. “I was afraid because I was naked” – Had it not occurred to Adam that he had always been naked and that in fact the Lord is the one who had created him. The Lord knew what he looked like naked. This was a holy fear, Adam knew he had violated the law. His fear wasn’t because of his lack of proper garments, but because he knew his own acts were in violation of the commands of his creator.

Now contrast this response with what happens in chapter 4, only one generation later. Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, out of pure jealousy commits the heinous murder of his own brother Abel.  Keep in mind that this murder happened after the Lord had spoken to Cain, warning him to fend off the sin “crouching at the door.”  Once the deed is done, how does Cain respond to his own sin?  You can read Genesis 4:9-16 to see.  Cain doesn’t hide.  The Lord finds Cain without any difficult search and Cain is defiant.
1. “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper.”  This response to the simple question of “where is your brother” is a picture of defiance.  Cain isn’t a seemingly innocent four year old pleading ignorance, he is a defiant adult confronted directly by the creator of the universe.  His response isn’t to hide or to be ashamed, but to pose ignorance thinking or hoping his transgression will be ignored by the Lord.  He has no intention of confessing to the sin, as far as he is concerned what he did was bring some justice to an unjust world.  His offering was rejected for no good reason and Abel’s was accepted for no good reason.  He had every right to demand satisfaction.  His murderous act wasn’t against Abel as much as it was against God.  Now to whom would God show favoritism?
2. “My punishment is too great”  Cain’s willingness to correct the Lord as He passes judgment is amazing.  Adam and Eve accepted their judgment without question.  “The Lord is the creator, He established the rules, we broke the rules.” But Cain rebels against the judgment.  “Who is God to make me live as a wanderer?”  He even complains about being hidden from the presence of the Lord, yet Cain himself was defiant of the Lord’s word.  How often today we want God, but only as we want Him, in our own convenience and acting in ways that please us.

So here we are, one generation removed from the Garden of Eden and humanity is in deep rebellion against the Lord.  Man is establishing his own rules, declaring his own truth and living by his own idea of right and wrong based mostly on selfish intent.  It doesn’t take us long to abandon the truth of God for our own truth, to trade relationship with the creator for selfish indulgence and to make our own desires so important that we willingly redefine the world to fit them.  So we will change the definition of words like marriage or life to fit our own indulgences.  We will chastise moralists who try to uphold a standard, marginalizing them by calling them judgmental bigots and extremists.  We will elevate tolerance as a supreme value except when faced with the intolerant traditionalist who dares voice an opinion that calls our actions into question.  An opinion, I might add, that would have been the standard belief of all the people in the world for most of world history.

As so we become the Cain Generation.

Since we resigned our church back in August, Julie and I have had the great opportunity to visit a lot of churches over the past several months.  We’ve gone to see family and been in some familiar churches and we’ve been to some of my friend’s churches to hear them preach and experience their worship services.  Some we have visited more than once, just to go to different services to see what they were like.  As a pastor it has been both interesting and enlightening to see how different groups “do church” in so many different environments.  We’ve been to large and small churches, those with multiple services and those with single staffs.  We’ve heard choirs, bands, orchestras, and kids choirs; we’ve sung hymns, old choruses, new hymns, songs we haven’t sung in decades and songs we’ve never sung before.  One constant, everywhere we’ve been, Bibles have been opened, the Word has been faithfully preached and invitations to respond in faith have been offered.  We’ll probably settle in once we get through our next round of traveling, but before we do I’ll offer some thoughts on our experiences visiting churches.

1. There are a lot of ways to get “church” done.  Every service has had some common elements: congregational singing, preaching, a guest welcome time, offering, announcements, but no two services have been the same.  From different orders of service to different ways of doing the basics, they each accomplished worship but did so unique to the church.  Some did video announcements, some did the offering at the very end, some did larger blocks of singing than others, some were very polished with smooth transitions and others were volunteers doing their best, but none of those we saw seemed to be performing, they genuinely wanted to worship and lead others to do the same.

2. Feeling comfortable as a visitor in a strange land(like a church) isn’t going to happen, but churches can do more to help.  I’ve been to church my whole life and been on church staffs for almost 30 years, and I have to tell you that I still feel a bit nervous as we pull into the parking lot to go to a new church.  I can only imagine the sheer terror that accompanies some dear souls as they enter a church parking lot for the first time in their lives or the first time in years.  Keep that in mind as you consider how to welcome a guest on the campus of your church.

2.1 Parking lot signage can go a long way.  As an experienced church person, I felt pretty confident in knowing where to park to make the shortest walk in and out of church.  Some churches do a great job with signs pointing you to guest parking and main entrances as you drive up.  Most churches do nothing in this regard.  I found that even in smaller churches it was often difficult to locate the main entrance and hard to know where the worship service was going to take place.  Multiple building erected over the years often leave a visitor confused about where to go.  It’s just easier if I can see that before I ever get out of my car.

2.2 The corollary to this is interior signage.  If the main entrance doesn’t take me right to the entrance of the worship space, there is a need for interior signage to get me to the right place and a person there is also helpful.  A couple of times we wandered through churches looking for the worship area, saved only by a moving crowd that swept us along in the right direction.  My wife and I have no small children, so finding a nursery or children’s area wasn’t an issue for us, but I would say that we were probably fortunate in that regard.  Most churches we visited had children’s ministries during the worship service, but clearly marked directions or instructions were hard to find.

2.3 Over the past six months we have been in many services in many churches.  At times we were with family or friends, but most of the time we have come into the building as those who are attending for the first time.  In every one of those services we have been greeted at least at the door and almost every time we have had someone say hello to us during the welcome time.  People have seemed friendly and often glad that we have chosen to attend.  Generally the smaller churches have been friendlier as far as the number of people shaking hands with us.  In all of those churches though, only three people ever actually introduced themselves to us and asked our names.  One kind lady actually invited us to a small group bible study and said more than five words to us.  I don’t think church people are unfriendly at all, but I do think we need to learn better how to meet people and make them feel welcome.  I know not everyone wants to have a fuss made about them, but there must be a better way to go about welcoming those who have bravely ventured out of the safety of their homes to enter the strange world of a Baptist church.

3. Every church has their own secret language used by members to communicate the locations of meetings.  It may be a building named after a previous pastor or a room named after a characteristic it no longer has.  I’ve got a friend that I meet every once in a while by the “mexican place” (a preferred mexican restaurant that no longer is standing).  We know right where that is, but no one else could know.  We’ve been invited to rooms or locations on campus that might as well be next to a mexican restaurant that no longer exists.  I know everyone in the church probably knows where the meeting is, but as first time visitors we have no idea where that is.

4. There are some great ministries taking place in the church today.  I have been amazed by the creativity of churches to get the work done in so many different ways.  We know that Baptist church life isn’t what it was forty years ago when it seemed every church was cut from the same pattern (especially the architecture), but the variety in church life today is beyond what I would’ve imagined.  I would recommend that every pastor take some time during the year to visit some other churches just to see what is happening and how God uses so many various methods to share the timeless message.

5. Just a quick note about websites.  We’ve been completely reliant upon information on the web when we’ve decided to visit a church.  That is, we are looking for worship times and information specifically.  Church websites are often as varied as the churches, though there are some standard templates we’ve seen.  Making the location, contact info and service times easy to find is very helpful for a visitor.  If I have to search long for that info I’m less inclined to visit.

Back in July I posted our story as the Lord led us to leave the pastorate and start out on a new journey helping churches and individuals do missions around the world.  In the five months since then we have had repeated instances where the Lord has confirmed to us that this is the path He has chosen.  It is both exciting and daunting to venture where there are no lines drawn and no path to follow except to see where the next step is.  I want to share some of the things that have happened over this time, as much for me as for those who will read this.

Immediately after our last Sunday at Spring Creek we had to decide where to attend church.  Having been in one church for over 20 years, I thought it would be refreshing to see different churches and how they “do church” as well as hear some of my friends preach the Word (it has been wonderful by the way).  The first Sunday we went to Faith Bible with Amanda and Kevin, our friend Aaron was leading worship that week.  Wouldn’t you know it, it was “Mission Sunday.”  In fact three of the first four Sundays, in four different churches, there was a mission emphasis.  These “coincidences” served to affirm in our lives over and again the Lord’s leading.  Over the last five months we have been in at least 7 mission services, none of which we knew about before we walked through the door of the church.

In November we had an opportunity to do something different and it required much prayer.  We took the weekend to consider the possibility of moving into a different type of work.  That weekend the church we visited had a missionary speak.  He preached on a passage that was key to our original decision back in July.  I dropped out of the new opportunity without hesitation and have had no second thoughts.

The latest instance happened just before Christmas.  The pastor who performed our wedding, Ed Wright, moved to Vermont to begin working at a new Baptist college.  When I heard about it I was intrigued with the idea of doing some work with them in the New England area.  In early December I finally contacted Ed about scheduling a trip in the Fall of 2014.  Interestingly, Ed was going to be in Austin before Christmas and was speaking at Hillcrest Baptist, the church where Julie and I were married and the one we planned on attending the Sunday before Christmas!  Another coincidence.  Through our visits we have decided to take a trip in February there and are now going to work on another one in the Fall.

These are just some of the things that have happened, but it is good to remember all that the Lord has done and how He has led us continually.  One of our wisest decisions back in July was to drop everything, quit both our jobs, so that we would be able to go anywhere at anytime.  We’re learning to be ready to go, to see that those things that some might call mere coincidence are often the hand of God at work as He leads us along a path.  We have to be discerning, choosing those things that are in the path He has directed.  We have to be wise, knowing that there are limited resources, and yet trusting, knowing that He has unlimited resources.  We have to be creative, doing the work when there is no established pathway.  And we have to be faithful, knowing that the Lord has a plan beyond the horizon of our sight.

When we began I told Julie that I could get us to the end of August 2013.  We’ve gotten to January 2014 and I can see through about April.  Looking forward to what comes next.

P.S. Sometime in the future I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about being a Christian who isn’t a pastor or staff member.  It’s been challenging after being on a church staff for the past 30 years.