When I began seminary, one of the first things I was asked to read was an essay by Simone Weil. It advised that, in our studies, we should always go slow and pay attention. It’s somewhat of a cruel joke, given that the next four years involved being so overwhelmed with assignments that such a thing was impossible. Still, the point holds that this approach is the heart of theology. Going slow and paying attention elicits our deepest connection to God, whether in studies, prayer, or worship. It generates humility, thankfulness, and compassion. And yet, in this world of our own making, we seldom do that.
Our passages this past Sunday focused this disconnect on the natural world, particularly on the earth, the ground, the soil. We looked at the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. Where the earthling was created from the earth, made to serve the soil, the garden, and all it’s creatures, where the garden gave up its bounty easily, the primeval couple was now sent out into a harsh world. Hard labor would be required, just to be fed.
Then we looked at the story of Cain, the first time sin is mentioned in the Bible. He murdered his brother, Abel, in jealousy and buried him in the ground. God asks where Abel is and Cain responds: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Given God’s response (and the overwhelming testimony of the rest of Scripture) the answer is undoubtedly, “Yes!” (Why is our current political discourse not guided by this story? I digress.) Like his parents before him, Cain is cursed. First, he is cursed so that the ground (adamah) will not longer yield its bounty. Second, he is destined to wander the land (aretz), a man without a home. But it’s worse than that. Remember, he was the farmer, where Abel was the shepherd. He will no longer farm; he is alienated from himself. Notice that the ground is adamah, the earth from which his parents were formed; he is alienated from his ancestor. Cain certainly notices this in his response: “You have driven me away from the soil (adamah).” And he adds: “I shall be hidden from your face.” He is alienated from God. His alienation is total, his punishment greater than he can bear. To be alienated from the land, the ground, the earth is to be alienated from ourselves, our communities, and from God.
Now look at our situation. Where is our time and attention? Cain felt a sense of total alienation because he could no longer put his hands in the dirt, plant a seed, and watch it grow. He felt that he might as well be dead. And here we are, the only things most of our hands touch are the products of other human hands. Our phones, computers, entertainment systems, cars, clothes – whatever it is for each of us that takes our time and attention. What do we long for? Stuff? Or do we long to help something grow? To connect with others? To connect with God? How do we do that?
Maybe we can’t all be farmers, but we can go slow and pay attention. Get out and walk around your neighborhood. Notice the blooming of the flowers. Notice when the leaves begin to change, when the bulbs begin to sprout. Notice if we have fireflies this year. Notice the people walking around. Wave to a neighbor, even if you don’t know them. Share food. Talk. Be completely unproductive. Look and see what is good. Be thankful for it. Be humble in the face of it. And when you see the parts that aren’t so good, have compassion and get to work.