TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

31 December 2015

Getting hungry for God. Literally.

Why we fast. And why we try to call every act of self-deprivation “fasting.”

Fast /fast/ v. Go without food [for God].
2. n. A period of going without food [for God].

Whenever I talk to people about fasting, their knee-jerk reaction is “No food? No food? No FOOD? You’re outa your [profane adjective] mind.” After all, this is the United States, where a 20-ounce soda is called a “small.” In this nation, the stomach rules.

This is why so many Christians are quick to redefine the word “fast.” My church, fr’instance, is doing a 21-day “Daniel fast.” I’ll explain what that is in more detail; for now I’ll just point out it’s not an actual fast. Nobody’s going without food. They’re going without certain kinds of food. No meat, no sweets. But no hunger pains either.

That’s why it’s not a fast. Fasting, actual fasting, is a hardcore Christian practice. The only things which go into our mouths are air and water. In an “absolute fast” you even skip the water. Now, we need food and water. If we don’t eat, we die. And that’s the point: Push this practice too far and we die. But God is more important than our lives. That’s the declaration we make when we fast: Our lives aren’t as important as God.

Why do we do such a thing? For the same reason Jesus did it, when he went to the desert for the devil to tempt him. Mt 4.1-2, Lk 4.1-2 Fasting makes people spiritually tough. It amplifies our prayer and meditation by a significant factor, which is why it’s a prayer practice. When we deprive our physical parts, and shift our focus to the spiritual parts, those parts get exercised; they get stronger.

We reject our culture, which teaches us we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of anything. We recognize God, not food, is our source of life. Our minds get better attuned to God’s will. We hear him better, because our bodies physically feel our need for him. We detect spiritual things faster. We discern the difference between good and evil better.

Yeah, fasting does all that. That is, when we’re praying as well as fasting. If you’re fasting but not praying, it’s time wasted.

Don’t get me wrong. Other forms of self-deprivation do it too. Dieting for God, or going without certain beloved things and hobbies, because God’s more important than our desires, will also achieve the same things fasting can. Just not as quickly; not as intensely. The stakes just aren’t as high. Fasting is hardcore, remember? Going without bacon, as hard as that might be for you personally, isn’t life-threatening. (In fact it’s better for your health.) But though a small thing, it’s still a sacrifice, and part of the proper mindset: “God is more important than my palate.”

30 December 2015

Yep, Christians have our own definition of “season.”

Are you ready for what God has planned for you? No? Then get ready.

Season /'si.zən/ n. An indeterminate period of time during which something happens.

Properly a season is a well-defined period of time. But people like to play fast and loose with how well-defined it actually is.

As soon as the weather switches to cold, whether that’s in November as usual, or freakishly earlier like September, people (Game of Thrones nerds included) start talking about winter: Winter’s coming. Some will go so far as to say winter’s here.

Winter’s not here till the winter solstice, which in the northern hemisphere is 21 December. Winter is defined by the time between the day of the year with the least daylight, and the next time we have equal day and night. Ends at the vernal equinox, 20 March. But that’s considered the scientific definition of winter, the too-literal definition. Winter means “the cold season,” however long that season lasts.

This sort of fudgery also happens with Christmastime. Again, Christmastime has a defined time: Starts on Advent, which begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas; ends at Epiphany, 6 January. And again, people figure “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” as soon as the stores start selling Christmas things—right after Halloween. Half of them object in rage: The Christmas season starts on Black Friday! Period! The rest of us actually like Christmas, and don’t mind it stretching back a little further. But it ends, as we all know, at midnight 26 December, when it’s time to take down the tree… then start debating whether Kwanzaa is a real holiday.

But as you notice, the human tendency is to take something which has limits and boundaries… then sand away at those edges till they’re nice and soft. Or till they break, and the contents spill over into whatever form we’ve invented.

So, “season.” As defined as ordinary seasons actually are, whenever we Christians start to talk about seasons, we don’t always talk about their boundaries. We don’t usually know them. We might know when a season began—we know it after the fact. But we don’t know when theyll end. We don’t know when the next one is coming. We don’t even know what the next one will consist of. We know what we hope it’ll consist of: We want it to be a season of prosperity, of joy, of blessing, of hope, of grace, of miracles, of anything positive. We’d like the next season to be better than our current one. Especially when the current one sucks, ’cause it could be a season of depression, of sorrow, of suffering, of hardship, of poverty—and we want it to end, and be replaced by something much better.

29 December 2015

Go to church!

I get it. I do. Churches can be a pain. But when done right, they’re far better for us than not.

Church. /tʃərtʃ/ n. A Christian group which gathers for the purpose of following and worshiping God.
2. God’s kingdom: Every Christian, everywhere on earth, throughout all of history.
3. A denomination: One such distinct Christian organization, namely one with its own groups, clergy, teachings, and buildings.
4. A Christian group’s building or campus.

Ekklisía, the Greek word we translate “church,” really means “group.”

Yeah, you might’ve heard some preacher claim it means “a specially-called-out people.” It’s ’cause ekklisía’s word-root kaléo means “call,” so those who like to dabble in Greek figure that’s gotta be part of its meaning. But words evolve, y’know. Our word congress used to mean “group” too. Nowadays it nearly always means “our do-nothing legislature.” Sometimes ancient Greeks also used ekklisía to refer to their legislatures. But it’s just a generic term for any group. So Jesus used it for his group.

Matthew 18.17 KWL
“When they refuse to hear them, tell the church.
When they refuse to hear the church, consider them like a foreigner or taxman.”

Nowadays people use it to mean a church building: “I’ll meet you at the church” seldom means “I’ll meet you in the group.” But that’s what “church” means in the bible: The group of believers in Jesus, who got together to worship him, learn from him, and encourage one another to follow him. Sometimes a church was only the local group; sometimes the universal group—meaning every Christian, everywhere, whether they regularly met together in the group, or not.

Regardless of what the word means, a lot of people don’t wanna have anything to do with it.

I know a lot of people, and have met a lot of people, who tell me they have no intention of going to church. They don’t believe in “organized religion,” by which they mean church:

  • They don’t wanna get up early on Sunday morning, their one day off, to go hang out with a bunch of strangers and hypocrites.
  • They don’t wanna sing a bunch of cheesy Christian worship songs, no matter how good the musicians are (and sometimes they’re not at all good; we’re thinking some serious nepotism went into their selection). Why do the music pastors insist on repeating the chorus so many times?
  • They don’t wanna then listen to the pastor’s wife sing karaoke one of the songs, mediocrely, for all to applaud her, ’cause wasn’t she earnest? (Though not good. And probably not earnest either.)
  • They don’t wanna tithe to an organization whose pastors clearly have enough money to afford fancy suits, silk Hawaiian shirts, or whatever Urban Outfitters currently puts in their shop windows. (Depending on how old or young your pastors—and congregation—are.)
  • They don’t wanna sit through an hour-long lecture. They had quite enough of lectures in childhood. Now they’ve gotta again be told what to do, what to think, and that if they don’t, they’re going to hell. (Which, if they even believe in hell, they’re entirely sure God isn’t that wrathful, ’cause grace.)
  • They don’t wanna sit through, alternatively, a homily which does none of those things… which, instead, tells them nothing. It’s just some feel-good stuff devoid of substance, and as boring as all get-out (-of-the-building-now).
  • They don’t wanna force the kids to go to church. It’s hard enough getting ’em to go to school.

Look, I get it. I’ve been going to church all my life. I have all the same complaints about it as you.

28 December 2015

Read the bible in a month. Yes, seriously. A month.

Are you ready to read a buttload of bible this January?

January’s coming. With it, a lot of people make new-year resolutions. “This year’s gonna be different, ’cause this year I’m gonna do [bucket-list item].” Some of these goals are realistic. Some not.

One of the more common goals Christians have is to read through the entire bible, Genesis to maps. (That’s an old Protestant joke. ’Cause a lot of study bibles include maps in the back. Okay, it’s less amusing when I explain it.) We should read the whole bible. So Christians get on some kind of bible-reading program to make sure we methodically go through every book, chapter, and verse. ’Cause when we don’t, we wind up reading only the familiar bits, over and over and over again——and miss a lot of parts we should read. The reason so many Christians misinterpret the New Testament is because they know so very little of its Old Testament context. Every time I quote just a little bit of the Law to explain Jesus’s teachings, way too many people respond, “I’ve never heard that before.” Sadly, I know exactly what they’re talking about.

Yet for some looney reason Christians tend to go with the bible-in-a-year reading program. My brother’s church, fr’instance. Every January they reboot it. Every day you’re to read two or three chapters from the Old Testament history and Prophets, a chapter or two from the New Testament, and a psalm or some other Old Testament poetry. Follow the program and in a year—a year!—you’ll have read the bible.

Okay, the bible is a big thick book collection. But come on. It’s not so thick it takes a year to go through.

The year-long program makes the bible sound like this huge, insurmountable mountain to climb. It’s no such thing. Why, you can read it in a month. And no, I’m not kidding. A month. Only takes me three weeks.

There are other bible-reading programs which read the bible in three months. That’s more reasonable; you could read the bible four times (or read four different translations) in a year. There are likewise six-month programs for those who struggle with reading, or reading comprehension. But when we’re talking about taking a whole year to read the bible, this sort of pace presents drawbacks. Seriously. And not just ’cause it makes the bible sound like such a massive volume.

27 December 2015

The prophets who recognized Jesus.

Why Joseph and Mary went to temple, and the people they encountered who had “words of knowledge” about Jesus.

Luke 2.21-40

Luke 2.21-24 KWL
21 Once eight days were fulfilled, Joseph circumcised him and declared his name Jesus,
which the angel called him before he was formed in the womb.
22 Once the days were fulfilled for Mary’s purification, according to Moses’s Law,
they took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord,
23 just as it’s written in the Lord’s Law:
“Every male who opens a womb will be called holy to the Lord.” Ex 13.2, 12
24 And giving a sacrifice, according to the saying in the Lord’s Law:
“A pair of doves, or two young pigeons.” Lv 12.8

Jesus followed the Law. If he didn’t, he couldn’t be described as without sin, He 4.15 because sin is defined by the Law. Ro 3.20 And though, as an infant, he couldn’t yet do anything on his own to actively follow the Law, he had Law-abiding parents who took care of it for him. As instructed in the Law, eight days after birth Ge 17.12 (meaning he wasn’t born on Sabbath, contrary to some theories), Joseph circumcised his adoptive son, and as the angels instructed, named him Jesus. Mt 1.21, Lk 1.31

As for Mary, she was ritually unclean for 7 days, and unable to go to temple for 33 days. Lv 12.2, 4 But once her 33 days were up, she had to have a sheep sacrificed to represent her atonement, and a dove sacrificed for her sins. Lk 12.6-7 I know; Roman Catholics claim Mary never sinned. Well, she was ordered to sacrifice the dove anyway, and not sacrificing it would’ve been a sin. In fact, I guarantee you plenty of animals were sacrificed on Jesus’s behalf over his lifetime, even though he didn’t need a single one of them to die for any sins—but sacrificing them was part of the Law, so he offered ’em anyway. Really, not a one of them had ever taken away sin, He 10.4 for they were merely representative of Jesus’s later self-sacrifice. He 10.1 I’m getting way ahead of the story though.

Since Luke quotes the verse about how the poor can swap another dove for the sheep, Lv 12.8 it implies Joseph and Mary were poor. Which they likely were—by now, between baby expenses and the Romans’ taxes as part of their survey. Cash-poor meant doves or pigeons were a much more affordable option. You could catch birds for free, y’know.

On the way into the temple, Jesus’s parents were accosted by a prophet. Yes, there were still prophets back then. God never stopped having prophets, nor stopped speaking through them.

25 December 2015

Twelve days of Christmas.

How we do Christmas… and how we oughta do Christmas.

Today’s the first day of Christmas. Happy Christmas!

Sunday the 27th will be the third day of Christmas, and at church I expect to still wish people a happy Christmas… and I also expect them to look at me funny, till I remind them, “Christmas is 12 days, y’know. Like the song.” Ah, the song.

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Two turtledoves
And a partridge in a pear tree.
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Three french hens,
Two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Four calling birds,
Three french hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Thus far into the song, that’s 20 birds. There will be plenty more, what with the swans a-swimming and geese a-laying. Dude was weird for birds. But I digress.

There are 12 days of Christmas, but in our culture we celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and we’re done. Two days of Christmas. And some of us cannot abide any more than that. When I remind people there are 12 days of Christmas, their look is not that of surprise, recognition, or pleasure. It’s tightly controlled rage. Who the [expletive noun] added 11 more days to this [expletive adjective] holiday? They want it done already.

I understand that. Whenever the focus gets off Christ, and gets onto all the traditions we’re forced to practice this time of year, Christmas sucks. You know the routine: Irritating customs, fake sentimentality, forced interaction with awful people, reciprocal gift-giving, bad music, bad pageantry, tasteless ornaments, and of course the new political custom of being a dick to people who only wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of the mandatory “Merry Christmas.” I don’t blame people for hating that stuff. Really, Christians should hate it. It’s works of the flesh, y’know.

Christmas, the feast of Christ Jesus’s nativity (from whence we get foreign names for Christmas like Navidad and Noël and Natale) begins 25 December and ends 5 January. What are we to do those other 11 days?

24 December 2015

“Silent years”: Did God once turn off his miracles?

What proof do Christians have of an absentee God? Only the lack of books between testaments. Which is hardly enough.

It’s usually round Christmas that preachers start talking about “the silent years,” or “the 400 silent years,” and how the annunciations of John the Baptist and Christ Jesus mark the end of them.

As it’s taught, for roughly four centuries between the writing of Malachi, “the closing of the Old Testament canon,” and Gabriel’s appearance to John’s dad, God was silent. He had no prophets—’cause if he did, the prophet would’ve written a book, but no prophets wrote a book, ergo no prophets. And he did no miracles—’cause if he had, someone would’ve written a book about it, but nobody wrote one, so nothing happened. If those 400 years weren’t silent, we’d have more books of the bible.

(Um… what about the books of prophets, and of divine doings, among the Apocrypha, which were written during that 400-year period? Oh, insist these preachers, they’re mythology. They don’t count.)

Okay, first let me clear up one minor little mistake. The last book written of the Old Testament was more than likely 2 Chronicles, not Malachi. It’s what we find in the Hebrew book order: Malachi is bunched together with the middle books, called the Prophets, which the Pharisees accepted as canon before they accepted the last-written books, the Writings (Chronicles included among them). To be fair, they were both likely written round the same time, but still: 2 Chronicles last.

Now the way bigger mistake: The entire idea of “silent years” contradicts the scriptures. You knew I was gonna get to that, didn’tcha?

23 December 2015

Rebellion against God’s authorities. Not his angels.

How one little misdirection throws off the whole letter.

Jude 1.8-13

Previously I brought up the people whom Jude disputed with in his letter: The folks who were going their own way, embracing their favorite myths instead of Christianity, going astray, and leading others with them.

And I suspect the reason Jude kept referring to Pharisee mythology throughout his letter, was because these ancient Christianists were likely also referring to myths. ’Cause Christians still do it, y’know. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard non-biblical stories about the devil, used as proof of how the devil behaves, or what it’s up to. Preachers like to claim it gives us insight into devilish behavior. More like insight into how little homework they do before they get behind the pulpit and claim to teach God’s word.

In my experience, when a person’s quoting myths instead of bible, not only do they take bible out of context, but they usually take the myths out of context too. So what I believe Jude did here (and yeah, I admit I’m biased in favor of this interpretation ’cause it’s what I’d do—isn’t that how bias works?) was find out what the myths really taught, then turn ’em around on the heretics. Like so.

Jude 1.8-10 KWL
8 Of course these people who dream of flesh stain themselves.
They reject authority. They slander the well-thought-of.
9 When the head angel Michael was debating with the devil over Moses’s body,
it didn’t dare bring a charge of slander, but said, “Lord rebuke you.”
10 These people don’t understand such things, and slander them.

We don’t have a copy of where this Michael-debating-Satan story comes from. The early church father Origen said it’s from a book called The Ascension of Moses, De Principiis 3.2.1 and though we have, we think, a copy of that book, it doesn’t include that story. Maybe Origen was wrong; maybe we have the wrong book, or we’re missing that bit of it. Doesn’t matter. Plenty of Pharisee myths include heavenly courtroom cases, with Satan as adversary and other popular angels as defenders. Some of our own, too; like “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”

So when these misbehaving Christians claimed, “It’s okay to tear Christian leaders a new one when they’re wrong—after all, Michael ripped Satan a new one in The Ascension of Moses.” Jude came right back at ’em with, “Nope; you read that story wrong. Michael didn’t ‘rip Satan a new one.’ Satan fought dirty, but Michael behaved itself, and resisted the temptation to act like an ass. You have not.”

A lesson plenty of Christians nowadays have definitely not followed.

22 December 2015

When God became human.

This is an idea people still have a hard time wrapping their brains around.

Incarnate /'ɪn.kɑrn.eɪt/ v. Put (an idea or abstract concept) into a concrete form.
2. Put a deity or spirit into a human form.
3. /ɪn'kɑr.nət/ adj. Embodied in flesh, or concrete form.
[Incarnation /ɪn.kɑr;neɪ.ʃən/ n.]

Our Christian theology terms tend to come from Greek or Latin. This one too. Why? Because they sound much more formal and sanctimonious than plain English. In-carnátio is Latin for “put into meat.” Seriously. And though “put into meat” tends to make people flinch, it’s not wrong:

John 1.14 KWL
The word was made flesh. He encamped with us.
We got a good look at his significance—
the significance of a father’s only son—filled with grace and truth.

Yep, it’s orthodox Christian theology. The word of God, meaning God, Jn 1.1 became flesh. Meat. Not temporarily; not for a few decades while he walked around on earth, but when he ascended to heaven he took humanity off. God is meat. Flesh, bone, blood, spit, mucus, cartilage, hair, teeth, bile, tears. MEAT.

Not just look human. Not take over an existing human, scoop out the spirit, and replace it with his Holy Spirit. These are some of the many weird theories people have coined about how Jesus isn’t really or entirely human. Mainly they were invented by people who are outraged by the idea of God demeaning himself by becoming meat.

Yeah, demeaning. To them it makes God less-than-God. It undoes his divinity: He’d have to be limited instead of unlimited. They don’t define God by his character, but what they really covet in God: His power. His raw, unlimited abilities and attributes. Jesus was that, they insist: Beneath a millimeter of skin, Jesus was divinity incognito, only pretending to be limited for the sake of the masses. But really omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omni-everything.

Incarnation soils God. It dirties him. Meat is icky. Humanity, mortality, the realness of our everyday existence, is too nasty for God to submit to. Sweating. Aching. Pains and sickness. Peeing and pooping. Suffering from acne and bug bites and rashes. Belching and farting. Sometimes the trots from bad shawarma the night before. Waking up with a morning erection… Have I outraged you yet? You’re hardly the first.

But this, as we can all attest, is humanity. Not even sinful humanity; I haven’t touched upon that at all. Just regular, natural, physical humanity. If God became human, he became that. And people can’t even abide that.

But it’s true. And God did it intentionally. He wanted us to be with him. So he made the first move, and became one of us.

21 December 2015

The unspoken prayer request.

How to ask for prayer, yet keep everyone in the dark about what it’s about.

When I was in high school church youth group, our youth pastor would pray during the service, and take prayer requests before he “opened up” in prayer. Anybody want a real live capital-P PASTOR to pray for you?—’cause surely Jesus hears his prayers, if anyone’s. Here’s your chance kids. Pitch him anything.

So we would. Big test coming up; we want God’s help, either in improving our memory, or compensating for our rotten study habits. Big game coming up; we want God’s help to do our best, and of course we’d like him to confound our opponents. God, help this kid I know whose dating life is a wreck (followed by some gossip about the juicy details, which is totally permissible because it’s a “prayer request”—yeah right). God, help this kid I know whose family life is a shambles. Help me, God, ’cause I have stress for one of the myriad reasons kids stress.

And just about every week, one of us—different kids every week, sometimes more than one—would pipe up, “Unspoken.”

What’s “unspoken” mean? It’s short for “unspoken prayer request.” It meant they wanted to ask God for something, and wanted us to pray for it as well. But they wanted the request to remain just between themselves and God. We didn’t need to know what the request was. God knew; that was enough.

Pastor understood this, so when it came time in his prayer to bring up the unspoken requests, he’d say something like, “Lord, about the unspoken requests: You know their needs. Please take care of them.” There ya go.

I was not the best Christian in high school. More of a giant hypocrite. But I’d invite friends from school to my church’s youth group, ’cause it was fun. Some of them were Christian and knew all about unspoken requests. And some wouldn’t, and somehow I was called upon to be their tour guide to the Evangelical subculture.

This particular week, some kid—let’s call him Mervyn (and thank you, Random Name Generator)—had been the only one to ask for an “unspoken,” and I got the expected question: “What’s ‘unspoken’ mean?”

“He needs God’s help on something embarrassing,” I said. “My guess is it’s giving up porn.”

Like I said, not the best Christian. (But not a bad guess. Mervyn really did need to give up the porn.)

Thing is, I’d said this loud enough for my fellow hypocrites to overhear, and think it hilarious. For about a year thereafter, this became the regular youth group joke about what “unspoken” really meant. Whenever someone contributed “Unspoken,” whether it was Mervyn or not, someone in the group would say, just below the youth pastor’s hearing, but not below the kids’, “Porn.” Followed by our giggles, and an irritated look from the youth pastor, who didn’t know what had just been said, but knew it was something unsavory. Eventually he found out, read us the riot act, and that stopped.

I admit though: To this day, whenever someone contributes “Unspoken” as a prayer request, a little voice in the back of my head pipes up, “Porn.” It amuses me. Bad Christian.

20 December 2015

The sheep-herders’ vision of the angels.

“Go tell it on the mountain!” isn’t actually part of the story. Sorry.

Luke 2.8-20

The same night Jesus was born, a bunch of angels appeared to some nearby herdsmen, scared the bejesus out of them, told them Christ had just been born, then let ’em watch the angels rejoice at what their Lord had done. Nice.

As usual I’m gonna pick apart that story in some detail, ’cause our average Christmas stories tend not to know the background (or care) and therefore miss significant things.

Luke 2.8 KWL
Sheep-herders were in that area, keeping watch over their flocks that night.

Starting with the poiménes/“pastors,” the shepherds, or sheep-herders. Most preachers like to point out these were rough, dirty, low-class people. These weren’t like your refined upper-class Pharisees, the sort of people who thought they should be the ones to receive God’s birth announcement when their foretold Christ (or Messiah, or anointed king) had come. Nope; God hadn’t sent angels to those jerks. He sent ’em to ordinary people. Commoners. Scum of the earth. Because God came to save regular joes, not know-it-alls.

Maybe I’m biased ’cause I tend to be one of the know-it-alls. But there’s just a bit of class warfare involved in that interpretation. Bashing snobbery is its own kind of snobbery, y’know; it’s not any better. And not appropriate when we’re talking about Jesus. He came to save everybody. Commoners and the upper class, tradesmen and herdsmen, laborers and scholars, Pharisees and pagans, Jews and gentiles, jerks and humble people. This good news, as the angel later said in verse 10, is for all people. Jerks included. Really, they need God’s forgiveness more.

Preachers also tend to describe these herdsmen as societal outcasts—for no good reason. Bethlehem was sheep-herding country for thousands of years, since the time of King David—himself a shepherd from that city. Most of the Bethlehemites were either in that business, or connected with it. Ain’t no shame in that business. It’s only our culture which tends to look down on ranchers or herdsmen or cowboys, and again for no good reason. It’s a class warfare thing; it’s the assumption that if you work with your hands, you don’t often work with your brain. President Harry Truman liked to point out how back when he was a farmer, he did a whole lot of thinking while he was behind the plow. Never underestimate laborers.

Once we look at the angel’s message to these herdsmen, we’ll see the angel obviously didn’t figure these guys to be dumb. Or second-class subjects. They’re some of the people Jesus came to save, who’d appreciate hearing their King was born. Plus it was late, and they were already awake, so why not them?

18 December 2015

Lessons from Jewish (and Christian) mythology.

Jude referred to a few Pharisee myths. But on’t get hung up on whether they’re true stories.

Jude 1.5-8

Jude 1.5-6 KWL
5 I want to remind you—though you knew all this already:
First the Lord rescued his people out of Egypt.
Second, he destroyed those who didn’t trust him.
6 Including the angels!—who didn’t keep watch over their own realms,
but left their own dwelling-place by choice.
On the Great Day, in eternal prison, in the dark—
that keeps watch.

Jude isn’t the only apostle who finds it fascinating that God judges angels. (And apparently we Christians judge ’em too. 1Co 6.3) Simon Peter brought ’em up, 2Pe 2.4 and Christ Jesus himself taught the everlasting fire was constructed for them. Mt 24.41 The apostles wanted to point out how if God doesn’t spare angels when they sin, why do we presume he’ll spare humans when we sin? Grace is awesome, but it’s still not a free pass.

Irritatingly, Christians have flipped this idea completely over, and made it meaningless.

How’d we nullify this teaching? Simple. We pointed out the bible says nothing about atonement for angels. ’Cause it doesn’t. Jesus died for our sins, but we have no idea whether he died for angels’ sins. He became human to die for us; he didn’t become angel. He came to save the world, Jn 3.17 not the heavens. Angels are [dooky] out of luck.

I heard it taught in seminary, and emphasized time and again by various Christians: Jesus didn’t die for angels. When we sin, we get grace. But when angels sin, somehow it’s a billion times worse. They see God’s face, up close; they of all people should know better than to sin. So when they sin, it’s one strike and you’re out: They’re fallen, and go to hell. Do not pass the cross; do not collect atonement.

This strikes me as entirely unlike God’s character. God is love, right? 1Jn 4.8, 16 Why does his love evaporate when an angel sins? Why are humans of infinite value to him, yet angels are disposable? Even if God loves us way more than he does them, it’s still really inconsistent to imagine God behaves so gracelessly towards them.

And inconsistent with the apostles.

17 December 2015

Doubt is our friend.

The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It’s unbelief. Doubt means we kinda believe. It’s a start.

Matthew 21.21 KWL
In reply Jesus told them, “Amen, I promise you:
When you have faith, and don’t waver,
not only will you do the miracle of the fig tree:
If you tell this hill, ‘Be raised and thrown into the sea,’ it’ll happen.”

Because of bible verses like this one, where Jesus contrasts ékhite pístin/“[maybe] have faith” with mi diakrithíte/“don’t waver,” people assume he’s comparing opposites. Wavering, or doubting, is the opposite of faith. Either we have faith, or we have doubt. So have faith, and never doubt. Doubt is bad. Doubt is evil. Doubt is how the devil gets us to never do what the Spirit wants.

But because I studied logic in school, I learned a lot of supposed “opposites” aren’t really. What’s the opposite of big? It isn’t small. Those are contrasts, not opposites. Same with hot and cold, black and white, young and old, male and female. Especially male and female.

The opposite of anything is its absence. The opposite of big is, simply, “not big.” The opposite of black is not-black, the opposite of young is not-young, the opposite of hot is not-hot, and the opposite of faith is not-faith.

Does doubt mean not-faith? No; it means not enough faith. There’s still a little faith in there. Just not enough. Sometimes for no good reason: We must put our trust in God way more than we do.

And sometimes for very good reason: God’s not in this. It’s not his deal. He’s not involved. In fact the reason we doubt is because the Holy Spirit is making us hesitate. The Christianese phrase is “a check in my spirit,” a nudge from God that we really oughta look before we leap. To be fair, some of these “checks” aren’t from God at all. But some of ’em are definitely from him, forbidding us and blocking us Ac 16.6-7 lest we go wrong.

So while it’s a great thing to have the sort of mountain-moving faith Jesus tells us of, it’s just as much a great thing to pay attention to our doubts lest we attempt to move the wrong mountains. Doubt is not always our opponent. Often doubt is our friend.

I’ve found Christians rarely understand this. They think—’cause we’re taught—Christians should never, ever doubt. Shove all those doubts out of your mind. Turn ’em off like a lightswitch. Suppress them. Fight them. Psyche yourself into believing.

In other words, denial. And because denial is a lie, it doesn’t legitimately get rid of our doubts. Instead, denial unravels our faith. It turns us into hypocrites.

Whenever we Christians doubt, we’re meant to investigate. Find out whether those doubts are real. Find out whether our beliefs have anything solid at the back of them. If they’re of God, they will. If they’re not, they don’t. Find the evidence before you believe. Use those doubts to get solid about your beliefs, and get closer to God.

16 December 2015

The four main End Times theories.

Covering what 99 percent of Christians believe about the End Times.

At some future point, Jesus is gonna return. Mt 24.42, Ac 1.11, 1Th 4.16-17, 2Th 2.1, Rv 22.20 Not maybe, not we hope he will: Gonna. It’s in the creeds; it’s orthodox Christianity. Any so-called “Christian” who says Jesus isn’t returning, or who thinks his return isn’t literal but a metaphor (or is “spiritual,” by which they mean imaginary) would fall under the category of heretic. Sorry, heretics. He’s coming again.

But even though Christians are unanimous in our belief that “from [heaven] he will come to judge the living and the dead,” we’re not universal as to how that’ll happen. Because Jesus didn’t give us specifics. He gave us apocalypses, images which represent what God’s up to, but aren’t meant to be taken literally. (Not that some Christians, out of sheer frustration, don’t interpret ’em literally regardless.) His Olivet Discourse—the bit in the synoptic gospels where he teaches his students about the End—is full of these apocalypses. His revelations to John in Revelation: All apocalypses. Jesus told us what the End is like, but not what the future is. We have to trust him to be in charge of it, and let it unfold as he chooses.

Since we aren’t agreed on how the End will come, most Christians agree to disagree. Most. Some of us are absolutely certain it’ll happen the way we say it will, and have declared war on any Christian who teaches otherwise. In fact, they’ll go so far as to say differing Christians are heretics. I know I’ve certainly been called one. Sure glad those folks aren’t in charge of what’s orthodox and what isn’t; ain’t nobody getting into heaven if they’re in charge.

But as far as End Times interpretations are concerned, there are four major camps we Christians fall into. So I thought I’d introduce you to them. And admit, since I have a particular preference for one of them, why I lean that way—but again, you’re not heretic if you go for one of the other views. Wrong, probably. But not heretic.

15 December 2015

Your salvation was no accident.

You didn’t just wander into Christianity. You were part of the plan.

Elect /ə'lɛkt/ v. Choose for a purpose or position.
2. n. A person (or people) chosen by God for a purpose or position. [Often “the elect.”]
[Election /ə'lɛk.ʃən/ n.]

Some of us realize we didn’t choose to become Christian; it’s more like God chose us. I myself was obviously set up. Christian mother, Christian upbringing, lots of relationships with influential Christians, lots of opportunities to have direct experiences of God. I’d have to be in serious denial, or really angry with God, if I didn’t become Christian.

Other Christians can’t see how God’s been nudging them (sometimes outright pushing them) all their lives in his direction. They’re pretty sure if one little thing in the past had turned another way, they’d be something else. The universe is so random, who’s to say?

Well, God’s to say. He wants to save everybody. He wanted to save you. Despite the randomness of the universe, Ec 1.2 God arranged things so you’d be saved. He deliberately selected you. Or, as theologians like to put it, he elected you. I know; election means a very different thing in a democracy, but in Christianese it means God wanted you, so now he has you.

Ephesians 1.4-6 KWL
4 Namely how God chose us in Christ to be holy—
spotless before his presence—before the world’s foundation!
In love, 5 though Christ Jesus, God predestined us for adoption to himself—
according to the goodwill of his will,
6 in glorious praise of God’s grace, which he poured out on us in love.

Yeah, before creating the earth. That’s how far back he planned to have a relationship with us. It’s what he always wanted. It’s why he made us humans in the first place.

14 December 2015

Praying for shrubbery.

Or as it’s more commonly known, the “hedge of protection.”

In Job, after the LORD commends Job for being such a a good and faithful servant, the devil counters with this.

Job 1.9-11 KWL
9 Satan told the LORD in reply, “Job fears God for no reason.
10 Don’t you wall around him, his house, all he has, round about?
You bless his handiwork, and his possessions fill the land. 11 Now please:
Stretch out your hand and touch all he has. He won’t publicly bless you then.”

Y’know, 99 times out of 100, here in the United States, I’d say the devil hit the nail right on the head. Mess with our stuff and we’ll think God either abandoned us, or was never really here. Job was as good as the LORD said—and really, why would the LORD’ve thought incorrectly about Job? ’Cause omniscience. But I digress.

In the King James Version sakhtá/“walled” is translated “made an hedge.” In 1611 this meant a wall of any sort; could be stones, could be thornbushes. In present-day English we only use “hedge” to describe shrubbery. One that looks nice, and not too expensive.

Well, we also use “hedge” in our prayers. Go to enough prayer meetings and one of these days you’ll hear someone use this particular Christianese saying: “And Lord, we just wanna ask for a hedge of protection around our team as they minister…” Sometimes they make it “a hedge of thorns,” just to make it extra hard to get through.

They don’t always know where they got the saying from, but it’s from that Job passage. (And if you wanna freak people out, point out it’s a direct quote from Satan, of all people. That’ll get ’em to read their bibles.)

There’s nothing wrong with asking for such hedges round yourself. Part of the Lord’s Prayer is, “Deliver us from evil”—or from the Evil One, as some translations have it. Mt 6.13 Whenever possible we’d like God’s hedge round us. But note, as we see in Job’s case, God can put it up or take it down as he wishes.

13 December 2015

Christ the Savior is born.

I know; I should’ve stalled this article till Christmas, right? Nah. Here y’go. Early present.

Luke 2.1-7

Luke 2.1-3 KWL
1 This happened in those days: A ruling, to survey the whole Empire,
went out from Augustus Caesar.
2 This first survey happened during Quirinius’s leadership of Syria,
3 and each and every one was traveling to their hometowns to be surveyed.

Some bibles refer to this apo-gráfesthai/“write-up,” as a census. But it wasn’t just a head count. The United States takes censuses every decade to figure out how many representatives each state should get, but the Romans and other empires took censuses to figure out exactly how much tax money they should expect from their territories.

Historians were a little confused because for a long time they couldn’t find records of a specific Roman survey round the time of Jesus’s birth (roughly 7BC or so). They assumed surveys were rare, something that’d have a lot of documentation around it. But surveys were regular. The Romans held one every few years. ’Cause they weren’t like the U.S. Census Bureau: They didn’t keep track of, or know how to estimate, population growth inbetween surveys. The Roman army might’ve just put down a rebellion, crucified a slew of people, and so much for their calculations. Best to just survey everybody all over again. Plus you could throw in a poll tax—everybody who shows up for survey has to pay a half-sheqel for their pains.

Now for the date. Luke tries to pin it down by mentioning the Roman emperor, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (Gaius Octavius’s official name by that point); and a certain Syrian leader, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. Here’s the problem: In 7BC, the year we’re figuring for this survey, the praetores/“leaders” of Syria were Gaius Sentius Saturninus, whose term was up; and Publius Quinctilius Varus, whose term began. Quirinius didn’t became praetor till year 6 of the Christian Era. But Jesus was born before the death of Herod of Jerusalem in 4BC—’cause Herod ordered Jesus killed. Mt 2.16 So we have a continuity problem.

Here are the popular solutions to the problem. Pick your favorite.

  • Skeptics: Doesn’t matter; it’s all mythology anyway.
  • Inerrantists who like to parse words: Okay, Quirinius wasn’t praetor till 6CE. But back in 7BC he was a legatus/“officer”—a military leader in charge of Syria’s defense and foreign policy, if not the proper governor. He held a position of igemonéfontos/“leadership,” Lk 2.2 right? He could’ve supervised the Roman survey, right? Close enough, right?
  • Inerrantists who really need to buy newer reference books: Maybe Quirinius served two terms, with a first term before Saturninus? [A theory pitched back when there were a few gaps in Roman Syrian history. They’ve been filled since.]
  • Inerrantists who like to double down: The Roman and Jewish historians, and every historian since, have the dates wrong. Luke doesn’t. Quirinius was totally governor at the time. The bible rules.
  • Inerrantists who only mean the originals: The original text of Luke must have “Saturninus,” or “before Quirinius’s leadership of Syria.” Either way, some copyist slipped up and wrote “Quirinius,” so now we have a boo-boo in the bible.
  • Non-inerrantists: Luke mixed up the governors.

Got one chosen? Goody. Now on with the commentary.

11 December 2015

All right, let’s plow through Jude.

And now we’re going through Jude.

Jude 1.1-5

A few months ago I was going through Jude, and then I started Christ Almighty!, and some people were wondering whether I’d ever go back to it. And some others didn’t care at all, ’cause Jude is an obscure little letter which makes no sense to them, and they don’t want me to analyze books of the bible so they can understand them; they just want me to reconfirm all the things they believe already, and teaching ’em new stuff doesn’t do that.

My mini-rant aside, yeah I dropped the ball, but here I pick it back up.

Jude 1.1-2 KWL
1 Judah, slave of Christ Jesus, Jacob’s brother,
to those in God the Father, those whom Christ Jesus loves,
those whom he watched over, those whom he called.
2 May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you all.

Jude: This’s be Judah of Nazareth, brother of Yakóvu/“Jacob,” which most New Testaments translate “James,” Ju 1.1 ’cause that’s what happened after English-speakers mixed up the Latin names Iacobus and Iacomus. This’d be the James who was bishop of Jerusalem, who wrote the letter we call James, who’s therefore Christ Jesus’s brother. Mk 6.3 Jesus’s brothers didn’t really believe in Jesus Jn 7.5 till he was resurrected; then they joined his followers Ac 1.14 and led some of his churches. He’s called Jude instead of Judah ’cause “Jude” was how you spelled Judah back when English-speakers still pronounced those silent E’s.

Protestants and some Orthodox figure Jude is the biological son of Mary and Joseph, Jesus’s mom and adoptive dad. Roman Catholics insist Jesus’s mom stayed a virgin, so either she was Jude’s stepmom, or that adelfós/“brother” Mt 13.55 actually means “cousin.” (As it grew to after Catholics started claiming that.) Now, Jesus did have a cousin named Judas, “Judas of James,” whom he made one of his Twelve. Lk 6.16, Ac 1.13 In other gospels, Judas’s name is swapped with Thaddaeus, Mk 3.18, Mt 10.3 which is why Catholics often call him “Jude Thaddaeus”—figuring he’s that Jude. Brother or cousin, he’s family either way.

We don’t know where Jude wrote from, or to, or precisely when, ’cause he didn’t say. Considering all the references Jude made to the bible and to Pharisee myths, it’s a good bet he wrote to Pharisees. Just as James wrote his letter to Jews scattered all over the Roman Empire, Jude likely had the same audience in mind. (As James’s brother, if you’re gonna listen to the one, you’ll likely listen to the other.) So, same as James, Jude’s letter applies to us Christians today when we go through the same things. It’s why we kept it.

So let’s get to it.

10 December 2015

The Pharisees: Those in the first century who followed God.

Nowadays it’s just another synonym for “hypocrite.” Just like, all too often, “Christian.”

Pharisee /'fɛr.ə.si/ n. Adherent of a first-century denomination of the Hebrew religion, which emphasized the widespread teaching of the Law.
2. A hypocrite. [Thanks to Jesus’s regular condemnation of hypocrites among the Pharisees.]
[Pharisaic /fɛr.ə'seɪ.ɪk/ adj., Pharisaism /fɛr.ə'seɪ.ɪz.əm/ n.]

People nowadays don’t really know much about the Pharisees—other than that they opposed Jesus an awful lot, and that he called ’em hypocrites right back. Mt 23.13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29 So there’s a lot of false information floating around about ’em. Stuff like this:

  • “But they were hypocrites.” Yeah, some of ’em were. Otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have had to denounce that tendency in them. But be fair: A lot of us Christians are hypocrites. A lot of us humans are hypocrites. Hypocrisy is universal. Singling out the Pharisees just means we’re gonna ignore our own tendencies towards fake behavior.
  • “They were legalists.” Pharisees were all about teaching the Law, and as a result Christians assume they were legalist—that they thought God would save them because they perfectly followed the Law. Thing is, if that were true, John the Baptist wouldn’t have to shout at them to stop sinning, and taking their salvation for granted just because they were Abraham’s descendants. Mt 3.7-10 Because—just like us Christians—some were legalists… and some were libertines, who figured God forgives all, so do as you please.
  • “It’s not a denomination; it’s a political party.” Flavius Josephus called ’em that, and it’s easy to see why: There was no separation of church and state (make that temple and state) back then. When that’s the case, denominations seek power just like political parties do—whether it’s Calvinists and Anabaptists in medieval Geneva, Puritans and Traditionalists in early modern England, Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, or Pharisees and Sadducees in ancient Israel. They were both.
  • “They universally hated Jesus.” We all know exceptions, like Nicodemus. We also forget: Every synagogue Jesus taught in was a Pharisee synagogue. His title, rabbí/“master,” was a Pharisee title. His apostle Paul, who wrote a big chunk of the New Testament, continued to call himself Pharisee. Ac 23.6 Many Pharisees didn’t care for him, but we certainly can’t say all.

As you know from your Old Testament, the Hebrews kept falling into the Cycle, a repeating bit of history where God’s followers fall away from him, then return to him. They sucked at passing the Law down to their children. Their next generation would grow up semi-pagan, the generation after that would be full-on pagan: Within 40 years Israel would be lawless, and the LORD would withdraw his protection, and their enemies would take a crack at ’em. Whereupon they’d repent, cry out to the LORD, he’d send them a savior, and they’d follow the LORD and his Law again. And the Cycle would repeat.

Pharisaism was meant to break the Cycle.

09 December 2015

True compassion: Offer help, not just advice.

There’s a good reason we call advice “my two cents.” It’s often as worthless.

Hebrews 4.14-16 KWL
14 Since we have a great head priest who passed through the heavens—Jesus, God’s son—
we should hold sway by agreeing with him:
15 We don’t have a head priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses.
He was tested by everything just the same—and passed the test sinlessly.
16 So we should come to his gracious throne boldly:
We should receive mercy. We should find the grace to help us in time.

The fruit of the Holy Spirit reflects the thinking and attitude of the Spirit, those traits of his which oughta come pouring out of the people he lives within. And which are invisible, or nearly so, in the people he’s not within—or they’ve figured out a way to fake ’em.

Compassion, the ability to feel for other people, to sympathize with what they’re going through, to want to be gracious and helpful to them, is definitely a Christlike trait. Conversely its lack is definitely an antichristlike trait. Christians will care; antichrists won’t. Christians will reach out when people have need; antichrists will figure those people aren’t their problem… till they start affecting property values or taxes. Or if people who lack compassion wanna look good to the public, or get tax breaks, they figure maybe they should help those people; maybe not exactly the way those people want, but what do they know? If they knew better they wouldn’t be needy. Beggars shouldn’t be choosers anyway.

I’ve worked in a few different charities, and saw firsthand the differing attitudes of the religious and irreligious folks who worked there. In the Christians you’d see the other fruit of the Spirit come out: Patience, kindness, joy, love. In the irreligious Christians and the pagans, frustration, harshness, sarcasm, coldness. “These people. God. They’re so pathetic. Why should we have to help them? Why can’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? Best thing for them. Makes ’em independent. Makes ’em tough and hard. Like me.”

Yeah, I’ve met a lot of not-so-compassionate people in the church, offering their frigid sort of “comfort” to the suffering. I’ve been the recipient of some of it.

08 December 2015

Wanna feel the Holy Spirit? Crank up the bass.

’Cause people don’t know the difference between spirit and emotion.

That title—if you want people to feel the Spirit, crank up the bass—is a joke I regularly make to the folks in my church. ’Cause it’s true. If the sound guy were to take all the lower frequencies out of the sound mix during the worship music, I guarantee you we’d have people in the congregation mutter, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I really couldn’t feel the Spirit today.” Whereas if we turned that puppy all the way up to 11, those same folks would tell everyone, “Man the Spirit was moving this morning!”

Bass, as any sound expert will tell you, makes people feel the music. Literally.
Yeah, I put this on Twitter.
The sound waves hit a frequency which physically vibrates your innards. Most of us are aware we hear bass, but aren’t always aware we feel it too. All we know is we feel something—and because music sparks emotions, often the bass will spark ’em too.

So because people don’t know the difference between spirit and emotion, they’ll assume when it makes ’em happy, “my spirit is being uplifted.” When it makes ’em sad, “my spirit is downcast.” Just as often they’ll think it’s not their spirit, but the Holy Spirit making ’em feel happy or sad, content or anxious, excited or… well, not nothing. If they feel nothing it means he must’ve been absent.

I’ll repeat that statement in case you missed it: People don’t know the difference between spirit and emotion. And no, I’m not just talking about pagans, new Christians, or immature Christians. I’m talking about you. And me. And everyone. ’Cause I’ve caught very mature Christians making this mistake. I know better, and I still make this mistake sometimes. I’ve yet to meet a Christian who hasn’t slipped up on this one.

07 December 2015

Keep (most of) your prayers private.

Too often public prayers lead to showing off.

Matthew 6.5-6

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught this.

Matthew 6.5-6 KWL
5 “Whenever you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites
who really like standing in the synagogues and the corners of the main streets,
praying so they might be seen by the people.
Amen! I promise you: they got their wages.
6 Whenever you pray, go into your most private room with the door closed.
Pray to your Father in private. Your Father, who sees what’s private, will repay you.”

Thanks to these directions, we don’t see a lot of Christians praying publicly in the visible parts of our churches—or on the streets, in the middle of shopping centers, in front of public buildings…

Okay, we see some Christians praying in front of public buildings.

And there’s the occasional football player who takes a knee every time he scores a goal. And the people who gather round flagpoles and businesses and walk the streets and pray over them. And there’s the folks who pitch a fit because the schoolteachers in public schools can’t do that. (Although I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, where if school prayer were legal, I’d have had all sorts of weird pagan prayers inflicted upon me. It sure ain’t Texas, where the pagans are way better at pretending to be Christian.)

See, some people believe public prayer is important and necessary: People need to see Christians pray. They’re doing cultural spiritual warfare, y’all. Their public example inspires others to be more Christian—and gets pagans to recognize there are God-fearing people in our nation.

I give them the benefit of the doubt. I know plenty of them. Their motives are good: They wanna redirect Christians to their God, refocus the public on God, and get more people to pray. Thing is, in my experience, they get only two real results, neither of which they intended:

  • Us fellow Christians respond, “Oh, good for them!”—yet we don’t pray any more than we usually do. ’Cause their message is for pagans, not us. And we’re good.
  • Meanwhile, the pagans? They mock.

And admittedly, some of us fellow Christians mock.

06 December 2015

How Joseph became Jesus’s father.

I know; people say Jesus’s foster father. Nope; adoptive father.

Matthew 1.18-25

Luke tells of Jesus’s birth from Mary’s point of view; Matthew from Joseph’s. In Luke she received a message from an angel. Now Joseph had to receive a message for himself. ’Cause obviously he didn’t believe Mary.

Matthew 1.18-19 KWL
18 The genesis of Christ Jesus was like this: His mother Mary was promised to Joseph.
Before she came to be together with him, she had a child in her womb from the Holy Spirit.
19 Her man Joseph was righteous.
Not wanting her to make a scene, he wished to secretly release her.

Greek myths abound of stories where Zeus disguised himself as traveling salesmen or geese or bulls golden rain, and impregnating all sorts of loose ’n freaky Greek women with his hybrid spawn. And now here it seemed Mary was trying to tell him a Jewish variation of that same myth: “The Holy Spirit did it. Seriously.”

Moderns like to assume the ancients were stupid, and actually believed all those myths—they didn’t realize, deep down, that these tales were invented by Greeks trying to disguise their adulterous affairs by blaming their unexpected pregnancies on their false god, who obviously couldn’t defend himself. Of course, these skeptical moderns never bothered to read these myths: The Greeks didn’t believe their women when they claimed Zeus was the father. They took out their outrage upon their wives and daughters just the same. Banished ’em, imprisoned ’em, sealed ’em in a coffin and threw them into the sea. (Then Zeus had to smite them for their unbelief.) The ancients knew exactly how babies are made. The Zeus-did-it story never worked.

Joseph is more proof of that. He knew the LORD didn’t make babies that way. His god was no wandering rapist. So Joseph understandably decided to end their relationship.

In his culture, if your woman displeased you for any reason, the rabbis ruled it was okay to end things. God has another view, as Jesus declared: Infidelity is the only valid reason. Mt 19.9 And it sure looked like Mary was unfaithful.

04 December 2015

Taking the Lord’s name in vain.

It’s not actually about swearing.

Deuteronomy 5.11 KJV
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Christians often teach, and pagans often assume, “taking the Lord’s name in vain” refers to swearing with God’s name. Might be when we blurt out “God!” in surprise, or “Christ!” in pain, or “Oh Lord!” in exasperation, or “God damn it!” in anger.

Scandalized yet? Most Christians are. “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” There’s a whole commandment against it. It’s one of the top ten. “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” forbids us from using “God” as any part, or as the whole, of a swear word.

Well, that’s partly correct. The command is about God’s name and swearing. But it’s not about swearing “God!” It’s not about profanities.

  • It’s about swearing to God, yet we’re totally lying.
  • It’s about promising, “as God is my witness,” but we’re not gonna.
  • It’s about declaring things in Christ’s name, yet we don’t really believe we’re gonna get what we’ve declared.
  • It’s about name-dropping God as our guide, aid, judge, support, and copilot… but we’re hypocrites.

Vain means useless, and taking the Lord’s name in vain means we’re using his name in a useless cause. And yeah, swearing with his name is pretty useless too, but that wasn’t what God was trying to crack down on with his command. He was ordering the Hebrews to stop using his name casually. Y’see, when we invoke God, he takes those statements seriously. He is not a God to be trifled with.

For the LORD won’t hold us guiltless—in today’s English, “won’t let you go unpunished” (NLT) —if we swear by his name, and don’t follow through.

03 December 2015

God wants to save everybody.

It’s called “unlimited atonement”: Jesus died for the sins of the world. Not just a special few.

Atonement /ə'toʊn.mənt/ n. An act which fixes a broken relationship, such as paying a penalty, replacing a damaged item, or painting over defacement.
2. The atonement: Jesus’s payment for humanity’s sins through his death.
[Atone /ə'toʊn/ v.]

When there’s a crack or hole in the wall, you put some plaster or putty or spackle on it, paint over it, and you’re good as new.

And that’s the word God used in Exodus to describe what the ancient Hebrews’ sacrifices represented. Their sins had poked holes in his relationship with them. Those holes needed khofér/“plaster.” The Hebrew word for atone, khippér/“cover over” comes from the same word-root. Simple metaphor: Sin breaks stuff and plaster patches it good as new.

No, not entirely new. And God doesn’t actually want entirely new. Entirely new would mean entirely new people: Instead of sorting us out, God’d just kill us, then replace us with exact replicas. Those replicas wouldn’t be us; they’d be twins, clones, copies. God doesn’t want copies. He wants us—repaired.

Plaster makes a wall as good as new. Yeah, if you want to nitpick, a repaired wall won’t necessarily have the same strength as a new wall. But this depends on what you repaired it with. If you poke holes in drywall, then patch it with concrete, the patch is far stronger than the rest of the wall. In fact the rest of the wall will have trouble supporting the concrete… unless you gradually replace everything with concrete. (Which is a whole other metaphor to play with. Have fun with it.)

Since Christ Jesus is our atoning sacrifice, God himself is our plaster. We have him embedded in us, in much the same way the Holy Spirit was sealed to us when we first turned to God. But don’t play with that metaphor too much, lest you get the idea it’s okay to poke holes in your life so God can putty them with more of himself. We’re not meant to keep on sinning so we can get more grace. Ro 6.1-2 But look at your life as a wall full of holes, patched over by God. We might imagine it as flawed; we can’t get past the idea of all those holes beneath the paint. But God considers it a perfectly good wall. It serves its purpose: It keeps out the wind and rain. It keeps prying eyes from looking through it. It keeps listening ears from hearing better through it. It provides shelter. We can hang pictures on it. And so on, till the metaphor breaks down and we just get silly. But you get the idea.

God wants us, and our relationship with him, repaired, back to the way he originally meant things. He doesn’t want to knock us down and start again from scratch.

02 December 2015

You know you can write out your prayers, right?

They sell whole books of ’em.

Talking with God is a tricky thing when you aren’t much good at talking with anyone. Loads of people have great difficulty when they have to keep up their end of a conversation, any conversation. Unless they can keep their answers to simple yeses and nos, or platitudes which they’re comfortable saying, they’re gonna fumble. Sometimes they’re tongue-tied. Other times there’s just a lot of stammering.

It’d be nice if they had a script.

That’s why rote prayers appeal to them. Thing is, a lot of us don’t always wanna pray rote prayers. We wanna say specific things to God. But we struggle to get the words out, y’know?

Well if you’re one of those people, relax. Load up your word-processing app, or grab a pen and paper, and start writing your prayers. Stop thinking of prayer as a phone conversation, and start thinking of it as texting. You can text, right? Then you can pray.

Write out your end of the conversation. Or write out a monologue: A whole prayer of your own thoughts and feelings and requests and praise. Write what you’d pray. Then pray it; aloud or silent, up to you.

Didn’t realize this was an option, didja? Lots of Christians haven’t. And lots of Christians have; where’d you think all our prayer books came from? People have been writing out their prayers since the bible. It’s why we have prayers in the bible. Anyway, it’s something you can do too. If you struggle to pray aloud, start writing to God.

01 December 2015

How feedback works around here.

This’d be Christ Almighty’s letters and comments policy.

As you might’ve noticed, I have an email link on the blog, and each of the articles have a comments section. So if you wanna send me a note, ask a question, or comment on a post, feel free.

However.

If you’ve ever bothered to read the comments on YouTube videos—and I really don’t recommend it—you’ll notice a lot of them are stupid and awful. Because people are awful, as you already knew. Let ’em post whatever they want, with no moderation, with no accountability, and you’ll get the very worst of humanity.

Even among Christians. Christianity Today finally got rid of their comments section last year because the commenters were consistently acting far, far less than Christian.

My previous blogs didn’t always allow me to moderate comments—or moderate them easily. Christ Almighty! uses Disqus, so now I can easily moderate ’em, and do. When anyone comments in any way I consider less than Christian, I’ll edit or remove the comment. Do it twice and I’ll block the commenter.

30 November 2015

The birth of John the baptist.

John’s birth both fulfilled and inspired prophecy.

Luke 1.57-80

When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and announced he’d have a son, the confirmation of its prophecy was Zechariah would be mute áhri is iméras géniti távta/“until the day this one is born.” Lk 1.19

Problem is, if you’re a biblical literalist—you insist the bible be interpreted as literally as possible—it’s not literally what happened. Zechariah was mute for more than a week after John’s birth, and didn’t speak till his circumcision. Doesn’t matter what logical gymnastics you use to prove Gabriel didn’t really mean John’s birthday, or that “the day this one is born” can be fudged to mean a week or so (an exactitude such people won’t apply to the six days of creation). Gabriel’s prophecy was fulfilled, but not with the precision any literalist demands. As is true of every prophecy—and all of scripture.

But let’s not poke that bear any further. On to the bible!

Luke 1.57-61 KWL
57 Time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she had a son.
58 Her neighbors and relatives heard God had shown her great mercy, and rejoiced with her.
59 On the eighth day it happened that the family came to circumcise the baby.
They were calling him by Zechariah, his father’s name.
60 In reply his mother said, “No; he’ll be called John.”
61 They told her, “None of your relatives are called by that name.”

28 November 2015

Santa Claus and misplaced, misunderstood faith.

It’s not Christian to trick children.

Years ago round Christmastime, one of my 9-year-old students asked me, “Mr. Leslie, is Santa real?” Oh good Lord, I thought, her parents haven’t had the Santa talk with her? I punted. “Ask your mom.”

This girl’s mom was one of those people with the common misconception that the way you keep your kids innocent is by keeping them ignorant. Of course this doesn’t work. You know this from when you were a kid: When you had serious questions, you sought answers, and if your parents didn’t have ’em, you’d go elsewhere. Usually to school friends (who don’t know anything either). Sometimes authority figures, like teachers (i.e. me), or pastors or mentors or people the kids believe are experts. Which is why I got all the questions about Santa. And God. And why people are so terrible. And how babies are made. And the definitions to certain terms the children’s dictionaries correctly didn’t include. And that’s just fourth grade; you should see what junior highers and high schoolers ask. (On the rare occasions they don’t assume they know it all.)

I taught at a Christian school, so parents were usually okay with my answering God questions. That is, so long that my answers didn’t undermine their favorite assumptions. But some of ’em put their kids in Christian school to shelter them—another common misconception—so they were not okay with answers about baby-making. I told one persistent girl, whose mom wouldn’t have “the talk” with her, “Tell her, ‘If I don’t know how they’re made, what if I make a baby by accident?’” That worked. And I knew from experience that parents definitely didn’t want me exposing their Santa game. I knew I’d hear it from her mom—because I definitely heard it from my dad after I spilled the beans to my sister.

Problem is, this question wasn’t part of a private conversation. She asked me in the middle of class. Everybody overheard. So some of ’em decided to answer her question before her mom could: “Santa’s not real.”

“He’s not?” asked the girl.

“He’s real…” I fumbled, thinking specifically of St. Nicholas of Myra, “but maybe not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Which means,” insisted one of my very literal-minded students, “that he’s not real.”

Kids know a wishy-washy answer when they hear it.

26 November 2015

What’s “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” mean?

As people ask, ’cause it’s kind of a big deal.

Fairly soon after we become Christians, we hear a rumor going round that there’s such a thing as an unpardonable sin: Once we commit this sin, we’re boned. God’s grace has a limit, and we just crossed it. We’re going to hell. Game over, man, game over.

The rumor doesn’t always define the unpardonable sin: I’ve had newbies ask me, “Isn’t it, like, murder or something?” Nope, not murder. (Moses and David were murderers, y’know; arguably so was Paul.) Others have asked me whether all of the “seven deadly sins” are unpardonable, and nope, that’s not it either. When I was a kid I thought cursing God would do it. Still not it.

The unpardonable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus brings that up in this story:

Mark 3.22-30 KWL
22 The scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He uses Baal Chebul.
He overthrows demons by the demons’ leader.”
23 Summoning them, Jesus told them by way of a parable,
“How is Satan able to overthrow Satan?
24 When a kingdom’s split apart, that kingdom can’t stay together.
25 When a house is split apart, that house can’t stay together.
26 And if Satan opposes itself and splits itself apart, it can’t stay together.
In fact, it’s the End.
27 In fact, nobody who enters a strongman’s house can plunder his things—
not unless he first ties up the strongman. Then he can plunder his house.
28 Amen! I promise you every sin will be forgiven the children of Adam,
and every blasphemy that’s been blasphemed.
29 But when anyone blasphemes the Holy Spirit they aren’t forgiven in the age to come:
In that age, they’ll be liable for a crime.”
30 For they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

So there y’go: Everyone can be forgiven anything, but the one exception is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Do that, and you’re sitting out the age to come. No New Jerusalem for you. Just weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Scary, right? Hence people wanna make sure they never commit this crime. Trouble is, some of them have invented some really weird explanations about what “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” actually means. So it’s time we clarify things.

25 November 2015

Thanksgiving. The prayer, not the day.

But okay, there’s a little in there about the day.

In the United States, on November’s fourth Thursday, we celebrate a national day of thanksgiving.

Who’re we thanking? If you’re Christian, that’d be God. If you’re pagan, you don’t specifically thank anyone. You realize you’re expected to conjure up some feeling of thankfulness—you have a nice life, a decent job, good health, some loved ones, and got that [insert coveted bling] you’ve always wanted, so you’re thankful. Thankful to whom? There’s the question pagans don’t ask themselves. I know of one family who thanks each other. The rest suppress this question by drowning it with food: After watching parades and football, we eat the equivalent of three dinners in one sitting. (That, or you’re the one who prepared and cooked 10 different entrées, and ironically nobody remembered to thank you. Been there; do that.)

But even among the Christians who remember, “Oh yeah, we’re thanking God,” a lot of the thanking is limited to saying grace before the meal. “Good bread, good meat, good God let’s eat,” and he gets 1 percent of our focus, with the rest of the day centered on food. And if you dare try to make the day more God-focused, you’ll earn the outrage of everyone in the family who was really looking forward to the deep-fried turkey.

Okay. Let me say that if you want to practice more actual thanksgiving in your relationship with God, good. I’m all for that. So’s God. But that means way more than thanking God only once a year, on the government-approved day set aside for it.

24 November 2015

Which translation of the bible is best?

Ah, the quest for the perfect bible translation… which doesn’t exist.

He. “So lemme ask you: Which version of the bible do you use? Which one’s the best?”
Me. “None of ’em. Learn Hebrew and Greek.”

The look of horror and despair on people’s faces is why I usually give that answer to that question. “What, learn ancient languages? That’ll take years!” Yes it will; it took me years. But I’m kidding of course.

Okay yes, for serious bible study I read the original languages. That’s why I bothered to learn ’em. But English is my first language, and when I just need to read a bible, I use an English-language bible.

  • I have two 3×5 “analog bibles”—you know, actual books, which don’t require batteries. Really small print, but thankfully I don’t need glasses just yet. One’s a New American Standard Bible, and the other an English Standard Version.
  • On my phone and tablet: Olive Tree. It’s free, it works when I’m offline, it includes Hebrew and Greek text, plus an ESV and a King James Version.
  • On my laptop and desktop: Accordance. Which is not free, but I consider it totally worth it. I’ve sunk a whole lot of money into a whole lot of translations and references.
  • On my iPod: The Bible Experience in Today’s New International Version (now defunct; its publishers updated it with the 2011 edition of the NIV) and The Daily Message.
  • On my bookshelf, various analog bibles.
  • And when I lack access to my own stuff, there’s always Bible Gateway.

But which translation do I use most? Probably the New Living Translation, ’cause it’s the one my church uses, and the one I tend to use with new Christians and kids. It’s easy to understand, and that’s the most valuable asset of any bible translation. When any bible is hard to understand, it means the translators didn’t do their job, which is to get the language barrier out of the way. Too many translators forget to do that: They’re trying too hard to follow the original text “literally” and word-by-word, or want their bible to be just a simple update of another popular translation like the KJV. Or they’re trying too hard to be clever, and make it sound entirely unfamiliar, different from all the other versions… and there’s nothing wrong with the way the other versions translated it. If your interpretation needs an interpretation, you suck as an interpreter.

Now, which one’s the best translation? Um… whichever one gets you to read your bible.

23 November 2015

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.

In which both of them prophesy to one another.

Luke 1.39-56

When I teach from the gospels, it tends to throw people. Y’see, most of the interpretations we hear in American churches are based on cessationism, the belief that prophecy and miracles only happened in bible times, and don’t anymore. As a result of this false, faithless belief, popular Christian culture isn’t familiar with how prophecy works. So when they read about prophets in the bible, they don’t understand what they’re doing. Either they don’t recognize this stuff is prophecy, and miss it altogether; or they interpret everything based on how they imagine prophecy works—and they’ve got some pretty immature ideas.

Starting with why Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth. I kid you not: I’ve heard it preached that Mary went to Elizabeth because she wanted to hide her pregnancy. ’Cause that’s what women did in the past when they got pregnant outside of marriage: They went to “visit relatives” for a while… then came back with a new “baby sister” or “cousin.” (Or, if they aborted or gave up the baby, nothing.) Supposedly this is what Mary did: Hid.

Baloney. When Gabriel told Mary she was gonna have a miraculous birth, she naturally wanted to know how this was possible. Gabriel’s answer, as I pointed out, wasn’t all that satisfactory. But for proof, for confirmation—’cause prophecy requires confirmation—Gabriel pointed to Elizabeth. She was pregnant. Mary didn’t know this—nobody knew this—’cause Elizabeth was in seclusion. Lk 1.24 But there was the proof Mary’s pregnancy was from God: “Your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age… and she was called sterile.” Lk 1.36 KWL And if you think that’s impressive, wait’ll God’s next miracle.

I know; people claim Mary had no doubts whatsoever, and totally believed Gabriel. But that’s not consistent with the scriptures. Why then would she rush to see Elizabeth?

21 November 2015

My irritating politics.

My worldview must be built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness.

My politics annoy people.

I’m not as conservative as my friends assume I should be. To their minds, all Christians should be as conservative as they. If we’re not, they wonder just how Christian we really are. ’Cause in their minds, Christianity is conservatism; conservatism is Christianity; if you follow Jesus you’re naturally gonna think like they do. Thanks to the human self-preservation instinct, they assume because I don’t think like they do, I’m the one at fault. I’m wrong. (Doesn’t help that I’ll totally admit that.)

I’m not as progressive as my other friends assume I should be. To their minds, all Christians should buck the knee-jerk conservatism of popular Christian culture, ’cause it’s hypocrisy, corrupted by social Darwinists who’ve manipulated gullible social conservatives into adopting their worldview and voting their way. Because I still side with conservatives on many issues, they reckon I’m still stuck in my old knee-jerk ways; I’m not as “enlightened” as they. Not yet. I’ve come this far, so they’ve not given up hope. But they do wish I’d hurry up.

So whenever I express a view, I’m gonna annoy one camp or the other.

That’s the trouble with being a political moderate. Contrary to what Rush Limbaugh’s always taught, a moderate isn’t someone who wants to please everybody and can’t pick a side. Such people do exist, but they’re not moderates. They’re apolitical: They don’t have a side—and don’t care enough to choose one. A true moderate has totally chosen sides: We ally with conservatives on certain issues, progressives on others. Not for the same reasons—because our worldviews don’t match.

See, I’m trying to follow Jesus. No, I’m not saying my conservative and progressive friends aren’t trying to follow Jesus. Some of ’em are, and some not. Some of them think they are, and some aren’t even trying. It’s just that in my quest for Jesus, he points me in directions different Americans consider leftward or rightward. I’m trying to be consistent with his standard, not any one party’s.

I know; some of you totally understand Jesus transcends politics, so you can respect that. But plenty of people don’t believe any such thing: If Jesus could vote, he’d absolutely be in their party. No question. Have you seen the pagans in the opposition party? Great googly moogly.

20 November 2015

“Lay down your life” means what now?

It’s way easier to die for our loved ones than live for them.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15.13 NIV

I know; George Benson’s popular 1977 song “Greatest Love of All” (which Whitney Houston remade in 1985) said learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. Obviously the lyricist didn’t read her bible, and figured the way to feel best about herself was to value herself way above her friends. (Didn’t I just write about how people are inherently selfish?) No surprise, popular culture gets it wrong again.

Translators are awfully fond of phrasing this verse Yoda-style: Object-verb-subject “Greater love has no one,” rather than the usual subject-verb-object “No one has greater love” of today’s English. (The NRSV phrases it normally.) It’s ’cause the King James Version is the most familiar form of the verse, and if translators make it too different for no good reason, people balk. I think clear, readable English is a darned good reason. But that’s me.

Anyway. Right after the average preacher quotes this verse, it’s immediately pointed out, “Jesus demonstrated this very truth himself: He laid down his life for his friends. He died for their sins on the cross. He died for all of us, because he considers all of us his friends. There’s no greater love than Jesus’s love.”

There is no greater love than Jesus’s, but when Jesus made this statement, he wasn’t talking about his soon-coming death on the cross. He was talking about submitting to one another, Ep 5.21 instead of looking out for ourselves. It’s about living for one another. Not dying for one another.